I spend a lot of time mulling things over. Those who know me well know that I want to figure it all out. They know that I am not spending all of my energy to get a gold star, build an audience, or start arguments. Sure, part of my tenacity in hunting down the best answers I can is because of the thrill of discovery, the joy of mental activity, but that is not my primary motivation, my primary motivation is a belief that paying close attention to difficult problems is at the heart of living the godly life, commonly referred to as ethics. In other words, the search for answers leads to healthy spiritual formation.
In my search I have discovered some things that help me keep my humility and drive me to respect those who are different than I; these discoveries must, in my opinion, are foundational for any discussion of controversial topics.
1. I cannot see the world "as it is," even my understanding of things I observe is an interpretation. I believe that this is a blessing from God and that it can allow us to understand even the most chaotic and complicated events and to discover God's work in the world in fresh ways all of the time.
2. You are in the same boat, even if you don't recognize it.
3. Just because I cannot know the world "as it is" does not mean that there are no bad answers. Though finding the one right answer or interpretation is a phenomenon limited to fields with strict boundaries, like most maths and some "hard" sciences. Indeed, when I believe that I have the single right answer it is often a signal that I am caught up in my own purposes, there are a nearly infinite number of wrong or invalid answers. If I asked "Who wrote the declaration of independence?" The answer "Caterpillar" would be invalid, yet the answer is more complicated than "Thomas Jefferson" since there were numerous previous documents from all over the US which provided the rough materials from which it was constructed. This is especially true when it comes to interpreting the Bible, and part of respecting the word is not reducing it to easy answers but allowing ourselves to first explore the range of valid interpretations as best we can and to reject invalid interpretations.
4. We as people are psychologically incapable of retaining our disgust and indignation over the sins of others without allowing that disgust and indignation to form the lens through which we see them. On the other hand, Jesus ate with the most disgusting types of people, rejecting disgust as a valid lens through which to deal with sexual and financial sinners (among others). On the other hand, Jesus seems to reverse his policy when it comes to the religious leaders who claim to have all of the right answers and burden their followers with the weight of their opinions as if those opinions were the word of God.
5. God does not demand that people get all of the answers right, rather Jesus spoke of himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Light, standing in the place of all of the lesser truths and guiding us to the Father. We do not have to worry so much about being intellectually perfect as we do about being virtuous.
6. In a world where most answers are either valid or invalid, and in which God favors virtue over correctness, we are tasked with the virtue of intellectual humility. That means we must be ready to doubt our own interpretations as absolute truth and to accept the interpretations of others as potentially valid until all reasonable doubt as been removed. This does not mean that we jump ship to every new idea, that would be the intellectual vice commonly referred to as waffling, rather it means that we passionately defend our beliefs and allow others to do the same without casting aspersions on them as people and while recognizing that we may be wrong. For those of us who have been wrong a lot, it is not hard to imagine that we might be missing something.
7. We try to find the best paths to biblical understanding through historical and literary study, respecting the fact that God meant something in the past and that understanding what he was saying to them in their language and shaped by their context can help us understand what he is saying now: that process is called interpretation.
8. Sometimes we come to a place where many interpretations appear valid, even some that seem to conflict. When we face this dilemma, we must choose the answer which tends to result in being formed into the image of Christ, noting that we still may not be on the same page.
9. We should always start with the assumption that others are doing their best with the tools they have.
10. Though we may choose to defend our perspectives in the course of a conversation, we must always try to move beyond the arguments and answers of others by looking for ways in which we might answer the questions better than they. I often find the interpretations of others unsatisfying, yet there are times when I see that, though their arguments are not valid as they are, I could make a valid argument myself.
When we first begin to search according to this perspective, it can seem like mental gymnastics, but as we stretch ourselves, it becomes natural and we tend to become better people.
This list is incomplete, and I am sure that clarifications are in order, but we have to start somewhere.