Bishop's Message

Living in a Pavlovian experiment

May 2008    

THE king was full of pride and an intoxicating sense of self-importance. In his arrogance he had all but forgotten the words of the prophet Daniel who came to the palace to explain a strange dream he had.

He dreamed of a huge statue made with a medley of metals. The head was made of gold; the rest of the body was made of silver, bronze, iron and even a little bit of clay. Daniel had told him that he, Nebuchadnezzar, was the head of gold. The
other parts of the statue represented other kingdoms that would follow in history. Nebuchadnezzar could not forget the great statue. In a moment of proud madness, he built a huge statue made entirely of gold, as if he was immortal and invincible, and perhaps even divine. All the VIPS in the kingdom were invited to the dedication service.

Then the voice of the herald loudly proclaimed in everyone’s hearing: “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.

Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” (Dan. 3:4-6).The message was loud and clear. As soon as the music sounded everyone was to fall down in front of the golden statue and worship it – or face the fatal consequences. And everyone sought to save his skin, except three men from Judea. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego thought too highly of their God to think of substituting Him with any other god – even if it meant a death sentence. For their convictions, they were rewarded by being thrown into a fiery furnace. But God honoured them and kept them safe from the licking flames. The witnesses noted that the fire “had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them”. (Dan. 3:27). And they saw Someone with them in the fire;

God was there. There are many lessons we can learn from this text but I would like to point out one. It is interesting that the phrase “As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music … ” is repeated several times (Dan 3:5, 7, 10, 15). Try reading it aloud. It has a hypnotic effect. It is like the catchy tune of a musical jingle that accompanies an advertisement – it is  designed to stay in your mind. It appears that Nebuchadnezzar knew a thing or two about conditioning – the kind that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov  discovered.

Pavlov noted that the sight of food made the dogs in his experiment salivate. He rang bells when he called the dogs to their food. Later, when he simply rang the bells without showing the food, the dogs salivated. The dogs had associated the sound of the bells with the food and were conditioned to produce the reflexes associated with the food, just with the bells. Well, think about lemons now – most people will notice increased salivation under their tongues just by thinking “lemon”. This is called conditioning.

The repeated musical cue for worshipping Nebuchadnezzar’s image in the text reminds us of social conditioning. Is this not true in our world? We are subjected daily to conditioning processes that make us behave in certain idolatrous ways. As soon as they heard the music, the people fell and worshipped the image. Do we not have similar mechanisms at work today? As soon as you see people queuing, you are conditioned to join the queue first, before asking any questions. The word “SALE” makes people behave in certain ways. In similar fashion, we have deeply embedded slogans and tunes that tell us to “just do it” or to “obey your thirst”.

Or we are given cultural cues of worldly wealth and luxurious lifestyles that make us green with envy and long for such fortunes. “The man who dies with the most toys is the winner”, is the lie before which many people use up their precious lives. We carry within cues that are designed to make us sin.

While Pavlov discovered classical conditioning, which works by association, others discovered what is called operant conditioning. Put simply, it works by using a carrot and stick strategy – the way animals are trained to do circus acts.

Social life can be conditioned by a slew of rewards and punishments. If we simply let ourselves be shaped by such conditioning, we may not rise above the kind of life that circus animals live.

We must live differently. In Dan. 3, we find another phrase that is repeated frequently (v. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 22, 26, 28, 29, 30). “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” is a counter phrase to the one that had to with idolatry. Every time it is repeated it brings a sense of nobility and faithfulness.

But is it also some form of conditioning? I do not think so. Conditioning turns us into human machines that produce certain kinds of behaviour. It also often depends on instant reward and gratifi cation. It is connected with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. But the phrase “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” does not condition us; it reminds us of a great cloud of faithful witnesses (cf. Heb 12:2). It roots us in a story of godly faithfulness and holiness that refuses to bow before any other god except the One who made and redeemed us. It inspires us to forego instant gratification, and even suffer pain and deprivation, for the sake of our relationship with God.

Conditioning makes us live a life of conditioned reflexes. People caught in this conditioned life have nothing but animal reflexes in their daily lives. The reflexes are dressed up as free choices, but they are not.

On the other hand, we can live freely, when the truth makes us free (Jn. 8:32) and the Spirit leads us, so that we don’t live by reflexes but by daily choices based on responses to God’s divine love and grace. One manipulates behaviour, the other forms character. Conditioned reflexes or loving choices? One must decide how to live.

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