Sunday, January 12, 2014

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

January 12, 2014

Dear friends,

On the infrequent occasions when desk-cleaning occurs at my house the activity resembles a mini-archeological dig. In doing this, I find, as do archaeologists everywhere, that not everything that surfaces in a “dig” has value. 

On desk-cleaning day, many fragments of my “previous life” that come to the surface are immediately dispatched to the waste basket where, truth be told, an efficient clean-desk person would have deposited them on the very first occasion they appeared. I am not by habit a clean-desk person, however, and, regrettably, not likely to become so in this life. Consequently, for me desk-clearing carries a challenge. I must both identify and dispose of the rubble and, at the same time, identify and keep those things of value. The fate of an expired coupon for a bargain large-size piazza is not difficult to determine. Other things require more thought.

This week I found a torn fragment from a notepad with a single phrase written on it: the willing suspension of disbelief.

Good grief, I thought to myself, and promptly threw the paper in the wastebasket. Belatedly recalling the initial reason for that kept bit of waste paper, I then retrieved it, and put it in the stack of items to be carried upstairs to my study. Unpretentious as it appeared, this scrap of paper carried a reminder of an idea that I wanted to think more about, and then use in a blog. 

The idea itself is not new, and certainly did not originate in my thinking. The willing suspension of disbelief is a concept at least as old as Aristotle, and in its current coinage occurs in the work of Samuel Coleridge. 

The use I want to make of this idea, however, is connected to my Chicken Little story. (You didn’t really think I had forgotten that, did you? No such easy out for readers in 2014.) Whether we are dealing with a story Jesus told or the Hubbard revision of the old children’s tale of Chicken Little, making meaning from narrative content often requires a complex thinking skill that utilizes the willing suspension of disbelief.

Suppose, for example, we are considering the story of the sower, as Jesus told it [Matt.13].  There was a farmer that went out to sow, we read (or hear read aloud), and, in our minds, we shape an image of a virtual reality in which a man carrying a bag of seed over his shoulder walks toward a field. The clarity and vividness of this mental picture varies from individual to individual, of course, depending upon an individual's unique “brain wiring” and the interest that the opening segment of the story has evoked. 

These differences incorporate a complex, wordless choice in common, however. For a moment (sometimes just an instant) the reader (or hearer) knowingly assumes a cognitive position of belief rather than disbelief. As the story begins we realize that the man going out to sow does not exist in the same reality as the chair on which we are sitting. However, knowing this, in order to pursue the possible meaning carried by the narrative, we grant this mental image its own temporary measure of reality.

The experience of seeing a play pivots around this willingness to suspend disbelief. When the theater curtain rolls back, we quickly, unconsciously suspend our disbelief. The particle board palm tree and the painted cardboard sand dunes morph seamlessly into a desert oasis.

Film provides an equally powerful experience in which we suspend disbelief. At times the experience can be so powerful that, leaving a theater, we experience a momentary sense of disorientation as though we were held for an instant between two worlds. We are conscious that we are no longer in that virtual reality in which we have just spent two hours (ticket by means of willing suspension of disbelief), but we also sense that we have not yet fully re-entered that other reality in which our daily lives play out.

Properly understood, willing suspension of disbelief is not denial of reality, nor is it distortion of sensory data. Rather, it is a complex thinking process that organizes sense data into a virtual reality in which a given cognitive goal can be explored. Willing suspension of disbelief is both more than and less than imagination; it is both more and less than faith (ideas to explore another day). It can be used to pursue truth, to distort it, to obscure it. The cognitive goal remains independent from the process.
For now, consider a question. Can—will?—you suspend your disbelief in the Chicken Little story?  Will you consider the possibility that by the willing suspension of disbelief that Chicken Little’s frightening experience can increase our understanding that personal experience has serious limitations in teaching truth?

Thinking with you that the willing suspension of disbelief permits us to enter Narnia, and learn there, to travel with Bilbo and Frodo, to go and then come home again, and to understand that the Kingdom of God as Jesus knew, is now.

See you next week.


P.S.  If the holidays have pushed Chicken Little’s adventure out of your mind, you can refresh your memory by reading the blogs for  November 17 and November 24.


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