People Disagree. So What?

People Disagree. So What? November 24, 2020

People Disagree. So What?

I don’t remember ever being bothered by the fact that seemingly intelligent and good people disagree about important issues. But I often encounter people who are bothered by that or who believe that such pluralism means there’s no point in continuing the search for truth or being committed to a certain idea of the truth.

“Theology is a mess.” No doubt about it. There’s tremendous diversity among even Christian theologians. For years I was a member of the American Academy of Religion—a very large professional society of mostly professors of religious studies. Over the approximately thirty years of my membership the diversity became ever more apparent. I was also a member of the American Theological Society (Midwest Division) and even served as its president. Increasingly, over the approximately fifteen years of my membership I noticed growing diversity—to the point that many of us couldn’t even understand some of the papers being read to us by fellow theologians. I remember one that was very critical of monotheism—by a “Christian” theologian! Another one argued that the ONLY job left to theology was to deconstruct itself.

I notice that some people, when they become aware of the tremendous diversity of Christian theologies go in two directions. Some go one way and others go the other way.

One way is to join the Catholic Church. Then you have someone to tell you what to believe. Well, actually, I know enough Catholic theology to know there’s a lot of diversity within that. Yes, you have a magisterium to work through and supposedly settle controversies and there are ways to manage the diversity and corral maverick priests and theologians and even bishops. But somehow it seems impossible to control a billion people’s thoughts.

The other way is to throw up one’s hands in dismay or disgust and just give up—saying (in effect) “Well, since there’s no way to bring about unity or even some semblance of unity let’s just sit back and enjoy the Wild West show of contemporary theology.” In other words, don’t even attempt to settle into a belief system (however unsystematic it may be) because it will just be one among many and there’s no way to prove or enforce its truth.

Just speaking for myself (obviously!), I can’t settle for either of those two responses to the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that is contemporary Christian theology. I have to try to sort it out and sort through it and at least try to settle for what seems to be the most reasonable option(s).

That’s not only for me but also for the churches. Today’s churches, not only in America but around the world, are also caught up in this plethora of options. Some of that diversity is fine, nothing wrong with it. For example, worship styles. But, some of it is not okay and the churches need guidance to steer them away from error and toward truth.

For example, the so-called “prosperity gospel” is rampant—everywhere but especially in the U.S. and in the Global South (especially Latin America). The reason we theologians exist is to critique false gospels like that and do our best to steer Christians away from them.

Does the mere fact that there is no universal authority that has the power to quash the prosperity gospel mean we should just let it be? No. Definitely not.

What is a seminary education for? For one thing, it is to educate Christian leaders to discern truth from error and lovingly steer Christians away from the latter and closer to the former. Loving correction—within congregations—and loving criticism—toward those “Christians” outside our congregations that embrace and especially promote heresy.

All we have, apart from ecclesiastical authority, is the authority of truth and the power of persuasion, but those are something rather than nothing. Let’s use them in the cause of truth and righteousness.

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