I was privileged to attend the Annual Seattle Pacific Business Breakfast yesterday and listen to David Brooks, a favorite columnist of mine from the NY Times talk about the shift in ethos that’s been occurring in our culture over the last fifty years. In the midst of all that he said so well, one thing stood out to me. In an after session Q&A, David noted that, when he’s on Meet the Press, he’ll chat with the appointed spokespeople from both the political left and right chosen to represent their parties for that day. He noted that there sole concern, in that setting, is to represent the “party line” accurately, and the result, these days, is a terribly predictable dialogue. Pick any subject, and if you read the newspaper at all, you already know what the left and right are both going to say about it.
It was after, off the air, he said, that these same people would candidly admit that they knew the weaknesses of their own position. But, though they know the weakness, they don’t talk about it – even to each other, let alone the other party, let alone the public. The result is what Brooks called, “Public vice and private virtue” by which he means that the public personalities of our leaders are actually worse, in the sense of being more arrogant and entrenched in their views, than their private, authentic selves.
In such an environment, all thoughtful and civil dialogue ceases, because the party, and party loyalty, is everything. And what creates the kind of loyalty that causes people to hold entrenched positions publicly, even though they might privately hold a slightly different view? The bottom line is that they want to keep their jobs. Many of them promised, for example, never to raise taxes. It’s become a condition of whether they, or their own party’s foe, will be funded in the next round of elections. So they’re enslaved to the positions of the party, which spells the end of dialogue, civility, and compromise, even though we all know that’s what’s needed to make things work.
I’m not writing this to throw rocks at politicians. I’m writing this because I wonder to what extent leaders of our faith do the same thing. To what extent do we hold a party line because we know that we’re known for that line and that any deviation from that line will lead to a loss of influence? Our movements are, each of them, rooted in nuanced articulations of Christian doctrine. There are, for example, a bunch of us who believe in I Corinthians 15:1-6, which I preached about on Easter Sunday. We buy in, wholeheartedly, to Christ’s death, resurrection, appearance, ascension, and all that implies regarding his claims to deity and his ultimate reign as king in a transformed and healed world.
But from there we depart. Women in leadership? The responsibility of Christians with respect to environmental stewardship? Justice issues? War, violence, nationalism? The nature of the Bible’s authority? Sexual ethics? You can see how the road breaks off, again and again, into little subsets of believers who hold, dogmatically, to their nuanced version of the faith.
If we’d all be humble enough to say we have a “version of the faith” rather than “THE faith”, then we’d be open to dialogue, open to sharing our convictions regarding why believe the way we do, but open to really listening to the other to see if, just maybe, we need to change something a bit. But of course, any admission of doubt regarding our positions, and we who lead might just find ourselves in a similar situation as a Republican admitting we might need to revert to the old tax structure of the early Bush years, which is now viewed as “tax increase”. Subscribe to that as a Republican and your new title come November will be, “former congressman”.
Likewise, too many pastors are afraid to dialogue about important issues for fear of losing their jobs, or their support base, and as a result, they end up addicted to the party line in the name of orthodoxy. Lots of them though, privately, will tell you that they’re asking questions – about science and faith, homosexuality, and other big things. I propose that pastors and churches need to create safe places for people to ask questions, and that the safety comes from two places:
1. A good fence. By this I mean, “these are things we believe to be unchangeable with respect to our faith”. The fence of orthodoxy needs to be clear, and I good place to start would be I Corinthians 15:1-6, and perhaps the Apostles Creed, which has been hammered out over many centuries as the foundation of our faith.
2. Civility on the playing field. Within the fence, there’ll be discussions about lots of issues. We’ll disagree, sometimes stridently. But we’ll treat each other with dignity, knowing that the dialogue is important in refining our views. Biologos is doing this with respect to the science/faith dialogue here, and both the debate and civil tone are exemplary. We need more forums like this for other issues.
It’s time our private virtue of being willing to consider the weaknesses of our own position came out of the closet so that we can actually listen to each other, love each other, and come closer to unity in the process. Too much is at stake to keep hiding in our self-referential communities.