“I’ve never heard that before.”

by K.W. Leslie, 24 April

When ignorance disguises itself as skepticism.

In bible studies, whenever certain topics came up in the passages we’re reading, my habit is to bring up the different beliefs and interpretations which different Christians have about them. You might notice I also do this on this blog. Yeah, I do it all the time. For three reasons.

  1. My church is hardly the only one out there. Hardly the only denomination; hardly the only tradition. Hardly got a monopoly on the truth. Lots of other Christians have pitched their two cents on these issues. Some of their ideas are useful.
  2. And some of ’em aren’t. They’re problematic. So it’s a bit of warning: At some point you’re gonna run into people who actually believe such things. (Even in your own church—what with the way Americans switch churches so often, not everybody grew up with your traditions.) You’ll wonder why the two of you seem to be talking past one another. Helps to know where they’re coming from.
  3. In general, it’s not wise for Christians to develop the idea, “There’s only one way to think about this—and it’s how I think, and everyone else is wrong.” No; we’re all wrong. So these are my reminders no one Christian, myself included, has all the answers. But some of us have different parts of the whole.

Most of the folks listen. Or politely pretend to, anyway.

But in one bible study I attend, there’s a person (we’ll call her Marlies) who regularly scoffs, “I don’t know where you meet these people. I don’t know any Christians who think that way.”

She’s hardly the first person who’s told me this. I’ve met people like this ever since seminary. I used to be this person.

Marlies has been a Christian three decades. But like a lot of people, she’s chosen to exist within a handcrafted echo chamber. Back when she was a newbie, she determined generally what she will and won’t believe. She then shunned everyone who won’t believe likewise. She doesn’t really come to these bible studies to learn, but to judge: She’s trying to make sure her church isn’t quietly teaching heresy behind her back.

But because Marlies’s entire Christian life has been spent within this echo chamber, where nobody tells her anything other than what she chooses to believe, there’s a lot of Christendom she’s wholly unfamiliar with. She doesn’t know Christian history. Doesn’t know other movements. Doesn’t know other denominations. Doesn’t care: She’s never gonna read their books, listen to their podcasts, interact with their churches. They’re not Christian enough for her, so she’s gonna pretend they’re pagans and leave them be. That is, unless she’s trying to share Jesus with them… but because their beliefs don’t line up with hers enough, she’s pretty sure they only think they’re Christian.

So when I talk about different Christians, Marlies doesn’t really believe in different Christians. Can’t believe true Christians would actually hold such beliefs. Kinda wonders about me, since I seem to think these crazy people are nonetheless Christian. Hence the scoffing: “I’ve never heard such a thing before.”

After all, Marlies figures she’s the baseline for Christianity. If she’s heard of it, or agrees with it, it’s Christian. If not, it can’t be.

It’s actually how a lot of Christians practice theology. It’s just that they tend to be quieter about it. Marlies isn’t. She’ll publicly proclaim she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. And kinda take some pride in that… even though the room is occasionally full of people who grew up in churches like that, and know exactly what I’m talking about.

Unhealthy skepticism.

A skeptic is inclined to question or doubt everything. Including common beliefs; especially popular culture, which tends to believe anything when it’s repeated enough times.

Skepticism’s a valuable practice, ’cause it forces us and others to double-check everything, and make sure our beliefs are solid. Or if they’re not all that solid, we are at least putting our faith in a solid person.

One of Christianity’s more irritating problems is there are a lot of phonies who have convinced Christians to double-check nothing, and just trust that we’re being taught the truth anyway. ’Cause faith’s important, right? And of course it is—but properly that’s faith in God. Faith in Christ Jesus. Not faith in preachers. Ministers make mistakes. Test everything. 1Th 5.19-22 Stop letting yourself be led astray, or led nowhere. Trust God; doubt humans.

The problem with skepticism is there’s a lot of unhealthy skepticism. By which I mean people who don’t just temporarily doubt someone until they’ve done their fact-checking. I mean people who never do get around to testing anything. They simply doubt, and dismiss. “I’ve never heard that before” means “I don’t believe you.” Since they’re never gonna follow up on those doubts, and see whether they’re actually true or not, they never will believe you.

Like I said, I’ve been there. Used to be you couldn’t tell me anything; I had to be the one telling you. Wasn’t about suspending judgment till I researched it for myself, like I do nowadays. I had no intention of looking it up, ’cause I automatically believed it was crap. And what a good skeptic I was for not accepting just everything I heard! But that’s not skepticism at all. That’s prideful closed-mindedness.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit will get us to doubt we really do know it all, ’cause he’s trying to teach us humility and proper skepticism. But my self-defense against that was to retreat to my own echo chamber. I’d ask my equally-ignorant friends, “What do you know about [unfamiliar topic]?” Sometimes my friends knew something of it; sometimes not. Often the “knowledge” they shared was a steaming pile of fearful half-truths. Kinda like when people who are against vaccination begin their Google searches with “Is vaccination harmful?”—of course they’re only gonna find stuff which confirms their biases. And when my friends didn’t confirm mine, I’d dismiss them as morons.

Such people think they’re being good skeptics. Not even close. They’re just doubters, living in exactly the sort of doubt Jesus regularly objected to. We’re supposed to deal with our doubts, seek truth, move out of the fog and into the light. For the unhealthy skeptic, the way they deal with their doubts is to not believe, shove uncertainty out of their minds, and scoff at everything unfamiliar.

True skepticism looks for answers. And allows for the question, “What if I’m wrong?” because we so very often are. Unhealthy skeptics can’t imagine they’re wrong: They reject so many things, they figure the hard cold lump of coal diamond of what’s left has to be truth. They confuse dissent with wisdom; that unlike fools who believe everything they’re told, they know to believe nothing.

We’ve got a lot of those people in Christendom too. Humans are creatures of extremes, so we either believe all or believe none. Ain’t no actual discernment going on.

Cracking the nuts.

What snapped me out of my closed-mindedness? There, I’ve gotta give credit to the Holy Spirit. It started with a faith crisis where I wanted to know if anything in Christianity was true anymore. The Spirit sorted that out by showing me he’s real, and Jesus is true. The rest can be extrapolated from there.

But in so doing, I realized I had to go over my beliefs and theology, and learn which was valid and which wasn’t. That’s what got me interested in seminary: When in doubt, seek out the experts. I didn’t know who any of the experts were, but I figured the professors could point me to a few, and they did. And they likewise had the humility to confess they didn’t know it all; they were wrong; they weren’t gonna pretend the school and our denomination held all the answers. I realize not every bible school thinks that way, and I could’ve so easily stumbled off to a school who taught me a whole different form of theological closed-mindedness. I’d like to think it wasn’t dumb luck on my part; more of the Spirit leading me in truth’s direction.

When I’m dealing with narrow-minded Christians, I figure the Spirit is the proper solution to the problem. I’m not gonna argue ’em into doubting themselves; I’m not that persuasive.

And even if I appear to be, people’ll turn off their brains in self-preservation. I once had a KJV-only guy insist his translation had no errors. I showed him one, and he freaked out so bad I thought he was gonna turn atheist on me. A few days later I discovered all he actually did was dive into deep denial. It wasn’t an error, he insisted; it was a test of his faith. Really, he’d turned it into a test of his ability to selectively believe things—and his ability to selectively dance around the things he didn’t care to admit. He’d turned his faith into wishful thinking. Way easier for him than being wrong.

So I don’t wanna make that mistake again. If people won’t believe, I shake the dust off my feet. Mk 6.11 They’re God’s problem. Not mine. I’ll go talk to people who want to learn. Sure is easier than living with the stress of having to convert everybody.

But even though I’ve given up on them, God won’t. He wants everybody saved, everybody brought to truth, 1Ti 2.4 and when Christians resist truth, the Holy Spirit will keep working on them till he gets ’em there. Just like he did me. I just have to trust he’ll do the job, instead of arrogantly figuring I can fix ’em. I can’t. He can.