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The Importance of an Open Mind

“Open-mindedness is a virtue all praise and few possess. Prejudice is a sin everyone denounces and almost no one seriously confesses. Prejudiced persons do not come crying to be saved from their bigotry. A closed mind is so cozy and comfortable to its possessor that he dislikes to be dislodged and driven out to the exposure of cold facts. And, just as the occupants of a crowded and closed room may become oblivious to the heaviness of the atmosphere which a newcomer detects at once, so those who dwell in closed minds may sit undisturbed until some fresh entrant opens the door.” 

These opening words by Ralph W. Sockman, a United Methodist pastor, come from his chapter within the 1944 commissioned book on Protestantism. The chapter moves into the parable of the Sower, reminding us how closed-minded people can refuse Jesus’s teachings. Sockman notes having an open mind as “a necessary qualification for the follower of Christ.” He goes on to highlight the counterfeits we often fall for in our attempts at being open-minded. 

False Substitutes

The first of these false substitutes is a mindset of indifference. Sockman conveys this with an example: when we no longer feel energetic toward good works. He goes so far as to state that ministers should leave the pulpit if they become like “winter sunshine—brilliant but cold.” Secondly is mental emptiness. Sockman writes that a lack of understanding of one’s own faith is not the same as being open-minded. This causes you to be a stranger to your own religion. More so, being unable to understand someone else’s way of life or even to interpret the distinctions of one’s faith cannot replace the virtue of open minds. For the quality of open-mindedness is developed in living life, not a quality pulled from a vacuum.

How do we become open-minded?

First, remember that Protestantism began by believing in the gospel’s ability to speak from itself about itself. Yet, Sockman points out how differing views develop to create fractures and barriers to community membership. He further questions: “How far can we carry open-mindedness without dissolving the cohesion of our communions?” He concludes that “if the open mind means a purely individualistic freedom of thought, then Protestantism has demonstrated its impracticability.” Or as revealed by this epigram, I belong to that holy and infallible church of which at the present time I am the only member.

To keep the church from crumbling into absurdity, Sockman points to the middle path between blind traditionalism and near-sighted individualism as the road the church must take. “Open-mindedness demands that we neither bow down to Church tradition nor bow it out. This requires respectful attention to time-tested dogmas.” Such as when scientists trace their present work back to the forerunners of their various fields of inquiry. This is key to viewing Christian doctrines “as gifts of heritage given over to us, not straight-jackets put over on us.”

Writing from within a time of war, Sockman sets clear expectations that open-mindedness does not stand for the authoritarian reality of fascism. We cannot accept what is said, preached, or taught based on it being simply sourced from an authority figure. In creating a safe democracy, Christianity, as a majority, stands to lose its core character if it does not protect the rights of minorities. 

Then how do we know our minds are truly open?

Having a Truly Open Mind

Sockman gave three points to help us understand how open-minded we really are. Firstly, we need to “recognize the vastness of truth and the limitations of human reason.” Like seekers searching the vast ocean of truth, we are not to become self-satisfied, narrow, or fanatical about what we may know. Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton made a statement on his deathbed about only being able to play with pebbles on the beach of the vast ocean of knowledge. Our human reason, Sockman observes, cannot “initiate the revelation, cannot fully comprehend it, nor yet with full wisdom apply it.” He completes his observation by noting how mental humility is the greatest quality missing from the sporadic sects and cults that spring up from Protestantism.

Secondly, we cultivate true open-mindedness when we earnestly try to understand those who think differently. This means learning from sources outside of one’s own church. If we don’t try to understand other people, it “will lead to all sorts of rumors and rise to prejudices and poison the mind.”

Thirdly, we are to collaborate with others without a deception of conscience.  Areas such as scholarship, social services, political issues, health care, and interfaith can become the pathways of showing how open-minded we honestly are. Sockman holds this relational engagement as the best way to bring about sympathetic understanding. 

Sockman does not see tolerance as simply a passive attitude of non-interference, for that is not enough. He believes that the open mind demands that we try to eradicate the roots of prejudice. Where does it come from? Seemingly out of nowhere, for “prejudice, like the spider, makes everywhere its home and lives where there seems nothing to live on.” Sockman does clue us in to the major role of social inheritance, of what we show and teach the younger generations. Whether on purpose or unknowingly, we give and take many forms of knowledge on how to be in this world. 

Where Does Prejudice Come From?

Prejudice comes from two main sources, as Sockman sees it. First is ignorance, a problem that he connects to the bad education and echo chambers of his day, which only serves to rationalize unreasoned preconceptions. The second source is fear, which he calls attention to as an easy and cheaply popular form of psychology. He calls for the church “to help rid society of those pestiferous writers, secretaries, broadcasters, and agitators who make a living rousing the prejudices of people by stirring up their fears of other groups.”

Our Message Is Jesus

What Sockman leaves us with is a deep reminder of our active roles as Christians. By distilling Protestantism to its main reason for existing, he reforges our identities as thinking-doers within communities of faith. With a final reminder that all of Christianity has agreed that our message is Jesus Christ, Sockman nudges us onward, saying: “If our message can be kept Christocentric in spirit as well as in content, we shall be able to combine the glowing heart with a gracious inclusiveness.”

About the author

Kevin R. McCarty is a former Adventist teacher and local church board member who lives, works, and worships on the unceded traditional S’olh Temexw territory of the Stó:lō people. More from Kevin R. McCarty.
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