As someone once said:
“The only way to prove that you still have a mind is to change it occasionally.”
While the statement is meant to be humorous, I want to ask about the potential truth within it.
The question is this: Is there a link between wise and winsome people—the people we would like to emulate—and the ability to change one’s thinking on important issues over time?
In some cases, the answer would seem to be “No.”
After all, it is quite possible to change one’s mind for the worse. No one is born a racist, a proponent of “all natural deodorant,” or an Oakland Raiders fan. So there is nothing inherently good in simply reaching a new conclusion. Sometimes it’s bad.
Likewise, it is possible to “flip-flop” to a fault, changing majors fifteen times within a college career, or being like the wafflers in the lowest level of Dante’s Paradiso, who are “inconstant in their vows.” (The kids love Dante!)
Despite this, I think most would say that the willingness to change one’s mind, and to admit publically that one was wrong, is a rare virtue in a world of ossified opinions and stick-to-your-guns stubbornness.
After all, there are no points for going down with your ideological ship once it hits the iceberg of Reality.
And for Christians, the ability to change one’s thinking is actually a command.
In the New Testament, the Greek compound for “repentance” (meta–noia) can be translated literally as a “change of mind.” Yet while Martin Luther once claimed that the whole of life should be characterized by this humble action (see his 95 theses), few would claim that Christians are particularly known for this.
More commonly, we are known for close-mindedness. And while the label can be unfair (note: the intolerance of the “tolerant”; see here), sometimes we earn it.
So how do we change that?
AN UNUSUAL CHAPEL SERIES
When I was in seminary, the director of the chapel program dedicated an entire semester of Friday sermons to a series called: “I Changed my Mind.”
Then, he invited respected professors to give messages on how they came to think differently about an important theological or social issue. As far as I remember, some of the offerings included:
- “Women in ministry leadership.”
- i.e., I used to think the Bible forbade it; now I don’t.
- i.e., I used to think that Republicans were basically “God’s party”; now I don’t.
- “War and Peace.”
- i.e., I used to believe that the New Testament required pacifism; now I espouse a cautious version of Just War theory.
In the end, the purpose of the series was not to get everyone to agree, but to show how serious believers had wrestled with a particular issue, and then come to the conclusion that they had been wrong.
So they changed their minds.
In no case did this happen because they lost an argument. And in zero instances did it happen in the post apocalyptic world of internet comment boxes–where civil discourse goes to die.
Yet the series was meant (I suppose) to show students that even smart people need to continually re-examine their assumptions, entertain opposing views, and be willing to change if evidence demands it.
None of us have “arrived.”
All facts are friendly.
And as Luther argued, meta-noia ought to characterize the whole of life.
In terms of education, I love the words of Rosaria Butterfield:
“Good teachers make it possible for students to change their minds without shame.”
I hope to embody that this semester.
HOW I’VE CHANGED
But what about my own views? Despite remaining relatively constant in core commitments, I’ve also experienced mind change. And not just “way back then.”
In my discipline, I started a doctoral dissertation with the intent of blaming Augustine of Hippo for any number of deficiencies within the western intellectual tradition. I ended up with a rather different conclusion.
In politics, my once predictable midwestern/evangelical views have become much more complex. Thus I now find myself as a faculty sponsor for a student group called the College Independents. (Because picking between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sounds like being asked to choose your favorite cancer (See here and here for more on that).)
In parenting, I was once adamant that my kids would go to public school “just like I did.” And while our daughter will start public kindergarten this week, our current philosophy is more fluid: As in, we’ll see how it goes and reevaluate based on the “situation on the ground.” No more dogmatism. Do what works for you. (But seriously, let’s pay public school teachers more; my home state of Oklahoma should be ashamed.)
So in some cases, the humorous quote has merit: The only way to prove that you still have a mind is to change it occasionally.
Now two questions:
On what important issue have you changed your mind?
And how did that happen?