On Being Teachable

Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest[1]

William James wrote of those whose desire is “a closed and completed system of truth.”[2] That is an apt description of a very conservative mindset, which, when reinforced by a rigid political-religiophilosophical worldview, produces the intolerance and closemindedness of the fundamentalist. 

After I came to faith, I was influenced by a woodenly literalistic way of reading scripture. As a result, in college and beyond, I simply dismissed ideas that challenged my preconceived opinions. Without any evidence, with almost no thought, I rejected many truths simply because they didn’t fit with my forgone conclusions. 

A woman visiting Ken Ham’s pseudoscientific young earth “Creation Museum” in Kentucky was overheard joyfully exclaiming, “This explains everything!”[3] That, despite the fact that the entire exhibit is based on misinformation.[4]

I couldn’t help but overhear the conspiracy promoting proprietor of a shop selling ultra-right-wing swag loudly bellowing, “You can’t educate stupid!” He had much volume in lieu of facts.

At a recent rally, Donald Trump again proclaimed, “The election was stolen. Everybody knows it.” That, in spite of the fact that it very clearly was not.[5]

Why do we like definitive answers? Why do we cling to lies in the face of facts?

There is something very American about being attracted to an extremely self-confident, narcissistic, charismatic person who appears to have all the answers. 

We like things tidy, neatly wrapped up and settled. Authoritative answers are attractive. They bring us a sense of security and reinforce a feeling of rightness, which then helps us feel superior. Many white[6]evangelical[7] Christians, especially those with large and popular platforms, project an air of all-knowing. Those same Christians are quite often supporters of extreme right-wing politics and of amoral, unethical politicians.[8]

Historian and author Jemar Tisby outlines examples of the way the white evangelical world gives answers to every question. He writes:

On every issue, they had a “biblical” stance. 

Question: How old is the earth?

Answer: Six-thousand years old, clearly. 

Question: How should a household function?

Answer: The husband/father works outside of the home to provide money and resources for the family. The wife/mother stays home, raises the children, and supports the husband/father. All other arrangements are less desirable and probably the result of a lack of obedience or outright sin.

Question: What should we think about racism?

Answer: Hating any person because of their skin color is wrong. Thank God we have moved past that. Now people of any race or ethnicity have the same opportunities if they just work hard enough. People who still talk about racism make overblown claims, blame all white people for their problems, and some are trying to get rich off of a grift.

Question: What do we think about public education?

Answer: The government is godless, and so are their schools. Our children will be introduced to sinful ideas and reject the God of the Bible if they attend public schools. We either need to start private schools (preferably with public funding) where we can control the curriculum or we need to take over public education at all levels so we can bring the schools in line with a “Christian worldview.” 

Question: How should Christians vote?

Answer: Christians should only vote for “pro-life” candidates because the most important social issue of our day is repealing the laws that permit abortion and eliminating the practice altogether. We should also elect candidates who will appoint judges who believe the same. While other issues may be important, when you cast your vote, this single matter trumps all others. 

Question: What is the best economic system?

Answer: Capitalism is the best economic system. It is the only one based purely on merit, and it leads to the most wealth for everyone. Other systems, like socialism, steal wealth from hard-working people and give it out to lazy, undeserving poor people. They just need to work harder. And let’s lower taxes on the richest people because they are the ones who create jobs for the rest of us, and the government should just get out of their way. 

Whatever the question–whether it concerns politics, law, economics, relationships, science, the Bible, or whatever–white evangelicals have been discipled to always have a ready response that requires no further questions. 

The only areas where white evangelicals consistently demonstrated a willingness to concede to divine mystery is when trying to explain precisely why they could be so sure about so many things. 

All you need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit. A background in ancient Hebrew and Greek is a bonus. But it also helps to be a man, white, middle class or wealthy, English-speaking, U.S.-born, politically conservative, etc., etc.[9]

Imagining we have definitive answers to every question lacks humility. 

Humility admits we have a lot to learn. Humility knows it can learn from every other person and situation. Humility listens to those who are different – different cultures, different ethnicities, different beliefs, different worldviews. Humility is teachable. Humility welcomes honest doubt. 

The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is pharisaical certitude. Only small-minded people refuse to rethink their opinions. As Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”[10]  Foolish consistency includes stubbornly clinging to conclusions in the light of new factual evidence. 

The key is to be open and curious. All good journalists and scientists try their best to set aside biases and preconceived ideas and listen, explore, question, learn. When I worked in child protective services, I was taught to always believe the victim. While most often the victim is truthful, a better approach is to always listen open-mindedly to the victim. It is at least possible that the victim may be misremembering, or was manipulated into falsehoods. Listening with an open mind is central – listening to others, especially others of differing opinions and backgrounds, listening to authors, listening to scripture, listening to God.

Moral clarity is often dubious. Human behavior is nearly always a complex interaction of genetic, psychological, neurological, familial, environmental, and societal influences. Condemning or passing judgment on others is a job best left to divine omniscience. 

There are, however, some things that are indisputably morally wrong[11] – genocide, slavery, torture, racism. We can and should take stands against clear injustices. Protecting the displaced from xenophobia, speaking out against racism, homophobia, the devaluation of human life, environmental destruction, war, poverty, and capital punishment are, for me, among the moral imperatives of being a follower of Jesus. Condemning and judging I leave to God. 

While I am clear on some issues, I recognize that the life falls on a spectrum, and that my knowledge of virtually everything is incomplete. I once was quite certain of all my theology. I had a flat Bible in which every verse carried equal weight. One day it occurred to me that I was trumping the words of Jesus with those of Moses. I was once convinced of young earth creationism until I learned more biology and began listening to devout Christian evolutionary theists. I thought I knew what was wrong with society until I met, befriended, read, and listened to the voices of African Americans, women, Natives, and people of diverse cultures. 

I was so much older then

I’m younger than that now.[12]

God help us to be teachable.

[1] The Boxer, Song & lyrics by Paul Simon. The Boxer lyrics © Paul Simon Music, Sony/atv Songs Llc, Warner/chappell Music Ltd

[2] William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy/What Psychical Research Has Accomplished

[3] https://biologos.org/articles/my-trip-to-the-creation-museum Accessed 28 Sept. 2022.

[4] My primary objection to young earth creationism, beyond the fact that it is bogus science, is that it is so easily dismissed that promoting it has led to the rejection of Christianity by many a first-year science student. Promoting falsehood undermines Christian witness. Young earth creationism is a cousin to belief in a flat earth. For some of the science, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bhzuitLM5w and https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10493575

[5] The popular vote in 2020: 81,283,098 votes for Biden; 74,222,958 for Trump. Electoral College: 306 to 232.

[6] I despise the reference to “white.” There is no such thing as a “white race.” That is a construct of modernism invented by light skinned people of European decent to justify chattel slavery. There is only one race: human.

[7] “Evangelical” is the name given to a chiefly American movement that arose in reaction against the legalistic fundamentalism of the kind mocked by the Scopes Trial. Fundamentalism itself was a reaction against the rise of higher criticism imported to North American seminaries from Germany in the late 19th century. Evangelicals in America are a wide spectrum of Christians, and can be divided into several subgroups, e.g., politically conservative “white” Christian nationalists, and people of any skin tone who seek to take the Bible seriously and try to follow the teachings of Jesus. The former definition has overtaken the latter to the extent that many of those in the second category don’t use the term “evangelical” any longer.

[8] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/june-web-only/whos-who-of-trumps-tremendous-faith-advisors.html

[9] https://jemartisby.substack.com/p/the-people-who-dont-have-any-questions?r=dfab0&s=w&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&fbclid=IwAR2Fgwo7XCYttWSdU6DHABGAfaon0zX2aPiTjlaBv4GU8ROEVogHPxg4fQcAccessed 28 Sept. 2022. 

[10] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

[11] Some things are indisputably morally wrong to those who hold to the universe having a moral center. If all is meaningless, if life has no telos, and humanity no purpose, then there would appear to be no rational philosophical basis to forbid slavery, genocide, or anything else. What is defined as wrong becomes a decision about what is utilitarian, good for society. But who is to decide that, and on what basis? From whence comes a moral code?

[12] Bob Dylan, My Back Pages My Back Pages lyrics © Special Rider Music, Universal Tunes

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on November 4, 2022, in Justice, Kingdom Life, Life Coaching, social justice, Spiritual Direction, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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