Quick, what do you think…
- should clergy perform gay marriages?
- should America go to war?
- what do you think about contraception?
- any thoughts on global warming? green house emissions?
Now breathe. I don’t really want to know what you think. It’s not that I don’t care. Or that I don’t think we could have a great conversation over a cup of coffee, or a beer. It’s just that you don’t have to have all your thoughts nailed down.
I don’t know if it’s always been like this, or if this is a product of our 24-hour media, internet, moving-at-the-speed-of-light culture, but it feels like everywhere we turn we’re expected to have an opinion. We’re supposed to know what we think and why we think that.
In my world, I blame St. Peter who told us to, “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” For much of my life I thought that meant that I needed to both understand and defend everything I believed about everything, because as one mentor taught me, “everything is theology.”
However, last time I checked, the world is a complicated place. And on nearly every point of theology, politics & science there are dissenting voices. And unless I ignore data points, forming a solid position almost anything is a near Herculean task.
Years ago, I was introduced to this quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s become one of the pillars of the way I think about things:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Now of course there are things that I’ve settled in my mind. I’m a Christian and I can recite the Apostle’s Creed in good conscience. I tend to believe strongly in gravity. And I’m confident in many ethical issues. There are things I do in fact hold strongly.
But at the same time, there are many issues in the world today where I hold two opposing ideas. Take war and peace. I really get the argument for pacifism, and when I’m sitting with a friend who’s not pacifist, I tend to wrap myself in the cloak of pacifism for the sake of spirited conversation. But, sitting with my pacifist friends, I might play the part of just war theorist because of the pragmatics of the fallen creation. Depending on the day I can believe either position.
Here’s the thing: pushing oneself to “hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time,” give us space to enter into dialogue, to extend grace, to make every effort to see the world as others see it. It helps us to listen to ideas with empathy, without feeling the need to constantly form a defense.
So here’s a bit of permission, from me to you. Until it becomes critical, until there’s a good reason to make up your mind, you don’t have to decide on an issue. The next time someone demands that you answer what you believe, tell them you don’t know. Tell them you’re thinking about it. Tell them there are smart people on both sides of this one and then when you must, you take a side, but for now, you’re holding two opposing ideas in tension.
And if you feel yourself coming to a place where you must decides, perhaps try this: pretend for a month that you believe one way, then, next month, pretend you’ve taken the opposite side. Argue with yourself, or with friends, for both sides of an issue. Read widely, hear what everyone has to say, grant an author their argument as far as you can.
There will come a time where you may have to choose to act on what you believe. You may have to choose to vote for a position or act upon your conscience in regards to a particular issue. There may come a time where believing something will come at a cost. And you will disappoint people, there may even be tears. And when that time comes it will be difficult, but until then, just keep reading, talking and holding opposing ideas.