I have a question for you. It’s likely to push your buttons, but I’m going to ask you anyway.
In preparation, I’d like you to think about an idea you’re extremely passionate about. Maybe it’s a political belief, a theological position, or a social issue. Heck . . . it might even be your worldview. Okay, have it in mind?
Would you want to know if you were wrong? And what would it take to convince you that you were?
The Challenge of wrong thinking
When you consider all of the things you have opinions about, it’s statistically improbable (if not impossible) that you’re right about all of them. And by the very nature of being wrong, you wouldn’t know it if you were.
For nearly 2,000 years bloodletting was the best physicians had to offer when it came to curing many diseases. Not only was it based on a faulty understanding of illness and plasma, it made it even more difficult for people to get better.
During the Civil War, clergy across the United States found themselves taking theological stances on the issue of slavery’s abolition. Many minsters, like Presbyterian minister, Robert Dabney, taught their congregations that “every hope of the existence of church and state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage.”
In both cases, these opinions were perpetuated by the teaching of professionals and peers who were simply . . . wrong.
These mistaken ideas are so hard to combat because of what I’m going to call (for lack of the correct term) the Ignorance Spectrum:
WRONG IDEA ——————— IGNORANCE ——————- CORRECT UNDERSTANDING
Do you notice that ignorance is closer to the truth than error? Instructing an ignorant person is as simple as telling them what they don’t know. Instructing a person who’s mistaken means dismantling the error that’s a barrier to the truth. You have to get a wrong person to a place where they’re willing to admit they’re ignorant—no small task.
Our double standard in regards to truth
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’re a Christian. What would it take for you to admit that you’ve chosen the wrong religion or made a mistake choosing a religion at all?
I’ve asked a few of my friends this question and many of them have told me that it would never happen. Nothing could ever convince them that they’re wrong about Jesus. This surprised me and leads me down these paths:
- I’m a Christian because I’m convinced that it the story it tells me about humanity is true. I’m not afraid to give other viewpoints and ideas a sincere consideration because I have nothing to lose and the truth to gain. I don’t have to hold on to Christianity by an act of will and the shunning of opposing ideas and viewpoints. My picture of faith isn’t one of a child with their hands over their ears yelling, “LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
- If I’m not willing to consider the possibility that I’m wrong, how can I expect others to do the same? There are atheists, Hindus, and Muslims who are just as convinced that they’re right. How condescending is it to lay out your apologetic point knowing that you have no intention of entertaining someone’s counter-argument.
- You might be willing to ignore facts because your experience confirms the existence of a resurrected Christ, but you need to understand that there are people who believe strongly that their experience confirms the existence of anything from ghosts to aliens.
- You might be able to lay out the Bible verse that confirms your theological or ontological stance, but you still could be wrong. There are more than 40,000 Christian denominations out there. Are you telling me that you stumbled on the one that has all of these issues right? You’re in the one that has rightly divined all cultural, linguistic, and theological contexts?
I have a hard time swallowing the idea that it’s acceptable to expect the rest of the world to acclimate to our idea of the truth when we’ll readily admit that we would never do the same.
Hold on loosely
Obviously you can’t go through life without having any strong opinions or ideals. So how do we hold what we believe in tension with the knowledge that we could be mistaken?
It’s pretty simple actually. Do it charitably. Quit being condescending and dismissive of people who have come to a different opinion than you. There’s a chance they’ve landed on their position honestly—and you might even benefit from hearing them out.
And for God’s sake, be willing to be mistaken. There’s no shame in being wrong, unless you’re intentionally and willfully so.