My Beliefs are on Pilgrimage

I view my Christian life as a “pilgrimage,” believing that as I walk, faithful to my present understanding of how I should live as a Christian, that very process of walking will lead to further insights as to how I should continue walking (Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk, p. 40).

A corollary of this dynamic view of living is that my beliefs, including that one, are also on pilgrimage. That somewhat scary thought came home to me during my recent reading of a marvelous book by Charles Mathewes titled A Theology of Public Life. Starting with an “Augustinian theology [that] sees love as the fundamental theological, ontological and psychological truth about reality” (p. 261), Mathewes presents a profound and demanding exposition (not casual beach reading) of a “theology of engagement” and a “liturgy of citizenship” that draws out the implications of faith, hope and love for our engagement with others in public life.

Particularly provocative is Mathewes’ suggestion that Christians should allow their beliefs to go on “public pilgrimages” (p. 281). He recognizes that this is risky business, as revealed in the following extended quote that beautifully exemplifies the dynamics of such public engagement.

This “riskiness” means … being willing to put one’s beliefs “into play” – that is, to offer them to the other as a means of shared understanding – a way for the two or more of you to understand the conversation (For example: in a discussion of capital punishment, you say, “well, in my tradition we talk about the need for justice always being framed by mercy.”) If you do this, and do it in a non-defensive manner, and if your interlocutor allows this interpretation to “play itself out,” and you do to, you will find that your beliefs are no longer simply yours, but have become something like “common property.” (Your interlocutor replies, “Yes, mercy – but mercy to whom? To the murdered? To the victim? To the victim’s family?”) And when you receive them back they may be slightly changed, modified here and there by the other’s handling of them, out of her or his (or their) own irreducible perspective and previous experience (pp. 280-281).

Mathewes is not arguing for a relativistic stalemate where any one belief on the issue at hand is as good as any other belief. But he is suggesting that your particular belief may be refined, even improved upon, by your engagement with someone who holds to a differing belief. In fact you may even be able to find some common ground in the midst of your differences.

And such engagement with those who disagree with you is indeed risky. It may take you out of your comfort zone. It may lead you to refine your beliefs in ways that will be viewed with suspicion by other Christians. It may cause you to question some present beliefs that you once thought were central to the Christian faith, but now you wonder because you have engaged some deeply committed Christians who believe otherwise. But Christians should embrace that risk, not run away from it, because creating a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you is a deep expression of what it means to love others, to which Jesus has called all Christians.

This extended quotation jumped out at me because it comports so well with my own focus on the need to hold in tension both commitment and openness in engaging those who disagree with me; commitment to what I now believe to be true, and openness to refining what I now believe to be true by listening and talking to those who disagree with me, because we all are finite, fallible human beings who do not have a  “God’s eye” view of “Truth.”

Mathewes proposal also comports well with my assertion that “you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation.” Of course, we could both be wrong. But, until I can be persuaded otherwise, I will continue my pilgrimage guided by that central belief.

If any readers of this musing have also read this book by Charles Mathewes, I welcome your comments, especially if you believe that my views are wrongheaded.