Open-Mindedness, Exclusion, and Religious Commitment

Open-mindedness, like tolerance, is a paradoxical virtue for liberal-modernist thinkers. Using science as their ideal, they argue that the search for truth requires continual openness to revising your views, which is incompatible with a settled religious commitment to any particular doctrine. Of course, as Micah Tillman points out in a recent Relevant Magazine article, this way of thinking isn’t really “open-minded” toward religion. He notes that our culture’s main alternative is post-modernism, which touts dialogue among people with different belief systems, but doesn’t see this dialogue ever resolving itself into a consensus on the truth. Tillman, who teaches philosophy at the Catholic University of America, suggests a third option:

As a teacher of philosophy and a thinking Christian, I have struggled with the choice between modernism and post-modernism. Instead of finally choosing one or the other, however, I live with a philosophy in between. On the open-mindedness question, I find it to be superior to both.

This middle philosophy is called phenomenology. To be open-minded, it claims, is to believe that the more angles from which you see something, the better you will understand it. It does not assume, however, that you can see a thing equally well from each angle. Some views are clearer and fuller than others.

From studying phenomenology, I learned that even incomplete or distorting ways of seeing a thing may tell us something about it. If a thing tastes sweet to one person, and sour to another, we know at least that it is probably some kind of food.

True open-mindedness, I discovered, is neither passive nor anti-Christian. It is the practice of getting outside your head—so as to get inside the heads of others, so as to understand the world better. And for the Christian it means trying to have the mind of Christ. After all, He has the clearest, fullest view of all.

In my experience, when people bristle at the idea that all worldviews are not created equal, it’s usually because they’re afraid this means all people are not equal. This problem is partly the fault of Christians who have behaved pridefully about their faith, as if they alone had picked the correct answer on an exam. Catholic theologian James Alison here shares some thoughts about how we can proclaim the uniqueness of Christianity without bragging about the specialness of Christians (emphasis mine):

I’ve proposed a way of drawing close to a real, dense, presence, which brings along with it real human associations, and which is, in as far as it is possible for us to speak like this, the way in which the Triune God manifests in our midst. This seems to me to be something absolutely unique. That is to say, this network of associations through which God has projected his self-manifestation in our midst, exercising his strong protagonism in this weak presence, giving himself to be known by means of a completely new criterion, has no parallel, that I know or have ever heard of, in any other part of human knowledge, culture, philosophy or narrative.

The first question which this raises for me is as follows: How should we speak about this quality of absolute “uniqueness” without that uniqueness being a form, however well-disguised, of human “exclusivism”? And my first intuition about this, and it is no more than that, is that we have to stop being concerned about being considered exclusivist, as if that which is unique were in some way our property. Instead we have to refine our understanding of the protagonism of that which is unique and rediscover our relationality with others as part of what is received from and through that unique protagonism.

To grasp the full significance of this passage, one needs to read the whole essay, “Strong Protagonism and Weak Presence: The Changes in Tone of The Voice of God”, which is somewhat technical but worth the effort. Alison’s main idea, in this as in all his other writings, is that God’s identification with the sacrificial victim in Jesus totally relativizes all the hierarchies and exclusions that we generate from the fact of differences between human beings. Our relative merits are negligible compared to the gap in righteousness between us and God, whose forgiveness offers us the only kind of self-worth that does not depend on comparing ourselves to others.

2 comments on “Open-Mindedness, Exclusion, and Religious Commitment

  1. Linda says:

    This is sooooo good. I love it.

  2. Thanks for the links! And thanks for the introduction to Alison. I shall have to educate myself on his writings!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.