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Intellectual Humility

Growing up in a strict Fundamentalist world, there were many things I was convinced of in my childhood: That God existed. That I – my church – knew exactly what God was like and what he wanted. That rock music (meaning music with drums of any kind) was evil and from the devil. That it was wrong for women to cut their hair or wear jeans or teach in church. That all Catholics were going to hell. And for that matter, so too probably were Presbyterians, Methodists, those liberal Southern Baptists, and any other group that didn’t look, sound, witness, and smell exactly like us. That it was wrong for guys to wear shorts. That a sure sign of being backslidden was drinking, smoking, going to movies, or having any friends who do. That any reading of the Scriptures that didn’t start from a strict dispensational viewpoint was probably heresy. And the list could go on for pages.

It is sometimes difficult for me to reconcile the surety with which I held those beliefs with the convictions I have today. But I can trace the beginnings of the theological path I’m on now to two events that took place concurrently. The first was hearing a self-proclaimed “prophecy expert” speak during the Sunday evening service at the church I was in at the time. After giving his highly subjective viewpoint of what a passage of scripture meant – a viewpoint that had only been around for a hundred and fifty years, in point of fact – he said, “And if you don’t agree with everything I’ve said, it’s because you haven’t studied your Bible as much as I have.” At around the same time, I was reading a book on Revelation, Unveiled Hope, written by Michael Card and his friend and pastor, Scotty Smith. In the introduction, Scotty started out by explaining the four or five primary interpretations of the book of Revelations. He then said something like, “While I will, in the end, tell you what I think is the best way to interpret this book, the important thing to remember, before you start reading, is that Godly men throughout the ages – men who have followed the Lord with all their hearts, who have believed the Scriptures and sought to understand them – have come down on different sides of this issue.”

Two fundamentally different starting points. One characterized by pride and arrogance, and one by grace and an awareness of one’s own fallibility. The best articulation I’ve heard of the place I find myself now comes from N.T. Wright and a recent discussion he had with Anne Rice, author of Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Called Out of Darkness (reviewed here in the RR by Pete). It is a fascinating discussion on several levels, one well worth the time it takes to listen to, but what I found most helpful was Wright’s statement about humility.

“The one thing I want to add to that is humility. And humility includes intellectual humility. And it’s difficult, because within our rationalistic western world, people assume that if you say that, you’re a relativist. I’m certainly not a relativist. Jesus is the Lord, and I worship Him, and He is the center of my life. And that’s non-negotiable, actually. I know I could no more step outside that than I could step outside my own skin. But precisely because it is Jesus who is the Lord, it behooves me to say, as I used to say to my students when I was teaching in the university, “Listen, a third of what I’m telling you is badly flawed in some way. But I don’t know which one third it is.” So you need to live with those questions and puzzles.”

I hear in Wright’s words both permission to live with questions, to not think I have to figure out the “correct” answer to every theological question and make sure everyone falls in line behind me, and also a caution to extend grace to those who believe like I used to or who believe differently than I do now. Not an easy mindset to operate out of, to be sure, but one that is absolutely vital for the health of a community that seeks to demonstrate forgiveness and grace, a community that is, as one Teacher said, “known by their fruits.”

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