Why I’d rather seek truth than defend an idea

When you make a movie about hell (especially if it has a question mark at the end of the title), one thing is guaranteed: You’re going to get into a lot of debates. In fact, apart from finishing and promoting Hellbound?, that’s pretty much all I do these days—debate, debate, debate. Online, at the dinner table, in the locker room and on the road, once people find out what I’m doing, there’s no escaping it.

Not surprisingly, everyone I meet has a slightly different take on hell. But even though opinions differ, most people have at least one thing in common: they’re absolutely convinced their position is correct.

And why shouldn’t they be? If they didn’t think their opinion was the best option, why would they hold it? But there’s a big difference between believing your views might have a leg up on the competition and being absolutely certain of it.

In the first case, you hold your views with an open hand, realizing that you may have to modify or even jettison some of your beliefs in light of new information. In the second case, rather than welcome new information, you see it as a threat. New ways of looking at things—even old ways of looking at things—are deemed wrong by definition. So are the individuals who suggest such perspectives. And if you’re not careful, you find yourself making that subtle transition from “seeker of truth” to “defender of an idea.”

I can see a number of hands shooting up right now accusing me of introducing a false dichotomy. Why must we choose between seeking and defending? Isn’t defending a necessary part of the seeking process, wherein we test the relative strengths and weaknesses of a new idea?

I couldn’t agree more. The entire scientific method is premised on such a notion. It’s not enough to merely come up with a new theory. That theory must survive a rigorous peer-review process in which your colleagues try to prove it wrong. And even if a theory does pass the test, no one ever considers the matter settled for all time. They are always ready to re-open the case if new information casts their conclusions in doubt.

Furthermore, as Daniel Taylor points out in the video below, as much as we’d like to believe we are primarily rational beings, we simply are not. Emotions play a huge role in the truth-seeking and idea-defending process. Even the term we use to describe a moment of intellectual discovery—an “A-ha! Moment”—is primarily emotional in its connotations. This is nothing to be embarrassed about. We enter the science lab and the theological library as whole persons, not disembodied minds. And we need this kind of emotion to spur the tremendous effort required to coax new insights out of stubborn data and then to gain them a fair hearing.

Daniel Taylor on the “myth of rationality” from Kevin Miller on Vimeo.

Problems arise, however, when we become so emotionally attached to an idea that it no longer exists independent of our selves. We have invested so much of our lives into articulating and then defending the idea that it becomes fused with our identity. We don’t just hold an idea; we are the idea.

“I don’t just hold conservative views; I am a conservative.”

“I don’t just believe in universalism, I am a Universalist.”

If we’re not careful, we go from thinking, “My idea might be right” to “My idea can’t be wrong.” And the reason it can’t be wrong has less and less to do with the idea’s relative merits. It’s the fact you’ve ordered your entire existence around that idea, and if it’s wrong, well, you’ve wasted your life.

Rather than face that awful scenario, you fight like a caged wolverine to silence the voices of dissent. Seeking truth is so far back in the rear view mirror you don’t even recognize it anymore. Nothing else matters… except survival.

At this point, we are the most dangerous to others and ourselves. With so much on the line, we will stop at nothing to defend what we have worked so hard to create. “Truth be damned!”, so to speak. And “Damn those who disagree with me! Damn them all to hell!” By now, we are no longer seeking truth or defending an idea. We are expending all of our efforts in a vain effort to deny reality.

We’ve all seen this process in action. And we’ve all lived it on one level or another. I certainly have the scars to prove it. The question is; what can we learn from it? How does recognizing this pattern affect the way we engage with new ideas—and with those who propose them? How can we still invest our entire selves into the truth-seeking and idea-defending process without allowing it to consume and destroy us?

I don’t have a magic bullet solution. In fact, to complete the late night infomercial analogy, I don’t even have a ShamWow. But the next time you’re in a debate, perhaps it’s enough to pause ask yourself at some point whether you’re seeking truth, defending an idea or—heaven forbid—expending a Herculean effort to deny reality. If that’s the case, maybe it’s time you curled up in a Snuggie and reflected on why this idea is so important to you and whether or not life might actually be better without it.

Check out a new documentary I wrote and edited
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About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • http://frankschaeffer.com Frank Schaeffer

    Welcome to these pages Kevin. You are one of the good guys, as all America will know when they see “Hellbound?” I’m so pleased I got to be in your movie. What a great post, movie and person you are. Best with this blog! Fondly, Frank

  • Tim

    The stakes are infinitely high in this particular quest. Is life ultimately safe, or is there a tiger called “endless torture” behind door number 2? Is G-d finally for us or against us?

    • Sunny Day

      Or like the tooth faerie, exist only in the imagination.

  • Chris

    I hear you Kevin, I do. Of course, all or most of what you just said will be misconstrued; I am trying not to end up in that camp…that being said (because I do agree with you), I must regress.

    If we live this out:

    “… there’s a big difference between believing your views might have a leg up on the competition and being absolutely certain of it.”

    What will it look like?

    Here’s what I mean- I’m all for questioning, but where does it end? Specifically, if Jesus is who I follow, and he says that “Love is the fulfillment of the Law,” and therefore, love is Supreme, should I hold that loose as well, in light of the possibility of discovering “new” information- information that will lead me into a paradigm where love really isn’t what this is all about?

    In the end, I guess what I’m saying is this: humility is a great virtue, only because it is grounded in love. If I am grounded in love, then it’s because I am unwilling to relinquish my position. If I am unwilling to relinquish my position, even in light of “new” evidence, then would you say that this an improper position as well?

    • Kevin Miller

      Chris: I think it’s a matter of testing our beliefs against reality. That’s why I mentioned the scientific method. In my experience, many Christians hold to a theological tradition or interpretation that is clearly contrary to experience. But because they are convinced this particular interpretive tradition is the “Word of God,” they refuse to relinquish it even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

      • Frank

        Can you give an example or two?

        • Kevin Miller

          Sure. The idea that a father who saves some of his children can be considered a good father–in fact, a better father than one who saves all of his children.

          • Frank

            I assume you are talking about the doctrine of salvation? Isn’t it available to all who proclaim Jesus is Lord and Savior? So doesn’t the Father offer salvation to all? Isn’t it us that choose to accept or reject it? Isn’t the best father one who loves his children so much that they have free will as opposed to compulsion?

            And how is this “a theological tradition or interpretation that is clearly contrary to experience?”

          • Ted Jammers

            Kevin, I think the order is wrong. Perhaps no unregenerate man can in actuality be called a child of God. Perhaps before one is redeemed, that person is not, in reality, a child of God. Instead of God saving His children, maybe it is God justifying sinners and then making those individuals His children. In a natural state, we are children of the devil (John 8:44) not the Father (John 8:41,42). Salvation, therefore, is God redeeming some who are not His children and then adopting them as children (Gal 4:5, Eph 1:5, Rom 8:15). So we can’t say that this theological tradition believes God justifies only some of His children. This tradition believes He purchases many children for Himself and saves all of them unto completion.

          • Kevin Miller

            Even if that were true, Ted, why save only some when God intends for those he doesn’t save to suffer for eternity? Whether they’re his children before or after, refusing to rescue all from that fate when God has the power to do so is still monstrous.

          • Sunny Day

            An omniscient god wouldn’t need to use compulsion. It would know exactly how to frame its unambiguous message that people would freely choose to follow.

            An omnipotent god would have no barriers to prevent if from delivering its unambiguous message.

            An omnibenevolent god would want to deliver its message and save everyone.

            Its contrary to experience as the world isn’t like this.

          • Frank

            It’s a mistake to define God righteousness by our own definition of righteousness. If our definition of righteousness does not match up with Gods we are wrong not God. Otherwise we simply raise ourselves above God and make ourselves god.

          • Kevin Miller

            Actually, Frank, I couldn’t agree with you more. However, I would add that if we are reading the Bible in such a way where God’s righteousness is clearly inferior to ours, the fault is with our reading of the Bible.

          • Sunny Day

            You’ve just jettisoned the general definition of good in order to give your theological tradition an out and have proved Kevin Miller’s point.

            We have come around to admitting there is no basis for determining if god is good. If god then Cthulhu.

          • Frank

            Thanks for proving my point!

          • Sunny Day

            I didn’t realize you were a Cthulhu worshiper.
            Have your point, god is a monster who can force you to kill and eat your children and call it good.

          • Frank

            Kevin so you are able to define what Gods righteousness means? Sounds like hubris to me.

  • Chris

    Frank, how free are we anyway…really? Even Jesus said “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” If they didn’t know what they were doing, then were they really “free” to do otherwise?

  • Chris

    In addition to that, Romans 11:32 has an interesting take on this “free will” thing. Check it out.

    • Frank

      He is talking about Israel and Gods promises. It has nothing to do with free will.

      And the people who Jesus asked forgiveness for were people who didn’t know He as God. Once again free will is not relevant here.

  • Ted Seeber

    To shock all the Evangelicals out there, this is kind of old news to Catholics. John Paul II preached on it way back in 1999:

    Angered a whole lot of right wingers then too.

  • Ted Jammers

    I can’t figure out how to reply to your reply to my reply so I will quote you and then reply to it. “Even if that were true, Ted, why save only some when God intends for those he doesn’t save to suffer for eternity? Whether they’re his children before or after, refusing to rescue all from that fate when God has the power to do so is still monstrous.”

    You are claiming God to be unjust if he indeed only saves some. Please read Romans 9:6-29 because it is sufficient. Why should I write something when there is an inerrant and infallible answer available?

    • Kevin Miller

      I’ll read that verse, Ted, if you read Romans 11:32, which caps off Paul’s argument about the purpose of election: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” It’s an argument for inclusion, not exclusion.

      • Ted Jammers

        I can stand by you and say it is indeed an argument for inclusion – an unsearchable and inscrutable inclusion. But the context is speaking of people groups not every individual person ever. The first being Jews and the second being Gentiles. First the Gentiles disobey and mercy is shown to the Jews. Then the Jews disobey by refusing their Messiah and mercy is shown to the Gentiles. Then the Jews will receive mercy by the mercy shown to the Gentiles. Bottom line is in verse 32 that all have been consigned to disobedience and that all have been shown mercy. Everyone’s favorite celebrity pastor has a wonderful sermon on this debated text http://bit.ly/NQJShE The ESV text is below.

        30Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

        P.S. Successfully replying to 2 out of 3 posts is not something to be ashamed of. :)

    • Sunny Day

      Here’s another data point in the Fundies don’t know how to use the reply button experiment. Thankyou.

      I don’t think you know what the words inerrant and infallible mean or you don’t know much about the purported magic book you are quoting from.

  • Andrew

    I like your idea about the scientific method. I believe our ideas should be tested and tried. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was like this entity, that would seek God’s will and be directed by the Holy Spirit? If it was like, 2000 years old and spent all that time growing deeper into communion with God and dispensing His will? Oh wait… that’s the Catholic Church. If you are indeed a seeker of truth, check out the Catholic Church. Of course, there is so much knowledge and science and reason that you could spend your whole life wrapped in it and still only scratch the surface.

    • Sunny Day

      Well executed sarcasm is a beautiful thing.

  • jerry lynch

    Testing it against reality? Whose? Yours or mine? We all have filters. Even if I hold my beliefs in an open hand, ready to tweak or even throw away what was previously held as truth, it might be regression instead progress. I might also become addicted to being a “seeker,” my meaning and purpose–and self-image–dependent of continually tweaking and tossing al beliefs, breezing through Buddhism, Sufism, and wahtever Ism with my spiritual dowser, digging up nuggets of wisdom that I melt down to an image that I shape in my own image.
    There is something other than being a “seeker” to discovering truth. “Principles before personalities” is the spiritual foundation of AA and a means of exploring the depths of being without being on a quest to do so. Just as the pursuit of happiness is most often a fool’s journey, so, too, seeking the truth.

    • Kevin Miller

      I see what you’re getting at, Jerry. There’s certainly a danger in becoming so open-minded that everything falls out. I’m not arguing for that. I’m not suggesting we adopt “truth-seeker” as an identity either; merely that we retain a healthy sense of skepticism as we consider any belief–particularly the ones to which we feel a strong emotional attachment.

      • jerry lynch

        Sorry, I do this sometimes. My mind has this automatic fault-checker; I do not have to be looking for flaws for it to be on duty and ready to report. I liked your piece very much and I agree about those beliefs we cling to too tightly. It is my experience they are mostly defensive, more to protect some wound or my image than to serve a life-giving purpose.
        What I was trying to get at about “principles before personalities” is a non-judgmental awareness or to “be still.” A continual practice of this form of “self-denial” begins to bring up into the light those things hidden in the sub-conscious.
        For instance, back in the early Nineties I held the belief of having “no expectations.” I saw how really unreasonable most of my expectations about were and how this often led to problems in relationships or just inner disturbance. One day a group of us Hospice students were having lunch while a dear friend went on and on about her coming trip back home and all of her expectations of how grand it would be. I waited patiently for her gushing to pause feeling obliged to warn her she was laying a trap for disappointment or worse. But I began to notice how desperate and emotional I was around sounding this “reasonable” caution. Then suddenly I clearly saw what was actually troubling: I did not see myself as lovable enough to get the greeting and affection she anticipated. I was not acceptable as is, there was no enthusiasm for my presence…unless, of course, I made a concerted effort to be so.
        This belief about having no expectations had been a blind to protect me from rejection and to hide the wound of not lovable. As painful as the realization was, it was also freeing, and it made me openly curious about all the beliefs I held, especially those with white knuckles.
        Blessings on your journey.

        • jerry lynch

          Seems that my “automatic fault-checker” works better on others than on me. Forgot the crucial piece. When I noticed how caught up I was in warning her, how my palms were sweating, I knew to breathe and allow the calm to return, opening myself to whatever came up. And after a moment or two, I saw what was actually troubling me.
          Continued blessings on your journey.

  • jerry lynch

    “I don’t just hold conservative views; I am a conservative.”

    “I don’t just believe in universalism, I am a Universalist.”

    “I don’t just hold one must be a seeker rather than an idea-defender; I am a Truth Seekerist.”

  • Ken Ball


    Excellent points here, though I wonder from Daniels talk how much do I assume ideas I
    hold as central, not to be just gained from my complex sermons, selected friends and books I have written. How much I should be more open handed to other views. I have just had a nice chat with a good friend who doesn’t think gay people who are evangelicals could possibly love one another and I will be taking part in a big debate in a few weeks with evangelical determinists, about ” The rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate and God planning their estates. There must be some points I close my fists eg on rape and racial hatred. I fear those on the other bench will say, well you just learnt this from books and sermons. From your view are they not in fact right?

  • JDE

    The comments posted here by those who are obviously theologically conservative demonstrate what you’re up against, Kevin. Hell represents the final line, the one they will not cross. Many (I maintain it’s most) conservative evangelicals eagerly anticipate being allowed to watch the eternal torment of everyone they dislike (which turns out to be just about everyone). It’s one of the core teachings of Calvinism, which, as you know, is one of the main influences within the evangelical subculture (the other being Dominionism), even upon those who wouldn’t identify as Calvinists. They truly believe their “reward” will consist of hanging out on a mezzanine in heaven, knocking back beers with with Jesus and Dubya while peering over the balcony into the bowels of hell where billions of their fellow human beings will be roasted alive for all of eternity. They fantasize about it regularly; the mere thought of it gives them lascivious pleasure. There’s a huge amount of thinly repressed sadomasochism in Christianity.

    This is who they are. There is no changing them. I’m convinced it isn’t merely the result of early childhood indoctrination. This is a congenital psychopathy.