Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Christian Case for Open-Mindedness

Christians are not known for their open-mindedness. Some are ashamed of this, while others pride themselves on their shunning of worldly ideas. I mean to argue, from an orthodox evangelical Christian stance [*], why Christians ought to be open-minded.

But first, what do I mean when I say "open-minded"? In my view, open-mindedness is exemplified by:

So, if that is open-mindedness, then why should we be open-minded? Would it not be more faithful to simply reject all non-Christian or unorthodox points of view? Shouldn't we be on the lookout for false prophets? (Shouldn't we burn our secular cassette tapes?!)

Here's why orthodox Christians should be open-minded:

  1. The Golden Rule. "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12, ESV) If we wish for others to earnestly attempt an understanding of Christianity (not as a flat caricature but in fleshy depth) then according to Jesus' summary of the Law and Prophets, we must likewise try to understand the beliefs of others. To understand someone else's beliefs requires a willingness to put ourselves in their shoes, to "try on" their values. To do so should not be seen as a threat to our own faith, but instead as something our faith demands of us.
  2. Informed evangelism. If we want to convert others to Christianity (in response to the Great Commission), we must understand not only where we want them to go, but where they come from. The apostle Paul demonstrates this sensitivity in Acts 17, in which he preaches to the Athenians with a not superficial knowledge of, and respect for, their own culture and beliefs.
  3. Empathetic evangelism. For many people, before they come to the faith, they must grapple with certain troubling questions, such as, "If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?" or "Why does the Bible contradict itself?" To be effective evangelists, we must be ready to help seekers address such questions, and if we have not seriously considered such questions for ourselves (for fear that it might disturb our faith) then we will be in no position to assist anyone.
  4. Faith in the durability of truth. If we have any faith in the Gospel, then we must trust that it can withstand poking and prodding. If it were flimsy and fragile - if we had built our house on the sand after all - then it would not be worth believing in the first place, and we should change our beliefs to something more solid. But if the Gospel is true, it can withstand any amount of honest inspection, and honest inspection will show it for the truth that it is. Whether the stone hits the glass or the glass hits the stone, it won't hurt the stone. Thus, to fear new and contrary ideas bumping against the Gospel betrays a lack of faith in the actual truth of the Gospel.
  5. Faith in the universality of truth. If we believe that the truth of the Gospel is evident for all and not only for us, then we must be ready to encounter it in places not officially branded by Christendom. In other words, we should expect to see, at the least, nuggets of the true Gospel scattered throughout philosophy, religion, science, and art, not to mention nature. We shouldn't reject the truth in these cases just because it did not come through the lineage of Christian teaching. As an analogy, suppose you write a physics textbook. If the theories you describe are true, you should not be offended to discover that others have the same theories, despite not having read your book. In fact you should be relieved that others have the same theories, as that lends credence to your book. If what you wrote could be learned exclusively by reading your book, then it would be useless as a physics textbook, because it would not describe reality at all. Thus, Christians should expect and hope that real Christian truths and virtues (not only mere shadows of them) appear entirely outside the Christian context. And we should be ready to accept them with open hearts and minds.
  6. All your mind. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27, ESV). I think it's fair to say that such love for God has the power to breathe new life into our heart, soul, and strength. Such renewal does not shrink our heart and soul and strength but expands, awakens, liberates, and vitalizes them. And so too with our mind. If we love God with all our mind, our mind should be more active, not less. How are we to love God with all our mind if we turn off our mind - our good created mind - in the presence of difficult questions or views?
  7. Faith like a child. This phrase is sometimes employed to silence troubling questions (pertaining to, for instance, the justness of God). But let's think for a moment about actual children (especially young children, since in Jesus' day teenagers were considered adults). Do children ask questions? Yes, they ask questions relentlessly. Do their questions respect boundaries? No, their questions do not respect boundaries of politeness, common sense, or orthodoxy. Do children have faith? Yes, and faith not in spite of their questions but demonstrated by them. They do not find questions threatening. As an example of an adult exercising faith like a child, take my grandma. Due to dementia, her memory slipped away late in life, and in forgetfulness of her doctrine she began to ask questions like "Will everyone go to heaven, or just people who know the Lord?" Her hope and faith, meanwhile, were unshakable: her soul leaned always toward heaven, though she assumed less and less about it.

Now that I've made my case for open-mindedness, I should clarify: I am not saying that Christians should not be closed-minded. Closed-mindedness is as important as open-mindedness. Problems arise when a mind refuses to open or refuses to close: For a mind to work, it must, like a mouth, continually open and close, in the creative pattern of innovation and scrutiny, brainstorming and editing, growing and pruning. A growing Christian should not only welcome all questions, but also question everything. Christians could easily shed their reputation as brainless fundamentalists, and still dodge an opposite reputation as brainless relativists, if only we cultivated healthy minds, opening and closing and opening again.

[*]If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I myself am not very orthodox anymore, but for the sake of argument I am here restricting myself to an orthodox perspective. There are many other good reasons for open-mindedness, but for a Christian to accept them requires some open-mindedness to begin with, so for my purposes here they are not useful.