Recently a friend sent me a link to an episode of John Lienhard’s radio program “Engines of Our Ingenuity” on which he addressed the topic of decisiveness. While Lienhard is an engineer, his thoughts struck me as pertinent to the realms of faith and religion.
He began by reviewing an experiment that showed that once we have decided how something is (whether that is a concept, a thing, or how something works), we react to contrary information in one of two ways. Some of us will change our minds to acknowledge what is new. Others of us, however, will dig our heels in and cling fiercely to our initial understanding. No matter how many times we are exposed to that which contradicts what we have already decided is so, we will not budge. Because we are decisive, we will live with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance created by our refusal to change.
In a world with innumerable choices about so many things, decisiveness seems like it would be a good thing. Without the ability to cease considering our options we could become interminably bogged down in a never-ending process of weighing and sorting. Being open to new ideas and new discoveries, however, is what positions us for expanded knowledge, deeper understanding, a more thorough and authentic engagement with the world. That’s obviously true for engineering, for research, for science of all kinds, but is it true in the realm of religion? Should it be?
For many folks who claim Christianity, they know that what they have been taught is the only (and true) way to understand the Faith. They resist engaging with anything that might draw them to question (God forbid) the Bible as Mrs. Jones spoon-fed it to them in Sunday School when they were children. Questions lead only to a loss of faith, or worse yet, heresy.
But that is not how it is with all Christians. Some of us recognize that there is not just one faithful way to understand Jesus. History (and the Bible itself) tells us that since Jesus’ earliest followers gathered in small communities there have been questions about him and different answers to those questions. In the same way scientific understanding has developed, so has theological understanding. New information is discovered. It is tested for authenticity. It is either discarded or embraced. And for a time, it is how we understand things. Then the process begins all over. In our day, these new understandings have come from archaeology, the study of linguistics, comparative religion, history and anthropology.
Christianity has never been a single entity. There have always been faithful Christians spread along a wide continuum of understanding. What has defined where they are on that spectrum has been, one might say, how open to indecision they have been. Those who were locked into a decisive embrace of the Bible as the literal word of God have been at one end. Those who have not reached for certainty in their engagement with Biblical scripture have been at the other end.
Today is no different. No matter where Christians are on that spectrum, though, they all are gathered around the person of Jesus. What that means for them depends on how decisive they feel the need to be. Lienhard says, “The fact is, we never need to make decisions. What we need to do is to take action.”
With all due respect to our sisters and brothers for whom “making a decision for Christ” is fundamental to their Christian identity, in a pluralistic world where enmity is so often driven by entrenched religiosity, I will take my stand with the undecided and will be about the active work of living, as best I can, like Jesus.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or [email protected].