Over the summer, my wife and I began re-watching ABC’s television show “LOST” about plane-crash survivors stranded on an island.
A few days after the crash, a few survivors hike to higher ground to call for help using the plane’s transceiver.
They hear a French woman speaking on the radio and everyone is overjoyed. But their hope fades when they realize it is a distress signal coming from the island that has been playing on a loop for 16 years.
The expedition wonders what to tell the other survivors, and their leader urges them not to share what they know. It would cause everyone to lose hope, he says, and hope is a dangerous thing to lose.
When I first viewed the episode, I agreed that they should not immediately share their knowledge, because it would be more harmful than helpful. Re-watching it, though, I disagreed with the decision because withholding knowledge would prevent a necessary shift from short-term to long-term survival strategies.
I believer this scene is illustrative of the delicate, difficult role local church ministers face when considering whether or not to share knowledge acquired in seminary with their congregations.
Hope is, indeed, a dangerous thing to lose, but false or misguided hope is equally dangerous, as it often leads to shallow or erroneous ethics.
The question—should I share what I know?—is the profoundly complex and frustratingly ambiguous debate that ought to take place within every local church minister each time they teach or preach.
In his published ministry journal, “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic”—which should be required reading in every divinity school curriculum—Reinhold Niebuhr reflected on this conundrum in multiple entries.
“It is your business,” he asserted, “to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.”
A few entries later, Niebuhr offered helpful advice for ministers seeking to discern the line between “pedagogical caution” and dishonesty.
“If preachers get into trouble in pursuance of their task of reinterpreting religious affirmations in the light of modern knowledge,” Niebuhr writes, “I think it must be partly because they beat their drums too loudly when they make their retreats from untenable positions of ancient orthodoxy.”
Niebuhr suggests that how you share knowledge is as important as whether to share knowledge. Deciding not to “beat the drum too loudly” in one’s efforts to reinterpret doctrine and theology in light of present day knowledge is, I believe, an essential starting point.
To Niebuhr’s advice, I would suggest Nathan Napier’s recent reflections that focus on sharing information within a trusting community, as well as Colin Harris’ emphasis on teaching through asking refining questions.
To these helpful ideas, I would add the following suggestions.
First, value the pursuit of truth, but do so humbly.
While you should not be dishonest with yourself or with others, you must be wise in what, when, why and how you share the fruits of your studies. While ignorance may be bliss, it is not a virtue, but neither is unbridled, unfiltered sharing.
Second, reflect on your own journey, recalling the time it has taken, the patience your teachers have shown and the painful progression of having your deeply cherished beliefs called into question before they are reformed.
Remembering your own struggles will make you more compassionate and careful when sharing your knowledge and perspectives with others.
Plucking up and tearing down outmoded, insufficient or unhelpful structures is necessary sometimes. But it is a painful process, so you should not dismantle anything you are unable and unwilling to help someone replant and rebuild.
Third, don’t seek to form others into your own image and likeness.
Share multiple perspectives on the subject being discussed, and encourage others to reflect on them and form their own conclusions.
Help them understand the boundaries established by centuries of faith and practice, and share your concerns about certain expressions, but don’t denigrate or dismiss every perspective but your own.
Remember, the disciple’s goal is to grow in the image and likeness of God revealed in Christ, not yours.
Fourth, consider whether the person’s perspective you are seeking to broaden, correct or refine involves a central or peripheral matter.
Before sharing, ask yourself: will the information I want to share make a significant difference in the person’s efforts to live in the way of Jesus or not?
Focus on defining, refining and affirming the central matters of Christian faith and practice, rather than chasing tangents on the margins.
Finally, remember that there are no easy or universal answers to defining the boundary between “pedagogical caution” and dishonesty.
What is a cautious and sensible choice to not share information in one circumstance may be dishonest and irresponsible choice in another. What is a soft drumbeat in one place and with one person may seem an ear-piercing drumbeat elsewhere.
Examine your motives, use your best judgment and trust the spirit of God to guide you in your decisions and actions.