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The reason you don’t need an eraser

17 July 2015

There is no shame in admitting to a change of mind, says Peter Graystone

PROFESSOR Guy Claxton, a cognitive scientist at King’s College, London, sparked discussions in school staffrooms last month by declaring that erasers should be banned in class. His point was that rubbing out the evidence that you got something incorrect encourages a culture in which people believe that only getting things right first time is acceptable. Seeing how children arrive at a result by correcting their errors helps teachers to enhance their learning. “We need a culture where children are not afraid to make mistakes, [but] are continuously reflecting and improving,” he said.

In an interview in The Daily Telegraph, the Professor described the humble rubber as “an instrument of the devil”. While his theology may be suspect, the point he makes is surely right. Political leaders dare not confess to having changed their minds. It is interpreted by the media as weakness, and punished. We have become used to interviews in which politicians say: “I have always been clear about this,” before contorting a previous position to appear compatible with their present one. But why would we want leaders who are unable to recognise the limitations of what they formerly believed, learn from new circumstances, and change? That is a virtue, not a fault. And it is something that church leaders could helpfully model.

When I was ten, a Sunday-school leader taught me a profound theological truth, although I didn’t recognise it at the time. She told me: “God never rubs out. Instead, he incorporates what we do, no matter how unhelpful it is, into his ever-changing plan.” I have found this to be true, although those who have a fundamentalist understanding of the story of Noah might take issue with it.

Of course, aged ten, I, too, had a fairly fundamentalist understanding of Noah. I was wrong. I can chart the way my perceptions changed over the years, and how increasing knowledge led me to treasure Noah’s deep truths about faith, about accountability for sin, and about God’s indefatigable commitment to humankind. But when I sit on a carpet with a toddler leading animals two by two into a toy ark, the little boy I was is still within me.

It would be helpful if those who had recently rethought issues that are contentious among Christians would tell their stories. The Church of England has moved in a dramatically short time from circumstances in which our leaders in the General Synod were unable to vote with a sufficient majority for women to become bishops, to a point at which we imminently expect to see women sitting in Parliament among the Lords Spiritual. In part, this has happened because individuals changed their minds. We need to hear how. We need to hear about the journey on which God led them until they decided: “In the past I was wrong.”

The Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality began earlier this year (News, 29 May), and I pray earnestly for the participants. But I do not want to hear the verses about homosexuality in the Bible argued over yet again. I am exhausted by that. Instead, it would be constructive if those who had changed their minds would explain how and why it happened. It may need courage, but it should not bring shame. It would demonstrate that we do not have to erase our past in order to contemplate a different future. It will not result in God’s sending a flood, but it might lead us towards a new understanding of the rainbow.


Peter Graystone edits Christianity.org.uk for the Christian Enquiry Agency.

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