Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Being Open to Changing Our Minds

I've called my blog Continually Sharpening, based on Proverbs 27:17, NIV: "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."

I hope that as I study, teach, and progress in my academic theological career, I will have my theological views continually sharpened and refined, so that they become more and more Biblical and in alignment with the truth. This process means that I may (and hopefully will) change my mind on some things.

I think this is a slogan that each Christian should personally appropriate, by being open to continually learning and revising their theological beliefs.

In the book Virtuous Minds, Philip E. Dow says that intellectual virtue partly consists of intellectual courage.

Intellectual courage means wanting to know the truth, and thus, being willing to hear ideas that we may currently disagree with, and being open to changing our beliefs. It also means having the courage to stand firm on what we are convinced is true even if it is unpopular.1

So we should try as hard as we can to be open to seriously considering alternative views and the arguments and evidence they appeal to, and to allow the possibility for changing our minds if we find these are better than our own.

If our beliefs have never changed about anything, then there's a chance we're not really open to learning, and don't really care about finding out the truth or having beliefs that are well-supported by reason and evidence.

To say that our beliefs as we currently have them are completely perfect and could not benefit from some level of further revision is highly unlikely. One of my favourite Bible verses is 1 Corinthians 13:12, which affirms that in this life our knowledge and understanding is only partial at best. So I think no one (except Jesus) has ever had or ever will have 100% correct theology in this life.

While this may seem discouraging, it actually should stimulate the theological enterprise, for it means there is always room for improvement, and is helpful to avoid both complacency and arrogance.

Not Just Change for the Sake of Change

Now, I'm not saying that we should change our beliefs simply for the sake of change.

I once had a discussion with a man who said he highly respected people who changed their religious beliefs. But he didn't seem to care whether the change was in a direction that was true or not, or care about what prompted such change. A Christian who became a Muslim, or a Muslim who became a Christian, would be equally respectable to him.

Now, if both the Christian and Muslim changed their beliefs because they were genuinely convinced their new views were more true than their old ones, then that is commendable, because they are showing commitment to seeking the truth and the courage to act on their beliefs. (And from an evangelical Christian perspective, since I believe Christianity is true, there is hope that the Muslim may return to Christianity by continuing to seek truth.)

But if they just got bored and wanted to try something new, or changed their minds because their friends and family wanted them to, or to rebel against friends and family, or because it was politically expedient or even just trendy, then that is not so commendable.

I have changed my mind on a few different theological issues, and each time it was a little mind-blowing. Certain books I read had convincing arguments supported by strong evidence, which persuaded me that these ideas were more consistent and correct than what I had previously believed. But I'm glad I did, because it has made my Christian worldview more consistent and Biblical.

For example, Edward Fudge's book The Fire That Consumes convinced me that annihilation is what the Bible really teaches about the nature of hell.

Previously I did hold to the eternal conscious torment view, even though it always bothered me. I like to think that I didn't change my mind just because I thought eternal hell was a problem for God's goodness and justice, or because I worried about what it could mean for my friends and family who don't believe in Jesus, but because the Scriptural exegesis and logical arguments presented by Fudge were more convincing than what I had previously read by proponents of the eternal conscious torment view.

Of course, I was also happy that it solved a problem for theodicy and helped me see God as more just and loving than before. But I hope that if I read another book by someone from the eternal conscious torment view who was able to effectively refute Fudge with even better Scriptural evidence and arguments, then I would switch back to that view.

Testing Our Beliefs

So ideally, when we change our minds it should be because we are convinced that our new ideas are more in alignment with reality than our old views were.

A good challenge to test this is to ask ourselves "What evidence could convince me that my belief is false?". This is the principle of falsifiability.

Now, not every belief may be falsifiable. Some things may be self-evident (e.g. that you are currently reading this sentence), or true simply by definition (e.g. an unmarried man is a bachelor).

Other parts of our worldview are constructed beginning with basic presuppositions that we simply believe to be true and may not have a solid argument or evidence for. For example, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God is "properly basic", and can be believed without a need for complicated evidence and arguments.2

One way to tell if a debate is ultimately about basic presuppositions is to see if the debate ends up in an unsolvable stalemate where one side insists "Yes" and the other insists "No", and there is no way to prove it one way or the other.

For example, in the debate between materialists and idealists, it is impossible to prove whether the world actually exists outside of ourselves, or if what we experience as reality is actually just a bunch of inputs being given to our minds (something like in the movie The Matrix).

Another example is the debate between libertarians and determinists on the topic of free will. Libertarians say that for any past choice we made, we could have chosen to do differently than what we actually chose to do, whereas determinists say no, this is impossible. Given that the only way to prove this debate would be to go back in time and actually choose differently, it is impossible to prove one way or the other, and what we believe on the topic comes down to a basic presupposition about free will.3

However, simply having a consistent or coherent system of beliefs is not enough to ensure they are true - they need to match up with reality as much as possible.4 So for more complex beliefs, it's good to consider what sort of evidence might convince us to change our minds. Because then we know that we are not believing something blindly. It's also a fun way of challenging ourselves and carefully considering what we believe and why.

Even if I think that it is highly unlikely that anything could change some of my current beliefs, because I am presently convinced that the evidence is solid and the arguments are true, to be intellectually honest, I need to keep myself open to the possibility of changing my mind. Otherwise, I become narrow-minded, dogmatic, indoctrinated, and no longer open to pursuing truth.

So therefore, I want to say that I'm not certain I will always believe what I now believe. In the future it is possible that I'll look back on some of these blog articles and disagree with them.

But I can say that the positions I have changed my mind on will be very difficult to reverse, for I have studied the arguments for and against these carefully, and found one view much more persuasive than the others. But in theory, I need to stay open to the possibility.

I hope we would all be open to potentially changing our minds and not being ashamed to admit it or afraid of doing so. For this is how we make progress towards truth.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Philip E. Dow, Virtuous Minds (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 28-29.
  • 2. Thomas H. McCall, "Religious Epistemology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Critical Biblical Scholarship" in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 37-38.
  • 3. T. J. Mawson, Free Will: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 17.
  • 4. Thomas H. McCall, "Religious Epistemology, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Critical Biblical Scholarship" in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 37.