Perhaps the most controversial, and generally misunderstood, articles that I have ever written were under the series title: "How I Changed My Mind." This series, written for our Viewpoint news magazine, can be found in the Viewpoint archives under the resource tab at our Web site. (They are found in Volume 7:4 through Volume 8:5.)
I have been forced to think about these articles quite a lot since they have been quoted and used against me rather widely. I thought about them again when I wrote my blog for yesterday about rethinking the empirical method and why postmodernism presents a proper challenge to the modernistic way of thinking that many of us learned from our culture and educational background. I have signed articles of faith in my denominational ordination procedure and sign a statement of faith in order to teach at Wheaton College. But it matters not. These articles on changing my mind brought about some major reaction. I once wondered why this was but this question no longer puzzles me at all. The motives of my critics are not in question. They may, in reality, question me and how I think because they sincerely love Jesus more than I do and because they want to make sure that other Christians embrace the truth as they understand and believe it. But this is precisely the problem. Sincerity in one's motives is a non-issue really. What is at issue is how we think about what we believe, what we do and why we do it. What is an issue is empiricism. Let me be as clear as possible here. Empiricism is a noun which refers to:
The view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge. And practice that disregards scientific theory and relies solely on practical experience.
Most conservative evangelicals employ forms of empiricism, combined with heavy doses of rationalism, in their theological method. Rationalism is also a noun and means:
Reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action. In philosophy, the theory that the exercise of reason, rather than experience, authority, or spiritual revelation, provides the primary basis for knowledge.
Evangelicals rely very heavily on their experience of conversion and Bible reading linked with some form(s) of rationalism, seen especially in their use of this method in apologetics. By this they seek to prove that there is a primary basis for knowledge and this basis can be found by putting a series of biblical texts together which form a doctrinal system that is true to the facts and fits with their evangelical experience. By this means they link what is often opposed, namely empiricism and rationalism, and form a fortress that they will defend to the death in some cases. I attacked this fortress, at the time rather unwittingly.
The result is that many conservative evangelicals can never admit that they are wrong. And if they are wrong they have a hard time changing their mind. Those who do change their mind admit they were wrong but then exchange one system of thought for another and retain the same approach in the process. Given the specific personality type that likes to have everything tidy and clear you then have a major problem. If someone like me, who has written as a Reformed evangelical for decades, comes along to say that you can and should think about changing your mind then the battle is on. Wars for truth will replace commitment to love. I am, ipso facto, a postmodern theologian. Why? I reject modernism, both its method and its conclusions about God and man. So to these conservatives I must be a liberal since this is the only term that they know to use for someone who changes his mind about theological methods and theological beliefs.
This whole debate would seem rather ridiculous if it didn't actually stir up anger, hostility and opposition among those who follow Christ. When this happens I am caught in the crossfire. I wish I could be elsewhere but then I would have to deny what I see in the gospel to not affirm what I quoted from Lesslie Newbigin in my blog of yesterday. Now you can see why I have openly affirmed that no one has more directly impacted my way of thinking about the faith than Lesslie Newbigin.
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This blog post is nothing more than self-serving slander.
Last year, members of my church recorded video interviews of undergrad and grad students at different universities, asking them in-depth questions about what they believe. I spoke to one young man who, I guess, was about 30 years old and had just received a PhD in the social sciences. He was a committed Christian and said that he had been so all his life. I asked him which of his major beliefs had changed over time. He couldn’t think of a single one. I also asked him how sure he was that he was right about his major beliefs. He immediately answered, “Absolutely certain” and “one hundred percent sure.” I probed and prodded further, but he would not budge from his figure of one hundred percent. I thought, “This guy can’t be serious. He is either dishonest or he doesn’t think at all.” Perhaps there are certain personality types who can do this. Or perhaps his definition of “major beliefs” is extremely basic. But when I read the Bible, I cannot think of a single example of a man or woman of faith whom God did not challenge to alter some deeply held convictions.
Young people used to say, “Never trust anyone over the age of 30.” Now I think that I would say, “Never trust anyone who has not changed his mind in a major way since the age of 30.”
John, I agree so much with what you’ve said here. Since I’ve converted to Catholicism I realize in hindsight that one thing that drew me was the room it makes for beauty and mystery. In my final years as a Protestant I was weary of rationalistic thinking, fortress mentality and the undetected ghost of Descartes (and I know this does not describe all of Protestantism). I don’t say this as a way of telling others what they should do. I’m only reporting on the path I took.
Yet, I do not use my new perspective to simply argue from a different vantage point. My two sisters, staunch Protestants, were appalled at my move. When I’ve come among them they’ve tried to draw me into some contention, generally involving the use of scripture texts in a kind of courtroom method to challenge me. I simply refused to participate (knowing this would get us nowhere) and resolved to treat them better than I ever have. Now, though they don’t share my outlook, they give me a respect they didn’t quite give me before. And I don’t really care if they ever see things as I do. As you said, the why and how are the most important. Recently we’ve been able to have some discussions about scripture and I always make it clear beforehand that if we find ourselves getting upset we either need to try and understand why or resume the discussion later after a cooling off time. This has worked well. No, we still don’t agree on everything. But I find that there is an unexpected fruitfulness that is more satisfying than a thousand theological debates. And this has happened without me trying to change them or (now) them me.
I have several of Lesslie Newbigin’s books and I understand why you like him.
I, for one, appreciate the courage you’ve shown in changing your mind on these issues. As you say, that kind of openness to new or different perspectives can be hard to find in conservative evangelical circles at times. Blessings on you bro’.
Your process of “changing your mind” has taught me a tremendous lesson about humility and courage. First of all, acknowleging that you changed your mind was a simple admission of your humaness, as only God never has to change His mind. Secondly, to admit it openly as you did showed tremendous courage that stems from TRUE FAITH in God and His purposes. Seeing what this has cost you, it would have been easier to deny or run from this reality, but you chose to trust Christ and move forward into what He was and is teaching you. This is why I have so much respect for you as a true leader and example in the Body of Christ! For those who want to call your post “self-serving slander”, all I can say is that they are still “clueless” and just don’t get it! Your example not only helped me open my mind and heart to many truths about the Roman Catholic Church, but also has helped me guard against a new form of Catholic “know-it-all’ism”. When I was an Evangelical Protestant, I would study the various theological systems and then walk away confused as to how so many good men of God could reach so many different conclusions and yet be so sure that their’s was the “right one” (read TRUTH). Being able to accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and remain open to mystery and accept my human limitations has given me tremendous freedom to grow in my own faith as a Christian without thinking that I have to “be right” about everything and always trying to prove another brother or sister wrong. I’m no longer so threatened by our disagreements, since I now understand that only our Holy Triune God truly has and knows all of the answers, even to questions we don’t know how to ask.
Thanks again for sharing with us not just what is in your head, but what is in your heart as well!
What’s the line?
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?
This sort of rationalization isn’t rationalization at all. It is not an open, rational process of both inductive and deductive logic that is open to evidence derived from sense experience. It is a blind adherence to an industrial era belief system that is entirely circular and mechanical.
The real problem with this approach to the faith is a detachment from the real world. It is screened / filtered through this rationalized lens, which permits the person to only see what it chooses to see. This approach is not limited to the Christians you describe. I see it in non-religious settings as well. It is hugely self-limiting, and essentially a form of self-deception.
Now, the good news is that most people are not so intellectual to choose to live this way. They actually are emotionally engaged with the world around them, so that they are not so much changing their minds, as being open to changing how they live moment to moment.
Thank goodness that most of us don’t live up to the absolute nature of what one of my profs called “the hardening of the categories.”
Great post! Thank you for your openness.
Thanks John for standing up for “growing in” truth. For some Truth is static, yet God is ever creating and ever moving… I choose the living God over the static God.
One of the first Christian pastors who actually opposed Modernism and all that it stood for with all his might was Pius X. (He was also the last pope that was canonised a saint in the past 550 years.) He believed that, “The most brutal results of Modernism would therefore be a slippery slope into deism, agnosticism and/or atheism. The interesting thing is, he was right! In fact, these are some of the biggest problems that the church faces today.
By the way, I always thought that the ability to change one’s mind was always a sign of a teachable heart.