When I went to college, I experienced profound shifts of faith. Things I had always believed to be true about God and Church no longer resonated with me the way they once did. I adopted theological positions that were very different from my upbringing.
It was exhilerating. I felt closer to God than I ever had in my entire life. Like I had unlocked some secret knowledge that brought me closer to God.
Somehow, during this time, I lost all ability to empathize with others who believed differently, instead growing frustrated when people didn’t find my new theologies as compelling and obvious as I did. The only reason for this that I could work out was that I must be more sincere. I must be better at theology. I must be smarter. I must love God better.
But, to the contrary, sometimes I don’t love God nearly as much as I love what I think about God.
Sometimes, I worship what I view to be a good and logically consistent theology rather than the actual God that theology is about.
Sometimes, my faith is more of a projected narcissism, where I’m more impressed with my own ability to think theologically than I am with the God who gave me that ability.
And that really limits who I’m willing to listen to and learn from. I can become overly reliant on what people with terminal degrees in biblical studies say about the Bible, to the point that I don’t listen to what people in my congregation with decades of experience living a life pursuing God have to teach me.
And that makes it very difficult to keep growing.
How can we continue to learn, adapt, change, evolve, and grow spiritually without adopting an elitist attitude? How can we seek to follow God as best as we possibly can while also respecting and appreciating others who seek to follow God as best as they can, but who wind up doing it in different ways?
I think it comes down to how well we’re able to practice humility, even while we maintain conviction.
We can believe something so firmly that we’re willing to give our lives over to it, while also accepting that we’re not infallible. We can be fiercely committed to our beliefs without dismissing (or belittling) those who believe differently.
Some people might say that’s pluralism. That it’s an attempt to hold two different and competing ideas up as true. Some might say that I’m suggesting that truth is relative and you just have to pick the truth that’s best for you. But while there may be instances in which that’s a valid approach (and there may be more of those instances than many of us are comfortable admitting), that’s not what I’m suggesting about theology.
Rather, I’m suggesting that we can firmly believe that we’re right without also believing that we have to be right.
Because the problem with being wrong is that it feels exactly like being right. Everyone thinks their theology is the right one. If they didn’t believe that, they wouldn’t hold that theology.
So if we approach faith with an attitude that says, “This is the way to be a Christian, and if you don’t do it my way, you’re doing it wrong.” then we become followers of a methodology, rather than followers of a Christ.
But if, instead, we were to say, “From my experience of how God interacts in my life, and the way I read scripture, God seems to embody this characteristic and appreciate this kind of lifestyle. I’ve found this way of life compelling and fulfilling, and I think you might find it fulfilling too.” that allows us to hold very committed beliefs (and to share those beliefs with others), all while leaving room for God to surprise us.
Because the nature of God is that there’s always room for surprises.
The nature of an infinite God is that God can’t be fully encapsulated or understood by a person or a group of people. The moment that we claim “God is exactly like this, and not at all like that.” is the very moment that the we trade in the Infinite Creator God for the God Who Fits Inside My Head. It’s also the moment we stop growing.
And we want to be followers of Jesus who are growing in our understanding. We do that by earnestly seeking truth, while accepting that maybe we’re not the only ones who have it. We do that by learning from wise people – people with degrees, but also people with life experiences. We do that by practicing humility, believing that what I have to say about God may be true, but it’s not the only Truth.
And we do that by recognizing that God is greater than we can possibly imagine. We do that by admitting that we would be foolish to think that we could possibly have God figured out. We maintain humility by enjoying diversity – God is present in the Ph.D. and the high school dropout. Truth can be found in the theology book or in the lunchtime conversation with a friend. We will never know everything there is to know about God, but hopefully, our faith can grow and adapt from the small pieces we learn from each new person we encounter.