Inner Formation of the Heart

Part 10: Principle #5--Limitation of Plausibility Structures

    Posted by Klaus Issler on December 15, 2009

#5            Our plausibility structures—what we consider to be plausible or possible—can limit our search for truth since we will not expend much effort considering or exploring ideas we do not regard as possibly true.

            We may also make a distinction between 1) ideas we have not yet embraced, having not yet reached the tipping point, and 2) ideas we think are outlandish and impossible, although there may be overlap in some cases.  For example ideas that seem possible to us but we do not really believe them yet (category #1), might include that some UFOs exist, some near death experiences are true accounts, more answers to prayer are possible, a relative could be divinely healed of cancer, believers should be aware of spiritual warfare and demonic influence of believers, there might be worlds with people outside of our galaxy.  On the other hand ideas we would not give any thought to, they are so implausible or impossible to us (category #2) might include that the earth is flat, humans can fly by flapping their arms, praying over a person who just died to be raised to life again—these ideas might be outside of our plausibility structures. Yet since we do not now know everything there is to know, it is likely there are true ideas out there that we now consider impossible, outside of our plausibility structures.

            Note also that our false central beliefs can hinder us from learning the truth by bracketing off whole areas of ideas we now consider to be beyond belief. Consider Peter’s limiting cultural worldview belief: the good news was for Jewish people only, and not for Gentiles. We understand today that Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 was a mandate to share the good news to all peoples: “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But in their Jewish-centric cultural mindset, Peter and the apostles could not conceive of Jesus meaning to include Gentiles. They thought Jesus meant to reach the Jews throughout the world.  For the first six years following Jesus’ resurrection, it was exclusively a Jewish church (with some Samaritans, Acts 8), no Gentiles welcome (except perhaps as Jewish converts), until Acts 10, so from c.33- c.39 AD. (Dates are from Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999.)

            God then moved in Peter’s life to undergo an important “interpretative framework” shift over a two-day period: that Gentiles are welcome into God’s family by believing in Jesus. Acts 10 describes Peter’s encounter with the vision of the sheet and his subsequent visit at Cornelius’s house (a Gentile home).  You would think when Peter the evangelist saw a group of unbelievers gathered there he would have immediately shared the good news about Jesus. Instead he asked why they had sent for him, since he had never set foot in a Gentile house before (Acts 10:28-29). After a few moments, the truth finally dawned on Peter and his central belief was being dislodged, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). God was welcoming both Jew and Gentile into God’s family. But word got back to the Jewish congregation in Jerusalem and they were not very happy about Peter’s blessing these Gentiles—they still had the old false belief. After Peter explained what happened, his own shift in perspective and the evidence of God’s blessing these Gentiles, the Jerusalem church eventually became receptive: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’” (Acts 11:18). 

            Thus our false, settled central beliefs can actually become a barrier for us from receiving more truth and hindering the potential correction of our false central beliefs. Thomas could not imagine that Jesus was alive.  Peter could not image that Gentiles could become Christians. The town of Nazareth could not grasp that Jesus, who had plied his woodworking and masonry skills among them, was anything more than “the carpenter” (Mk 6:3).  This limiting belief held them back from receiving Jesus’ healing ministry among them: “And he was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mk 6:6).  For various reasons we may also tenaciously hold on to false central beliefs as Thomas and the Nazareth folk did. 

            So either false central beliefs or ideas we regard as impossible can become a barrier to us to gain more freedom by living in more truth. Changing central beliefs involves a process of being open to explore new ideas, pondering or meditating on the evidence, and connecting new ideas to see how they fit with other ideas we know, especially within a Christian worldview (yet realizing that each of us have false central beliefs as part of our Christian worldview). The conscious evaluating of evidence is an important component—all the while we have doubts, we have concerns, we are puzzled. And God continues to work with us to help us respond to truth. Consider an example from my own journey. I used to think God could not communicate to me personally and directly But over a period of time I became convinced that the Bible does teach this.  Now I am more aware when God does this and can welcome this personal communication and have actually written about it to persuade others!  (For more on God’s personal communication to us, see my Wasting Time with God: A Christian Spirituality of Friendship with God, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001, Ch 6; and J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, InterVarsity, 2008, Ch 6.)

Next Musing:  Principle #6--Central Beliefs Not Affected by Immediate Decisions.

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Dr. Klaus Issler