Three years ago, I was doing an interim in a small town in northern Oregon where the chief gathering place in the community and that part of the county was the school gymnasium for basketball games. If you wanted to catch a taste of the local culture, this was the place to be.
One game I found myself sitting by a lumberjack who worked in the forests a good way south of town and east of the Cascade Mountains. It had to be a dangerous job with lots of alone time scrambling up trees and making sure when he cut a tree down it fell where he wasn’t. We struck up a conversation. I soon learned he was paid well when he remarked that he had more money than I would see in a lifetime. I had no reason not to believe him.
But this wasn’t the end of his conceit. After bantering back and forth about a myriad of topics, including politics, he says quite earnestly, “You know, I know exactly what God thinks.”
Tongue in cheek, I congratulated him on his boast and then quickly added my 2 cents. As we were about to leave the gym, I replied, “I believe the truth is half of what I hear and half of what I think.” I also informed him that I was the interim pastor at the local Disciples church and that no one I knew knows the mind of God precisely, including me.
His eyes grew wide as he quickly hustled out of the gymnasium, not quite sure what to make of me at that point. I saw him the next night at another game, but he avoided me altogether. He had clearly had enough of me the night before. However, I felt I’d also overplayed my hand and was sorry that we couldn’t have parted company more amicably.
Though I did find his statement, “I know exactly what God thinks” more than a stretch but an incredible thing to say. And yet, one thing this lumberjack and I had in common that evening was an absence of any spirit of penitence or much of an admission that either of us could be wrong.
This is a disease of our time—impenitence and a failure much of the time to admit we might be wrong. Truth is: Admitting we are wrong is in short supply these days. This lack of humility breeds a world of trouble in our marriages, in our families, in the workplace, on the ballfield and in our politics, all because we can’t say, “I’m sorry!” or “Me Bad!”
We can see evidence of this unbridled pride, whenever we feel we have to have the last word or refuse to stand beside ourselves in a kind of self-transcendence and ask the question, “Is what I just said really true?” Do we sometimes show the attitude that we have a corner on the truth? Lots of people hold this attitude these days whatever their faith or political party.
I’ve even told couples coming to be married to be careful if each of them finds themselves arguing all the time because each insists on having the last word, even if they’re unaware of it! Soon couples find themselves in a zero-sum game to win the argument or lord it over the other person. We see this same kind of pridefulness in our politics today when either political party insists that they have to have all the power, or in churches where pastors take it upon themselves to declare who is bound for heaven and who is bound for hell. This is nasty stuff.
What makes this whole issue of power more complicated is that none of us wants to be a Casper Milquetoast and appear vulnerable or weak. But this fixation on always being right can lead us into adopting dogmatic positions about every opinion we hold or about everything we believe. It also can lead us into anxiety in a world where ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere. We’re tempted to reach for solid ground wherever we think we might find it.
But the obvious alternative to holding nothing but “fixed” positions is to hold “fluid” positions, which may make us seem wishy-washy and indecisive. This is especially true for us men, who have been taught to stand our ground, even if it’s on quicksand. And yet, second guessing ourselves doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
You see, there is a third position between “fixed” and “fluid.” It’s the position of learning how to hold our opinions and judgments provisionally for later denial, amendment, or confirmation. We can discover we don’t have to have the last word about everything but can still express our convictions openly.
We’re all familiar with the word “ultimate.” It can mean many things: like best or final. Theologian Paul Tillich spoke of faith in God as our “ultimate concern,” meaning the top concern and quest in our life. Loving God as our top priority reflects Jesus’ 1st commandment, as does loving our neighbor, Jesus’ second commandment, he says is equal to the 1st!
Curiously, the name of the last syllable in a word just happens to be called “the ultima!” with the same root as “ultimate,” or topmost and best.
But there is also a name for the next-to-the-last syllable in a word hardly anyone has ever heard of. It’s called the “penult.” It sounds like “peanut” but with the letter “l” in it. We get the word “penultimate” from combining penult and ultimate. Penultimate means not the highest, but the next highest; not the best but next best!
We’ve all been around heated arguments when someone shouts, “Back off!” or “Chill!” Police and soldiers will intervene in an incendiary situation by yelling “Stand Down!” It’s an attempt to disarm adversaries and make peace.
When we put ourselves into a fixed opinion about anything, including our faith, we are inadvertently taking the position of the ultima or ultimate for ourselves and in so many words saying, “My word is the last word. My word is the final word. My words are the best words.” There is no backing off by admitting we might be wrong. It’s like we’re always stuck on that final syllable as if our every word is also God’s word. No sign of humility, only hubris, pride.
But when we permit ourselves the latitude of being wrong, we take a cooler, penultimate, provisional position, on the chance that the truth really is half of what we hear and half of what we think! Yes, we can still speak with conviction. But there is also a little voice in our brain that whispers to us the news that we might be wrong, even terribly wrong! This is a more fluid position, but not like jello melting in the sun and running all over the place. There is still a mold of truth against which we can test the validity of our passioned position and appeal.
Imagine marriage and family arguments where a couple or all parties held in reserve the right and freedom to be wrong. Everyone then would have the capacity to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” without losing their heads. It’s only when we utter our opinion as if we’re speaking “ex cathedra,” from the throne of God, when we get into trouble & alienate the very people we love.
Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he taught us to “turn the other cheek” and “love our enemies.”
More food for thought and spiritual reflection,