Two weeks ago I shared one of two important ways the parents of a Christian apologist named John Lennox modeled Christian love. The first was how they loved their enemies in a country wrought with sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. His father hired employees from both groups, and people even bombed his store for it and almost killed Lennox’s brother.
Here’s the second way his parents set an example of love, which was foundational to his trajectory as a Christian in academia:
The second thing is they loved me enough to give me space to think. Not only that. They encouraged me to think about the Christian worldview but also about other worldviews, and they encouraged me to read very widely so that, when I came up to university, I’d read not only of Christian arguments defending intellectually the voracity of the Christian faith, but I’d read quite a bit of philosophy and quite a lot of the opposition. So coming to Cambridge in 1962 I—in a sense—hit the ground running because I had read a great deal of stuff, and the basic conviction I had was [that] Christianity was true—not simply helpful or emotionally supportive but actually true.Stephen Meyer Interviews John Lennox about Going “Against the Tide from Discovery Science (available on YouTube)
“They loved me enough to give me space to think.”
I bet you’ve expressed something along the lines of “needing space to think” before. I’m not sure we always think of giving people space to think as an act of love, but people across the United States—in- and outside the evangelical church—are hungry right now for space to “think.”
What do I mean by “thinking?” I like how Alan Jacobs defines it in his book called How to Think as “testing your own responses by weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help” (p. 13).
This kind of thinking is not about simply voicing an opinion. The goal is to discover the truth with a group of people who share that desire, even if it means certain beliefs turn out to be wrong. But many people are finding themselves in places where they are unable to think out loud, ask questions, or simply say, “I don’t know what I think about that.” They fear losing relationships, even if evidence leads them to a different conclusion than their social group.
Groupthink Is Everywhere
This insularity doesn’t just occur in some communities of faith, although that’s the context of Lennox’s quote and my own writing. In 2018, I read an op-ed by a former anarchist who was “heavily involved with… radical leftist groups and organizations” in college. This student described their inability to think in their former social circle this way:
Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.“Everything Is Problematic” by Yarrow Eady in The McGill Daily
What happened when the student finally left?
Anti-intellectualism is a pill I swallowed, but it got caught in my throat, and that would eventually save me… Ever since I was a child, the pursuit of knowledge has felt like my calling. It’s part of who I am. I could never turn my back on it. At least not completely. And that was the crack through which the light came in. My love for deep reflection and systematic thinking never ceased… It had been a long while since I had the time and the freedom to just think. At first, I pulled on a few threads, and then with that eventually the whole thing unravelled. Slowly, my political worldview collapsed in on itself.“Everything Is Problematic” by Yarrow Eady in The McGill Daily
The aftermath was wonderful. A world that seemed grey and hopeless filled with colour. I can’t convey to you how bleak my worldview was.
In 2018, I discovered this op-ed cited in a book called The Coddling of the American Mind. To be honest with you, I wept while reading it, especially that part. Although this student and I have very different histories and worldviews, I resonated with their love for “deep reflection and systematic thinking” and desire for a community to ask questions about complex issues.
When I read the student’s piece, I was in seminary and also learning and metabolizing a lot of new information. This season challenged a lot of my beliefs. Most of them weren’t Christian doctrines, but my exposure to new people and viewpoints added complexity to the ways I perceived and interpreted the world. (I shared a small window into this season of my life last week.)
I needed—and still need—people who just “loved me enough to give me space to think,” as Lennox said about his parents. I believe we all need relationships like this right now where we can think out loud without fear of people severing ties with us for asking questions or changing our minds.
But that’s only one side of the equation.
Receptivity and Confrontation
Christian love gives people space to think. But 1 Corinthians 13:6 says Christian love also “rejoices in the truth.” We need people who love us enough to disagree with us and explain why they disagree. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” When they believe we’re wrong or thinking poorly, truly faithful friends challenge our thoughts or actions while affirming their love for us.
So I hope it’s clear that “by loving people enough to give them space to think,” I do not mean we become relativists. Not only is relativism not Christian love, as I already explained; it’s also incoherent. I saw a framed sign in a store several months ago that said, “Have a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little. I’m fairly attached to the idea that a chair will hold me if I sit in it. I’m strongly attached to the belief that murder is wrong. It would take a lot to convince me otherwise. Do you see how quickly that kind of approach to truth falls apart?
We all have some dogmas or convictions we hold more tightly than others, and those dogmas bond us to communities. That’s not a bad thing. Jacobs wrote in How to Think,
To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”Alan Jacobs in How to Think, p. 37
I haven’t been able to say with confidence I “think for myself” since reading Jacobs’ book because I think he’s right: “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.” This is why churches can have statements of faith and love people enough to give them space to think and ask questions. Churches aren’t the only communities with statements of faith. Visit the websites of organizations like Black Lives Matter or The Women’s March, and you’ll find statements of belief about the way the world is and what ought to be done about it. Humans can’t escape making them, even if they they aren’t religious.
I have beliefs I hold tightly, and it would take a lot of evidence to persuade me to change them. I also have beliefs I hold more loosely. But loving people enough to give them space to think about their beliefs does not threaten mine. If I’m committed to truth, loving people in this way will even sharpen or correct my beliefs.
In her memoir The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield recounts her conversion to Christianity from her self-described “secular feminist” (p. 2) and “historical materialist worldview” (p. 8). A Presbyterian pastor (Ken) and his wife (Floy) played a large role in her story, and she wrote about them,
In spite of having a worldview that valued flexibility, unanswerable Big Life Questions started to nag at me… I came to my culture and its values through life experience but also through much research and deep thinking. I liked Ken and Floy immediately because they seemed sensitive to that. Even though obviously these Christians and I were very different, they seemed to know that I wasn’t just a blank slate, that I had values and opinions too, and they talked with me in a way that didn’t make me feel erased… Ken and Floy didn’t identify with me. They listened to me and identified with Christ.Rosaria Butterfield in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, pp. 6, 10-11
They loved Butterfield enough to listen and give her space to think, but they also did not feel the need to check their convictions at the door. This is Christian love in practice. In his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen calls these two sides of Christian love “receptivity” and “confrontation.” The love (or “hospitality”) Nouwen describes in the following passage is what I believe drew Butterfield to Ken and Floy Smith (I’ve bolded what I think are some important points, too):
Reaching out to others without being receptive to them is more harmful and helpful… Really honest receptivity means inviting the stranger into our world on his or her own terms, not ours. When we say, ‘You can be my guest if you believe what I believe, think what I think, and behave as I do, we offer love under a condition or for a price. This leads easily to exploitation, making hospitality into a business. In our world in which so many religious convictions, ideologies, and lifestyles come into increasing contact with each other, it is more important than ever to realize that it belongs to the essence of a Christian spirituality to receive our fellow human beings into our world without imposing our religious viewpoint on them as a condition for love, friendship, and care…Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
But receptivity is only one side of hospitality. The other side, equally important, is confrontation. To be receptive to the stranger in no way implies that we have to become neutral ‘nobodies.’ Real receptivity asks for confrontation because space can only be a welcoming space when there are clear boundaries, and boundaries are limits between which we define our own position. Flexible limits, but limits nonetheless. Confrontation results from the articulate presence, the presence within boundaries, of the host to the guest by which he offers himself as a point of orientation and a frame of reference. We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it in any way they want. In fact, it quickly becomes a ghost house, making the stranger feel uncomfortable. Instead of losing fears, the guest becomes anxious, suspicious of any noise coming from the attic or the cellar. When we want to be really hospitable, we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions, and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and a nobody. We can enter into communication with the other only when our own life choices, attitudes, and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.
Receptivity and confrontation are two sides of Christian witness. They have to remain in careful balance. Receptivity without confrontation leads to a bland neutrality that serves nobody. Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody. This balance between receptivity and confrontation is found at different points, depending on our individual position in life. But in every life situation we not only have to receive but also to confront.
I hope you have people who love you enough to give you space to think because they are a gift, and I’m so thankful for those people in my life. Once you experience that kind of Christian love, I hope you extend it to others too.
We could all use it right now.