Fundamentally Wrong

The election has come and gone. And watching God's faithful, right and left, has convinced me again that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we discuss our differences -- pun intended.

I expect the public debate to be nasty and intolerant. Frankly, I think that all the "bipartisan, let's pull together, we don't differ" language is fundamentally dishonest. Democracies are about a difference of opinion. That's why we vote. That's why we depend upon checks and balances. That's why we don't have kings, emperors, or dictators. And that's why we insist on people stepping down when they fail to be reelected.

It's also no surprise that religious and spiritual people differ. It's a long way from subjective decisions about what we believe about the will of God and the nature of life to inferences about the way in which we manage our national affairs. And it's a long way from the radically different settings in which scripture and the creeds were written to the political settings in which we live. 

Maybe the nastiness among religious and spiritual folk isn't all that surprising either. We are only human after all.

What is unfortunate, though, is how cock-sure and nasty we are to one another. I think it's fair to say that the relentless nastiness of fundamentalism, left and right, is making it hard to hear the voice of God and it is certainly making it all but impossible for people to talk one another.

What do I mean by fundamentalism? Simply put, it is the strict adherence to a short-list of basic convictions by which a group of people defines its membership and excludes others, relying on name-calling and labels to identify those who do not share their views. 

It's common to assume that people on the right are capable of such behavior, but in truth people on the left are capable of the same mean-spirited, divisive behavior. The "fundamentals" differ, to be sure, and the heresies they despise have other names than the ones used on the right. But it's fundamentalism, nonetheless.

One could argue, in fact, that there is no such thing as conservatives and liberals anymore. The classical definition of conservative meant "conserving of the best of the past" and liberal meant "open to a diversity of opinion." With those definitions, you could actually imagine someone who was both conservative and liberal. But not any more. Now conservative means, adhering to a particular point of view (I'll leave you to fill in the blanks) and liberal means open to any point of view but the one held by conservatives.

From a spiritual point of view, there are two things that are most troubling about this kind of nastiness.

One problem is this: Fundamentalism, left and right, is lacking in humility. Humility is not about being shy and retiring, self-effacing, or without opinions. It comes from the Latin, humus, and means "of the earth." It's a spiritual virtue and played out in our political life, it might make all of us a little less sure that we know what God's opinion is of our political debates.

The other problem is that name-calling makes it harder to hear God. Our politicians don't need to care about that struggle. It's enough to end all of the speeches with the words "God bless the United States of America," and they all do that. But people who are religious and spiritual oblige themselves to listen more closely. No one of us can claim to know the mind of God, so it's worth asking, "What have others heard, that we have failed to hear?"

Can we differ? Absolutely. Can we debate with one another? Yes. But let's agree to be critical, not judgmental. What do I mean? Simply this:

One: Talk about issues.

Two: Don't name-call.

Three: Don't condemn others to hell (either hell -- the one built by the right or the left).

Four: Ask critical questions.

There are always three critical questions (and maybe more) that are appropriate:

"Where did the idea come from?"

"How does the idea hang together with the rest of what I believe?"

"Where will the idea take me?"

Being judgmental isn't about asking those questions at all and it isn't about ideas. In effect, people who are judgmental say, "I don't care where your idea came from, how it hangs together, or where it will take us, I just don't like you. You don't share my fundamentals. You are beyond loving. I won't talk to you. I won't eat with you. I'd prefer not to share the planet with you."

If God were that nasty, we might not have a planet to share at all.

11/9/2010 5:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • The Spiritual Landscape
  • Media
  • politics
  • Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: