So how do you respond to the overwhelming complexity of the universe? If you’re like me, you get up, put your pants on one leg at a time, and try not to think about it too much. But from time to time, you’ll wonder what the point of life is, why you are here, how soon is now and who ate the last piece of cheesecake. You will not be content with a life lived uncertainly–you will look for, and find, answers. Well, at least what will pass for answers.
But how do you squeeze answers out of an uncooperative universe? If you’re anything like me, you’ll take the handful of things that you (think you) know, stir in some unexamined assumptions, add a dash of emotion and before you know it, you are filling in the blanks with something that makes sense out of the (un)known.
It turns out that humans are suckers for and pretty good at creating “a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions.” Partly because “laziness is built deep into our nature.” But also because
you cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
It turns out that the stories we tell ourselves generally stand us in good (enough) stead. They help us get up in the morning, put our pants on and make gold records. They give us meaning and purpose and provide comfort in a world that can be cruelly indifferent to individual fate. They connect individuals to communities and inspire altruistic behavior. Of course, the opposite it also true. They lead us up the garden path and provide cover for cruel indifference. They define and keep outsiders at arm’s length and inspire selfish acts.
One lesson of Christ’s ministry is to be careful of such just-so stories, no matter how compelling, lest we miss the Messiah for his having been born in a manger rather than a palace, for example. The account of Jesus healing the blind man provides an instructive exchange in this regard:
1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,
7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
Jesus’s audience was familiar with cause and effect; the law of the harvest wasn’t pulled out of thin air, after all. The man was blind, and something had obviously caused this deviation from the norm. They were even open-minded enough to allow for two options and withhold final judgment until an authority had spoken. But they had jumped to a conclusion–someone must have sinned.
If you’re anything like me, you are a lot like them. I jump to a dozen conclusions before breakfast on a slow day. For the most part (I hope!) my myopic view of the world remains relatively harmless. But the urge to fill in the blanks is always there, especially when it comes to accounting for other people’s actions and intentions. Like when a missionary assigned to the ward goes home early despite appearing to be in the prime of health. Who did sin, this man, or his parents? Or when the couple who faithfully served in leadership positions for many years stops coming to church. Who did sin, this man, or his wife?
See how easy that is? Way easier than getting to know these people. Much simpler than interrogating our assumptions. A walk in the park compared to revising our worldview of causality.
Nevertheless, we’d be wrong and, if acted upon, the consequences of these unconscious mental shortcuts wouldn’t be harmless when our easy answers boomerang around our communities as rumors. Still, we’d be in good company. Jesus’s audience remained convinced that someone had sinned, and even added Jesus to the list. Resisting one’s assumptions about how the world works goes against our energy-saving nature. But the consequences of remaining comfortably numb could be eternal. So let me join Oliver Cromwell and our own Michael Austin in beseeching you, “in the bowels of Christ, [to] think it possible you may be mistaken” when it comes to accounting for the actions and intents of those with whom we share a pew.
 Kahneman, Daniel. “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Macmillan, 2011. iBooks.
 Ibid. “A general ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.”