One of the things I wonder about is the tension between having opinions and having humility.

Intellectual humility would surely involve openness to being wrong. Part of the brilliance of the scientific method is that ideas are constantly tested against reality. Results of controlled testing are published, so others are able to design new tests to see whether a hypothesis is supported or not.

Other areas of academic endeavour, such as philosophy, mathematics, theology, history, and the arts, also involve the discipline of publishing research for scrutiny. The business of publishing academic work opens one up for critique: your ideas might be rejected as other opinions compete for validity.  There is a vulnerability about the best academic endeavour.

I must confess there are many areas where I have formed strong opinions. For example, I have judged Complementarian theology to be very poor theology indeed, based on dreadful hermeneutics, forcing those who adopt it to accept ludicrous scenarios. (See my last post). Young Earth Creation Science, in my not-so-humble opinion, is based on awful theology and awful science. And I think those who reject the idea of a human contribution to global warming have adopted an indefensible opinion for anyone who cares to look at the data carefully. I could go on.

One of the strange things I discover, however, is that there are some very intelligent people in the world who hold quite different opinions to me. How is it that such people adopt borderline heretical views on the Trinity to bolster the idea that women cannot speak or lead in church settings? How can clever people accept that the universe is only six thousand years old, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, and the fact that even the Creation accounts of Genesis one and two are contradictory? (e.g. plants are created on day 3 in Genesis 1, but there are no plants on the earth when Adam is created in Genesis 2... that should be one interpretative clue!) And in what universe did the idea form that scientists are twisting data about climate because they make more money that way? (but one of the many crack-pot climate change denying conspiracies that circulate on the web... I really should make a list).

So how do some clearly intelligent people form such strange (to me) views?

It's not hard to see why, if you start thinking about it. People keep "feeding" ideas they have a preference toward. They might have an initial bias toward disliking women in authority (possibly at a totally unconscious level, originating from the primal experience of having their mothers having so much power over them as young children). A verse about women being silent in churches is therefore deeply appealing (much more so than a verse about greeting brothers with a kiss, depending on your gender, sexual orientation, and culture... yes, the bible is a complex book). A book is then selected from the bookshop that outlines Complementarian theology... and it is so convincing! Contrary views are represented, or misrepresented, and demolished by said book. Further reading of Complementarian writers means the initial bias becomes a "rusted on" opinion.

This "feeding" process can occur among "Creation Scientists" also... a view around the authority of Scripture is interpreted (by Western eyes) as meaning biblical passages must be read literally, unless  it is glaringly impossible to do so. A Creation Science speaker is heard, then a Creation Science magazine is read, and more and more "evidence" that the universe is young is presented. More Creation Science books and magazines are read, and the evidence becomes overwhelming. An ancient universe is just a conspiracy by blind, biased, atheistic scientists unable to see the true facts!!!!! And those biblical scholars with expertise in ancient near east language, literature, and culture, who encourage us to read the Genesis accounts as a mine of theological riches into the nature of God and mankind, are dismissed as wishy-washy liberals who "don't believe the bible".

The climate change denier who doesn't want to change their lifestyle (who does?) begins to read "denier" sites and material... it is so appealing! The more this material is read, the more convincing it becomes!

In all these cases and more, often an emotional bias precedes the intellectual opinion... we accumulate evidence to support the opinions we WANT to have, that make us feel more comfortable about the world and our place in it.

It is easy to parody this... but of course, I do exactly the same thing. Confirming one's initial prejudices is a reassuring activity. Most of us only discard our opinions when these become uncomfortable (because we've changed our social setting, or because the consequence of another opinion is inconveniencing us in some way). It is such a normal human thing to want to be right, to be accepted, to be assured the world is really how we believe it to be. Changing our views is painful, and most of us avoid pain.

So how, I wonder, do I maintain at least a smidgeon of intellectual humility?

I think one important step is to acknowledge that I am a bundle of prejudices, and that I need to keep open to the ideas of others.

Of course, there are two opposite poles on which one might be "shipwrecked"... being locked into a desired opinion with a totally closed mind, or being open to any lame idea from any source. In order to keep growing as a thinking person, the safest course to steer is to keep open to reputable ideas and research. Most of the art of navigating the age of Google is the capacity to distinguish between reputable sources (think published research, universities, and Western government research bodies) and suspect ones (a lot of material on the internet!), and to look for reputable voices of critique on most claims. Having read widely, we need to learn to be willing to change our minds.

Beyond intellectual humility... and far more important than this... is personal humility. One of the things that makes me cringe about many forums on the internet is the personal disrespect dished out on others. Cyber abuse and cyber bullying is rife; as are more subtle forms of expressing superiority. ("Any reasonable person would accept...") I may have crossed the line at times myself when encountering an objectionable opinion, or an opinion expressed in an objectionable way.

Respect for the dignity of others... even those others whose opinions differ wildly from my own... is not negotiable in my view. The essence of humility, I think, is not so much about ideas at all, but about love. In love, I will attempt to see another person's point of view. In love, I may challenge that point of view, but not mock it or treat that person with anything less than kindness. In love, I will regard the other person's feelings and personhood as more important than my need to be seen as right.

Being loving is more important than being right. I think this just might be the essence of humility.


Lucy J said…
Thanks, Janet! Sad to say, but sometimes we experience the least gracious and most arrogant treatment from our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ... not for lack of intelligence or gifting, but because of the misuse of those attributes.

Interestingly enough, at times, I have experienced true respect and good will amongst people of different (and perhaps "competing") faiths in situations where high intelligence combined with sincere humility to create an atmosphere of mutual appreciation, despite obvious diversity.
Janet Woodlock said…
It is an interesting phenomenon Lucy... a response in part (I think) to a theology where thinking the "correct" things about God is seen as all-important, but loving God and your neighbour, and being like Jesus (while part of the rhetoric one should affirm) are not real, living priorities. And you're right... if that's your view of what is important, you will defend your "correct views" with passion. It leads to strainig out the gnat of perceived doctrinal weakness, and swallowing the camel of arrogance, pride, lack of grace. Thinking oneself intellectually superior, thinking oneself "right", are very gratifying things to the unhealthy part of our egos.

Is it so hard to be kind? Well, it can be, if the self-justifying, unhealthy part of our egos has to die. But when the unhealthy part of our egos is allowed to die (or at least wither) we are much freer and more content for it. And a lot more bearable to live with. :-)

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