Among the stories that stick in my mind from the year just past is the news of the recent death of Gwen Ifill, the PBS news anchorwoman. I always appreciated the respectful and fair-minded way in which Ifill facilitated discussions on live TV between people who often had very different opinions on a given topic.
Her ability to invite people to consider alternative ways of seeing things and to learn from those who differ in their worldview was noteworthy to me. And it is a skill sorely needed in a culture that seems to become ever more polarized in a number of important aspects of life, including religion. I have always found it ironic that for many people references to religion and the Bible are used as a way to close off dialogue and end conversations with others who don’t share their conclusions.
The worldview I have in mind is well-articulated in the bumper sticker I sometimes see when I’m in traffic: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And while I sincerely appreciate the respect for the Bible that slogan seeks to convey, at the same time I find in my reading of the Bible a lot to suggest that it is better thought of as tool to open up dialogue around important matters rather than quash it.
Think, for instance, of the way Jesus taught — in parables. If Jesus were primarily interested in force-fitting everyone into the same mold, it seems likely that he would have chosen to speak in proclamations and giving orders. Instead, he followed the rabbinic tradition of his day -- telling stories with open-ended conclusions, often ending them by asking a question or with an invitation to his hearers to think over what he has said: “He who has ears, let him ear.”
My point is simple. The Jesus we find in the Bible gives people latitude to ask questions, and loves them enough to allow them to think things through for themselves. In that way he makes it clear that healthy religious faith is all about cultivating a genuine spirit of openness, and the spiritual humility to recognize that when it comes to the deep things of God there is always more to learn. I’ve always appreciated the wisdom of St. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, who famously said: “If you are able to fully understand it, it is not God you contemplate.”
It was that willingness to learn, and respect for new discovery, that made me appreciate Gwen Ifill. And it causes me to remember that healthy religion is probably more about living with a sense of wonder than it is a rigid search to get God all figured out. Wishing you a year of growing spiritually for 2017.