Western Christians seem hell-bent on saving themselves by intellectual work, by having the right beliefs or the correct interpretation of the Bible. Our culture indoctrinates us with the lordship of the rational mind that constantly organizes, categorizes, and analyzes in order to figure things out. Knowledge is power, so if we can figure something out then we can control it. Think about the way educators talk about students “mastering” a subject. There is much to be gained by this kind of thinking, but it can be deadly when we try to ultimately secure ourselves by means of rational control. But this is exactly what many are trying to do in the Western (especially Protestant) church. While it is difficult for us to admit, we speak out of two sides of our mouth! On the one hand we proclaim that salvation is a pure gift of love received in faith. On the other hand, we insist that salvation requires “the right” interpretation of scripture (i.e. my interpretation of scripture), or “the right” beliefs (i.e. my beliefs). So are we saved by God’s love or are we saved by intellectual work (which would be another way of trying to save ourselves)? I am not saying that systematic and constructive theology are unimportant. Nor am I saying that the content of our beliefs are unimportant; our beliefs profoundly shape who we are and how we act, for better or worse. But I am saying that when we start tying salvation, as well as who should be included or excluded in the church, to having “the true” interpretation of scripture or “the right” beliefs, then we are slipping back into a form of works righteousness. (By the way, when someone says, “That’s not Biblical,” it is sometimes a passive-aggressive way of saying, “Don’t question my interpretation of the Bible!”)
I am becoming increasingly convinced that a big part of the solution to this problem is to balance our emphasis on the rational with a healthy dose of the contemplative. Richard Rohr says, “The final stage of the wisdom of faith is what we might call becoming a Holy Fool. Ironically the Holy Fool is one who knows that he doesn’t know but doesn’t need to know either . . . the Holy Fool doesn’t need to know. He obviously would like to know, but he is able to leave the full knowing to God” (Everything Belongs 123). Rohr calls the Western way of thinking “small mind” and the Eastern way of thinking “big mind,” and then says that true faith is a convergence of the two. This reminds me of Anselm’s dictum, “Faith seeking understanding,” with the qualification that at the end of the day we must stand silent before the mystery of God.
Many people have come to view the church with suspicion because of an apparent “bait and switch.” We say, “God loves you just the way you are and offers salvation as a pure gift of love,” and when they say, “I want this gift!” we reply, “You can have it if you interpret the Bible like we do and embrace the same beliefs (including social and political beliefs) that we do!” Indeed, social and political litmus tests come to determine who is an insider and who is an outsider, and the church builds ideological walls to keep the pollutants out! We condemn the most obvious expressions of this division, exclusion, and condemnation as distasteful (which is not really to do so in the cause of radical love), but are there remnants of Westboro-Baptist Church hiding in the corners of our hearts and churches? When you find them, they will not look anything like grace, nor will they align with Jesus’ constant command to be unified in love.
Oh how things would change if we could become more like the Holy Fool who doesn’t need to figure everything out and then use this “truth” to control, ridicule, exclude, and condemn to hell people who disagree. Oh how things would change if we could learn to be more patient with ambiguity, uncertainty, and even unknowing. I pray that we can all experience the inner freedom of not having to know (and therefore control) everything, so that we can find ways to be more unified in love.