THE BLOG
03/25/2013 03:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

Jesus, the Prophet of Nudge

A while ago, in this post, I suggested the idea of a "Gospel of Nudge" -- the notion that in both its work and its reflection on its own teachings, the church could do worse than to take seriously the growing field of scientific research into human judgment and decision making.

This notion is inspired by the work of many behavioral economists, social psychologists, and neuroscientists who are pursuing an ever-expanding research agenda into the workings of the human mind. A popular summary of some of this work by Harvard's Cass Sunstein and the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, readily serves as a shorthand way of describing this set of ideas.

Quick reminder: A nudge is an idea for changing policy or for improving human welfare based on what we are learning about how our minds approach the task of making decisions. It begins from a scientific understanding of our cognitive frailties and foibles, and designs a pathway leading us to better choices with a view to those traps.

Thaler and Sunstein describe their project as one of "libertarian paternalism." That's a loaded phrase, one that manages at one moment to comfort and discomfort. If one of those words gives you a sense of assurance, the other is likely to leave you a little cold.

But for those of us open to a theological account of human nature and its complexities, the idea of libertarian paternalism is (gender significance aside) a pretty neat summary of how we think the relationship between us and God works. The claim of faith is that we are made in God's image and likeness; yet we are not equal with God, and our lives are defined by the struggle to bring our unruly wills into some sort of harmony with the hope and desire of God. We are given freedom (that's the libertarian part), but ultimately the kingdom of God is not a democracy (that's the paternalism part).

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So if a Gospel of Nudge begins from the notion that the God in whose image and likeness we're made wants to help us achieve our better selves, does the great teacher of the tradition--Jesus--seem to be a "Prophet of Nudge"?

Before answering that question I need to acknowledge a long and not always honorable history of writers casting Jesus as an exemplar of their own most treasured objectives. The shelves of divinty-school libraries groan under the weight of books casting Jesus of Nazareth as a king, in defense of the divine right of monarchs; as a revolutionary, in defense of calls for political or economic revolution; as a prophet of non-violence in defense of pacifism; and so on. Recruiting Jesus as an endorser of a cause or an agenda is an old strategy.

Still, this much seems indisputable: One basic function of any religious tradition is to exert a positive influence on human behavior. Our traditions give us an account of how it is we come to find ourselves in the human condition, and how it is we can move toward lives that are closer to a virtuous ideal. Religious faith gives us a language for describing our aspirations--compassion, justice, purity, humility--and a set of guideposts for moving toward them.
So how is it that the teacher from Nazareth tries to shape our behavior? Can we identify anything characteristic about the tone or approach Jesus uses to influence the choices made by those of us who own the label "Christian"?

Here's one observation to consider. Jesus is a master of the indirect approach, and rarely chooses the path of direct confrontation. The gospel accounts are replete with examples of the people around Jesus trying to get him to buy into an ideologically polarized debate: whether or not to pay taxes, whether or not to permit divorce, even whether or not to support capital punishment.
Instead, he employs a decidedly oblique approach--a nudge strategy. Even when he's on trial for his life, he tries to use an indirect approach to establish his position gently rather than bombastically. ("You are a king, then?" asks Pilate. "You have said so," comes the reply.)
In these cases and others Jesus doesn't take the bait.

There's a common thread that stitches together the replies Jesus gives to these challenges. It's the use of an indirect approach to highlight the inconsistency between the judgments being made of others and the regard we hold for ourselves. Rather than stand in judgment of anyone, Jesus helps to nudge the behavior of the people around him by bringing them to confront what social psychologists would describe as our built-in tendency toward moral hypocrisy. They are forced so see, in an elegant economy of words, the incongruity of their own position--its smallness, really--against the broader and deeper perspective of the teachings of the tradition: Be compassionate. Question your judgments. Don't put so much stock in the labels that divide people from each other.

A couple of things are worth pointing out here. One is that--again, mindful of the dangers of reading backwards from an agenda today into a figure of yesterday--the strategies employed by Jesus the teacher to change the behavior, or the thinking, of the people around him seem often to anticipate what scientists are now unveiling about how our minds work. The quirks in our moral reasoning, our susceptibility to unconscious biases, and (especially) our tendency to fall into the trap of tribalism--of uncritically assigning negative motivations to people outside our group and positive motivations to those inside--all can cause us to come to faulty conclusions about our own choices or the virtues of our "group," however it's defined. (And our "group" is not only something we define in terms of race or class, nationality or ethnicity, but increasingly in terms of political ideology, too.)

Second, there is a considerable distance between the strategies for teaching and shaping behavior that are recorded in the founding texts of Christian tradition as being employed by Jesus, and the sorts of strategies employed today in the public square by those who claim to speak the "Christian perspective" on any given issue. The indirect approach exemplified by so many of the stories in which Jesus can be seen nudging both his followers and his opponents is rarely on display in the proclamations of either conservative evangelicals or progressive liberals. One side speaks of "Bible-based" positions, the other of "prophetic witness"--but both are examples of a much more direct, confrontational approach to changing behavior, one that rarely succeeds in actually bringing about change and frequently fails the basic test of remembering that none of us get to claim the authority of speaking with the whole truth.

In this week through which we retell once again the climactic drama of the events that stand at the heart of the Christian narrative, it is well for us to be asking ourselves about how Jesus the teacher managed to have so powerful an effect on the people around him--and the degree to that success might have something to do with a deep understanding of the peculiar design of the human equipment for moral reasoning. We may do better at achieving the basic objectives set out by that teaching--respect for human dignity, acknowledgment of our essential equality, compassion toward all others regardless of our socially constructed identity markers--if we take the example of the Prophet of Nudge more closely to heart.