The virtues of unbelieving


If one is ignorant, or just flat wrong about something, there is no virtue in having a firm conviction. Maturity requires on ongoing rethinking of what is worthy of our affirmation and commitment.
Now there is a difference in the politically expedient “waffling” on social issues (well displayed during this political season) and the genuine recognition of new light on a subject of politics, faith or otherwise.
In an editorial in the Macon Telegraph a few years ago, my friend Ed Corson, longtime journalist, teacher and Baptist layman, made this good observation: “Changing one’s mind is not bad in itself … Refusing to learn from experience is the opposite of wisdom and of practicality.”
In the important realm of faith, our unlearning is an important part of spiritual growth.
One of my seminary professors (wish I could remember which one) use to say something like: “Hold on to what you have until you find something better to replace it with.”
I took that to mean that we do not wipe the slate of faith clean and start over. But, on the other hand, we do not fear re-examinations of and even replacements for what we claim to believe.
Therefore, we should have our lists of things we no longer believe as well as our confessions of faith. Here are a few from my unbelief list:
1. I don’t believe fear produces a genuine, mature response to faith.
2. I don’t believe any one Christian or Christian group possesses as much truth as they likely think.
3. I don’t believe the Church can fulfill its rightful mission when so much of its energy and resources are spent internally.
4. I don’t believe God is as hard on us as a lot of preachers tell us.
That’s good for starters. God help our unbelief; it benefits our belief.

7 Comments

  1. John,
    Thanks for your insights. One of my seminary professors, Christopher Morse, points out that at the beginning of the Christian movement, it was not what the early church believed that got them into trouble, but what they refused to believe. Caesar is not Lord! He went on to spend an great deal of time reflecting on faithful Christian disbelief, asking the question, what is it that we a followers of Christ refuse to believe? His book, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief is the result of his exploration, and a profound contribution to Christian theology. With so many winds of thought that tend to sweep us up, perhaps we should, as you and Morse suggest, spend more time there. I think in the long run we may find more agreement across ideological lines in our disbeliefs than we might in what we believe. Thanks.

  2. So-called mature adults generally are not comfortable having to “unlearn” in order to learn more correctly. We (hey, I’m a mature adult 🙂 ) prefer modifying a little on top of everything we already know/believe. Unfortunately, when there is a foundational flaw of some sort, we have to correct at the foundational level. The issue is that in order to be as solid and efficient as we can be we do have to re-balance from time to time. Re-balancing does involve unlearning. Good balance involves learning more correctly. The more ingrained something we “know” has become, the more difficult it is to “know differently.” At the extreme the process can involve jettisoning everything but your salvation experience.

    The process is not quite as scary when being applied to something like re-learning how to swim as it is when being applied to core beliefs.

    Oh, BTW, I think I may need a band-aid 🙂

  3. Scott- Good insight from Morse. I also like the idea of exploring common disbeliefs with those of differing doctrinal orientations.
    Gene-Indeed, not everyone is comfortable with rethinking of their “ingrained” belief system. There seem to be two primary (and faulty) reasons that prohibit such re-examination.
    One is the foolish assumption of having a perfectly developed doctrinal system that needs no tinkering and requires only that others sign on.
    The other is the fear that any tinkering might cause the whole belief system (like well-placed dominoes) to come tumbling down.
    I would reject both as being either too arrogant or too fragile of a faith.
    Thanks for the good weekend discussion. To keep the faith doesn’t mean we can’t find new light along the way.

  4. Rejecting our erroneous ideas in favor of true ones is, indeed, a great virtue. It is what the Bible calls repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul put it this way,

    “Be not conformed to this word, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

    Rejecting the doctrines of God for the philosophies of men, however, is not enlightenment nor maturity. It is pure vanity. As Jesus said,

    “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

    Just think how those words of Jesus upset the apple cart of liberalism, which is based on human philosophy, educational elitism, and unbridled capitulation to the whims and fancies of the depraved human heart.

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  5. Mark’s conclusion that

    “those words of Jesus upset the apple cart of liberalism, which is based on human philosophy, educational elitism, and unbridled capitulation to the whims and fancies of the depraved human heart.”

    strike me as a bit ironic. Jesus’ words here, indeed his prophetic preaching in general, was aimed not at the so called “liberals” of his day, but at those who sought to “conserve” the religious, social and political status quo. Jesus was accused of being a law breaker, one who ate with the offenders of social norms, and one who threatened the theological “orthodoxy” and practices of his day and time. I am sure there were those who watched his every move, fearful that his new found emphasis on God’s love for ALL humanity was simply the first step onto the slippery slope of some humanistic philosophy. The truth is that Jesus lived and died on the slippery slope, and his own life/death/resurrection demonstrates that internal religious self-righteousness has always been a greater threat to the gospel than any form of “educational elitism or humanistic philosophy”.

  6. I never would be the one to sabotage a good discussion but I got to tell you what is making a believer out of me today; and that is the talk of Genesis and what not at such a secular haven at http://www.tnr.com though Baptist Bred Michelle Cottle is a regular there.
    Film review there is hot blog today, Dec, 3 about No Country for Old Men, the Movie.
    See it on the Best Screen you can cause the viewing deserves your best. Rave would be about as good as it gets.
    Check my blog
    As for other aspects of when we need help with some form of Unbelief, you can’t do much better than Fleming Rutledge’s collection of same title.
    Scott: Read Em; great sermons.

  7. I remember hearing a preacher (not Southern Baptist, by the way) talk about the “negotiables” and the “non-negotiables” when it came to what new members should consider before joining the church. Interestingly enough, my list of non-negotiables is much shorter than my list of things that has changed with time. I take issue with the notion that I should disconnect with the brain God gave me to swallow any denomination’s doctrine in its entirety. As a relative newcomer to the Southern Baptist denomination (although not a new Christian), the first clause of this sentence reflects an evolution (uh-oh, politically incorrect) of thought and understanding.

    I don’t believe the growth or changes in my beliefs make me any more or less of value to the Kingdom.

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