The Freedom to Be Wrong

The Freedom to Be Wrong September 3, 2017


I’ve been trying to spin out for myself, but not very carefully because I don’t really have time to think about anything more than a minute and a half, the fanciful trick of imagining how it would be if the Nashville Statement came out right in the middle of the French Revolution.

That’s what Twitter feels like to me–a, for now, bloodless movement to attain to an ever elusive purity of thought and expression. Whoever you are, you must adhere to the prescribed political expression of today. It will change tomorrow, but you must keep up. If you don’t, you risk losing your job and your public life. If you feel yourself feeling and thinking unapproved ideas, you had better hide yourself from the terror that is coming. That’s the tone of Twitter when you venture past the jokes and shouting.

The fact is, human nature is essentially totalitarian. We each of us want to be god, the god who rules over and inflicts his will over all the other gods. We are at enmity with ourselves, with one another, and with our true Creator. When human society ticks along in an ordered and restrained way, we have to sublimate our idolatry, we have to get along with other people as best we can–letting them be who they are so that we can have the freedom of our own dysfunction.

But every now and then human society breaks apart, cracks wide open. And then we all get to look into the abyss of what we would each individually be without restraint. The French Revolution was one such time. The madness, the mob, the shifting and changing from one day to the next of who could live and who had to die. That anyone comes out alive in the end is remarkable.

The trouble with the Nashville Statement is that it’s like poking an angry bear in the eye with a stick. Going up to the violent and angry mob and expressing disagreement goes against a deep rooted inclination to self preservation.

To the person who has embraced the half baked, useless notion of tolerance–the idea that everyone is allowed to say what they think as long as they agree with me–a list of propositions about the nature of God and Man and what God thinks you should be like, is of course an expression of hateful oppression. How dare you say something that I disagree with.

But the trouble is, tomorrow, you might be on the wrong side. The current might sweep past you, and you might be thinking and saying the wrong thing. What you really want is the freedom, and its accompanying safety, to be wrong.

Perhaps there are real substantial issues with the Nashville Statement. Maybe it goes too far, or not far enough. Maybe the signers are irritating. (I’m not saying this, but I’ve read it all over.) You might not like the statement and just wish no one had thought of putting it together, even if it is true. The timing, maybe, strikes you as misguided or something. Whatever it is, the fact that it was put together and hung out there on the internet for all to see is not only brave, but helpful in carving out even just a little space for the conversation to go on.

The question for the person angry that other people disagree with him about essential questions of doctrine and the nature of this life is, how do you wish other people would treat you? Your neighbor, if he thinks you are wrong, catastrophically wrong, what do you wish he would do about it? It might be nice if he let you know. But that he do so in an agreeable fashion, in such a way that you’re not worried he’s going to smash in your windows while you are sleeping. Can other people be wrong? And what if they are?

I mean, as we all trot off to church this morning, we are all going to carry with us our propensity to sin, to do the wrong thing, to think destructive thoughts, to dislike some of the people we have to live and work with, to do the thing we know we shouldn’t have done, and to neglect the one that was most important. And yet, in that vast sea of wrongness, God is patient. He doesn’t come in with a cudgel and with anger. He is kind, long suffering, patient, ready to correct with the slow application of love. He doesn’t come in and sort you out all in one go, blam, 140 characters to perfect thoughts and actions.

So neither should we Christians give in to the tenor, the impatience, the anxiety of the mob. We can go along being patient and kind to one another, letting people with whom we disagree off the hook, forgiving, refusing to take offense, trying harder to understand, charitably smoothing over what may seem to be the failings of others. And when one stands up to the destructive and terrible lies of the world, we could rally, maybe. We look to the interests of those whose Twitter feeds are blowing up.

But most of all, we could try very hard not to demand from others what we ourselves cannot deliver–perfection. There was only one perfect man, and he died, for us, because we couldn’t attain to it. But now he lives, and his perfection, his never being wrong, is vast enough to cover over all our failures to think and act as we ought. That is a great mercy. And that’s enough of a lecture. I’m going to church. You should too. Pip pip.

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