Owing largely to my upbringing in Christian fundamentalism, until just a few years ago, I was completely convinced I had everything figured out when it came to matters of faith and doctrine. Oh, I had made some changes to my thinking in a few areas—as when I embraced the Anabaptist view of biblical nonresistance—but, for the most part, my beliefs and convictions were firmly established on conservative evangelical presuppositions.
Then one of the stones in that foundation came loose. I don’t remember, specifically, which one was first. What I do remember, with crystal clarity, is the awareness that one small change in one fairly insignificant area of my foundational presuppositions nevertheless resulted in a transformation of my perspective on a number of issues. It first happened about ten years ago, and I continue to marvel at the magnitude of the changes in my convictions in so many areas that have issued from alterations in my presuppositions.
I am the same person I have always been. I continue to maintain my commitment to integrity in discerning truth and consistency in living faithfully in the light of the truth as I perceive it. But my perception of truth has changed and with it my beliefs and convictions and opinions about a great many aspects of faith and life.
Let me see if I can illustrate what I am talking about. If we assume that God’s most prominent attribute is holiness, then we perceive the gospel as instruction that tells us how sinful humans can relate to a holy God. That perception changes, however, if we assume that God’s most prominent attribute is love. That change in presupposition issues in profound and dramatic change in how we perceive sin, guilt, justice, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and many other aspects of the relationship between a holy God and us sinful humans.
I used to have little tolerance for people who differed with me on matters of doctrinal convictions and biblical interpretation. I never considered that they might be just as earnest and sincere in their desire to relate to God and live out the principles of their faith as I was. I simply considered them deluded, misguided, misinformed, and, in a word, wrong.
Today, because of some changes in my foundational presuppositions, I not only understand how people can come to hold those convictions, I find that I now hold many of them myself. I haven’t abandoned truth or orthodoxy, I simply perceive it differently because of the change in my foundational presuppositions.
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus ate a final Passover meal with his disciples. Sometime during that evening, which Christians commemorate on the Thursday before Easter, he spoke a prayer, recorded in John 17, in which he prayed that his followers would reflect a unity so genuine and so profound that it would make an undeniable impact on everybody who observed it.
This is Maundy Thursday. At services of worship, Christians around the world will be reminded of Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers. If we are honest, we will admit that the Christian church is far from unified. Twenty centuries of church history have resulted in a faith tradition that is shredded and splintered mainly because we are more concerned about our perceptions of who is right and who is wrong on points of doctrine than we are in recognizing our common desire to love God and lift up Jesus.
As a person of Irish heritage, I don’t often regard Oliver Cromwell with favor, but he did speak a word that has become something of a mantra for me in the past few years. In 1650, in an attempt to dissuade the Scots from supporting a return of the monarchy to Britain, Cromwell appealed to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland with the famous words, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Nobody likes to admit such a possibility. For most of us, both the possibility that we may be wrong and the perceived consequences of our error are unthinkable. Still, “Cromwell’s rule” is a wise reminder of a certain reality: whether we realize it or not, we may be mistaken.
You see, our presuppositions may be flawed, if only slightly. That small presuppositional variance among equally committed and sincere followers of Jesus can result in widely disparate convictions.
As we reflect upon Jesus’ prayer for unity among those who love and serve him, I pray that God’s Spirit will remind us that the most important thing is not who is right and who is wrong. The most important thing is to love the Lord, our God, with all our hearts and souls and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It really is as simple as that.