When I was 7, I began to follow Jesus as a fundamentalist. More than 50 years later, I am more devoted to Jesus than ever, but it has been a long journey out of fundamentalism, and theological conservatism, to where I am today. My views have changed significantly from what I was first taught.
Now that I am free of a lot of the conservative theological baggage I carried, I am sometimes confronted by conservatives who challenge my ‘unbiblical’ thinking. Among them is a rock-solid theologically conservative friend of mine. He visits occasionally and always brings up some issue on which he knows we disagree; most recently he defended creationism against evolution.
I would rather not discuss these things because we have no dialogue—just arguments that ‘prove’ his views; but he never uses an argument I have not heard many times over. And he says that he KNOWS he is right; he has absolute certainty about his views.
This is not unusual. You might have experienced this yourself; theological conservatives are often ‘absolutely certain’ about what they believe, and they try to badger people with this condescending attitude of certainty. Sometimes they say, ‘I know that I know!’
But remember, just because they think they are certain doesn’t make it true. I think they are quite mistaken on many issues because their entire worldview is based on inadequate, and improvable, presuppositions; a major presupposition is that the Bible comes directly from God and is inerrantly true and is clear to anyone who reads it correctly.
A related problem is harmonization. Religious doctrines don’t exist as isolated beliefs; they are usually part of a larger collection of doctrines based on a few key presuppositions. Many times such collections of doctrines are developed into a huge complex of interacting beliefs called systematic theology.
Systematic theology attempts to collect and harmonize the entire Bible around key presupposition, without regard to the multiple voices of the Bible. Many religious conservatives are quite fond of systematic theology.
The result can be seem quite impressive, but if one important part of the system is shown to be weak, especially a presupposition, the entire structure can come crashing down. With independent thinking and critical analysis these systems can prove to be unimpressive and not so ‘certain’ at all. But proponents continue to defend them with arguments that are totally unconvincing to those who don’t share the presuppositions.
In developing our beliefs we must think for ourselves and not buy into doctrinal systems based on someone else’s authority. I certainly never want anyone to adopt beliefs based on my authority. Think for yourself, and if what I say makes some sense to you then come to your own conclusions.
A convinced conservative can paint a scary picture, but think critically about what they say. Does it make sense? Are there problems with the argument? Is it consistent with the teaching and example of Jesus? Don’t accept a belief out of fear ‘Just in case it is true’.
Theological conservatives do NOT own the truth, no matter how confidently they think they do.
Most people don’t arrive at radically conservative religious beliefs through their own analysis and critical thinking; they inherit their beliefs intact from someone else—either by being raised with the beliefs or by being convinced by a conservative teacher. But once under the sway of such teaching, they are discouraged from entertaining any questions or doubts. Doubt is bad!
But other genuine believers have different conclusions about Jesus, the Bible, and truth; and these people are seen as dangerous because they might introduce doubt (thinking and questioning) into conservative believers with their ‘false doctrines’. And this cannot be allowed!
An important tool against doubt is apologetics, which has two functions: 1) to confront the ‘errors’ of those who think differently and 2) to convince those considering conservative doctrines. But there is also a third function; apologetics is meant to re-enforce conservatives who might be influenced by ‘false doctrines’ and begin to doubt, and it does so by providing ‘answers’ to every possible objection to the ‘truth’.
My blogger friend Josh Way states this very well:
Too many Christians rely on recycled apologetic talking points to avoid the hard and risky work of actually wrestling with issues and problems. And while the pretense of apologetic work has been to “win others to Christ,” the reality is that it exists primarily to reassure believers and inoculate them against questions and doubts.
Poor Practices Arising from Absolutely Certainty
Theological conservatives who are absolutely certain tend to follow certain poor practices.
- They often defend their views with hubris, arrogance, and condescension
- They often try to intimidate people with their absolute certainty
- They often make appeals to authoritarian proof-texts without proper context
- They often confuse their interpretation of a biblical text as the clear meaning of the text
- They often threaten eternal punishment in hell for those not accepting their views
- They often speak in the name of God
- They often dismiss objections by saying, ‘That’s liberal’, which is a pejorative term used to dismiss the objection, avoid answering questions, and to avoid dialog
Many conservatives are absolutely certain they know the truth about religious beliefs; I think they are mistaken. But if they don’t know the truth, then who does? I doubt anyone knows religious truths for certain, which is a horror to conservatives who are ‘absolutely certain’.
But those who think for themselves must become comfortable with a considerable amount of ambiguity. We will talk about that next time.