Our family enjoys the challenge of a good jigsaw puzzle. The little ones have puzzles with large pieces that can be completed in a time span complementary to their limited attentions. When schedules allows, my wife and I will work through puzzles significantly more complex. While we chose this as a hobby to reduce stress, it’s amazing how frustrating this activity can be.
It has often been noted that human beings have an exceptional ability to recognize patterns. This skill is key to our survival as a species and essential to our progress in scientific innovation and inquiry. The unique ways our brains work to create connections is deeply related to our drive to understand the world and to derive meaning from our experiences. This skill is also critically important for solving the jigsaw puzzles we find on tables and those we encounter as we live out our days.
If you have ever wrestled with a 1000+ piece puzzle, you will have encountered the false-positive – that piece that totally fits in a place it doesn’t actually belong. This phenomenon is an example of apophenia; a human tendency to see patterns that aren’t really there. When these instances of apophenia are recognized as significant, they are called pareidolia (Greek for false image). In both cases, more data is usually the way we discern our error, make corrections, and move on.
As helpful as pattern recognition is for our advancement as a people, our tendency to create errant connections and to subsequently derive ‘false’ meaning is a ever-present danger. As we learn more about the world, we’ve come to realize that the well-intentioned attempts of our ancestors to put the pieces together didn’t always succeed brilliantly. Not understanding how big and complex the full picture was, some of these instances of pareidolia caused, and continue to cause, much harm.
A Puzzling Faith
Let’s consider an example. It was once almost universally held that the gods controlled the weather and other “natural” occurrences, blessing those who held their favor. Subsequently, droughts and their accompanying famines, volcanoes, earthquakes, and devastating storms all required some explanation. When they happened to us they became signs of our need for renewed faith and repentance. When they happened to our enemies they were omens of their wickedness and an affirmation of God’s favor toward us.
Few modern people make such direct connections between their belief in God and these anachronistically labelled “acts of God.” When folks like Jerry Falwell blame the 9/11 attacks on abortion, the ACLU, and homosexuality; most reasonable people are angered or saddened by his ignorance. Such a statement might have been acceptable (while still being wrong) in a previous generation, but the fundamentalist temptation to force pieces together that clearly don’t fit strikes many as odd or even deliberately duplicitous.
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote:
Paul’s humble words about knowledge stand in stark contrast to the certainty of “Christians” like Falwell. Despite this truth, Paul’s words, and the rest of the Christian scriptures, continue to be used as infallible weapons against those who would ask us to see things in new ways.
When we fail to recognize the instances of pareidolia in the Bible, we are forced into unnecessary conflict with those who seek to arrange the grand puzzle in a way that honors the complexities today’s world presents us. Ironically, it is our closed approach to new data that actually draws a critical focus on the incongruities and inconsistencies that the Bible contains. Sadly, this tension pulls our attention away from the glimpses of the picture on the puzzle box that the authors were attempting to convey.
Will we ever really finish the puzzle?
It is difficult for me to find blame in the attempts of our ancestors to solve the myriad puzzles they encountered. One must consider how unflattering our assumptions might look to our descendants centuries, or even decades, from now. Still, I do worry about the fault we accumulate when our tradition is unable to incorporate data that ought to open our hearts and minds today.
One of the jigsaw puzzles our family worked on over the holidays was quite frustrating. There were too many colors and patterns that didn’t hold enough distinction. The puzzle resided on our dining room table with my wife and I, and her visiting parents, taking turns trying to find the next piece that would make it all better.
I doubt I ever would have had the patience and endurance to finish that puzzle by myself but eventually, in community, we were able to make sense of it all. Our distinct practices (sorting colors, building edges, etc.) and ways of looking at the puzzle eventually helped us to accomplish the task collectively, encouraging and challenging each other along the way.
May God always be with us as we wrestle with the puzzles that life places before us. And let us remember that even as all knowledge passes away; love will never fail us (1 Cor. 13.8).
- How open is your faith to new information?
- How effective is that faith at helping you to see the big picture?
Image Credit: “Completing the Puzzle,” some rights reserved by Flickr user Daniel Lee.