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Dogmatism, Open-mindedness, and Other Intellectual Virtues and Vices

Dogmatism, Open-mindedness, and Other Intellectual Virtues and Vices

This was the title of a course I had proposed for the life-long learning program at Wilfrid Laurier University last year. The healthy enrollment in the class and the lively discussions in the six-week lecture series that followed suggested a deep awareness of the need for intellectual virtues like open-mindedness, intellectual fairness, integrity of mind, intellectual courage, tolerance, and intellectual generosity. There would also seem to be a growing concern about the parallel intellectual vices. I have since wondered whether we need to pay more attention to intellectual virtues and vices in the church.

This prompts a further question as to whether a Christian worldview supports the intellectual virtues that appear in philosophical treatments of this subject.[i]  Is the topic of intellectual virtues and vices broached in the books of the bible? Perhaps surprisingly, once one reads the bible with these questions in mind, one discovers that there are many relevant examples and admonitions to uphold intellectual virtues and avoid intellectual vices. In this essay I will focus on open-mindedness and its related intellectual virtues and vices.

The concepts of open-mindedness and closed-mindedness come up repeatedly in various contexts in our Scriptures. Jesus, in explaining the parable of the sower to his disciples, draws on Isaiah to provide a penetrating analysis of a closed mind: “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding; you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”[ii] Jesus, like the prophet Isaiah, was speaking to the people of Israel and was bemoaning their inability to really hear God’s message. Even their eyes were prevented from seeing things in proper perspective. And at the root of such closed-mindedness were hearts that didn’t allow ears and eyes and minds to function properly.

Paul similarly draws on Old Testament writers to describe eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear.[iii] He speaks of the godless and wicked as suppressing the truth about what can be known about God in nature (Rom 1:18): “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). Elsewhere the problem of closed-mindedness is colorfully described in terms of men and women creating intellectual silos, gathering “around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3).

But what exactly do we mean by open-mindedness and closed-mindedness? I fear that in today’s postmodern culture there are a number of misconceptions surrounding open-mindedness. For example, there is a danger of equating open-mindedness with empty-mindedness. The problem here is that there are no empty minds. We all have convictions and perspectives, and a coherent definition of open-mindedness must do justice to this fact.

There is also a danger of becoming too open-minded. G.K. Chesterton, in his “Autobiography,” describes H. G. Wells as a man who “reacted too swiftly to everything,” who was “a permanent reactionary,” and who never seemed able to reach firm or settled conclusions of his own. Chesterton goes on: “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” What is needed is a definition of open-mindedness that balances having convictions with a willingness to review and revise these convictions in the light of further exploration, new evidence, and new arguments. I like to call it “committed openness.”[iv]

There is a place for being committed and having settled convictions. Jesus warns about a time when “many will turn away from the faith,” and then commends the one “who stands firm to the end.”[v]  Paul too admonishes about being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph 4:14). Stability in beliefs should characterize the mature believer. Indeed, there are frequent references in the epistles to holding firmly to the basic teachings of the gospel.[vi] Of course, there is a danger of being too firm in the way one holds one’s beliefs; this is the vice of intellectual closed-mindedness, leading in turn to dogmatism.  Again, what is needed is a delicate balance between having convictions and being open to reevaluating these convictions when we encounter new evidence and arguments.

Humility and Holding Beliefs Lightly

On occasion I have heard Christians talk about “holding our beliefs lightly” as a way of countering the danger of closed-mindedness and dogmatism. Now there is something right about holding our beliefs lightly. We need to be open to re-evaluating our beliefs. But it is possible to hold our beliefs too lightly. Paul aptly describes this problem in terms of men and women who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). Paul also warns about an “unhealthy interest in controversies” and “foolish and useless arguments,” which once again prevent us from coming to settled conclusions.[vii] What is needed is a “proper confidence” in our beliefs, not holding on to them too doggedly, but also not giving them up too easily.[viii] The latter could be called the vice of intellectual flabbiness. Related is the intellectual vice of hyper-criticism, exemplified by Chesterton’s friend who was “a permanent reactionary.” [ix]

There is another intellectual virtue closely related to open-mindedness—the virtue of intellectual humility. Scripture has a lot to say about pride and humility generally. For example, Peter quotes one of the proverbs: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”[x] But there is a proverb that focuses specifically on intellectual pride, suggesting that there is more hope for a fool than for “a man wise in his own eyes” (Prov 26:12).

Paul, in the middle of an insightful expose of love, highlights the fleeting nature of human knowledge. “[W]here there is knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Cor 13:8). Twice he reminds us that we only “know in part” (vss. 9, 12). We are also reminded that at the present time “we see but a poor reflection” (vs. 12). So it is simply wrong to arrogantly claim that one knows it all. I find it significant that these claims about knowledge are found in the middle of a chapter on love. Love isn’t boastful or arrogant, we are told earlier in this chapter (vs. 4). From this it follows that genuine love for another person will express itself in a humble sharing of one’s present understanding of truth. Here again this doesn’t mean that one tries to hide under a cloak of supposed neutrality. No, love is open and honest about convictions. But this must be combined with humility and a willingness to learn from the other person, even as one shares one’s own convictions.

Love of Truth

There is, finally, an all-encompassing intellectual virtue that embraces and undergirds the virtue of open-mindedness and its related intellectual virtues–the love of knowledge and truth. Jesus spent much of his time trying to get his disciples to grow in understanding. There are times where Jesus responds to his disciples’ incomprehension of his teaching in obvious frustration: “Are you still so dull?” (Matt 15:16). Paul similarly chastises the Christians at Corinth for not being ready digest a more solid diet of teaching.[xi] In his final discourses, Jesus promises “the Spirit of truth,” which will guide you into all truth (John 16:13). As if to emphasize the importance of truth, Jesus repeatedly uses the expression “Truly I tell you.”[xii] There are literally hundreds of references to “truth” or “true” in the New Testament, and many warnings about error and deceit. Paul repeatedly holds up as an ideal growing in knowledge and understanding.[xiii] So it would seem that knowledge and truth are important. And the search for knowledge and truth is perhaps even more important.

In today’s postmodern climate, the notion of truth has fallen into hard times. But I would remind the deniers of truth that their position is self-refuting. To deny truth is in fact to affirm that one has the truth. Another fundamental confusion surrounding skepticism about truth is the failure to distinguish between truth as an ideal, and the human search for truth. As human beings we need to be very careful about making claims to be in possession of Truth with a capital “T.” We are after all finite, fallible and sinful beings who only have a partial grasp of the truth (1 Cor 13:9, 12). But this fact should not stop us from searching for the truth. Indeed, we have an obligation always to be searching for the truth. That is why the intellectual virtue of humility is so important–it is a recognition that my present partial affirmations of truth might be in need of correction. And that is also why open-mindedness is so important—while we are temporarily committed to a certain understanding of what is true, we should always be open to a better and more complete understanding of the truth.

Elmer J. Thiessen is a semi-retired philosopher, having taught at Medicine Hat College (Alberta, Canada) for 36 years. His earlier publications include Teaching for Commitment, and In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993; 2001), For the last decade or so he has been writing on the ethics of evangelism. His first book on this topic, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion, was published by Paternoster Press and by IVP Academic in 2011. The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism, was published by Cascade Books early in 2018. A slightly longer version of this essay can be found on Elmer’s personal website, here.

A self-evaluation tool on intellectual virtues and vices

For each of the following statements, answer yes, no, or unsure/maybe.

  1. I care deeply about discovering knowledge and finding the truth, even when I know the truth will hurt.
  2. I welcome criticisms of my beliefs.
  3. I readily admit that I am wrong when I discover that I have an incorrect belief.
  4. I regularly read newspapers, books and articles that articulate political, social, and religious viewpoints that run counter to my own convictions.
  5. I very seldom take criticisms of my beliefs personally.
  6. I never resort to bad-mouthing people I disagree with.
  7. I feel strongly that my beliefs need to match up with reality beyond my mind and opinions.
  8. I delight in sharing what I have come to know with others. Indeed, on important matters, I feel I have an obligation to do so.
  9. While I recognize the need to be stable about important beliefs at the centre of my belief system, I make it a point on occasion to read essays that call into question my worldview.
  10. While I value the need to think critically about beliefs, I readily admit that belief comes before doubt, and that it is possible to be too preoccupied with being critical and skeptical.

Now give a numerical value to each of your answers – 1 for yes; ½ for unsure/maybe; 0 for no. Then total your numerical values. The total out of 10 gives the % grade for your having the intellectual virtues of open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and a desire for knowledge and truth.

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