Trying to Understand

We live in times that are marked by division and rigid, dogmatic polarization.  I know none of you are surprised by that observation. (I’m not sure that things are worse  than they were in the 60s and 70s, Kent State, Watts, Detroit, Vietnam War, assassinations, I could go on…)

Never the less, there is still plenty of division and plenty of hostility to go around. Sadly Christians have been in the thick of things. We all need to think on these things and confess our contributions to them. I have, on occasion, accused politicians and others who shall remain nameless, of riding the crazy train. I need to stop doing that. It won’t be easy.

I’m reading Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He suggests several ideas for Christians to adopt that will help us read the Bible more faithfully. His proposals also are useful in helping us decrease the hostility and general nastiness of our times.  In this post, I offer two of Smith’s suggestions and one of my own as ways toward civil, respectful, friendly, and dare I hope, even loving conversation.

Smith suggests we adopt a posture of humility. I agree. We all would benefit by admitting we just might be wrong about somethings. No make that, we are wrong about some things.  To paraphrase N.T.Wright, we’re wrong about all sorts of things in our daily lives, why should we assume our ability to read scripture or to think Christianly about issues is exempt from our ability to be wrong?

Being humble means we recognize that all of us have substantial “logs” in our eyes. Being humble recognizes that no one tries to have a wrong or stupid or silly belief about God. Being humble means we can acknowledge that the most correct among us is still a long way from perfection, doesn’t understand everything, and doesn’t know everything without denigrating the humanity of the other person.

Smith also suggests we get clear in our own minds what things are properly considered dogma, what are doctrines and what are beliefs.* He notes that Christians tend to

“inflate the centrality, sureness, and importance of their doctrines so as to turn them into dogmas. They also tend to do the same thing with their opinions by elevating them to the level of doctrine. In addition, Christians also tend to demote the beliefs of those others with whom they disagree to a level lower than they claim for their equivalent belief in the disagreement. …Both tendencies clearly follow a well-known and established fact in social psychology: namely, that people predictably tend to inflate the goodness, importance, and credibility of anything associated with the social groups to which they belong (their “in-groups”) beyond what is objectively real and justified; and they predictably tend to depreciate the goodness, importance, and credibility of anything associated with groups that are socially different and to which they do not belong, (“out groups”). It is all unfortunately part of  “normal” social-psychological personal and group identity construction and maintenance. But that does not make it right, good , or helpful when it comes to Christian theology and church unity. [135-136]

Given the reality that we all do this, we need to periodically check ourselves and be sure we haven’t inappropriately advanced some ideas beyond their importance.

Finally, my suggestion is we sincerely try to understand the reasoning and reasons why people have ideas, beliefs and interpretations that are different from ours. With the advent of the internet, it has never been easier to learn about the ideas of others. Sadly, most of us only read things that reinforce our views. I suggest you find one or two credible sources who think differently than you. Read a scholar from another tradition, listen to sermons from a church that is more progressive, or more conservative than yours. Goodness, you could even talk with another human being over a cup of coffee. ( As a practical note, I would suggest doing this in “baby steps”, initially don’t jump too far away from where your comfort zone. Wade into the big, deep pool of ideas and beliefs gradually.)

Your goal is not to change the mind of the other person, not to debate them, not to gather ammunition to strengthen your own position against theirs. Your goal is to listen carefully and to try to understand the reasoning and logic and beliefs of someone who thinks differently than you do. At the same time it is helpful to consider other factors, social, ethnic, economic, etc. that shape their views. Your goal is to try to understand why they believe the way they do, and to understand why you believe the way you do.

This isn’t easy. It requires us to be humble, self-aware and to keep our mouths shut and really listen. If we are able to do this, I think our world would be a different place. I think we would find many areas where we agree. Not perhaps total unanimity, but substantial agreement which then allows us to collaborate and work together for the common good.

It takes work , but I think it’s worth the effort?

What do you think?

* Smiths describes dogma as nonnegotiable beliefs such as the Trinity and Nicene Christology. Doctrine are beliefs we take seriously but with which others may disagree. I am a Christian with a (mostly) Reformed perspective. I went to seminary with people with a Wesleyan perspective. We have some doctrinal differences.  Beliefs are things that we might have strong feelings about, homeschooling (or not) children, worship styles and so on.


And now a series of  miscellaneous items;

It is the “Year of Interfaith Understanding here in Grand Rapids, you can find out what this means and what is happening all year at this site.

I am excited to be part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus blog tour which begins October 3.

For the theological book lovers out there, Baker Academic is having a book giveaway, you can enter here.  (good luck)

We can be friends on Facebook, here.

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