Last week I was thinking about aggiornamento the Italian word meaning “bringing up to date.” It was made famous by Pope John XXIII (1881 – 1963) and was one of the key words at the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965).

As we go through life, we adjust our vision and beliefs. We re-shape our Christian faith understandings as we go along life’s road and as our world changes. And of course,as we confront our own ups and downs.

There is much to be learned and appreciated from opening the doors to one’s mind and “bringing up to date” by letting new ideas and beliefs come in. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Religiously, it took me a long time to become an adult. Growing up I always had lots of questions but falsely believed it was wrong to ask questions about church teachings. (Some “conservative” bishops and their followers still think that way.)

Fortunately, in my case, one of my college philosophy professors, a priest, helped me grow up. He reminded me that Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) — the founder of Western philosophy and among the first moral philosophers of the ethical tradition of thought — had famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

By questioning and keeping a sense of wonder alive, my philosophy teacher – my trustworthy guide – said we remain engaged in the search for truth and the pursuit of what makes life worth living. Over the years I have tried to help my students become informed and open-minded critical believers, hoping to be a trustworthy guide for them. I have always stressed that being an open-minded critical believer greatly enriches a person’s life. 

I see seven important elements in being an open-minded critical believer:

(1) Being an open-minded critical believer enables one to experience new ideas and fresh thoughts that stimulate personal growth as they challenge old visions, old understandings, and old beliefs. It can be very liberating to look at one’s contemporary world through an open mind. I once thought that only Catholics had “the truth.”  But then I began to observe and question and came to realization that ALL Christian churches are moving toward the truth and no single church has all the truth.

(2) Being an open-minded critical believer promotes personal change, growth, and transformation. Opening up our minds to new ideas enables us to change what we think as well as expand our view of the world. It enables one to adjust beliefs, as one begins to think with a more open mind. I once thought it impossible for women to be ordained. I once thought that Jesus’ disciples were all only men. Now I know that both understandings are pure nonsense. Historical reality is broader and richer than I originally thought. Today I understand, as well, that all official church teachings and dogmas – even those proclaimed “infallible” – are time-bound, culture-bound, and provisional. Perhaps they made sense yesterday but just don’t work today. Institutions need to grow and change as well. Of course, institutions don’t change unless the leaders change.

(3) Being an open-minded critical believer also makes a person vulnerable.  In agreeing to have an open-minded view of the world, we acknowledge we don’t know everything. We are open to criticism. We accept that there are possibilities we may not have considered. For some this vulnerability can be terrifying. But it can also be tremendously exhilarating. The jar is half full or half empty. It depends on one’s perspective. Here I would stress as well that we need to be supportive of those people who now think that all the things they had ever believed have turned out to be wrong and that they have nothing to take their place. We need to be compassionate guides, like my college professor mentioned above.

(4)  Being an open-minded critical believer helps one see and acknowledge personal shortcomings and mistakes. With an open mind one begins to see things from other people’s  perspectives; and one can recognize the mistakes one has made. From time to time, we all fail and fall. The challenge is to acknowledge it and then get back up again and continue the journey. That is the virtue of Christian humility and courage!

(5) Being an open-minded critical believer strengthens oneself and gives stability. Open-mindedness presents a platform upon which a person can build, putting one idea on top of another. With an open mind, one learns about new things; and one uses new ideas to build on old ideas. In my field we call this ongoing theological development. Dangerous stuff for fundamentalists, who are more comfortable living in the past. 

(6) Being an open-minded critical believer helps one gain confidence. When a person really lives with an open mind, one develops a stronger sense of self. One can respect and appreciate, but is no longer confined by the beliefs of others. Then the respectful and humble dialogue can and should begin.

(7) Being an open-minded critical believer promotes self-honesty. Being open-minded means admitting that one is not all-knowing. Even if one is an older theologian! Whatever “truth” one holds, each person must realize that the underlying reality in its depth has more to it than anyone realizes. This understanding creates a sense of honesty that characterizes anyone who lives with an open mind.

For anyone who wants to safely travel the road of life, being an open-minded critical believer is absolutely essential. As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel According to John: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”


4 thoughts on “Belief and Critical Thinking

  1. Many thanks, Jack. Always good. I am also glad you have grown, my friend. You are helping the rest of us along the path.
    I have somewhat a somewhat similar history, in that it was a couple of priest professors that opened the door for me. In retrospect, they opened it just a bit, and I have gone well beyond what they intended. BUT . . . there is no path back. After I realized that the Catholic version of Christianity was not unique, a graduate course in comparative religion, taught by the author of that topic in the Catholic Encyclopedia, opened my eyes a bit further. We are ALL looking for meaning and purpose here – and we are all working out the stories and myths to reach that. There are some crazy parts of other religions, but Christianity has more than its share in history as well. You have certainly helped your audience see that in the past.
    AND . . . well, let’s just say there are even further steps to take. But precious few of us take those. To me, it just seemed normal and natural. But I have discovered that most people have a really deeply felt need for the meaning and purpose myth that they grew up with. It is almost impossible for them to examine it. And, I have determined that I do not need to go there for them. As long as we all work to the same goals for humankind, I don’t think it matters much how we see the origins myths and the like.
    Thanks as always.

  2. Dear Jack,
    What a challenge! I wonder if this call to be open minded and non-judgmental is a terrifying proposition to those who like their spiritual and political worlds tidy, neat, secure, clear, and non-challenging. It must be terrifying for fundamentalists if they don’t have an absolute world view that is direct and uncomplicated by possible exceptions. As Fr. Jim O’Leary used to say, just following “the rules” doesn’t necessarily make one a good person. But it can certainly make for an uncomplicated world. As I read your words, it was a true call to live a true and authentic life….exciting but tremendously challenging. Living life to the fullest is not for sissies!

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