In this guest blog, Rev Dr Michael Jensen reflects on how our culture can make it hard to disagree constructively – and how the Christian faith can resource us for that important work.
The Holy Spirit has taught me about navigating disagreement well because of those who’ve remained my friends and given me their trust, even though we’ve had serious and ultimately irreconcilable differences. I’ve been ministered to in this way by members of my own parish (among others) – even some who’ve only recently come to faith.
What I’ve learnt is how much our Christian faith ought to give us an advantage here. We live in a culture that finds disagreement very, very difficult indeed. It either savages those who disagree, or it minimises all truth claims entirely. In contemporary discourse, experience trumps everything – we do not debate ideas, we simply listen to each other’s stories, which all are accorded equal value.
I don’t dispute the value of listening to stories at all. One of the besetting sins of a Western way of thinking has been to treat the truth exercise as disembodied – as if ideas do not have consequences for flesh-and-blood human beings. There’s a sort of Gnosticism inherent in this.
On the other hand, while the sharing of experiences is a great starting point for dialogue, it is not enough. It doesn’t take us out of ourselves, or provide a standpoint from which we might reinterpret or re-evaluate our experiences. My telling of my own personal story can weirdly become a dogmatic truth claim that shuts down conversation rather than makes space for it.
But Christianity has a long tradition of both: resolute convictions about theological truth and a rich practice of bearing personal testimony. My experience (!) is that disagreement between Christians has proven most fruitful when both of these things are acknowledged.
It is also the case that the Christian hope ought to make disagreement, even where the issues are deeply personal and complex, not terminal. It is possible to have my firm convictions about Scripture and still say ‘as far as I know’. What I do now is that we now ‘see through a glass darkly’ – but one day we will see face to face. That we in the churches cannot always see how we can hold a and b together is a reminder of our humanity and of our long journey within the history of fallen humanity. It may be that sometimes we have to journey apart from one another, in order to preserve our integrity. But the unity of the church is a work of God’s Spirit; and like so many of the Spirit’s works, it is currently invisible and partial.
Click here to read the companion piece by Rev Megan Powell du Toit, with whom Michael leads the With All Due Respect project.
Rev Dr Michael Jensen is the rector at St Mark’s Darling Point, Sydney. He is also an academic, with an interest in theological anthropology. He leads the With All Due Respectproject with Rev Megan Powell du Toit.
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