Every day or so, I bump into a news item about someone with strong beliefs who is committing some sort of physical or mental violence – religious wars in Europe and the Arab world, protestors harassing women at an abortion clinic, people fighting over curriculum or global warming or immigration.
In my 64 years on this planet, I have learned to distrust strong, rigid beliefs. The trouble with rigidly held beliefs is that they assume a world full of right and wrong – of simple black and white choices. In fact, human living is virtually never as simple as that. When I try to bring my beliefs to bear on the important choices I face, I usually find myself choosing among options that are almost never completely right or completely wrong. In such a complex world, I have simply not found any beliefs that could be applied to any situation I encountered or that I would want someone else to apply to their choices.
For example, I believe that war is wrong and that a lot of men and women have died in vain in Iraq. I also believe that we cannot just withdraw and leave chaos to descend on Iraq and Iraqis. I also believe that it would be a good thing if no one ever had an abortion. But I have had the privilege of talking to several women struggling to decide what to do about an unexpected pregnancy. And I believe that each of them made the right decision – for themselves and for their unborn fetus. I believe that we cannot have unlimited immigration into the United States. But I have walked the rural paths and slums of Latin America and seen the poverty and desperation faced by multitudes there. I believe that, if I were faced with the choice of getting food and a better life for my children by illegally entering the United States or staying home and starving, I would break our laws and never look back.
I believe that I need to listen to and try to understand other’s beliefs and experiences, including those that contradict my own. Everyone has something to teach me. And everyone lives in the same grey world I do – even if they “believe” they don’t.
In the end, I have found that my only option is to delve deeply into each important situation and choice I face, to try to understand all the sides and all the experiences that I and others bring to it, however foreign some of them may seem, and then to make the best choice I can. I believe I must, then, as Martin Luther argued, do the best I can to balance all of my beliefs with the facts I have – and then “sin boldly” trusting that my wisdom and whatever grace there is in this universe to ultimately see me through. I believe any process that provides an easier answer is too simple to be truly human.
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