My Doxology is better than yours (part 3): Humility/desperation is a key to cognitive openness

The metaphor of the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:14-27) explicitly articulates the need to value different perspectives, remain cognitively open and be ideologically interdependent. Indeed, Hans Boersma writes that ideological interdependence is essential to obtaining truth: “The idea of direct and complete access to [truth] is an arrogant illusion that violates the multifaceted integrity of the created world.”[i] In his book on philosophical hermeneutics, Merold Westphal uses John Godfrey Saxe’s clever poem The Blind Men and the Elephant to illustrate that our theological perspective is incomplete without the input from others. The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan To learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind), That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant, And happening to fall Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl: "God bless me! but the Elephant Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried, -"Ho! what have we here So very round and smooth and sharp? To me 'tis mighty clear This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal, And happening to take The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake: "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand, And felt about the knee. "What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain," quoth he, "'Tis clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: "E'en the blindest man Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can, This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun About the beast to grope, Then, seizing on the swinging tail That fell within his scope, "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!

About this poem Westphal writes, “Here the multiplicity of interpretations stems not from the indeterminacy of the object but from the way it exceeds the ability of any limited perspective to grasp it in its totality. Each man’s perspective (tradition?) enabled him to grasp an aspect of the elephant that the others failed to grasp. So each was ‘partly in the right’ as a perspective without which the truth about the elephant could not be told. But ‘all were in the wrong’ because they took their partial grasp for the whole.”[ii] It is worth noting that to value differing perspectives does not require an extreme and careless commitment to relativism. Westphal cautions that “the possibility of necessary multiplicity does not open the door to just anything. None of the six blind men had warrant to say that the elephant was like a keyboard or a filing cabinet.” (p. 26).

To remain cognitively open to, earnestly listen to and value the perspectives of other cultural groups requires an interpretive humility that is rarely seen in the body of Christ. We’re most likely to adopt this posture when we’re at the end of our rope and only the wisdom from another cultural group can save us. That was certainly the case for Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis, MN. By the mid-1990s, the once-strong church was experiencing the effects of the urban decline that affected much of America. Enticed by suburban life, over 1000 Bethlehem attendees had moved to out of the inner city and begun attending suburban churches. The church leaders were in dire straits; not willing to go down without a fight, they began looking for help. They found it in an unexpected place: among Southern Baptists.  Admittedly, the church leaders were skeptical when they heard of the Purpose-driven Church conference at Saddleback Church in Southern California. They grumbled to themselves, “What? Lutherans learn from Southern Baptists? Not likely…” There was real hesitancy on the part of the staff and elder board, but they ultimately felt the Spirit prompting them to attend the conference.  According to Pastor Christopher Nelson their foray into the Southern Baptist world did not begin well. During the first session of the conference, Pastor Nelson and the other leaders found themselves distracted by their sharp disagreement with Pastor Rick Warren’s theology. However, during the first coffee break the Bethlehem team got together and made a conscious collective decision to adopt a humble stance. “We had to lay down our Lutheran biases. We knew that if we insisted on fighting with him [Pastor Warren] over what’s theologically correct, we were going to miss everything that we came out there for,” Pastor Nelson says.

The leadership team returned to Minnesota armed with a new approach for doing urban church and a teaching-style that was not only biblically and theologically sound and relevant to the congregation (as it was prior to attending the conference), but also application-oriented directed toward life change. Since then, the church attendance has rebounded, giving has more than tripled and the church is now making a strong impact, with people serving in the community and across the world.

As the trail-blazing pastor of the first mainline church to adopt the Purpose-driven Church model, Chris Nelson has learned the importance of crossing theological and ideological divides in order to learn from and teach each other. “Rick Warren calls me his liberal Christian friend and I call him my conservative Christian friend. We’ve had some interesting political conversations, but we don’t have to agree on everything…he says some things that make my skin crawl, but so did Martin Luther.” Even though his church remains “as Lutheran and liturgical as the day is long,” Pastor Nelson now teaches the Purpose-driven Church model to Lutheran churches as far as India, saying “Evangelicals really know how to communicate and know how to do church, so someone tell me what is wrong with that? Why can’t we learn from that?”

Next post on identity as a key to cognitive openness.


[i] Boersma, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross, P.104

[ii] Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, p. 26