The Weakness of Changing our Minds
Something has really been nagging at me over the last three months. In conversations about a piece of legislation one of our Idaho representatives said that he was elected on the promise to vote a certain way on certain issues and he would listen to other viewpoints but he would not change his mind. It was a matter of principles and ethics to him. He made a promise and he wouldn’t let those people down.
On one side I can see his point. Its integrity.
And yet… maybe what it really was is a bad promise.
He essentially is saying that he refuses to imagine that anyone can present a compelling reason why his preformed opinions aren’t better than anything else he may encounter. He refuses to be wrong. He refuses to imagine another answer has more wisdom, is more informed, or makes more sense. He refuses to… think, grow, or allow any listening he might pretend to do to actually change him. He is immutable.
That word is important, I want to say more about it… so don’t lose track of it. But first I feel the need to be fair. He isn’t alone. In fact the only reason I’m not naming him is because we all are more than a little bit like him. It seems we have a cultural fascination with being right. We attach a moral righteousness to our opinions. And in such a world to admit that an idea we had wasn’t good is on par with acknowledging that we are bad people. Therefore we do battle over whose viewpoint is better and in such a battle to admit to any weakness means to lose. And not just on one issue… but maybe on everything. We begin to imagine that if we let go of one single proposition of our worldview the whole thing has to come crashing down. And so we entrench. We close our hearts and minds… and we double down on being right. And in this world we are NEVER really hearing another person. We are only listening for the flaw in their world that proves we were – as we knew – right all along.
I remember thinking once that why I like to share ideas is because I never know if the idea is any good until I take it out for a walk. In so far as I keep it to myself, I will always be right. I have not dared to be wrong. But being wrong doesn’t matter. In fact the best thinking I heard once about failure is that it’s a great diagnostic tool. It tells us what doesn’t work so that we can figure out why and come up with another idea that may move us forward. This is the way life works. Life has not survived the millennia by being unwilling to change. Adaptability is THE survival mechanism. Any organism – be it a form of life, a person, an institution, or a system – that is unable to adapt to a dynamic and shifting world… will die out. Any organism that wishes to live has to risk being wrong in the pursuit of learning, growth… and change.
For life – change is much like the air we breathe. Who can say when I became an adult? Most of the time I still don’t feel like one. But I guarantee you if I was today who I was at 21… I would be a poor husband, father, and pastor. I even liked who I was at 21. He was a good guy. But he had to change, grow, and learn. And in the course of the last (almost) twenty years I never said, “Today I’m going to grow up” … but I did. One slight adaptation after another. And that same work is still at work in me – and you – today, tomorrow, and to the end (and beyond… who knows – not me).
Let’s get theological for a moment. In the world of Judeo-Christian god-talk it doesn’t take long for someone to talk about what I like to call “the omni-God.” That God is omniscient, omnipresent, all powerful, and perfectly good… and immutable – God never changes.
I think this god is one of our most insidious idols. This is the God we imagine because this what we wish the world was. In our fantasies we wish the world never changed. But the world does and it’s so obvious that we cannot even pretend otherwise. So we project our need for something to be unchanging onto God… and we say God is immutable. And then we think we are to follow in God’s way and aspire to the same trait: that we are somehow stronger, more whole (and holy), and more right if we do not change. We idolize and become devoted to immutability and we call it integrity.
But the scriptures I read make a hard case against any such understanding of God. I would try to list all the counter examples but it would take all day and I do not want to get bogged down in “proving my opinion right” either. I’d invite you simply to read the arc of the story… a covenant with Noah to remind God (not us, God) of what God has promised never to do again… Moses changing God’s mind in the wilderness, God being willing to acquiesce to Israel’s demand for a king… God looking down in Isaiah and seeing something God didn’t expect and being disappointed and angry… and God announcing later that God is doing a new thing – the old has passed away… God’s heart kindled in Hosea to forgiveness again and again despite God’s decision to give up… the scattering and restoring; the destroying and rebuilding… Jesus moved to go beyond his people to the outsiders and non-Jews sometimes because he ends up on the losing side of an argument and sometimes because he is just awed by the faith he finds in the most unexpected places.
Scripture again and again also picks up on God being full of steadfast love… even that God IS love. Does this change? How can steadfast change? Steadfast isn’t however a direct synonym for unchanging. The idea that God is love may be a deep and abiding truth of the nature of God but the expression of the love changes constantly, must change constantly, because that is the nature of relationship and communal life. Even God learns… on the job, in the midst of covenantal promises.
Are we so much better that we must claim to have been right from the start?
It isn’t weakness to admit that you were wrong. Its courage. And I would like to think we can be a people of courageous love. I would like to think that I seek to elect and to follow courageous leaders. Not perfect leaders. Not unchanging leaders. Not cookie-cutter ideologues.
Unchanging leaders make people into dinosaurs… unchanging leaders in fact aren’t leaders at all. They are practitioners of sameness… and stagnation. I want leaders. People who will listen, and hear, and then lead us in love for the well-being of the human organism. People who will bring us together and give us the best opportunity for diagnosing the path towards greater life and love.
Show me those kind of leaders – I do not care what labels they may wear – and I’m ready to follow.