The Evening News and The Psychology of Belief / Unbelief

Jesus Walks on Water

In a past post I talked about Joe Geisner’s short review (in a comment) of Heinrich Paulus’ book where he tries to come up with ways to explain way the miracles of Jesus.

All of this reminded me of a news report I once saw on the evening news. I wish I had a clip of it. I can’t even remember for sure if it was Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. I’m thinking it was Peter Jennings.

At best as I can remember from memory, here is what he said:

Well, we recently did two news reports that might be important for Christians. One was a news report that scholars have found the Gospel of Judas, complete with it’s very different take on the teachings of Jesus, and another was about a scholar that had discovered that sometimes the Sea of Galillee freezes, perhaps explaining how Jesus walked across it.

Given these recent news stories, we wouldn’t blame people if their faith was shaken. Good night.

I sat there stunned. Was he serious? Finding the text of a known to exist, but lost, heretical gospel – heck there were tons of these things – is supposed to somehow frighten Christians? And having some scholar point out that water freezes and you can thus walk on it is going to undermine people’s chosen faith in the miracles of Jesus? I started laughing.

I was really curious how this scholar explained the fact that Jesus walked all the way across the Sea (according to the Bible anyhow) and Peter was shocked. Heck, they thought Jesus was a ghost, didn’t they? Were the apostles maybe not aware you can walk on frozen water? Or was it maybe frozen into moving waves so that it didn’t appear frozen? (I’d like to see this scholar explain how such a thing is possible.)

So Peter asks permission to jump out of the boat and walk on water too. (Because, remember, he doesn’t know you can walk on frozen water.) And then he falls through the ice and Jesus has to catch him. (For the moment, we’ll ignore Jesus’ miraculous ability to stand on broken ice without falling in.)

You see the point. This isn’t even a semi-rational response to the story of Jesus. And you don’t even need convoluted stories like this. All you have to do is claim it didn’t happen in the first place and be done.

Yet Jennings (or whoever it was) clearly thought this was some sort of ground breaking set of revelations. I’m going to venture a guess that prior to these reports Jennings didn’t believe in Jesus anyhow. So what is it about rationally ridiculous stories like this that have such strong appeal to non-believers? Even intelligent ones like a famous news anchor? Why didn’t he see how silly he was being?

I think this example illustrates something important about human nature in general that has extra significance for Rejectionist philosophy. (i.e. Those that are focused on what they disbelieve rather than on what they believe.) At a human level, we favor narratives over non-narratives. The argument that Jesus didn’t walk on water, just ice, is a powerful psychological narrative if you are a non-believer precisely because it actually is a narrative. Saying ‘it didn’t happen, it’s all just made up’ seems somewhat trite, doesn’t it? Plus, the point of this report was to cause people’s faith to be shaken, not to report on it. What would be the point of reporting “this just in, there is no absolute proof that Jesus walked on water.” Duh!

Unfortunately, our intuitive sense of rationality fails us here. We have a tendency to naturally favor silly and even outright irrational narratives over non-narratives, as is the case here, because we latch uncritically onto narratives that match our point of view.

9 thoughts on “The Evening News and The Psychology of Belief / Unbelief

  1. Pingback: The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 23, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime

  2. I think either you or Peter Jennings meant the sea of galilee, not the red problem. I make mistakes like that all the time.

  3. Now that I have a minute or two, let me expound on what I believe you point seems to be. There seems to be a huge logical disconnect between what non-believers say about the Christian religion and what the Christian religion claims to be.

    Christians believe that Jesus was there at the beginning with God and that he is a God. A God has lots of powers. Many Christians believe just like Mormons that Jesus helped create the entire world. So, if Jesus had the power to create the entire world, he could do just about anything he wants on the world.

    So, if Jesus had the power to create the world, why do we care whether or not He had the power to do individual miracles like feeding thousands of people from a few loaves of bread, healing people or walking on water? I can’t imagine a thoughtful Christian giving a hoot whether or not the Sea of Galilee was frozen (so Jesus could pretend to walk on it) or not. Why concentrate on a very minor miracle that has very little to do with our truth claims, when the real issue is: He is a God who can create worlds.

    My bigger point is this: if you are a believing Mormon or a non-Mormon Christian, you really have to make a lot of leaps of faith. In our case, you have to believe all that stuff about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. You have to believe, for example, that Jesus and Heavenly Father actually appeared to Joseph Smith and that they gave him the power to translate the Book of Mormon through supernatural means. This leap of faith is so huge and unworldly that it completely overwhelms the relatively minor issues such as: how did Jesus walk on water? It’s kind of like contemplating walking 1,000 miles and spending all of your time wondering how you are going to get out of your driveway. The driveway is easy and simple — it is the 1,000 miles that is the real problem.

    The way I explain this is: if I accept on faith the idea that Jesus really did create the Earth and that He then came down to Earth and took all of our sins upon Himself and then allowed Himself to be crucified, and then I accept that He also is preparing us for the end times through Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, then I have already walked the 1,000 miles. I really don’t need to worry about the minor stuff along the way. That minor stuff can be placed in mental compartments along with the thousands of other mysteries that I don’t understand that I hope one day to be able to understand.

  4. Geoff: Good point. Having a miraculous Spirit-born manifestation that the Book of Mormon is true disinclines one to chase after archealogical evidence of supposed anacrhonisms.

    Or, to use the example church leaders are now pushing, it all pales in comparison to the resurrection.

  5. I knew a man on my mission who said he was a Protestant, yet didn’t go to church often and reacted rather agnostically to just about anything the scriptures stated. When I’d ask him whether he believed in this or that miracle that Jesus performed, he fit the lukewarm profile very well. To the miracle of Jesus and Peter walking on the water, it was all an optical illusion: Jesus was really on the shore, but from the disciples’ perspective in the boat it looked like he was on the water. I could have pushed it further by asking about Peter’s part in the event, but at the moment I was a little too stunned by the idea to do anything else.

  6. “it all pales in comparison to the resurrection.”


    True enough. That’s the hardest point to swallow of all.

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