When I was a teenager, I remember my youth pastor telling me, “be careful when you ask God to give you patience. God might just answer your prayer by giving you the opportunity to practice patience.”
I don’t remember asking God to give me patience, but I must have, because I recently found myself stuck in a room full of church leaders for an entire week. Being with church leaders is a perfect opportunity to practice patience because they are wonderfully annoying people. Chock-full of the regular angst of being human, they also come to the table feeling responsible for the collective angst of the human communities they serve. Regardless of the issue being discussed, it’s a recipe for frustration.
In this case, it wasn’t any particular theological belief that bothered me, it was the certainty of their convictions: the assurance that they were standing on the right side of history, and that given time, the entire world would come to see things their way. Having been raised in a fundamentalist church, I have developed an allergic reaction to indubitableness across theological and social-political spectrum. Certainty gives me hives.
As the anthropologist Wade Davis writes, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” I suspect the same might be true of theological cultures within our church. Other theologies (ways of reading the Bible, sources of moral authority, liturgical practices) are not failed attempts as being your theology; they are unique manifestations of the Holy Spirit-each offering potential gifts of insight to the other, and each baring within it significant limitations.
However, this requires a stance of openness to the other that would allow for the possibility that in our encounter with the other, our own perspective might be legitimately challenged and potentially changed. Insofar as we preclude this possibility we are engaged not in dialogue, but in proselytism. True dialogue requires patience: patience to listen, patience to sit with uncomfortable truths, patience to recognize that we are not the ones responsible for drawing the line that demarcates the right side of history.
As I sat for a week sincerely trying to listen to church leaders whose sense of surety had me scratching my arms, I had a sudden realization: am I not as certain as they are about my own stance of uncertainty? Is that not also a neatly marked out right side of history? Perhaps the indubitableness to which I was reacting was my own-more like an autoimmune disorder than an allergy.
Abba Anthony said: “I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on earth and I said with a sigh: ‘who can pass these by?’ and I heard a voice saying to me: ‘humble mindedness.'”