Plausibility Structures and Reaching Muslims

Doug Coleman Cross Cultural Ministry, Islam 3 Comments

plausibilityWithin a short time of our first meeting, Abraham offered me an invitation. “If you’re a Christian, go ahead and convince me that Christianity is true.” I accepted, and we began to spend significant time together, discussing various topics related to the Bible, the gospel, and Christianity.

One day Abraham stated rather matter-of-factly, “I’ve never said the Bible has been changed…but I’ve also never said it hasn’t been changed.”

“That’s good,” I replied. “At least you’re open to considering the evidence.”

Weeks went by and I found myself sitting in the parking lot of a shopping center chatting with Abraham as we were waiting for others.

“What do you think about divorce?” he asked.

I responded, “Well, in one sense it doesn’t really matter what I think. What matters is what the Bible says.”

After briefly commenting from Genesis 1 and 2 about the intent of marriage, I read Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:31-32: It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Abraham was incredulous. “It says THAT? Let me see.” He looked himself and continued, “Well, if that’s what it says, it’s DEFINITELY been changed!”

Although Abraham was married, he had no category for such a deep level of commitment. This view of marriage was simply implausible to him, so implausible that he was willing to conclude on-the-spot that the Bible surely has been changed.

Joe Carter gives a good description of plausibility structures:

Everything that we believe is filtered through our plausibility structures — belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. Plausibility structures filter out claims that we believe cannot be reasonable or potentially true. They don’t necessarily tell us if a claim is true, only that the truth of the claim appears plausible enough for us to accept and that we are not wholly unwarranted in thinking it could be true. Whether we are gullible or skeptical, the beliefs we accumulate are those that have been filtered through plausibility structures at the individual and cultural level. These eventually form our worldview, which itself becomes a broad strainer that filters out beliefs that we won’t even consider to be possibly true.

For example, if I were to find a box of cookies in my kitchen cabinet I would assume that my wife had bought them at the store and placed them there herself. If someone were to argue that tree-dwelling elves baked the cookies, packaged them for their corporate employer, and stashed them in my pantry, I would have a difficult time believing their claim; the existence of unionized tree-dwelling elves is simply not a part of my plausibility structure.

Abraham’s plausibility structure regarding marriage did not allow for the biblical view. In his mind, there was no way two people could make such a commitment. Therefore, the Bible must have been changed.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Muslims have a number of plausibility structures that a priori filter out the claims of Christianity and the gospel. One of these is a rejection of the Trinity. In Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi tells a fascinating story of the moment in which the concept of the Trinity became plausible for him. The story is a little long, but worth repeating:

We sat front and center in Mrs. Adamski’s lecture hall, not more than three feet from her as she taught. I vividly remember the exact location of my seat because it was there that I first opened up to the Trinity, a moment still etched in my mind.

Projected in the front of the room were three large depictions of nitrate in bold black and white. We were studying resonance, the configuration of electrons in certain molecules. The basic concept of resonance is easy enough to understand, even without a background in chemistry. Essentially, the building block of every physical object is an atom, a positively charged nucleus orbited by tiny, negatively charged electrons. Atoms bond to one another by sharing their electrons, forming a molecule. Different arrangements of the electrons in certain molecules are called “resonance structures.” Some molecules, like water, have no resonance while others have three resonance structures or more, like the nitrate on the board.

Although the concept was easy enough to grasp, the reality proved to be baffling. Mrs. Adamski concluded her lesson by commenting, “These drawings are just the best way to represent resonance structures on paper, but it’s actually much more complicated. Technically, a molecule with resonance is every one of its structures at every point in time, yet no single one of its structures at any point in time.”

The rest of the class must have had the same expressions on their faces that I did because Mrs. Adamski repeated herself. “It’s all the structures all the time, never just one of them.” After another brief pause, she afforded us some reassurance. “But don’t worry about that. You’re only going to be tested on the structures we can draw,” to which the class gave a collective sigh of relief.

But not me. I turned to David, unable to get past what Mrs. Adamski had just said. David subtly shrugged and returned his attention to the professor as she moved to the next topic. It appeared I was the only one still thinking about the bomb she had just dropped.

How could something be many things at once? Many different things? We were not talking about the attributes of something like a steak, which can be hot, juicy, thick, and tender all at once. We were talking about separate spatial and electrical arrangements. What the professor said would be akin to saying that Nabeel is eating said steak in Texas while simultaneously napping in a hammock in the Caribbean. As wonderful as each would be individually, it made no sense to say I might be doing both at once.

I was perplexed, and what made it even worse was that no one around me seemed bothered in the least. I looked around the room, agape at their blind acceptance.

But was it really blind? The professor was teaching rarefied science, describing the subatomic world. At that level, things happen that make no sense to those of us who conceptualize the world at only a human level. Even the apparently simple idea of atoms is baffling when we think about it. It means that the chair I am sitting on is not actually a solid object, innocently supporting my weight. It is almost entirely empty space, occupied only in small part by particles moving at incomprehensible speeds. When we think about it, it seems wrong, but it’s just the way things are in our universe. There’s no use arguing about it.

I turned my glance away from the other students, concluding they had not blindly accepted a nonsensical concept. They had just realized before I did that there are truths about our universe that do not fit easily into our minds.

My eyes rested on the three separate structures of nitrate on the wall, my mind assembling the pieces. One molecule of nitrate is all three resonance structures all the time and never just one of them. The three are separate but all the same, and they are one. They are three in one.

That’s when it clicked: if there are things in this world that can be three in one, even incomprehensibly so, then why cannot God? And just like that, the Trinity became potentially true in my mind. (pp. 190-192)

Apart from enrolling all of our Muslim friends in an organic chemistry class, how do we challenge the plausibility structures that filter out the claims of Christianity before they are even heard? A few thoughts:

1. Pray! This is truly a spiritual matter. Pray that God will open their hearts and minds. For some this simply means God creating in their hearts and minds a willingness to listen and consider new ideas, evidence and claims. But this may also involve supernatural events that begin to weaken their plausibility structures—dreams, visions, answers to prayer, healings, etc. “Vick,” a friend of mine who is a former Muslim, heard that Jesus heals people. He had a sick friend and decided to pray for his friend in the name of Jesus. His friend was healed and Vick sought to find out more about Jesus. Vick eventually embraced the biblical Jesus. He now pastors a church and helps lead a nation-wide evangelistic ministry in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

2. Work to create cognitive dissonance. This is a psychological term that is used in different ways, but here I’m using it to refer to mental stress or discomfort experienced when someone is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. It’s a mental, and perhaps emotional, jolt that happens when someone realizes things might not be as they have always assumed or believed. So how can we create cognitive dissonance for Muslims?

a. Live a godly life. Due to the media that comes from the “Christian” United States and Europe, many Muslims believe Christians are grossly immoral, and, therefore, Christianity is an immoral religion. And Muslims living in the West may not make the distinction between a cultural “Christian” and a true follower of Jesus. When Muslims see evidence of holiness in the lives of Christians, they are often surprised. After several years of relating to one another, a good Muslim friend of mine told me one day, “I tell my friends about you all the time. You’re nothing like what they assume. I tell them that no matter what I do I can’t get you to tell a lie.”

b. Learn how to answer typical Muslim objections. We need to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us, and we also need to be ready to demonstrate the reasonableness of that hope. There are lots of resources on the internet for this—some good, some not so good. A few worth considering might be Answering Islam, the CARM Islam Section, or the NAMB section on Islam. An answer to a single objection will probably not trigger an immediate conversion, but every time an objection is challenged and answered, plausibility structures may weaken just a little more.

c. Be willing to challenge established beliefs. There are many nominal “Muslims,” just as there are many nominal “Christians.” However, those Muslims who take their faith seriously will often respect a Christian who takes his faith equally seriously. True, some topics are particularly sensitive and must be handled with care, but even the most sensitive issues can be discussed with conviction if approached respectfully.

d. Invite them to read the Bible. Based on my own experience and reading, many former Muslims point to their actual reading of the Bible as a major turning point in their journey to faith in Jesus. They say things like, “It is nothing like what I thought it would be. It was nothing like what I had been told. It is a good book that teaches good things.” Of course, it may take some time before they are willing to read, and other plausibility structures may have to be challenged first.

e. Offer to pray for them…in person. We need to pray for them on our own, but we should also offer to pray for them in person. It probably happens from time to time, but I have never seen a Muslim refuse to allow a Christian to pray for them. In fact, they sometimes request prayer themselves. Praying for them in person can be a powerful display of love and sincerity, and God may just do something to turn their plausibility structures upside down.

f. Serve them…genuinely. Not all, but some Muslims assume that Christians will be antagonistic. Love, humility, and service can be powerfully effective in creating cognitive dissonance and challenging plausibility structures. And like most people, they can tell when the love and service is genuine and when it is a means to another end.

This list is not exhaustive, and more often than not it takes combinations of these experienced multiple times in order for plausibility structures to change. There is no magic formula, no silver bullet. In the end, conversion is a work of the Spirit, but He graciously chooses to use human vessels as part of His means.

How have you seen plausibility structures function in your efforts to share the gospel? In what other ways have you attempted to create cognitive dissonance?

Doug ColemanPlausibility Structures and Reaching Muslims

Comments 3

  1. Michael

    I’ll never forget the look on Amir’s face when I showed him Matthew 5:44-45, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” after a lengthy conversation about war and peace. Before he imagined that Christianity was just like the religion he’d rejected–in his view oppressive and concerned with earthly power.
    “Is this your Incil?!” he asked me.
    “Yes.”
    “Is there more teaching in it like that?”
    “Much more.”
    “Can I have a copy?”
    By the end of the week he had read all of Matthew’s gospel and had come to me with a list of questions. By the next month he was professing Christ. I’m convinced that the Word of God in those two verses changed everything for him.

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  2. Mark

    11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. -1 Peter 2: 11-12

    These verses function as a kind of hinge to 1 Peter. Before this, Peter is telling us who we are in Christ. After these verses Peter is concerned with describing the “good deeds”. In the rest of his letter, Peter touches on various relationships in which the Christian interacts with the [heathen] nations (I prefer this word over ‘Gentiles’). These verses are reflective of Christ’s words, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”. They give us insight into how the nations can come to faith as they observe the Christian sojourner, and they speak directly to plausibility structures, cognitive dissonance, and godly living. Each word in these verses drips with theological significance and life application, but I particularly enjoyed studying Peter’s idea of “the day of visitation”.

    There are two schools of thought in interpreting this phrase. One is that Peter is alluding to the second coming of Christ. Other scholars claim that Peter here is referring to a ‘visitation’ by the Spirit of God during the process of salvation. I have no problem with either interpretation, but I absolutely love (and prefer) the idea of Holy Spirit visitation(s) as it relates to the Muslim coming to faith in Christ. Just like in Nabeel Qureshi’s story in, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” most Muslims who are being saved encounter God’s visitation in a dream or a vision. This is a foreign concept to Westerners like myself – I confess that I have never had a dream ‘visitation’ of Christ (there is a tinge of jealousy here). Muslim people however, long for dreams and visions. And God seems able and obliged to meet people where they are – inside their culture.

    One day I was impressed by the Spirit to ask a Muslim man whom I had just met if he had recently had any important dreams. To my surprise he said yes, but added that he was very frightened of his dreams. I had a hard time understanding all the details of his dream, but I asked him if he wanted to be rid of the bad dreams. I told him that I was a follower of Jesus, and that he could take away his bad dreams and replace them with good dreams. He was visibly shaken by my words and said yes, that he wanted Jesus to take away the bad dreams. I prayed with him in the name of Jesus that he would be free of his bad dreams and that Jesus would visit him and give him a good dream. He was very excited to receive a New Testament and said that he would have his son read it to him when he got home. I read him the passage about Jesus being the good shepherd (the man was actually herding sheep as we talked). Sadly however, I never saw this man again. But I pray for him often. Would you pray for him now?

    What does this story have to do with plausibility structures? Simple; If the Spirit leads, we could minister to Muslims directly by asking them about their dreams and/or visions. We could end up interpreting dreams for them. We could engage them with a story from the Bible about dreams/visions. I can think of many Bible stories that would appeal to a Muslim’s heightened awareness of dreams and visions. At the very least, we could pray WITH THEM and ask Jesus to visit them in a dream or a vision. This will undoubtably paint us in a new light with our Muslim friend (plausibility structure), but beware: This dream ministry concept may cause some cognitive dissonance for the Muslim…

    But it will probably challenge us Westerners first.

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