The Freedom To Be Wrong

A reflection by Sarah

“You think you’re never wrong, Sarah.” My mother would say that to me at least once a week for my entire upbringing. Upon remembering this, my first instinct is to retort, “I do think I’m wrong sometimes. I just don’t like to be. And Mom isn’t so keen on being wrong herself.” But that’s my pride talking, and it’s Lent, so I should probably spend some time praying about this attitude. Anyway…

I don’t think many people are comfortable with being wrong. One doesn’t have to look very far on the Internet to find evidence of this. Almost every popular news article, blog post, photo, or meme a person can find online will be followed by a string of angry, vitriolic comments aimed at the author/creator or other commenters. Civil dialogue is becoming a lost art, and there are many reasons for this, but I think one of the most significant is that no one wants to be wrong. And not only do we want to avoid being wrong, but in the process of proving that we are right, we pat ourselves on the back for our ability to crush, slander, and decimate those with whom we disagree.

I enjoy winning an argument just as much as the next person, and that’s probably not a good thing…but I don’t think intellectual vainglory is the only reason humans behave like this. I think more often than most of us would like to admit, we fear the possibility of being wrong. Or at least I do. Sometimes, being wrong comes with a high price–losing friends, respect from others, or even the ability to engage fully with one’s faith community. Rarely in life have I found a space where being wrong has felt totally safe. As a child, I found that wrongness carried with it the consequence of being pointed at and ridiculed, whether by a teacher or by other children. In church, I learned that being wrong meant being marked as a troublemaker. As a university student with a severe lack of self-confidence, I wasn’t sure I belonged there in the first place and was terrified that if I said something incorrect in class, my professors would think I was stupid. So despite my general tendency toward chattiness, regrettably I remained silent in several courses. Now as an instructor of university courses in theology and religious studies, I still feel a small twinge of anxiety mounting inside me if I accidentally make an incorrect statement and a particularly smug nineteen-year-old member of the class calls me out on it. I‘ve learned that it’s best to acknowledge my incorrectness and move forward rather than justify to the students why I made the error, but that doesn’t do much to alleviate the embarrassment when I receive my end-of-term evaluation report and see that a student has commented, “This professor shouldn’t be teaching theology because in class on April 26, she mixed up the definitions for dulia and latria.”

Because of my own experience with the fear of being wrong, I empathize with my students who display the same fear. When we’re discussing controversial theological issues in class, I strive to create an environment in which all voices are welcomed and respected, but that doesn’t stop some students from clamming up after hearing a self-assured freshman proclaim, “You’re a heretic and an idiot!” before I can call a halt to his impending diatribe. It is neither comforting nor helpful to get that sort of response from another student if, for example, you’re a young woman who has experienced mistreatment by men within a church community, and as a result you’ve come to the belief that women’s ordination would solve this problem within your Christian tradition. Every semester, I try to teach my students that discussing theological issues is not about winning arguments; it’s about exploring the questions and coming to a greater understanding of one’s faith…and that rarely is a person converted from heterodoxy to orthodoxy while cowering in fear and anxiously waiting out a sanctimonious theological tirade.

One of the greatest benefits I’ve reaped as a result of beginning this blog with Lindsey is that I now have a space where it’s safe for me to voice what I’m thinking and be sharpened by the constructive criticism we receive from readers. It’s okay for me to make mistakes, to be wrong, and even to be stupid…and I’m glad for that, because some days I feel as though I’m making more gaffes than a presidential candidate on debate night. Last week, I was reading a post from my friend Eve Tushnet’s blog, and nearly jumped out of my seat while shouting, “YES!!!” as I came across the following bit:

“So much of the ‘conservative’ Christian world seems terrified of anything which might be misinterpreted as saying gay sex is OK. The fear is always, always that we might say something wrong, and not ever that our silence might itself cause despair, scandal, and loss of faith. My favorite variation of this approach is, ‘Well, I know what you’re saying, but other people might misunderstand.’ I am pretty sure that ordinary people in the pews are already interpreting–and, I hope, misinterpreting–the huge echoey nothing they hear from their churches about gay or same-sex attracted Christians’ futures.

I know that I will say dumb stuff about this issue and mess up. So will everyone who speaks about it. The response to our acknowledgment of universal, unavoidable failure should be humble willingness to retract and at times repent, not unwillingness to ever act.”

Within our past two months of blogging, I’ve seen the content of that first paragraph playing out in spades, but not just from conservative Christians. Friends with a traditional sexual ethic have told me, “I’d be more willing to support your writing project if you would state in most of your posts that you agree with the Church’s teaching that gay sexual activity is sinful. If you don’t start doing that, people are going to start doubting what you say about your own commitment to celibacy.” People on the opposite end of the spectrum seem just as concerned about not saying anything that could be construed as lack of support for those with a modern, liberal sexual ethic. Some friends have said, “You should make a statement of loving acceptance for couples in relationships like mine. Otherwise, people will see you as just another hateful, judgmental, Side B blog. You wouldn’t want anyone to see you as self-righteous.”

We can’t stay true to ourselves while making everyone happy, but we can try to foster meaningful conversation among people who really care about these issues, no matter where they stand ideologically. But in order to do that, we need the freedom to be wrong. We need to know that we can write from the place we’re at right now, even if that means two years down the road we look back at some of our posts and say, “Golly ned, that was a problematic statement.”

I’m grateful to have learned since my days on the other side of the university classroom that being silent is far worse than being wrong, and–thanks again to my struggle with pride–I’m still in the process of accepting that retractions, apologies, and repentances are all part of being human. I’m well aware that many of our readers think that we are wrong, or that I, personally, am wrong about one thing or another. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a positive thing. Your challenges are good for me, and my responses are probably good for you too. The expectation that everyone (or anyone) who discusses issues of sexual ethics is going to do so in the most perfect, kind, non-alienating, and theologically orthodox manner 100% of the time hinders dialogue. Sometimes, I wonder how much more productively we might be able to talk about this if everyone involved would drop the pretenses and accept that God and the Church are strong enough to withstand all our blunders.

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6 thoughts on “The Freedom To Be Wrong

  1. In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

    Theodore Roosevelt

  2. Being wrong about gay people in the church makes people make gay people left out of the church. It’s a very bad thing to be wrong about gay people in the church and you say it like its no big deal.

    • Alex, I think you might have misunderstood what I was saying in this post. It’s true that being wrong about LGBT issues in the Church–or any serious issue affecting the real lives of real people–can lead to hurt. I was not trying to suggest that being wrong in one’s conclusions about these issues is without consequence. Instead, my point was that *anyone* who wants to discuss these issues in a meaningful way *is going to be wrong* from time to time. No one is perfect. No one is able to talk about these issues without ever making a mistake, so the way I see it, it’s best to keep the conversation going but be willing to apologize, repent, and even take back previous statements if necessary. -Sarah

    • Alex,
      the only way to learn from our mistakes is to step out, make decisions and take risks by doing something. If it is wrong we will stand corrected. If we are teachable we will learn the difference between the two. But, when we are silent and do nothing we learn nothing.
      Usually the difference between right and wrong is only someone’s opinion or perspective. In fact many of the people who stood up for LGBT rights in the beginning were told they were wrong by the majority.

      • Yes Kathy! If we are teachable we have much to gain. Our silence perpetuates a state of sameness. For me life is best when I’m on the edge…learning from others who think differently than I, and understanding where others are coming from. Whether or not I think other points of view are right or wrong, It is better to be in dialog with others, and making mistakes will be part of the process. I enjoy learning and growing together.

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