According to experts great and small, we've lost our ability to disagree. Rather than discuss our differences and stay in conversation with one another, we go on the attack. We belittle, judge, and demonize one another. And, when all else fails, we walk away.
That's a loss, not just because we are divided into ever smaller tribes of what we imagine are like-minded groups of people, but because there are important reasons to learn how to disagree.
What should be troubling to us as Christians is our complete failure to model better behavior. In my own denomination, for example, we have been deeply wed to the politics of leverage. Traditionalists walked away from the church only to reorganize, change allegiances, and walk away from one another over and over again in the last twelve years. At the same time, according to some estimates, The Episcopal Church spent over $15, 875, 584 in litigating disputes over church property.
Here are seven reasons the church should learn to disagree:
One, we discover what we really believe.
One of the reasons I urge my students to write is because it is only when you begin to write or describe what you believe that you learn what you really believe. Without expressing our ideas in writing or in conversation, unexamined assumptions, fragile evidence, faulty logic, and eccentric ways of looking at an issue can linger for years. The process of disagreeing with others can force us to work through an issue and clarify what we believe.
Two, we learn how to defend what we believe.
The greatest gift of my high school education (as good as it was) didn't come from the classroom. It came from spending time on a debate team. Disagreement teaches you how to defend what you believe, eliminating weak arguments, and zeroing in on prejudices.
Three, we learn that we can be wrong.
Of course, you can also discover in the middle of a debate that you don't have very good reasons for believing what you believe. Then we learn something even more important: that we can be wrong. That's a valuable and inescapable lesson of adult life. Insulated from disagreement, we can take a long time to learn that lesson. "Invincible ignorance" is not a virtue and it is never a good thing to be a part of the "often wrong, but never in doubt" club.
Four, we learn more about the issues over which we disagree.
The accumulation of knowledge, never mind the cultivation of wisdom, is a communal enterprise. Differences in training, education, and experience each offer a different window into the challenges that we face. When we disagree, it is helpful to pause long enough in responding to ask ourselves, what can I learn here? There is information in resistance and better solutions take into account the varied ways in which people see the challenges we face.
Five, we expose ourselves to a wider world of ideas.
Some of the cheapest vacations in the world are the journeys we take thanks to disagreeing with others. Ignoring or dismissing those differences narrows our world. Opening ourselves up to them in a prudent fashion can offer a wider one. Changes in geography, cultures, and countries remain unintelligible until we acknowledge the different ways in which people see the world. In that sense, it isn't travel that changes us nearly as much as our ability to sit with our differences.
Six, we discover a capacity for real tolerance.
People who are tolerant of people who agree with them are not tolerant, even if they consider themselves "liberal." Liberality of mind is the capacity to entertain and evaluate ideas, especially ideas different from ones we already hold. The person who can do that without nuking their neighbor or walking away from the table is someone who is genuinely tolerant.
Seven, we learn what it means to live in community with one another.
The narrow alliances that are shaped by shared positions on a single issue or debate make for false intimacy, an intimacy that ignores or suppresses our differences in the name of crafting narrow ideological alliances, whether they be political, social, or religious. The net result is ever smaller, tribal alliances.
In truth, however, the most productive societies are sustained by diversity of culture and commitments. To learn to live in community with one another requires an appreciation for those contributions, even if we may not agree with the views. Conversely, to run from disagreement or to let disagreement shape our relationships is fatal to community.
That last reason should have special significance for the church. The Body of Christ is called upon to speak the truth in love and, as the Body of Christ the church is called upon to listen attentively to what the Spirit has to teach us and to tell the truth in love. When we stop listening to one another and when we stop telling the love-tempered truth, we cease to be what we were called to be.
It's time to learn how to disagree.