On a recent trip to New Hampshire, a wall of bumper stickers (masquerading as the back of a van) caught my eye. Some of them announced that religion was only for those who fear hell. Realize the flames are fake, they told us, and you’ll see religion is as well.
Mixed in with these were stickers demanding open-mindedness.
Turning to my wife (we were on our honeymoon), I complained about the self-contradictory message. How can you reconcile an open mind with a judgment against all religion? I count on Ruth to let me know when I’m missing something, but she seemed to agree. There was something wrong.
The Problem of Mind
Christians are often confronted by people who claim to be one of us, but seem like enemies instead. It’s not easy to love when we feel threatened. But we are not alone, judging from the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shiites, Sunnis and Wahhabis all see themselves as Muslims. But each group is afraid of the others. And since the American government made its military presence felt in those countries, its ties to Israel bring all three Abrahamic Faiths into even greater tension. The pressure each religion feels from the others lends urgency to its own internal divisions. The believer’s temptation to end mental battles by fleeing faith, or blindly defending her particular sect, has grown.
The problem, for Christians at least, is nothing new. Even though Jesus asked the Father that His followers be one (John 17:11), Paul had to reprimand the Corinthians for splitting into factions. They were following the separate minds of Paul, Apollos and Peter, when they should have had “the same mind” (Philippians 4:2, TNIV)—the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 2:16; Philippians 2:5).
Outside the Church, divisiveness is also blamed on a problem of “mind.” Here, however, faction and fear are said to be due to closed-mindedness. The imperative is to be open-minded. What is the Christian to do, then? We cannot ignore the world, nor can we dissolve the Body. Can we be single-minded in Christ while still being open-minded? The bumper stickers said no.
But who said they had the right answer?
Two Views of Open-Mindedness
There are, I realized, two completely different understandings of what it means to be open-minded. Even here there is division. One group thinks open-mindedness is changing what you think every time a scientist says something new. The other group thinks it is being willing to listen to different perspectives.
The “change what you think” group are modernists. They believe that science is always improving, so what we think now always becomes “what we used to think.” Being open-minded means accepting this.
The “different perspectives” group are post-modernists. They believe that everything in life can be seen from different angles. Every person has a certain way of looking at things. Being open-minded means conversing with people who think differently.
The bumper stickers must have been talking about modernist open-mindedness. They were too biting for post-modernism. Science, in their view, had disproved religion. Being open-minded meant accepting that fact.
Which to Choose?
In contrast to the modernist van, a post-modernist would have used bumper stickers that read: “Believe in hell? Interesting. My friend Jenny doesn’t believe in hell. Wouldn’t it be fun for the three of us to have tea and chat about hell sometime?”
Does this mean that the Christian’s only choice is to be open-minded in the post-modern way? At least they want to have tea with us, instead of just telling us we’re wrong. And, I thought to myself, people like Brian McLaren and Crystal Downing have been writing books recently about how Christianity and post-modernism work so well together. Maybe there’s hope for us.
But what are we to say to the modernist? What would it prove to choose the post-modernists just because they listen to us? Are we too weak for a real debate? And it isn’t as if the modernists haven’t heard what the post-modernists have to say. On the contrary, the two sides are constantly arguing.
The modernist calls the post-modernist a relativist. “You don’t care about truth,” he says. “You think everyone’s point of view is equally valid.” The post-modernist responds that modernism is skepticism. “You don’t believe we can be sure of anything,” she says, “because you think science may one day prove us wrong.” After all, so much of what scientists used to think has now been rejected as false.
We Christians are stuck in the middle. Being modernist means enduring constant criticism. But we can’t just throw in our lot with post-modernism. What if it really is only a new name for relativism? We’d have to believe that what we believe is no better than what anyone else believes.
And that would mean we don’t really believe what we believe, since other people believe we’re wrong.
Is it possible to be both open-minded and have the mind of Christ?
A Better Way
As a teacher of philosophy and a thinking Christian, I have struggled with the choice between modernism and post-modernism. Instead of finally choosing one or the other, however, I live with a philosophy in between. On the open-mindedness question, I find it to be superior to both.
This middle philosophy is called phenomenology. To be open-minded, it claims, is to believe that the more angles from which you see something, the better you will understand it. It does not assume, however, that you can see a thing equally well from each angle. Some views are clearer and fuller than others.
From studying phenomenology, I learned that even incomplete or distorting ways of seeing a thing may tell us something about it. If a thing tastes sweet to one person, and sour to another, we know at least that it is probably some kind of food.
True open-mindedness, I discovered, is neither passive nor anti-Christian. It is the practice of getting outside your head—so as to get inside the heads of others, so as to understand the world better. And for the Christian it means trying to have the mind of Christ. After all, He has the clearest, fullest view of all.