It was one of those life-saving thoughts that creep into a person’ mind and saves them from thinking or doing or saying something stupid.
I still remember it. It was as if a switch went off, channeling my mind from a narrow view to a broader view. That re-routed way of thinking would enrich my life many times over.
Even years later, when I think about that “switch,” I shudder to think what would have happened had my old perspective instead have rutted itself further into my thinking.
I see people around me that have stayed fixated in rutted thinking and homes traumatized unnecessarily by failure to escape the frame of mind.
I had been coming back to a closer relationship with Jesus. I was spending more time in early morning Bible study and prayer and wrestling with God’s love and will for me. At times, I poured out my soul like Daniel did in Daniel 9 realizing in a deeper way my sin and the sin of my church and nation. It was a life-changing time. I could see where I had turned from God’s thinking and lifestyle and what it had cost myself and others.
It was a precious and gracious time of overwhelming reaffirming grace.
My wife generally appreciated this rekindled spiritual experience but on a couple of issues she thought I was a little too intense, even at times misguided and even missing the more justice side of God.
As she remained resistant to some of my new thinking and living I began to I wonder if I had the courage to lead, to take ownership, to be the “man” of the house. As I wrestled with this, I slowly began to question her moral thinking.
I quickly moved from wondering about her and seeing my “rightness” to seeing her as hardheaded, resistant and rebellious.
One day, as I was deep in my pity party of moral righteousness wondering why she got so wrong so fast, I happened to glance past the immediate issue and got a a sudden wholistic view of my wife. I realized she was one of the kindest people I knew: dependable and loving. She was compassionate, deeply willing to serve me and her family. She spent time with Christ and supported others generously with her money and wisdom. She had married me at one of the lowest points in my life and really helped me get back on track. If anyone had earned the right to a fair “trial” of ideas, it was her.
At the moment, a switch went off in my thinking. I could be right . . . but so could she. We had been watching a marriage DVD by Emerson Eggerich and something he said hit home. He was talking about the need for love and respect and that as men look down on their wives they started believing them to be ill-willed or evil. I could hear his words: “Your wife is not ill willed, she is just different.”
In that moment, a new way of thinking through differences came together for me. Years early I had read about Gandhi’s approach and I could see how my rightness was preventing me from seeing her rightness, and that we had to practice deeper the truth the “two shall become as one.”
It was not an easy journey from there, but finding a third way has become such a liberating aspect of my life . . . in my work with students, my colleagues, my detractors. It has made me more flexible and at the same time clearer about the non-negotiables. It has tamed some of my paranoia about others, while at the same time made me more eager to get issues out on the table and aired because I am confident that the gentle Holy Spirit is working with all of us who are willing to learn.
With King Nebuchadnezzar, I have come to believe the deep truth of Daniel 4:37:
“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
We each are most prideful of our rightness. We believe we have experienced and are in the right. That stubbornness gets subtly lodged in our minds and often becomes resistant to new understandings. We can get so rutted in that way of thinking that the only solution is seven years of eating grass like King Neb.
I know by personal experience. I also learned some hard lessons.
But I believe God’s preference was to guide me as He did that day, not with lots of pain or “exiling” but by a wink or guiding look from his eye (Psalms 32).
My wife and I now attempt to help others through that journey. It is life changing.
Being Right About Women’s Ordination
I don’t know if I need to explicate the application of this observation to the current debate on women’s ordination but just in case, I will state the way I connect it to this issue.
The short version:
“I know each side thinks they are right: really, really right. Of course, you are on the right side. You would change sides if you didn’t think you were. I know you will cite many wonderful ideas to justify you being right. I got that. You probably are correct . . . a little. But don’t let your rightness become a means to offend your sisters or brothers who are finding other moral wisdom equally valuable in this debate. Remember, your WEIRD (explained below) morality is not the only viable option. Living in only your rightness might lock you in your own narrow moral perspective.”
The long version:
Jonathan Haidt, in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics uses ethical intuitionism to explain why liberals and conservatives seem to talk past each on moral issues. He sees six fundamental moral values:
Using an evolution argument that is not compelling, he describes a portrait of moral sensibility that I do find compelling. He argues that his six moral “taste buds” frame most groups palate of morality (see also http://www.moralfoundations.org/).
- Care 2. Liberty 3. Fairness 4. Sanctity/Purity 5. Loyalty 6. Hierarchy/Authority
Liberals tend to favor the first two, interpreting the third, fairness, as equality. They don’t feel much moral gravity in the last three.
Conservatives appreciate the first two and have a view of fairness that focuses on just rewards and level playing fields, but have integrated the last three more into their palate of ethical intuition.
In very persuasive ways, Haidt shows how Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) moral views often miss the last three moral value frames that are much more appreciated by those in Eastern moral contexts. The independent, individualistic, rational approach is skeptical of the moral good created by groups that emphasize purity, loyalty, and respect for hierarchy and authority.
As a liberal himself, he shares how he slowly came to see the moral limits of his own moral approach to life and living. After 9/11 he understood better the loyalty & patriotic moral frames of others, and became more suspicious of the liberals argument for a claim on moral rightness.
He wonders, and so do I, if the liberals miss the richer moral repertoire that conservatives bring to an issue, the stabilizing views they bring to social-moral normative process. Yes, conservatives seem rigid when they want the group to decide by consensus. Yes, consensus can’t build everything, but a reading of Acts 15, suggest consensus plays a strong role in congregational moral development.
After working for nearly 20 years in higher education, I have come slowly to see the limits of my own community of professionals. Our WEIRD morality often backfires. By worshipping with good Christian women and men from diverse cultural, educational and political backgrounds, I have seen my life enriched and gained new perspectives, just like the day I began to see my wife’s varying views not as the capricious act of an ill-willed woman, nor as an act as an uninformed person, but as a valuable companion with a different moral frame of reference.
Can the left and right start seeing differently, toning their rhetoric to one of mutual moral respect?
Probably most will eventually, hopefully before it is too late to take the moral argument to a more fuller level.
I see the WEIRD argument as a very useful way to see the limits of a Southeastern California Conference decision as the only moral framework worth taking seriously in the debate with the General Conference “authoritative” command to not make a woman their president. Loyalty and authority are strong moral arguments. I applaud their moral courage and can even see them as loyal to a broader purpose. However, if they can’t see the moral goodwill of those who disagree with them, then we have a much worse problem. They will win the battle but ultimately undermine the moral war they claim to be part of.
Why? Because they seriously run the risk of limiting their moral repertoire, by undermining authority itself and even denying the moral world that is benefitted by people who emphasize purity, loyalty, and authority . I find it hard to respond when one side of the debate fosters a sweeping moral cynicism. It suggests a lack of growth.
Daniel 12: “Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.”
I think the self-righteous would be one group of wicked this passage could refer to. Those who are steeped in their own moral rightness often view themselves as having understanding and then cut themselves off from moral growth. Being cut off from the task of painful learning from those you differ from will stifle moral understanding faster than most actions.
I personally don’t see a need to keep women out of pastoral ministry—or any ministry, but to have more creative views of increasing our way of supporting and celebrating all kinds of calls to ministry.
What I don’t like is the absence of a Gestalt of humility that alone can counteract the strong tendency to moral hubris that shuts down the ability to learn.
I highly recommend that both sides read Haidt, take a deep breath and accept Eggerich’s basic argument not to see your brother or sister in Christ as ill-willed but different, and to give them a “fair” trial.
I think we are likely to find a richer moral experience as a church if we do. Since I lived through the thick of the Desmond Ford debates that rocked and eventually closed my church, I guess I am a little more willing to stand up to both sides this time around and remind them of the value of community.
I have done enough stupid things while strongly believing in my righteousness. My safeguard is to see some moral wisdom in most of my detractors. I find they are more right than I am at times. That insight keeps the moral myopia controlled a little more.