I’ve been thinking a lot lately about differing opinions on important matters — primarily in terms of religious and theological issues, though there are similar discussions to be had when it comes to matters of politics or philosophy or virtually any area of inquiry. By differing opinions, I simply mean that reasonably intelligent people, when presented with the same general information, can still come to drastically different and mutually incompatible understandings of important issues.
This topic has been on mind for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been reading The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith (kindly given to me by Darian Burns). Smith’s opening salvo against evangelical biblicism is centered around the concept of pervasive religious plurality. In a nutshell (that doesn’t do justice to the nuances of Smith’s argument), this is the idea that, practically speaking, the Bible can’t function as the inerrent and infallible Word of God from which we derive doctrine … because it simply doesn’t. Christians reading the exact same Bible come to drastically different conclusions regarding all sorts of crucial theological issues. Holding to the Bible as “the norming norm” by which we set our standards of doctrine may sound good, but in reality does little to resolve our practical differences. Every group and denomination simply defers to their interpretations and their favored passages and, when pressed, often digs in deeper, clinging to resolute dogmatism rather than acknowledging the limitations of their overwrought biblicism.
Second, at a more personal level, a good friend of mine was recently subjected to a lengthy chastisement from his pastor because he holds a differing view than the church leadership on what, for me at least, is a relatively unimportant theological issue. But the mere fact that he held this view and ably defended it led to charges of “dangerous doctrine” and “sowing seeds of confusion.” The pastor was unwilling to take an irenic and conciliatory tone on what seemed to him to be an issue that had significant ramifications for how we understand the Christian life. Both deferred to the Bible for their view, but neither made any grounds toward mutual understanding.
How should Christians respond to the plurality of viewpoints within the Christian faith, all vying for orthodoxy, many completely incompatible with one another and many far from being simply minor theological quibbles? Deferring to pithy sentiments like “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” accomplishes little when we differ on what the essentials actually are, when we fail to grant “liberty” for fear of corroding our orthodoxy and when “charity” is only extended out of the hope we’ll be able to bring someone over to “our side.” How should we move forward? How should we relate to one another? How should we deal with our differences?
These are open-ended question that should probably remain that way. I don’t think we should try to resolve all our differences, but neither should we be content with a watered-down pluralism where we naïvely accept any and all opinions as being equally valid. We should defend our beliefs while still subjecting them to critical examination. We should seek to understand the beliefs of others in the most charitable light, while still clarifying where we think they may have gone astray. We should engage in dialogue and conversation more than argument and debate. We should listen far more than we speak, and when we do speak we should thoughtfully balance caution and restraint with clarity and boldness.
This is an ongoing process that is an essential part of belonging to a community — a community that professes unity but in practice regularly falls far short of that ideal. But that failure doesn’t mean we should concede defeat, rather, it’s a challenge to move forward together towards a shared goal.