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The key to having an open mind

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight considers whether Christians are open-minded enough.


Open-mindedness is one of those potentially fractious issues because we tend to view our own position subjectively and others’ objectively, when we should, perhaps, err towards the reverse viewpoint. The problem is, we Christians think atheists lack open-mindedness in ruling out God and they think we lack open-mindedness in admitting we might be wrong.  I suppose it ought to be admitted that almost all Christians must have used the term ‘open-minded’ at some point in their attempts to spread the good news - usually in the context of someone else appearing to them to be closed-minded.  Being open-minded is a good thing if one is good at discerning which pieces of information are ‘true or false’ or ‘good or bad’ or ‘realistic or unrealistic’, yet some people remain open-minded only insofar as they allow conditions or provisos to be added.  That is to say, their position will really be that they are open-minded so long as the thing being proffered is not X, Y or Z, where X, Y or Z equals something they are uncomfortable with or haven’t thought through properly. 



I honestly believe, perhaps more than ever before, that many people in this day and age are very closed-minded when it comes to Christianity, yet when thinking about our encouraging them to develop an open-mind, we stumble upon something a little unnerving – we might find it difficult to practice what we preach – after all, are we not pretty closed-minded when it comes to atheism?  Can we as Christians claim to be open-minded about atheism?  If we answer yes, then won’t that cast aspersions over how sure we are about being in an active relationship with God, and if we answer no, won’t that suggest hints of the very same closed-mindedness that we are accusing the atheists of being despoiled with? 


Certainly we are reminded by St Paul that our faith is futile if the resurrection never happened – thus our minds remain open at least insofar as we attach a large degree of rationality to our faith – a faith that, as St Paul says, can be undermined with the appearance of contra evidence.  But as I have argued before in my articles about ‘proof of God by experience’, the Holy Spirit through a relationship of mediation offers us the a priori awareness of being involved in that relationship with God, therefore an atheist cannot really talk a Christian out of His faith any more than I can talk an atheist out of seeing blue when he is seeing green.  In other words, I have to admit to a degree of closed-mindedness towards atheism because everything I am through my relationship with Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is contrary to the atheistic position.  To deny this would be a little like trying to pretend I am blind when I know full well that my eyes work well enough for me to see.


It ought to be noted though that there is a positive to open-mindedness in that it can bring anticipation into our lives – and I think open-mindedness and anticipation are connected in the following way; the open-mindedness allows the mind a free run at the facts, and works concomitantly with our anticipating the perceived truth of that outcome, strangling any partisans when their heads are reared.  At its best, open-mindedness works only towards what is true.  In ordinary life we know that feelings of anticipation aren’t quite the same as experiencing the things we are anticipating.  We know the different feelings one has towards the smell in the chef’s kitchen before and after a meal, or the pleasure of relief one has when a strong worry turns into a situation that renders that worry out of personal commission.  If open-minded anticipation is an ideal forerunner for experience, it is only when we learn to fully appreciate something for what it really is that we learn its true worth.  The benefits of having an open mind are there for all to see.  Thus anyone who cannot appreciate the benefits of open-mindedness, cannot really appreciate their concern that healthy anticipations are not being met and cultivated.


I believe that the strongest anticipations when pursued lead us to the realisation that to fully recognise God is to feel that He ought to be enjoyed, and that I would somehow be blameful if I failed to enjoy Him.  Before I became a Christian I felt a hint of this sensation when I was walking through the castle gardens on a beautiful sunny day in Norwich and a rather spontaneous play was just beginning on the concrete stage to the side of where I was walking.  I would have been sorry if the moment had been swept away by thoughts of commercial pre—organised plays in theatres and schools.  This moment seemed so delicious; it would have been wasted on those who chose to walk on by.  The experience of the castle gardens play already had moments of perceptiveness way beyond the intrinsic experience; elements which caused the moment to produce effects of seamless cognitive continuity between the pleasure of the performance and the enjoyment of the discovery.  If that sounds vague or inscrutable, it might be because you are picturing to yourself something which is not what I am describing; I am only describing the comparative sensations - something which is similar to experiencing Divine love from God – those abstract feelings of surprise and delight that will not go into words but that are sensed to be from a place that only Heaven can allow.  Here I suppose is an example of the true delights of open-mindedness – a delight of a spontaneous pleasure so unanticipated that the mind could not fail to be open to it.  In the sense that this is comparable to a Heavenly gift, our sense of expectation is one moment set on one thing, and then God’s gift comes along and gives you another thing which is infinitely better.


Given the foregoing analysis, it might be easier now to see how closed-mindedness affects not just our conscious partisans but our unconscious factors too.  And one must also be mindful of the fact that we often love precious things not because they are precious but because they are ours.  A man who loves his Britishness too much will love it all the way to fierce nationalism.  A man who loves his favourite hobby too much will love it all the way to obsession or isolation.  Thus I dare say it is true that in the opposite and much more positive situation, a man who loves open-mindedness for the possibilities and the surprises and the delights that it may bring will likely love it all the way to finding God if he uses his powers of rationality well.


The love that one experiences with Christ at the heart is one of the most astounding things you will ever experience.  This also filtrates into all areas of friendships and social intercourse; for when Christ comes to live inside us we learn to love everyone regardless - not for their merits (some people in this world are not very loveable), but because every person we see in front of us belongs to God.  In fact, God says that if we fail to love the man in front of us He takes it as a personal affront.


OpenMindI do not know that it is possible to instantly fall in love with Christ, I suspect, like good loves, that it must start with a healthy anticipation first.  Initial open-mindedness often holds the key to the first steps of analysis.  That is why one girl can read the Bible and feel like she has gotten very little from it and another girl reads it and Christ reveals Himself to her.  It is dependent upon one’s feeling and state of mind.  Closed-mindedness can kill off an enquiry before it has got off the ground.  We all know that if you start to watch a movie with the intention of disliking it (usually because of some negative preconception) you will almost always dislike it, and life is no different.  Moreover, we should always be open-minded enough to see other people’s situations as they require us to see them.  In that sense empathy is the great vanquisher of closed-mindedness, and love, grace and understanding the shield that protects us in battle against the dark forces of denial.


The interrelation between man and God is (and I mean no irreverence here) a little like a good cocktail - yours are the mixers, Christ’s is the spirit - the mixers by themselves will leave you wanting more; the spirit by itself might be a little harsh for your palate if you were given too much too soon; but a good combination of the two is just the right order.  Christ stimulates our open-mindedness into real love for Him, but the open-mindedness has to be there to begin with.  It may even be true as a rule that only those with hard hearts have no open-mindedness for Him - after all, the whole truth of Christ is an inherent part of our psychological make-up, so the sensation of being wholly closed to His Person must be a bit like that of a man who goes on long daily walks yet denies he has got any feet on which to do the walking. 


I’m sure many people of no belief will think that this is a little strange, but a little thought shows that it is true.  That is what is so remarkable about Christ’s love for us - He will still accept us even if we go to Him for purely selfish motives.  He will take the wretched creature that comes to Him for purely selfish ends and He will make them into creatures ready to receive more of His grace.  Open-mindedness can persevere with the most hopeless people, but it can also bring out other qualities in people that would have otherwise remained unknown to us.  Nearly all human qualities involve selfishness – in part we choose our friends and lovers because of their qualities - but they must have been particular qualities that happened to suit our own predilections.  God rises above these things, making every creature that comes to Him better and more like His Son as our anticipations increase and are pursued more hotly.  And just as open-mindedness can unite two souls who have no real commonalties; knowing Christ, or initially, having open-mindedness for Him, can turn opportunity and anticipation into the receipt of real Divine love.  


Open-mindedness can be difficult to obtain, particularly given that many of the things about which we are most closed-minded are things we have been familiar with for a long time or things we have taken for granted because they have endured for so long.  Having admitted this, I do not, therefore, deny that it is difficult for people to embrace something like Christianity when they have known secularity for so long.  I will tell you what I think it is like.  If you buy a dog and cat at the same time so they can be brought up together they will usually get on fine.  But if one comes a few years after the other, there will be physical or mental conflict between them.  I think the news of Christ, when it comes along later in life and we are a little closed-minded to it, is for some like a cat invading a dog’s territory - we will chase it away down the street until it fails to bother us; until it is out of sight and far from our home.  And an even better analogy would perhaps be two dogs, for if the older dog had not chased away the new addition to the family, he would soon see what good company and a good playmate he had gained.  This is where appreciation and open-mindedness work together, but both need a move on the part of the unbeliever to begin with.  They will find it difficult to feel open-mindedness for something until they soften their hearts for it.  The process is no different to when we have to forgive someone we love and understand, or empathise with someone we care about.  To be humble is to allow your eyes to be opened to things one has not yet seen and aspects of the situation one has not yet considered.


The more open-mindedness we can feel for what Christ has to teach us, the quicker we will understand what is required of us.  The greater the open-mindedness the greater the understanding of why Christ created us like He did.  When our own self-understanding is developed more quickly, we will start to see how our passion for helpful things is very imperfect - but if one is open to the challenge we can also see how the unique individual that God created can fully share in that which He planned for us in creation.  When you or any of us tries to understand Christianity without having the requisite open-mindedness for Christ, we end up aggrandising those other feelings (some of which produce atheistic feelings) that are only properly perceived when open-mindedness is stimulating them.  At best they are subordinated to objections; at worst they are subordinated to both objections and egoism.  Get to this stage and the little devil in you will tell you that the defect is not with you, that your true valuation of love, open-mindedness and appreciation is the only sincere one. 


Advancement, whether intellectual or devotional, is only usually embraced when it is at the expense of some hindering part of our make-up, yet we know full well that when minds are closed with blessing comes much resentment, particularly for those who do not fully understand the blessings.  There is something about closed-minded people that abhors success or admiration in others because it assails their own sealed sensibilities.  Genuine open-mindedness wishes for the best in everyone because, and we have no one greater than Christ who never closes His mind to the potential of each of His children of God. 


Do you remember when we were young we used to teach our friends the games we knew so that they could play them with us?  That is, we teach them in the hope that they will become worthy opponents, because the nearer their ability is to ours the better the game will be.  That is a little like what Christ wants for us except we are not opponents, but friends.  He wants us to be open to His gifts; for He knows how much our soul requires Him.  He wants to come and live inside each one of us so that we will grow in Him sufficiently for Him to speak to the Father from inside us.  In other words He wants us to be thinking as close to Godly thoughts as it is possible for us to think, so that what He has to give us we can understand in the necessary way.  The Spirit that will live inside us if we surrender to Christ is the Spirit with which true spiritual growth is possible. 


I think it is quite easy to see in this contemporary age why open-mindedness for Christ’s teaching and His person seems so hard for people to contemplate.  People have exalted themselves to post-Enlightenment demi-gods, self-exalted into the worst kind of closed-mindedness – in many situations faith-based belief has already been written off before the conversation has got off the ground.  Popularity, sentiment, instinct, and autonomy have all been elevated to a level far beyond fervent cognitive enquiry.  Under this new dispensation all that once helped a man towards Christ now leads him further away.  We know self-worship is prevalent, but one would be foolish to think that the eradication of it (even if no conversion occurs) necessarily sets us on the right path for open-mindedness; for often we need a good carrot to dangle in front of people before they will admit open-mindedness. 


Progression to opening one’s mind isn’t achieved unless we can help open doors of anticipation - the allure of the truth is what sets us free – it was always Christ’s intention that we desire it enough.  When it happens it will come across your stead like a burst of excitement after a long and lonely time of boredom.  As William Blake said:


And none will hear the postman’s knock without a quickening of the heart;

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?


Let us be open-minded enough so that we would be still sometimes and take time to listen carefully to Christ’s guidance in our lives; and let us help others become open to the gospel by conveying it in a way that reflects Christ’s light of love, for then we might just make closed-mindedness virtually impossible for them. 



The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk  

James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
You can access his current collections of columns here

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk


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