Doctrinal Humility

Here are two related observations.

1) People tend to form an idea, and then pour their convictions and certainty into supporting that idea.

2) A lot of our core beliefs are fueled or sustained by a need for comfort and security.

So let’s intersect these ideas with Christianity and doctrine.

It’s long intrigued me that many doctrinal positions are not universally held, even between groups that nonetheless consider other groups to still be Christian and generally doctrinally sound. Things like Arminianism versus predestination, complementarianism versus egalitarianism, pre-tribulation versus post-tribulation, or premillenial versus post-millenial versus a-millenial… the list goes on and on.

Intellectual Humility

In my line of work, we’re trained to be intellectually humble. As the John Templeton Foundation’s website defines it, “Intellectual humility is a mindset that guides our intellectual conduct. In particular, it involves recognizing and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth, and understanding.” Or as stated in a paper on Science Direct, “Intellectual humility has been identified as a character virtue that allows individuals to recognize their own potential fallibility when forming and revising attitudes. Intellectual humility is therefore essential for avoiding confirmation biases when reasoning about evidence and evaluating beliefs.

From an intellectual humility standpoint, therefore, I’ve long held a fundamental position: if there are multiple groups of very intelligent thinkers that differ on some doctrinal point even after years of disagreement, it’s probably foolish of me to assume that, as a layman who hasn’t spent his life studying that point of doctrine, I could possibly claim that my position was absolutely the right one. It’s also important to not even assume that any subject matter expert is perfectly correct either.

This obviously has some limitations – I wouldn’t assume that Islam is just as valid as Christianity simply because there are large groups on each side. I only choose to apply this principle within the orthodox Christian faith, which pretty thoroughly stakes a claim on the only way to be reconciled to God.

But that position nonetheless leaves an awful lot of room for a vast diversity of doctrinal positions within what I consider canonical or orthodox Christianity.

Which Came First?

So with that intellectual humility principle established, and therefore based on my own certainty that I cannot reasonably claim that my own view of some doctrinal point is absolutely the only right one, I begin to consider my observations at the beginning, which summarized say that people get locked into an idea that is likely fueled by a need for comfort and certainty.

In other words, there seems to be a tendency in humanity to pick a belief structure that provides us with some form of security, then to begin to assemble a more detailed pattern of doctrine around that belief structure.

Distilled down to its essence, one might call this a self-preservation confirmation bias in our belief systems.

Now, I know that we all point to the Holy Bible as the foundation for our doctrinal positions, and we can generally point to a lot of very specific Scriptures that under-gird those doctrines.

But how is it possible that two opposing camps on any one of those doctrinal issues point to different scriptures – and sometimes, to differing interpretations of the same scriptures – to prove the validity of their perspectives, thus being in complete opposition yet pointing to the same Bible and often the same verses as proof of their rightness?

Some Practical Examples

It’s been instructive this year to spend a lot of time reviewing our American history in the area of social justice and racism. I grew up understanding history from a certain perspective, and that perspective has been deeply challenged by a lot of new, but very demonstrably real, facts. One thing I learned is that there are many, many examples where various denominations selected a certain perspective on the world or on the Kingdom of Heaven, and then began to assemble a doctrinal position to support that perspective – rather than the other way around. And those positions morphed over time to adjust to culture, further demonstrating that they were not, at the core, scripturally founded.

For example, it’s fascinating (and more than a little depressing) to review the evolution of the Baptist denomination with regard to slavery and then eventually to emancipation, abolition, reconstruction, and ultimately ongoing racial struggles today, and reading the ever-shifting doctrinal statements adopted by pastors and committees and thinkers and leaders in the denomination. At various times through our history, that single denomination’s relationship with slavery shifted from opposition to ignoring to tolerating to full support to grudging rejection to full rejection. And each of those positions was preached from thousands of pulpits as gospel truth.

And that’s just one example of one denomination and one issue.

I’m absolutely NOT pointing fingers specifically at the Baptists, and certainly not at modern Baptists – each denomination shows a history of shifting positions on major doctrinal issues. For example, the Methodists and Presbyterians are wrestling today with gender and sexuality. The Catholics are wrestling with women in leadership. Still today the Southern Baptist Convention is wrestling with Critical Race Theory.

Conclusions Often Came Before Scriptural Support

But the point is pretty straightforward: these issues of doctrine are hardly fixed, and an honest and unvarnished assessment of history shows that each denomination has gone through cycles of staking out a position on some issue, then building support for it, then its people beginning to internalize that position without necessarily understanding the entire reason for that position, until eventually most members don’t really question the belief structure, and couldn’t necessarily articulate how it formed or what decisions were made or rejected in pursuit of that position.

And the kicker is this: it seems to me that those positions are often staked out based on some sense of self-interest that’s buried deep in history, and since today those positions come with a lot of scriptural buttressing, they can seem nearly inviolable to their adherents.

But when one (and I know this is a risky word to use here) deconstructs that doctrinal position, looking intently at every aspect of the position, one may find there’s less unambiguous scriptural support for it than it appeared. Put another way, if we approach an issue with intellectual humility, as I described above, and we willfully choose to be curious about that position instead of insisting that we are correct, we may be surprised to discover that it’s hardly settled within Christendom, and there are quite a few wise and intelligent people who have very good reasons for believing differently than us.

I should probably emphasize again that I have personal limits to how far I’ll go with this. The Holy Trinity, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and such foundational truths are not up for discussion – they’re pretty-well settled across orthodox Christianity.

But pretty much anything else should probably be held fairly loosely.

Ideas and Comfort

Returning to my original points…

Regarding number 1, “people tend to form an idea, and then pour their convictions and certainty into supporting that idea,” I was trained as an engineer and I think like a scientist. One of the fundamentals of science is the “scientific method” which starts with forming a hypothesis, then testing it, and essentially determining if it’s true or if it needs to be rejected or adjusted.

So logically, one might expect that I’d apply that process to my faith as well – take any given point of doctrine, and then test it either experientially or against scripture, and see if it needs to be adjusted. But looking back along my faith journey, I find that I never routinely did so. Which is probably because I was also a quick adopter of new concepts. I don’t typically need a ton of convincing to decide something is true, and once I’ve decided it, I typically don’t spend much time rethinking that decision. I just move on.

And perhaps that’s because of point number 2, “a lot of our core beliefs are driven or fueled by a need for comfort and security.” It’s uncomfortable to inquire with any curiosity about how accurate my core beliefs really are. I might find I was wrong and need to change my views. Which is messy and uncomfortable, so why risk it?

But here I am in 2022, a couple years into a journey of having all my fundamentals challenged.

Why Are Doctrines So Well-Supported

In that arena, I’m finding it useful to look at my various doctrinal positions, now with some deliberate curiosity, and trying to suss out what might be at the root of those positions. As I’ve described above, it’s not enough to know THAT they’re supported with plenty of scriptures. Even those opposing that position can claim the same. Rather, I find that I need to consider WHY they’re supported – what are the human desires that might lead to that position?

A good example is the doctrine of the Rapture. I never questioned it until recently, having long been taught to think it was absolutely going to be how Christianity’s time on earth will ultimately end. Lately, I’ve begun to understand why the Rapture is so appealing to Christians, and with a bit of historical understanding of the genesis of that doctrine, I begin to see it quite differently. At the core, I now find that it’s likely based on a fear of persecution and difficulty, a desire for escape from trouble, and an unwillingness to consider being refined through suffering. Stepping back from my certainty allowed me to consider this foundational doctrinal understanding, without being tied to the verses usually used to “prove” its truth. Looking at the human emotions behind the doctrine leads me to conclude there’s a lot of self-interest involved, and that makes me less inclined to slave myself to that position. In fact, realizing that it’s a rather self-serving, self-protecting position gives me even more reason to evaluate it very critically and carefully.

And as soon as I pull back from the Rapture as a necessity of scripture, I find a lot of “wiggle room” in understanding the other doctrines of the End Times.

This ties into my previous thoughts about cinderblocks and poking at our foundations. So part of my process of rebuilding my foundations now involves this intellectually-humble, spiritually-curious approach to understanding why I believe what I believe, and frees me to consider a fairly wide array of thinking, without fear of what I’ll find under-girding the various doctrinal positions.

If I can recognize that my existing position may not be as well-supported as I assumed, and I’m curious about where it came from, I’m much less likely to miss real truth in my search. And very importantly, I’m also much less likely to disparage others simply because we hold different doctrinal positions.

The Beautifully Diverse Body of Christ

When we lock ourselves into a nuanced doctrinal position, to the exclusion of opposing viewpoints, I think we do two things badly. One, we take away the chance to learn from others. Two, we reject at some level the idea that (according to Revelation 7:9) God is assembling for Himself a people of every nation, and tribe, and language, of overwhelming variety of thought and culture and habit. The vast majority of these fellow believers will come to the banquet table from totally different perspectives. We cannot reasonably believe that our interpretations of various finer points of doctrine, which are so deeply rooted in our cultural context, are the only right ones.

So it seems silly to assume that the diversity will only be in languages or skin colors. Rather, I firmly believe that the diversity will include cultures and doctrines, many of which might shock our Western viewpoints. How differently will a Christian from some remote desert tribe in sub-Saharan Africa view the gospel than me? How about an Greenlandic Inuit indigenous native who lives in the far cold North? What about an Polynesian Somoan Christian from a small island in the South Pacific? Or a Navaho believer who has found Jesus in his native American culture? It’s impossible to imagine their faith will look much like ours, coming from such different cultures. But we’ll all be centered around the Great Throne on that final day, a sea of countless and massively diverse humanity, all praising the one true God together.

So a deep sense of intellectual humility, then, seems vastly important to me if we wish to see any kind of unity of the Body of Christ develop among such diverse humans. Given that Jesus specifically told us that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets could be summed up in two commands – love God and love your neighbor – and given the Pauline doctrine in 1 Corinthians 8 of allowing for what we perceive as the weakness of others’ doctrines, it seems that the Kingdom must be swimming with grace for a fairly wide variety of specific beliefs. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously opined, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

So maybe, rather than seeking the truth with such passion, we ought to be staying doctrinally humble as we make our priority seeking The Truth Incarnate.

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