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’.

 

5 Comments

  1. emblazoned May 25, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Brilliant writing Benny, and a good backdrop to Christian Freethinkers.

    Whilst I think some close minded young Christians are not operating from deep insecurity (but rather ignorance) I’d say that evaluation is true for the older people..

     
  2. Ange May 26, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    I agree with emblazoned – ignorance, in my experience, has been a significant factor in the closed-mindedness of Christians I have encountered. Particularly the younger ones. But some older ones too, who just take anything that is taught in church, or popular Christian resource as gospel, and don’t question it, or research it.

    While I think that the idea of questioning is frowned upon, and that is why it doesn’t happen, I will concede that sometimes it doesn’t happen because of fear / doubt of what is below the surface. And you’re right – we should not be ashamed of our doubt. Sometimes we are made to be though. I can only speak for myself but I have lost friends and been made to feel an inch high when I have expressed doubt about something they have held to be true. That said, my experience has largely been that close-mindedness comes from ignorance as opposed to deep insecurity / doubt.

     
  3. benny May 26, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Dear Ange and Emblazoned,

    Thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to read this. With respect, I disagree that ignorance is the cause of closed mindedness in young Christians. Ignorance, I believe manifests itself in different ways. You may be highly knowledgeable on a topic and still closed minded.

    I maintain that a deep insecurity and a desperation to be right underpins the closed minded approach to Christianity and the aggressive rejection of alternative ideas. Even with young people I think this is true. A 19 year old is rather young in the scheme of things, yet if they were brought up as a Christian that could still represent a solid ten years of active belief. It is very traumatic after ten years to have to rethink ideas and to question some fundamentals. It is no surprise that many young people who do leave the Church slide into depression for a period. I’m sure ignorance may play a part, but the concept of unconscious doubt being revealed as zealous belief certinally rings true for me.

    Kind regards
    BTJ

     
  4. Paul Baker May 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Ange makes an interesting observation; that some people “just take anything that is taught in church, or popular Christian resource as gospel, and don’t question it…”

    This is certainly ignorance, but are they choosing not to question what they hear, or does it simply not occur to them to do so? I would suggest the former when speaking of older people, because they’re bound to have come across some form of contrary belief in their time, in which case a decision (whether conscious or subconsious) has been made to accept some things over others (e.g. the lively pastor’s endearing rhetoric over the weary theologian’s considered reasoning).

    Younger people, though, are more impressionable. And where they are perhaps not aware that a multitude of contray viewpoints exists, they may not have yet been faced with the opportunity to re-examine their default position. And if that default position is reinforced every week from the pulpit etc., then what hope have they when such an opportunity arises?

    Free thinking is in some ways, I think, an aquired skill which must be nurtured and honed. What comes naturally is to simply accept what you are told, and hold to it indefinately. A sort of “law of first mention”.

    Benny, I see you’re still using the King James Version. Do I detect a hint of conservatism?!

    Paul.

     
  5. benny May 27, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Dear Paul,

    Thanks for your insights. I’m not very comfortable with the tag conservative, I think the KJV is more a reflection of my love of history. Besides, if we’re talking religion, might as well use the version G-D reads.

    Kind Regards,

    BTJ

     

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