Monday, February 24, 2014

Which Sources Should I Trust?

This is my seminary blog post for the day.

We live in the information age. The glut of potential sources of information is overwhelming, even if amazingly beautiful. Gone are the days when you have to find a library to read a book. Also gone are the days when you can successfully insulate your children or congregation from ideas you consider to be dangerous.

With the internet close at hand, we are forced to become more discerning in how we filter information. Who do we trust? To whom are we going to listen? From person in the pew to minister, which source is right? So many of them seem so convincing, so confident that everyone else is wrong. Many even demonize those with differing positions on the issues.

We are all working out how to deal with this situation, but here are some beginning thoughts on the issue:

1. Faith seeking understanding
There is no reason to start from scratch. You may as well start on the assumption that the form of Christianity with which you are beginning, whatever it might be, is innocent until proven guilty. If you are Baptist, who are the voices to whom Baptists tend to listen? Are you Wesleyan, what are the voices to which Wesleyans like to listen?

No need to start over. If you know the kinds of people to whom your tribe listens, why not start by trusting those sources the most.

And perhaps we should mention that there’s a lot of interpretation that goes on in reading the Bible. Our first instinct is to say, “Well what does the Bible say on this issue?” But what we may not realize is that there are different ways to read the Bible and that these “ways of reading” are part of our traditions too. There is a certain circularity to the “just go to the Bible” idea. We inevitably go to the Bible with a certain way of going to the Bible. Inevitably, we find similar things to what everyone else reading the Bible that way finds.

The overwhelming majority of the churches in your city are reading the Bible, but they still disagree on what it means. Until we recognize that we all are wearing glasses when we read the Bible, we will never advance toward real understanding.

2. Phone a friend
Of course, you may not know what sources your tradition likes the most. Indeed, you may not really know what your tradition is. To be sure, there’s no such thing as a “blank slate” church. Every church represents a mixture of influences, even if it calls itself non-denominational. It probably baptizes a certain way and leans certain ways on certain issues. It probably has a position on tongues or women in ministry. It may say it is just reading the Bible, but its answers to these questions will quickly reveal what its underlying traditional influences are.

Who is someone you trust who has studied stuff? If you can think of someone like that, seek out their advice on good sources for whatever question you are pursuing.

3. God is bigger than one tradition.
If God’s first order of business was getting everyone’s head straight, there would probably be a single church that all the most godly people were in. And it would be obvious to anyone with the eyes of the Spirit that it was the one true Church. The fact that there is no such church suggests that God is primarily interested in our hearts rather than our heads.

But it also seems likely that each Christian tradition has a piece to add to the puzzle. It is human nature for us to go to extremes but is it possible that different Christian traditions preserve different emphases within the overall truth? Some may make God’s authority clearer than others. Some may make God’s love clearer than others.

The point is that you can recognize the strength of your own tradition–as well as perhaps its weaknesses–if you make it a discipline to read things also by traditions other than your own.

4. The more the merrier.
Every interpretation and argument you know makes you freer in what you think. If you have heard all the arguments to the contrary of your starting point, yet you remain convinced of where you started, then you hold that position more freely than you did to begin with. Chances are, the more angles you hear, the more sides you hear to the story, the more of a Christian hybrid you will become.

Don’t just look at one source of information. Listen to several. Figure out what the spectrum of positions are on a question before you reach a final answer.

5. Become an expert yourself.
The current American context is arguably one in which experts are almost distrusted simply for being experts. It’s as if popular opinion feels threatened by the very existence of individuals who know the most about a particular issue. But there are such things as experts, and you can become one on a particular topic. An expert is someone who thoroughly knows the issue, thoroughly knows the various positions that have been taken on the issue and why, and has come to an informed and reasoned conclusion on that issue.

Anyone is welcome to have an opinion on an issue, but not every opinion counts as much as every other.

So these are some first thoughts on how to deal with the glut of information that now lies at our feet. Like someone who cannot distinguish a cacophony of sounds from each other, there can be so many voices that we can’t tell which one we should listen to. It is a skill that we will all need to develop in this age of information.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Good ideas.

For some reason, I cannot see anything of the four items in the right column, about books you have written, etc., except the four titles, which are only titles -- they aren't links. (No books are listed) I'm using Firefox under Windows 8.1.