Life’s a journey, as the cliché goes. Some of us remain on the same pathway our entire lives, while others reach a fork or tow in the road and change course. That was me.
The first fork I encountered as an evangelical Christian 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 that cult was merely evangelicalism on steroids. The problematic base doctrines were still the same: no women in leadership, male headship (the husband has the final say), “eternal conscious torment hell” for the unsaved, and the exclusion of LGBTQ Christians.
A couple more years of church-hopping followed and my husband and I unwittingly landed in a conservative denomination that allows (and affirms!) the ordaining of women as pastors. Scandalous, I know. 😉 This was a second fork in the road for me, challenging and changing my beliefs regarding gender roles; and we’ve been attending this church for more than a decade now. Labels don’t leave much room for nuance, but you might call me progressive, or a left-leaning conservative.
So with that background aside, what I want to talk about here specifically is something I’ve observed again and again throughout these experiences:
Every denomination (Catholic and Protestant alike) believes they are the only ones with the fullest truth, the fullest enlightenment.
Why is this a problem?
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 attention or recognition.
Perceived esoteric knowledge is alluring.
It’s 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 health, happiness, and fulfillment. We are the ones who walk in the light and everyone else walks in the dark. We are superior.”
I’ve spent the past few years wrestling with this philosophical phenomenon; even despairing about it 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 that the other doesn’t know, and vice versa, to varying degrees. There are real truths and real falsehoods, there is wealth and poverty. A revelation/awakening/conversion can be life-changing in positive ways and produce much good fruit. And Jesus said that good or bad fruit is a measurement of truth. (For a bad tree does not bear good fruit.)
The problem is when we believe that our particular tribe holds the greatest truth, and the fullest truth. The temptation then is to pride ourselves on it: becoming self-righteous and arrogant.
So, no matter where we are on life’s journey, we must remain 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 acknowledge the possibility of being mistaken in various areas. And to remember that we can be completely right in one regard but wholly wrong in another.
Our beliefs are always abstract. The concrete is how we treat people.
If we endeavor to stay humble (1 Peter 5:6) and to keep our eyes open, our hearts will remain fertile ground for growth our entire lives through.