From time to time The Christian Century publishes a feature called How My Mind Has Changed. In it, well known theologians offer essays about how their minds have changed regarding important issues as they’ve added years of study and reflection to their life experiences. Reading any of them reminds me of how my own mind has changed on many things.
I can’t remember all of them, but they certainly include civil rights, gay rights, American Indian history, supply side economics, the threat of socialism, international trade, Institutional morality, the death penalty, and much more. For example, someone with nothing better to do could dig up a newspaper column I wrote over thirty years ago arguing there was no place in the church for same sex weddings. A more thorough reading of scripture, a study of the history of marriage in Judaism and Christianity, and sustained engagement with gay friends in the gay community, guided me toward a dramatic change of mind. I would hate for anyone to wave that old column around today crowing, “Ha, this is what you really think.”
The point is that well known scholars, and ordinary folks like you and me, change their minds as they grow, learn, experience and reflect. It’s not a matter of being wrong before, but now right. It’s a matter of recognizing that, given what I was able to know and understand then, I believed a position to be the best one I could hold. New information and more experience have led me to a different understanding, which is the best I can do with what I have available to me now.
It infuriates those who demand certainty, and absolute confidence in what is true. Holding positions as provisional truths drives them up the wall. To them it’s wishy-washy, anything goes, out of control relativism. Peter Gomes, in his book The Good Book, says something like, the Word of God remains the same, but our ability to understand it is always changing (I can’t lay my hands on the book, so this is a rough approximation). For many people, that just can’t be so. Truth is truth. A few have demanded to know if there is anything I hold to be absolutely true. Yes there is. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Two plus two equals four is a strong possibility. Everything else is provisional.
Which brings me to the current political debate in which candidates are being held accountable for things they said, wrote or did many years ago, as if nothing has changed. Put on the defensive, they’re tempted to deny they ever did what the record said they did, or interpret it in a way to now mean something other than what it clearly meant back then. If they admit they once held that position, but now don’t, they’re accused of flip-flopping hypocrisy. They would be better off saying in plain English that, given the circumstances and information they had back then, their position seemed at the time like the best choice. Times have changed, their experiences have changed, what they’ve learned has changed, and their minds have also changed. Moreover, they will continue to listen and learn from those who are committed to a more just and equitable society, and as new information become available. That’s what would serve them well in a tough campaign season. Whether they will is another question.
When do past deeds, positions and words count as liabilities? When they are shown to have been predictive of current poor judgment and inappropriate behavior. Then they become acts of willful unrepentance establishing patterns of behavior over long periods, now current, and likely to continue in the future.