Life’s a journey, as the cliché goes. Some of us remain on the same pathway our entire lives, while others reach a fork in the road and change course. That was me.
The first fork I encountered led me down a trail from regular conservatism (Baptist) to ultra-conservatism (a legalistic, Vineyard-like denomination). In other words, from stoic to charismatic, with much stricter rules. After a couple of bewildering years in this church I extricated myself and returned sober to mainstream Christianity; only to realize that what I’d experienced in the cult was just evangelicalism on steroids. The problematic base doctrines were still the same: no women in leadership, complementarianism (the husband is the head of the family), “eternal conscious torment hell” for the unsaved, and the exclusion of LGBT Christians.
A couple of years of church-hopping followed and we unwittingly landed in a conservative denomination that allows (and affirms) the ordaining of women as pastors. Scandalous. 😉 This was a second fork in the road for me, challenging my beliefs regarding gender roles, and we’ve now been attending this church for more than a decade. You might call me a left-leaning conservative, or simply a moderate. Labels don’t leave much room for nuance. But all that aside, what I want to talk about specifically is something I’ve observed through these experiences:
Every denomination believes they are the only ones with the fullest truth, the fullest enlightenment.
Having journeyed this far throughout Christendom (dissecting/comparing the gamut of Calvinism, Molinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, Annihilation, and Universalism along the way), I’ve now had ample time to experience many levels of dogma from opposing angles. And what I’ve found is that both camps (left-wing, right-wing, and everything between) are saturated with pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness. Now, that’s not to say the majority are this way, only that these are the loudest voices. There are innumerable kind-hearted, humble people throughout, in every single denomination, and on each end of the pole; they just don’t get much recognition.
Perceived esoteric knowledge can be alluring. That feeling of having arrived, of having figured it all out. And this feeling doesn’t require religion either. Agnostics, atheists, scientists, humanists, holistic health proponents, natural food proponents, vegans, you name it, can all step into the same snare. One doesn’t need beliefs in the supernatural to pride themselves on being “woke,” on being enlightened:
“Here here, look what we’re selling – we’ve found the true meaning of life, we’ve got it all figured out. There are no more illusions, our eyes are wide open – we’ve found the true path to happiness, fulfillment, and health. We are the ones who walk in the light, everyone else walks in the dark. We are superior.”
I’ve spent the past couple of years wrestling with this philosophical phenomenon, even despairing at times. It surrounds me yet it’s also within me: the longing to arrive, to be in the know. At every turn in theology I encounter it. There’s just no place you can land where you’re safe from it:
“Now. Now I’ve got all my doctrines sorted out and meticulously organized, everything has been examined thoroughly and these are my rational conclusions. I’ve got the ‘in’ on God. I have arrived, I am woke.” But no! No no no. Not even possible. There is no full arrival this side of heaven – it’s only an illusion. No matter how much we learn and improve and change and grow, we’re never going to reach perfection in this life – there will always be more to learn.
But does this mean there is no absolute truth to be found, that all is relative? On the contrary: Some of us have found more truth than others, each of us knows a truth the other doesn’t know, and vice versa, to varying degrees. There are real truths and real falsehoods. A revelation/awakening/conversion can be life-changing in extremely positive ways, producing much good fruit. And Jesus said that good/bad fruit is a measurement of truth. A bad tree does not bear good fruit.
The problem is when we believe that our particular tribe holds the greatest truth, the fullest truth. The temptation is to thus pride ourselves on it: becoming self-righteous and arrogant.
No matter where we are on life’s journey, we must stay aware of the vanity of enlightenment so that we can resist it at every turn, mortifying pride wherever it rears. No matter how confident we feel in our beliefs, how certain, we must always acknowledge the possibility of being mistaken in various areas. We can be completely right in one regard and wholly wrong in another. Our beliefs are abstract; the concrete is how we treat people. If we stay humble, our hearts remain fertile ground for growth.