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Some thoughts on changing your theological opinions
A response to Jordan Steffaniak
I would like to present a brief response to Jordan Steffaniak’s remarks here:
Jordan’s principal suggestion, as I understand it, is that a person who has been ordained to the ministry in some confessional denomination should not be changing his opinions on primary or even secondary matters without years of study. Even then, in the case of a person who does change his opinions, he should resign from his post rather than trying to compel his congregation to agree with him. The general impression I get from Jordan’s remarks is that it is not the place of the pastor to be engaged in constant, uncertain inquiry into diverse questions. The position of the pastor requires a person with stability of thought and commitment to the doctrines of the institution of the denomination. And Jordan justifies this doctrinal conservatism by appeal to God’s providence. He thinks that a person should think that God has placed them in the denomination in which they find themselves for a reason and that they should make changes only after much thought and consideration.
This is an interesting question for me because I am a person who has changed his theological opinions over the years. I am not shy about it, and I don’t personally consider that there is anything wrong with it. Why should I continue to believe something if I think it’s wrong? Or why should I privilege my present opinions over possible future opinions that I am considering? At the same time, I find that my changes in opinions are in many cases a matter of achieving greater consistency and coherence in my thought. I started with various impulses, ideas, insights, and intuitions about what reality is like. Changing a particular opinion is a matter of achieving greater coherence of the whole of my thought and bringing into focus a particular tendency or inclination that was always there but had been muted for a while. All this is to say that even in changing my opinions, I did not really change. The surface changed while the deep remained the same.
With respect to Jordan’s actual proposals, I have various thoughts. On the one hand, I can understand his concerns. No confessional institution can survive without a reliable pastorate that can be counted on to its commitment to teach and preach its doctrine. It therefore makes sense to expect that pastors who have been committed themselves to an institution not to be entertaining foreign ideas. On the other hand, anyone with a desire to know and the appropriate intellectual sensitivity can appreciate that our grasp of the truth is always uncertain and subject to revision. These are just the facts of experience. There is always more to consider, more to read, more to think about. The justification and evidential support for our beliefs is rarely as strong as our belief in them itself. How then can a person commit himself to a system of ideas at all, given that he can’t be sure he is right?
From the point of view of the institution’s will to survive, its members must be committed. But from the point of view of the person who wants to know the truth, you cannot be too committed to an uncertain idea. Jordan admittedly says that a person can change his mind about something and then simply resign from the denomination. But it seems to me that Jordan’s conservatism pushes in the direction of a kind of institutional rigidity that creates fanaticism in the laity. The truth of the matter is that these things are uncertain, unclear, up in the air. But the laity would not get that impression from their card-carrying members who effectively are being actively discouraged from the sympathetic consideration of alternative systems of thought. So they become rigid and closed-off just as their pastors are. This all may be good from the point of view of the religious institution that takes itself for granted and can only survive if its members have bought into its system. But it can only be intellectually dissatisfying and problematic from the point of view of the person who realizes how little confidence we can actually have about these matters.
There are two values at stake here. On the one hand, there is the pursuit of the truth. On the other hand, there is the institution’s will to survive. These two cannot be reconciled in the end. The honest pursuit of the truth inspires a certain detachment from particular systems and an uncertainty about your own ideas that makes you worthless to an institution that demands commitment. The man who is useful to the institution is the one who is not constantly reconsidering and questioning his commitment to the institution’s central ideas. So you can be one or the other, but not both—at least not forever.
Of course, persons who join particular churches often do so because they believe that the church’s teaching is true. But it would be irrelevant to bring this point up in response to what I am saying here. I am not saying that a person who is a part of an institution cannot care about the truth in general. I am saying that the kind of total questioning and openness of investigation that the honest and single-minded pursuit of the truth calls for inevitably creates a kind of uncertainty about one’s own opinions that make your allegiances to any institution tentative and unsure. In order to be useful to an institution as a committed member thereof, especially one in a position of leadership, you need to either kill this inquiring spirit in you and simply take the institution’s ideas for granted or else try to find ways of limiting it and containing within the boundaries allowed by your institution’s doctrines. But even to take this latter course of action is to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction of impulses at stake in this situation.
My diagnosis of the problem in my Theological Authority in the Church is that the various confessional institutions have committed themselves to contentious ideas and tied up their identity with doctrines that are intrinsically uncertain and unworthy of such strong commitment as they are asking for. It would be better for them not to be committed to so many ideas. This would naturally mean each community’s erasing the stark points of difference by which it is contrasted with the others. But maybe that is for the better. Christians can stop carrying about uncertain points and focus their attention and efforts on other things which they have in common: doing good to others, comforting the troubled, and so on—the kinds of things Jesus actually talks about clearly. The turn away from well-defined dogmatic systems could lead to greater Christian unity precisely because it is these systems that principally distinguish Christians from each other.
Jordan naturally will not find my proposal convincing. That is because he is at the end of the day a catholic whose understanding of Christianity is intrinsically dogmatic and thus committed to doctrines a matter of necessity. But I would insist that catholic Christianity creates these problems for itself naturally. It is at odds with the uncertainty and ignorance that characterizes human experience as a matter of necessity. On the one hand, catholic Christianity claims to value the life of the mind and to encourage intellectual inquiry. On the other hand, catholic Christianity naturally manifests itself in its various forms—whether in Roman Catholicism, in Eastern Orthodoxy, or in Protestantisms of different kinds—as well-defined systems of doctrines that are constructed out of ideas of uncertain truth and beyond all possibility of proof and which are nevertheless necessary for the integrity of faith. The commitment to intellectual inquiry motivates uncertainty about uncertain ideas, which are most of them, whereas the catholic form of Christianity insists on a system of uncertain doctrines as necessary for membership in its ranks. But the alternative to catholic Christianity is (the real risk of) going to hell—at least, according to catholic Christianity itself. So a person either thinks himself out of catholicism or else becomes card-carrying member who effectively signs over his mind to a system that he is no longer allowed or willing to question, at least not at the fundamental level. And Jordan’s remarks about pastors’ changing their theological opinions is simply a particular contextual instantiation of this same logic that inevitably arises out of catholicism itself.