Despite the dazzling variety which makes up the universal Christian mosaic, it is my belief that all Christians can be described as either conservative or free thinking. To create a simple dichotomy I would posit the former is closed minded and the later is open minded. People of course do not fall easily into stringent intellectual boxes. In reality people will merge between the two categories or may by conservative in some regards and free thinking in others. Be that as it may, there is still some gain to be made in investigating the two camps, crude though they may be.
So what makes a person conservative or free thinking? I think it is important to establish immediately that it is not related to any certain belief. You can easily find two Christians who believe virtually the exact same thing and yet one is closed minded and the other open. The difference between theological conservatism and free thinking has everything to do with the reaction to contrary or heterodox beliefs rather than the maintaining of accepted beliefs. Hence, this analysis could quite comfortably be extended to closed and open minded people in general, however, for the purpose of this article we will narrow our eyes to the Christian prism.
It can be psychologically distressing for a person to encounter a person who fundamentally rejects an idea or ideas which you hold to be obviously true. Historically the Christian Church has something of a disastrous record stemming from its conservative tendency. The discoveries of Galileo are a case in point. Rather than being thrilled by the prospect of new knowledge, there was a knee-jerk reaction to muzzle and reject Galileo because his discoveries in astronomy contradicted certain dogma which had built up.
Although there were of course political reasons also, the crusades and the treatment of Jews by the medieval Church are also indicative of conservative Christianity. The conservative mind by nature is terrified by ideas contrary to the ones held to be true. Hence, the conservative Christian is visibly uncomfortable in the presence of Jews, Muslims and people of other or no faith. The physical violence and other persecution inflicted upon minority religions by the medieval church reveals a zealousness, not to promote or protect Christianity per se, but rather to snuff out any rival voice.
Why do conservative Christians act thus and so? Increasingly modern psychology is agreeing that the dogmatic insistence that a person’s beliefs are completely correct is not a manifestation of faith but rather of doubt. It is more or less accepted by the psychological community that when humans have a trauma which the conscious mind does not want to deal with it is pushed into the unconscious mind. When applied to conservative Christianity, the evidence appears to suggest that closed minded behaviour is a psychological mask for deep rooted insecurities. People who find it too terrible to contemplate that perhaps part or all of Christianity is wrong, comfort themselves by insisting all the more loudly that it is absolutely right and blocking voices which disagree.
So perhaps the difference between the conservative and the free thinking Christian is the ability to admit their doubts. The free thinking Christian brings their doubt from the unconscious to the conscious mind and is therefore able to deal with it rationally. As a result you get the thoughts of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal and his famous wager. A Christian free thinker is open to the idea that there may be truth to be found in other religions and there may be untruth in our own. Consequently a critical evaluation is always in play with Christian free thinkers. It is no small irony that conservative Christians will accept the fundamental shift in ideas brought about by Saint Augustine, Saint Julian of Norwich, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther or the Second Vatican Council but will reject the catalyst for all innovation and progress in Christian thought; open minded, freethinking.
It is tempting at this point to introduce a few specific topics where I think conservative Christians really need to check whether their conviction is based on reason and truth or merely dogma and tradition but I feel that may dilute what I wanted to be a simple observation about two types of Christian.
I will content myself with saying this; we are imperfect creatures with imperfect minds and we are incapable of possessing absolute truth. We are mere travellers on this planet who can from time to time glimpse perfect beauty and truth but can never be the master of it. We all have doubt. Whether we push it into our unconscious or can admit it will make us closed or open minded. We should not be ashamed of our doubt. It is part of our human condition. It does not make our faith or the truth we hold to any less real. Doubt is not a fear of commitment or the trait of a weak Christian, it is the acknowledgment of the full complexity of the Christian worldview. Free thinking Christianity is a humble admission that we may not have all the answers. The father of the sick child in Mark 9:24 put it well when with tears in his eyes he said, ‘I believe; help thou mine unbelief’.