By Wendy Dackson
Yesterday on Facebook, Lay Anglicana shared the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at Britain’s National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. I’m sure that there will be a lot of commentary on the finer points of global Christianity from people with much more official authority than I have. But a few things stood out for me, and I want to write a bit on them.
The first (not in order of where it falls in ++Justin’s speech, but in what captured my attention) is the idea of good disagreement. The Archbishop used the phrase in the context of how the Anglican Communion holds together, and his words were as follows:
We deal in thousands of cultures. The struggle, the achievement, of holding together in good disagreement sets a pattern in which truth is not a club with which to strike others, but a light freely offered for a path of joy and flourishing.
Good disagreement.I have a bunch of former students, distributed across a number of institutions and two countries, who must be breaking out in rashes at that phrase. Because disagreement between Christians is never good, is it? Some of the problems with the idea of disagreement were in the context of a group discussion where the complaint was “we could not come to agreement”. Others were complaints about a grade that was “unfair” just because the student and I did not “agree” on certain aspects of religion. (No, that wasn’t the problem. More often than not, a failure to meet the standards set out in writing for the assignment was why your mark was disappointing.) The most egregious was a student presenting me with the official form to drop my class because s/he “could not agree with (me), and therefore couldn’t learn from (me).”
There is a silly idea about–not just among Christians, but in secular society as well–that anyone we disagree with is somehow not as good a person as we are. We have nothing to learn from those who do not confirm our most dearly held preconceived notions. If someone does not think as I do, s/he must somehow be my enemy, or at the very least, removed from the social and spiritual world in which I move.
And so I was very glad to see ++Justin Welby use the phrase good disagreement. It is a beautiful pairing of words, of which I think Jesus would heartily approve. Because, good disagreement was exactly the method Jesus and his coreligionists used to discuss their sacred writings. It’s called midrash, and Ken Howard’s blog Paradoxical Thoughts brings the method to bear on contemporary western Christianity. I get the method in broad strokes, Ken is much more nuanced than I am, and I heartily suggest following his blog to get an idea of how it might be used for the life of the church in the 21st century.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the very first way I observed people studying Holy Scripture. I was maybe seven or eight, and we were visiting a cousin of my mother’s, a rabbi with five sons who were all a few years older than me. One of them was preparing for Bar Mitzvah, and my “uncle” (that’s what we called him) was discussing the passage of the Torah which he would be called to read and interpret. My uncle, with much more obvious expertise, did not demand that his son memorize or agree with his interpretation, but kept introducing other, seemingly contradictory ways of viewing the passage. The boy on the cusp of religious adulthood was to look at all of these, decide on an interpretation most convincing to him and why (often blending the ideas of several commentators, and holding in tension views that seemed on the surface to be in opposition to each other), but was never encouraged or instructed to dismiss other interpretations. Settling one’s opinion, when further evidence or insight might be brought to light at a later time by other people, was not the goal. The goal was to include as wide a range of viewpoints as possible. Only by looking at a passage of scripture this way, bringing to bear as many opinions as possible–even those that seemed irreconcilable–held the possibility of moving toward a truthful interpretation.
This is a pretty sophisticated mental exercise for a 13 year old, but it happens somewhere in the world on probably most Saturdays throughout the year. It saddens me that Christians who have lived several times that number of years are not only often unable to perform it, but refuse to even attempt it or to see the value of doing so.
Part of the value is the move toward a bigger version of ‘truth’ than any one person (or group) can possess. Another part of the value is that all viewpoints are discussed seriously, taking account of both their merits and their deficiencies, and good reason is given before an interpretation is adopted or dismissed. Minority views can be upheld, and there is much less danger of a tyranny of numbers.
Good disagreement must be nurtured in both church and society. We still have a responsibility to set limits, condemn evil, expose corruption when we see it. There will always be lines which cannot be crossed (although what those lines are will be a topic for discussion). But within a more generously bounded area than we often find acceptable, there is room for healthy, life-giving difference of opinion.
The old saying is that when two people hold exactly the same opinion, one of them isn’t necessary. Human endeavor relies on bringing differences together, not keeping things separate. A beautiful painting contains a variety of , brush strokes, curves and lines. A mosaic is only interesting if there are tiles of varying materials to give it color and texture. A garden needs more than one kind of plant if it is to be pleasing to the eye or useful for food or medicine. A symphony needs a range of instruments playing different notes or remaining silent over the course of the music, creating harmony (and sometimes dissonance) to reach a satisfying conclusion.
Christians should not demand absolute agreement as the gold standard of life together–whether globally, as in the context of ++Justin’s speech, or within a weekday morning coffee-and-Bible Study group. Good disagreement–taking into account the merits of opinions we have never heard, or may not like, but recognizing them as potentially leading us to greater beauty, truth, and goodness–should be the aim of our life together under the gaze of God.
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