I was recently having breakfast with a dear friend visiting from out of town. Like many of my old friends, we found ourselves in an awkward place: a great chasm opening between us. He is still firmly situated in evangelical Christianity, and I’m unmoored and drifting away from my old faith. We still love each other, but it’s difficult. The anxiety, on their part, is palpable, and I feel anxiety, too, because I recoil from conflict, and the fear of getting hurt.
I’ve been having more and more of these conversations lately. People come and confront me about being partnered, my view of the supernatural and Christian doctrine, or where I stand with Jesus. I welcome these conversations, no matter how hard they are: I’d prefer people come ask me, rather than talk behind my back. I try to answer their questions with as much blunt, gracious honesty as I can, and I try to model humility, intellectual integrity, and kindness. I remember that I was once in their shoes, and I still remember the piercing anxiety I once felt over the souls of others.
My friend listened, asked lots of questions, challenged me on certain points, and listened some more. At the end of the conversation, he said the words that finally really stung: “Stephen, it seems like you are really seeking, and you’re knocking on a lot of doors. But are you knocking on the right doors? Because here’s the thing, you better be right. Because if you’re wrong, you are leading thousands of people astray. You have an obligation to get this right.” He said it with a firmness that came out of the blue.
That fucking hurt, and frustrated me. I’m going to work out my feelings here, and I offer these words to anyone else who might be tempted to use the same words on your own heathen friends.
Let’s break this down into two parts: “are you knocking on the right doors?”
I expressed my frustration to him that this is impossible to know, because when you are in the thick of it – when you are doing your best to understand truth, you only have your wits to guide you. You can’t look into the future, you can’t rely on divine revelation, you have to value critical thinking and inquiry above all else. That’s what got me into this situation in the first place, and I don’t regret it in the least.
Perhaps more important than whether or not I’m knocking on the right doors is whether or not I have the right posture: am I critical of myself and own thoughts? Am I willing to be aware of cognitive bias and overcome them? Am I willing to change my mind when better evidence is presented? Am I willing to assume that I don’t have all the answers? Am I willing to search to the end of my days?
Humanity is prone to irrationality, and clear sightedness does not come easily to us. I don’t think we were evolved to understand truth and plumb the mysteries of the cosmos, we evolved to gain the favor of our tribe. Truth is hard for us, and absolute truth may never be in reach. My track record is that I am wrong far more than I am right, and I’ve had to change my mind many times: about my sexuality, my politics, my economic theory, how to conduct relationships, about God himself. It’s likely that my mind will change again.
Therefore, posture and integrity are what matter, and the minefield of truth is bearable only through grace.
“You better be right, because if you are wrong, you are leading thousands of people astray.”
I could just as easily ask you the same thing: why are you so certain? Why are you so sure that, with your religious conviction, you aren’t leading people into a life of waste and delusion? The difference between you and me is that I doubt, and you don’t.
The truth is that we all have the terrible burden of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We all have the responsibility to reach for truth with as much integrity as we can, understanding that we might be leading people astray.
Again, this is why posture is paramount; why the systems and constellations that guide us need to be rightly ordered. I have chosen skepticism, humility, science, and reason as my guiding lights, and I hope I have chosen wisely. I hope you choose wisely, too. So perhaps we can start the journey of intellectual humility thusly: what if you’re wrong? What if you’re wrong about everything you hold dear? I’ve confronted this question many times, and it has harrowed me to the bone. I wish it on no one, but it is a necessary fire. It’s also the question that makes or breaks our integrity.