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Where’s the Line Between Caution and Dishonesty?

My wife and I began rewatching the television show “Lost” about plane-crash survivors stranded on an island over the summer.

When 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 are overjoyed.

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 this information. It would “take away their hope,” he says, and “hope is a very dangerous thing to lose.”

Is it better to share knowledge that might take away hope based on false perceptions of reality?

Or is better to withhold knowledge that would require a necessary shift from short-term to long-term survival strategies so that others can remain blissfully ignorant?

This dilemma is illustrative of the delicate decision ministers face when considering whether or not to share knowledge acquired in seminary with their congregations.

While hope is a dangerous thing to lose, false or misguided hope is equally dangerous, as it often results in shallow or erroneous ethics.

In his published ministry journal, “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic,” 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 ambiguous 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 wrote, “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 believed that how you share knowledge is as important as whether you share. Deciding not to “beat the drum too loudly” is, I believe, an essential starting point for ministers in discerning the boundary between caution and dishonesty in their educational role.

To Niebuhr’s advice, I would suggest Nathan Napier’s recent reflections that focus on sharing within a trusting community as well as Colin Harris’ emphasis on teaching by asking refining questions.

To these helpful articles, I would add the following suggestions.

1. Value the pursuit of truth, but do so humbly.

While you should not be dishonest with yourself or 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.

When uncertain, ministers should err on the side of caution, remembering that not everything set forth in academia has been tried, tested and proven sound and substantive.

2. Reflect on your own journey – recalling the time it has taken, the patience your teachers have shown you and the painful progression of having your beliefs and practices 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 or unwilling to help someone replant and rebuild.

3. Don’t seek to form others into your own image and likeness.

While you should help others understand the broad boundaries established by centuries of faith and practice – and even share your concerns about certain expressions – you should not denigrate or dismiss every perspective but your own.

Share multiple perspectives on the subject being discussed and encourage others to reflect on these viewpoints and form their own conclusions.

Remember, the disciple’s goal is to grow in the image and likeness of God as revealed in Christ, not to look like you.

4. Consider whether the perspective you are seeking to broaden, correct or refine involves a central or peripheral matter.

Before sharing, ask yourself whether or not the information you want to share will make a significant difference in the person’s efforts to live in the way of Jesus. If not, perhaps you should leave well enough alone.

5. Remember that there are no universal answers that define the boundary between “pedagogical caution” and dishonesty.

What is a cautious and sensible choice to not share information in one circumstance may be a 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.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com.