New Year’s resolution number one: “Don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out!” I used to have that saying pinned to the bulletin board in the church office in a church I served. Good words, those, don’t you think? Professor Walter Kotschnig actually delivered them to a class of Holyoke College students.
Professor Kotschnig was proposing that students do more in college than just learn a skill. He thought the purpose of a college education was so that students could acquire a philosophy of life [which would include spiritual leanings, I am sure] develop intellectual honesty, and in all things learn to search for truth.” We might say that is the purpose, or the goal for ALL human beings, right, whether or not they are fortunate enough to attend college. Said differently, don’t just go through life with a “whatever will be, will be” attitude—don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
The comedian Fred Allen who lived in the early 20th century was also known for pithy sayings. For instance, his definition of a committee is this: A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.
Fred Allen gives us another New Year’s resolution which is really a corollary to the first one: While the first one is, “Don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out;” Fred Allen would add: “Don’t be so narrow minded that if you fall on a pin, you are blinded in both eyes.”
In other words, while it’s good to establish some philosophic (and we would add religious) frameworks for navigating this world, too rigid a framework, too narrow a mind set and you become judgmental, harsh, unforgiving, and you don’t see very well.
These are important resolutions for sure, for 2016, because it doesn’t take a prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah to predict that in the coming year, the world will suffer religious strife, big time. Who would have thought? Only a few years ago, people in the know, avowed that the world was becoming increasingly secular. Now, all of a sudden, everyone is talking about religion; AND there are religious extremists spreading their venom--Muslim, but also Christian and Jewish.
We have a role to play in all of this, if only in who among the religious leaders we choose to listen to and who we decide to vote for. We keep quiet, we make no decision at all regarding refugees, and Muslim, Christian and Jewish extremists, then they will dominate the national conversation, the world stage, and the media. More than that, they could potentially lead our country, and the world even, down a scary path indeed.
I don’t mean to be a doomsday prophet, here, but we really can’t afford, to either be totally open- minded or totally narrow-minded.
Years ago, in seminary, I attended a class in Christian ethics, specifically on interfaith dialogue. It was taught by Alan Geyer who was held in high regard among other professors. You could tell. Most professors referred to each other by their first names, but with Alan Geyer is was always, “Dr. Geyer.”
I never thought to ask why this was so, but this week, I searched on-line to find out more about him. And here I should just say that sadly, he died in 2011. I didn’t know. It doesn’t surprise me, though. Even when I was in seminary, he had serious health issues. Anyway, during his long career as a theologian and a religious ethicist, Dr. Alan Geyer was chair of the US Observers at the 1975 and 1980 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conferences in Geneva; and he participated in the United Nations Special sessions on Disarmament. Dr. Geyer also served as the Executive Director of the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy in Washington D.C. from 1977 to 1987. And of course, he was a professor at Wesley Seminary, where I had the privilege to get to know him—just a little. Pretty impressive, huh?
So at the start of this new year, looking forward to the year 2016, as it stretches out before us, and knowing that it WILL be plagued by religious tensions, I share some of Alan Geyer’s thoughts with you.
As a way into this discussion, let us Imagine that you are at a conference table with people of different faith traditions. Everyone at that table has been charged with the task ofachieving mutual religious understanding and peace. Let us suppose that you represent the Christian faith, but also around that table are a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Baha’i. We will call this the Scottsville Religious Understanding and Peace forum, or SRUP. How’s that? Has a ring to it, don’t you think? So, you who are a member of this forum, how are you going to approach the other folks at this gathering? In other words, will your mind be open or closed?
One way, a close-minded way, is to assume that Jesus is Lord of all, and those who don’t believe that are damned. There are some people in our Presbyterian denomination who think that way—and there is some scriptural backing for that belief. In today’s scripture we read, “But to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God, who are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” One way to interpret that, not the only way, mind you, and I would say, not the best way, but one way to interpret it is that people who DON’T believe in Jesus are NOT children of God.
You go by that mind-set and you are sure to alienate others at the table. You will shut down dialogue. You may even initiate a religious war right here in town! Not good!
So let’s say you take a different tact. You will assume that your colleagues at the table—all of whom are non-Christian-- really are anonymous Christians. That is, these non-Christians at the table with you, are good, righteous souls. Jesus loves them, despite their misguided religious preferences. They don’t know it, but they really ARE Christians. Anonymous Christians.
The problem with this way of thinking is, that it is offensive—not to other Christians maybe, but definitely offensive to people of other faiths. It’s kind of a veiled criticism: “Gee, you are so good, I almost thought you were Christian!” You see how off-putting that sounds? You are refusing to accept those of other religious faiths on their own terms. You are refusing to honor their religious identity. How would you like it, if someone thought of you as an anonymous Muslim? Or an anonymous Hindu?
Ok. So that doesn’t work either. But how about this? You think of the other people around that table as evolving Christians. The author of a book I read recently actually believes that every non-Christian on this planet is on the way to becoming Christian. We Christians just have to wait for the non-Christians to catch up with us. Actually that is probably more off-putting than regarding people of other faith traditions as anonymous Christians. As you have already figured out, this is not going to get you very far in the mutual understanding and peace-making process, either.
Maybe you come to the table with the best of open minded intentions. You come to the table believing that all religious folk, hold to a kernel of truth that is common to all faith traditions. You come to the table ready to strip away the particularities of your religion and discover what that common truth is. So for instance, the Golden Rule—you know, love your neighbor as yourself—is foundational to all religions.
There is a problem with that, though. To get to that kernel, you will have to strip away Jesus Christ, just as the Muslim at the table will have to strip away Mohammad. Is that alright? Is Christianity still Christianity without Jesus? Is the Muslim faith still the Muslim faith without Mohammad? In your desire to be open-minded, you may have to sacrifice your religious integrity.
No, according to Professor Geyer, if you are to make a serious go of mutual understanding and peace between and among the different faith traditions, you have to find that sweet spot between open-mindedness and close-mindedness. Not so close minded that you dismiss people of all faith traditions except your own and not so open minded that you let go your Christian integrity.
The way forward is this, again, according to Alan Geyer: You, as a Christian, representing other Christians, come to the table holding to the premise, and this is worth writing down on your bulletin: that revelation, for us, we who are Christians, Revelation is defined by Jesus Christ, but revelation is not confined to Jesus Christ. Let me say that again: Revelation is defined by Jesus Christ, but is not confined to Jesus Christ. In other words, you come to the table believing that God’s truth comes through Jesus, but also believing that people of other faith traditions, have also received God’s truth. If people of other faith traditions have also received God’s truth, then you, we must honor those other faith traditions. Indeed, it behooves you and all of us to learn something about those other faith traditions.
That kind of attitude, could, as Humphrey Bogart once said “be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” –a friendship based on mutual understanding and peace across he religious spectrum.
Going back to our scripture reading for today, the gospel writer John says. The true light that God sends into the world enlightens everyone. So be it.
Therefore, in this New Year, don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out and don’t be so narrow-minded that if you fall on a pin, you are blinded in both eyes!