This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted over the weekend.
- by Rev. Chris Corbin -
Rev. Chris Corbin is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church from the Florida Conference currently under appointment as a doctoral student in theology at Vanderbilt University. His primary research interests relate to establishing a robust theological notion of the nature and mission of the church in the world. He is incredibly interested in ecumenical work, exploring new models of theological education, and helping to reclaim a distinctively Wesleyan way of being Christian in contemporary society.
I believe in angels.
Ok, so maybe I’m not ready to fully affirm that I believe in angels, but I’m at least very, very open to a spiritual realm that is not reducible to phenomena in material reality. Now, I didn’t always think this way. All throughout high school and college I tended to think of myself as sophisticated and modern in my religious belief. I believed in God, of course, but God was the only spiritual reality you’d find me entertaining. Angels and demons were relics of a pre-modern, pre-scientific, mythological worldview, and they were about as necessary or helpful for Christian belief as a literal six day creation or talking donkeys.
All of this changed about five weeks into my second semester of seminary. Being lucky enough to go to a school where faculty regularly joined the students for lunch, I had just sat down to what I as sure was going to be an incredibly intellectually stimulating conversation with Denys Turner, my medieval theology professor. As was pretty par for the course with Denys, the conversation spanned just about the whole of human knowledge, winding from Thomas Aquinas’ anthropology to drinking with English Methodists. For some reason, toward the end of the conversation, the topic of guardian angels came up. In no uncertain terms, Denys Turner proclaimed that of course he believed that he had a guardian angel.
At the time I didn’t think much about that comment. If it registered at all, I probably just chalked it up to being one of those eccentricities that so often accompanies brilliance. But for whatever reason, as time went on, his comment stuck with me. I found myself wondering where such a strong opposition to belief in angels really came from. I came to realize that it wasn’t because I believed the arguments for the existence of angels didn’t stack up—I had just somehow internalized the perspective that intelligent and sophisticated Christians didn’t believe in angels (it’s probably safest to just blame Bultmann). But here was Denys Turner, a man who was clearly much more intelligent and sophisticated in his thinking than I, a man who had been instrumental in Marxist-Christian dialogue and so clearly no stranger to contemporary thought, believing in angels. I was forced to face the fact that it is entirely possible to be an intelligent, sophisticated Christian thinker and believe in angels. Not only this, but because I respected Denys Tuner so much, I began considering whether or not I should actually believe in angels. I found myself questioning the nature of the my view of the Bible, Christian tradition, and the relationship of modern worldviews to both. I eventually realized that, while I wasn’t going to stake my life on a belief in angels, I was becoming more and more open to the existence of a spiritual realm.
At this point I’d expect you to be wondering why I’ve spent so much time telling this rather trivial and—I’m sure some of you are thinking—completely irrelevant story. This anecdote has become for me something of an archetype for what I’ve come to hold about how we as people change our minds. I would put forward that most of the time, logical arguments, no matter how well constructed or substantiated by evidence, do not on their own actually alter people’s beliefs and worldviews. Instead, I would say that most of the time people change their minds and then seek out arguments that support their new views. At the very least, people have to become open to the possibility of the thing being argued for before an argument for that conclusion can be persuasive. Furthermore, I would posit that what causes these changes in belief, or at least what moves a person from a place of entrenched belief to one of openness to other perspectives, is some experiences that disrupts the coherence of one’s securely held belief. In my example, I came into the conversation thinking that the group of people who believed in angels was completely separate from the group of people who are sophisticated Christian thinkers. Sitting face to face with someone who clearly belonged to both groups forced me to reconsider whether the way I had divided up the world was entirely accurate.
Of course, all this runs quite contrary to the way that many of us see ourselves. We have been trained to think of ourselves as completely logical thinkers, as people who, if just presented with the right facts and sound, cogent arguments, would clearly see the errors in our judgment and fix our worldviews accordingly. However, regardless of whether or not this is how we as people would like to be able to approach the world, or whether or not this is how we should approach the world, I don’t think this is really how any of us do approach the world. Almost any particular belief a person holds is not the result of disinterested, logical reasoning, but rather is tied up in all sorts of other factors ranging from fears about our own physical well being to the need for a secure identity. This is not to say that we are not being “reasonable” in holding beliefs that are determined by all of these sorts of other factors; it is precisely our rationality, our ability to form sophisticated and plausible arguments for any number of untrue pictures of reality, that so often prevents people from being convinced by arguments against their deeply held beliefs.
Far too often, I feel that the approach to fighting for full LGBTQ inclusion in the United Methodist Church begins with this assumption that well-reasoned argument is alone sufficient to convince people of the truthfulness of our position. This tactic seems to say: If people only had all the right information, then they would see the errors of their reasoning, change their positions, and now support full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. While such a tactic has certainly convinced some people to support full inclusion, more often than not, I’d say that it fails to gain much traction among those who staunchly hold to the idea that anything other than heterosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Faced with such unwavering opposition, the more optimistic among us will often say, “Ah, our arguments must just not be clear enough, or they must not be reaching a wide enough audience, or we need better and more persuasive ones,” and then set to work clarifying, distributing, or constructing. The more pessimistic among us might become convinced of the seeming futility of the whole exercise and start thinking that those opposed to full inclusion are fundamentally so intellectually or morally defective that they are beyond hope—i.e., they are too unintelligent to understand the arguments or have allowed themselves to be too blinded by prejudice, bigotry, and hatred to accept them.
I can’t accept either of these conclusions. Even if we were to finally arrive at arguments with only the strongest biblical, theological, and scientific behind them, presented to every single person on this planet in the clearest possible language, I still do not think that they would have enough force on their own to convince those who have made up their minds against the conclusion. At the same time, I will not concede that inability to receive these arguments stems necessarily from a moral or intellectual defect (I have known people who are exceptionally intelligent and otherwise incredibly saintly and yet do not support full inclusion), and I am unwilling to believe that we must resign ourselves to the fact that those who remain staunch in their opposition will always remain that way or that there is nothing we can do to help convince them otherwise. Instead, if I’m right that people—all people—aren’t argued out of their deeply held beliefs, but rather change their beliefs or become open to changing their beliefs as a result of experiences that upset their worldview, then we need to stop figuring out how we can best argue and begin thinking how we can best provide worldview disrupting experiences.
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This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted over the weekend.