Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 3, 2010

Can We Have Faith and Remain Open Minded?

I just finished reading Chaim Potok’s book My Name Is Asher Lev. This book tells the story of a young boy named Asher who is raised in a strict Jewish sect and has an amazing gift as an artist. With the Rabbi’s approval, Asher is mentored by a famous artist who worked with the likes of Picasso in Europe.

However, Asher’s father disapproves of his son’s gift. Asher’s father is concerned that his son will let go of his Jewish worldview as his engagement with art exposes him to secular and Christian ideas. At one point the father tells Asher that his art is “no more than foolishness.” When considering the possibility that Asher will lose his faith the father tells his son in a heated conversation, “better you should not have been born.” Thus, Asher continues through life trying to hold together his Jewish tradition with the powerful discoveries that come through his work as an artist.

I suspect that many of us can connect with Asher’s experience. On the one hand we are seeking to be faithful to the tradition we have been raised in. Our personal journey starts with some basic assumptions about the world. On the other hand we find ourselves confronted with ideas and traditions that are different from our own.

As we try and navigate through our pluralistic world we may find ourselves confused. Sometimes I find that the Christian community, in its more fundamentalist forms, functions like Asher’s father. There is a fear of new ideas, of engaging with people that have different worldviews from us. At the other extreme I’ve met very liberal Christians that essentially say that truth is completely relative and that all faiths and all truths are legitimate.

How, then, are we supposed to interact with different ideas and worldviews then our own? Here are a few thoughts.

Humility

Every once and a while I would encounter students in college who were there to simply have their own ideas approved. They did not come to learn, they came to have someone tell them they are right. This always bothered me. Not only were these people wasting their money on their education due to their refusal to learn, they were being proud – acting as if they did not need to learn anything new.

There are numerous appeals in scripture to be open to learning from those who are wiser then us. The proverbs commend the person who seeks wisdom as if it is gold, and praises the person who is slow to speak and quick to listen. James commends a similar disposition in his letter to the early church.

There is also a biblical precedent to be humble in our interactions with those that differ from us. 1 Peter 3:15 is a famous text that talks about always having an answer for what you believe, but we rarely finish reading the sentence where it says that we are to give this answer with humility and respect.

Spiritual Maturity

I find that Christians who are very defensive about new ideas are often motivated by fear. There is a fear of having our questions exposed, or of confronting ideas that will challenge our belief. People with a secure faith seem to be better equipped to move forward into un-chartered intellectual territory. So part of our journey toward openness requires that we grow deeper in our faith.

Understanding the Scope of Scripture

It is important for Christians to understand what subjects the bible is authoritative on and what subjects require us to learn from secondary sources. For example, we do not turn to the bible for advice on how to be a successful gardener. Sure there is the parable of the sower but that doesn’t help us much.

This gets a bit more controversial when it comes to things like science. I would suggest that the bible is not first and foremost an authoritative source on natural sciences. John Calvin argued that the purpose of Genesis 1-3 was not to describe when and how the world was created; rather, the purpose of Genesis 1-3 is to explain why the world was created and who the creator is. Obviously the relationship between science and religion is complicated and intertwined, but sometimes I find that the biblical text is appealed to in the wrong way when we engage with scientific developments. Understanding the scope of scripture gives us some guidance as to how we should be interacting with other ideas.

Community

One of the mistakes I made during my first year of university is that I cut myself of from my faith community. I tried to go it alone and sort out my questions by myself in the library. The biblical image of iron sharpening iron comes to mind. We can be challenged, supported and guided by others that are on the same journey as us.

Finding Good Guides For the Journey

We need to seek out our teachers wisely. I know some Christian leaders that are still very insecure and closed minded in their faith and as a result pass this on to their followers.

Understanding the Relationship Between Faith and Knowledge

This is sort of a big topic so I’ll just summarize a couple points. One of the things that I found very freeing was to discover that faith is not an intellectually careless disposition. The philosophical climate today recognizes that faith is a necessary starting point for the formation of knowledge. We cannot attain a perfect objectivity like the modernist project attempted to do. We always come at truth from a particular set of lenses. Rather then trying to deny this we need to learn how to work with this. Part of seeking truth requires that we take on a tradition and a set of beliefs. We need to start with some concept about the world before we can think critically about things. Even atheists begin with certain assumptions about the world. Lots to discuss here.

What are some of your thoughts on how to navigate this fine line between faith and open mindedness?

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Responses

  1. re: faith/searching tension

    I’m reminded of Earl Palmer’s remark that in exercising faith we don’t have know all of it, we just have to know enough to “put our foot down” [as a rock climber would] (my poor paraphrase) — that concept helps me even as I struggle with all the unknowns and partial knowns about the Bible.

  2. Phil,
    I see the difficulty in navigating the fine line between faith and open mindedness coming from each of our natural tendencies to think we are right (and those who don’t think the same way as being wrong). We can see it in the church with all forms of doctrines leading to the many denominations. We see it in our church and I see it in myself. My personal thought on this is that we take Jesus’ words “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and put the empahsis on “THE”, especially as WE believe it. And then there is no room for those who hold views that aren’t what we think or believe.

    We can see it all around us outside the church (political discussions are an obvious example) and when we engage with someone with a different set of values there isn’t much open mindedness. When I’ve had conversations with those who would call themselves “progressive” they are often not tolerant of opposing views. The same with those who are “conservative”. We will almost go to battle over any difference.

    The tension for me is to know or understand what things about my faith and about God are absolute as I talk with others about faith and God. What do I need to be absolutely certain about, and what can I be really open minded about?

    I look forward to more comments

  3. Thanks Dave and Randy,

    Randy, I think the question you raise regarding absolutes vs peripheral issues is really important. I find this especially true in the conversations that take place within the Christian community. There have been so many divisions based on very specific issues of church governing, the lord’s supper, women in ministry etc.

    One of the ways we can distinguish between absolutes and peripherals is to ask whether the issue at hand has to do with matters of salvation or not. So issues regarding the divinity and atonement of Christ seem to be fairly central, whereas things like women in ministry are not. The creeds of the church gives us some guidance as to what are central doctrines.

    Another tool that helps us make these distinctions is to learn some basic rules of biblical interpretation. We need to learn how to distinguish what teachings in the Bible are culturally specific and which teachings are universal. So for example, we find that in some contexts Paul is outspoken about women remaining silent in the church (1 Cor 14), where in other contexts he talks about how women should go about prophesying in church (1 Cor 11). These divergences give us a clue that these ideas are specific to a certain context and are not universal. On the other hand there are some teachings on morality that show up consistently throughout the scripture in various writers and various contexts. That gives us a clue that it is something that has a more universal application.

  4. Like to see more of your thoughts on community. Bonhoefer seemed to thing in only matters of the spirit, but community happens on several levels in secular groups as well a church folks. The truth is we really do need each other and in a healthy group there is room for dialog and difference.

  5. Welcome to the Blog Gil. Appreciated your comment on the war and peace article as well!

    The role of community, as it pertains to the pursuit of truth, seems to be related to the issue of accountability. If we are going solo in our pursuit of truth, or if we only listen to voices similar to our own, we are in danger of looking at things through a very limited lens. One of the relationships that really helped me grow in faith was with my neighbor who was an atheist. I couldn’t get to the car in the morning without him asking me a penetrating question he had about God or science. As I engaged with his ideas I was forced to really sharpen my beliefs and ask some difficult questions.

    Thinking and interpreting scripture is also something that we need to do together within the Christian community. For centuries before the development of the printing press, scripture reading and reflection was always a communal activity. One of the things that my church in Lynden is doing right now is having bible read through groups, where people read a book of scripture a week and then meet and discuss what they learned and what questions they have. This sort of thing can really sharpen our ideas and make sure our conclusions are sound.

  6. Phil,
    I can identify with your experience with the atheist neighbor. I have had several times with someone close who asks particularly probing or pointed questions about faith, and won’t just take or accept a “canned” answer. It has challenged me to dig deeper and look for ways to engage in dialogue that can still speak about Christ and our life with Him.

    Thanks too for the reminders about essentials of faith. And for the words about context of Scripture. Looking forward to your leading us in some study groups!

  7. […] minded as we seek to communicate our faith in a post-Christian, post-enlightenment world (See this post for some thoughts on how this might be accomplished). However, I am not willing to buy into […]


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