When I was getting ready to go to seminary, I remember many people giving me the standard don’t lose your faith pitch. I remember wondering why so many people were worried that learning something was going to damage my faith. I also remember thinking it was slightly disturbing that so many people seemed like they would be more comfortable with an uneducated pastor than an educated pastor. It felt like the unexpressed fear was really that their faith couldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
I went to seminary figuring that I had a lot to learn. I wanted to get as much out of the experience as I could, so I decided to hear people out on every possible subject. I tried to start from scratch. The one exception was that I was going to consider everything as a Christian. In other words, my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ was not up for discussion, because by this point in my life it had become part of who I was – not something I was trying to intellectually dissect.
For the first year and a half of seminary, I felt like open-mindedness was the number one virtue that was preached to me. The biggest sin you could commit, or so it felt, was to view what someone else was doing with a clean conscience as wrong or a sin. Now I want to be clear: I learned a lot during my time in seminary. Taking the time to really try to understand where people were coming from on different sides of controversial issues was very important to my development as not just a pastor, but more broadly, as a Christian. (Though, I also have to admit that I am sure I didn’t do a perfect job of understanding where people were coming from on either side of many controversial issues.)
Nevertheless, I did get to know and become friends with many different people with many different experiences. These were positive experiences for me. But they were not life-changing or life-giving. I know many people would disagree with me on this, but for me, trying to understand where everyone else was coming from was not causing me to grow in my relationship with God. In many ways it was an important step in learning to love my neighbor, but I don’t think that just accepting someone where they are at is the goal of Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. (My goal for my own life is certainly not just to accept myself where I am at.)
The most transformative experience for me in seminary was the result of taking Methodist History and Doctrine and reading John Wesley’s sermons. I realized that this was a person who expressed much of what I intuitively felt about God. I always had a deep sense that the Christian life was a life of trying to give all that I knew about myself to my best understanding of who God was (though even that articulation has been strengthened by Dr. Doug Strong, one of my mentors in seminary). This meant that I expected to grow in my faith throughout my life because my understanding of God and where I was spiritually were both continually changing.
Around the same time that I took Methodist History and Doctrine, I was invited to join a Wesleyan band meeting. This was a group of five men who met weekly to confess their sins to one another, to vocalize the forgiveness we find in Christ, and to pray for one another. It was a powerful group that brought Wesley’s understanding of how to practice Christian faith to life for me. So I came to realize that I was Wesleyan theologically, and I was Wesleyan practically. Or, I could embrace a Wesleyan doctrine and a Wesleyan discipline.
What does all of this have to do with being open-minded? These experiences have led me to the conviction that it is crucial in the postmodern matrix to be able to identify where you are standing. Many people seem to get confused by all of the options that face them and just sort of exist in this plurality of choices. But for me at least, I found that I only had something to say, I only could confidently say I had a contribution to make, once I knew where I was coming from.
In other words, there is a sense in which close-mindedness may be more difficult and more important than being open-minded in the twenty-first century mainline church. Now, I would not take this to extremes. We are called to love our neighbor, even when we disagree with them. We would never harm those whom Christ died for with our words or our actions. But, do you see what I am saying? I think there is a sense in which we need to know where we stand before we have much of anything to say. I feel like I have something to offer when I talk with another Christian, or someone who is not a Christian because I am speaking not just as Kevin, but I am trying as best as I can to represent the Wesleyan tradition, which I am convinced is the best path to the life that God created us for.
Sometimes in our efforts to be open-minded we forget that we actually believe something is true about the world. It seems that in far too many places the church has lost its passion for transforming the culture that it is sent in mission to, and I can’t help but wonder if that is because we have become so open to anything and everything that we have lost our voice. We just don’t know that we have anything to say.
What are your thoughts or reactions? I would love to hear your response.
Good thoughts. Open-mindedness/tolerance can be a totalizing and oppressive narrative just like the sort that postmodern thought usually rails against.
When you talk about close-mindedness, I can hear you simply saying that our Christian (and specifically Wesleyan Christian) narrative has boundaries. There are some “plot changes” that simply won’t fit the story of Creation, Fall, Resurrection, New Creation. To wedge them in would do violence to our narrative of faith and compromise the character of the story.
Your ability to speak with confidence comes from knowing your place in that story – specifically your place in the Wesleyan subplot of the larger Christian narrative.
Kevin Watson said:
Matt – Can I just delete my post, and then use what you have just said as the post itself? Because I think you just said what I was trying to say much better than I did… and with several hundred words less! Thanks for your feedback.
Haha. Actually, I enjoy reading about your struggle in the original. 🙂
Dan Elmore said:
I can very much relate to your struggle, as I struggled throughout seminary with the same issue. For example, number one for me was around the issue of how we address God, and use pronouns for God. I’m perfectly fine for someone in offering a public prayer to address God as “Mother”, IF that’s authentic to their experience, NOT IF they’re simply trying to be PC. By the same token, though, I consistently felt as if I could not pray to God as Father, or use the male pronoun, even when I expressed that it was simply how I relate to God and that I was not trying to offend.
In my opinion, I see a direct correlation between our denomination’s slogan, “Open hearts, minds, and doors,” and our continued decline. In conversation with unchurched friends and acquaintances, they don’t appreciate a vague openness… they want to know why you believe what you believe because they’re trying to decide for themselves whether they should invest their time and energy in it as well. I think the proper use of “openness” is in the way we communicate our faith and convictions… not in a judging, my way or the highway type, but in a way that positively says where we stand and how much we’d love for those in conversation to come join us.
Great post. It reminds me of the adage “Stand for something or fall for anything.” Thanks for sharing. Stay blessed…john
Kevin Watson said:
Dan – Thanks for your thoughts. I have to admit, I have re-read my post many times wondering if I overstated anything. I hope my point is not that being open to others experiences is wrong, but that it is important as a Christian to have a place to stand. It seems difficult for us to know exactly what we should define as an “essential” (to use Wesley’s term) and what is nonessential. At some level, sincere people will even disagree about that. But, I have found, for me at least, it is helpful to know where I stand when I enter into conversation with others. In an important sense, I only feel that I have something to contribute to the conversation when I am solidly rooted in my identity as a Wesleyan evangelical.
John – Thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting.
Jacqueline Ayad said:
I was quite surprised to find this post here within a “spiritual” context. I disagree with your premise that to have an open-mind is over-rated in the 21st century and, in fact, would advocate the opposite. I think you miss some of the primary aspects of what it means to have an open-mind. If you are open-minded enough to see why I say this, the topic is covered in more detail at http://aeonalliance.blogspot.com. I look forward to your response.