Sunday, June 22, 2008

Face to Faith

It's healthy for Christians to disagree, but we really must learn to 'quarrel peacefully

Chris Hardwick, The Guardian, Saturday June 21, 2008

Objectors to the Archbishop of Canterbury's perceived liberalism have been known to send him excrement through the post. The Catholic world's most famous living theologian once upbraided a colleague for merely sharing a platform with the current Pope, thundering that it was like conversing with the head of the KGB. It goes to show that the big problem for Christians is not Richard Dawkins but each other. Why is there so much bad feeling between Christians?

One reason is that Christians are by definition not Christians. Each Christian is only at the stage of becoming one. Another is that on every contested issue there is by now a buttressed "liberal" position, separated by a gulf from a buttressed "conservative" position.

And the nearer the neighbour, the deeper the divide. A Catholic will make common cause with a Baptist sooner than with another Catholic who interprets certain key Second Vatican Council texts differently. An Anglican will make common cause with a Quaker sooner than with another Anglican who takes the opposite view on the question of women bishops.

It is enjoined upon Christians to love each other, especially when they are enemies. With some contemporary intra-Christian estrangements that looks like too wide a stride, so what might be some of the first steps?

For a start the editors of "liberal" Christian journals should carry pieces written by conservatives, and vice versa with the editors of "conservative" Christian journals. Seasoned subscribers flicking through their soothing journals of choice should be startled just occasionally by a wasp spiralling up from the page.
Secondly, let's abolish the clique-cementing habit of parish-hopping. If we feel we are part of a dwindling minority in a parish fast becoming too trendy or reactionary, let's stay put and present our views with vigorous courtesy, rather than baling out to a neighbouring parish full of people who think as we do.
Thirdly, we fractious Christians should spend more time studying negotiation strategies and conflict resolution. We tend to feel our Christianity obviates the need, but there are techniques and skills to such processes as much as to gardening and cookery. And one enlightened central principle is that adversaries can nurture the quality of their relationship even when at an impasse.

You will notice that all three of these suggestions involve not eschewing but encouraging the art of disagreement. This will surprise nobody who has reflected on their experience of life amid any sort of happy family, however constellated. Disagreement is both the daily diet and essential emotional nutrition.

Christians wouldn't disagree so nastily if they could only rid themselves of the mistaken conviction that they shouldn't disagree at all. The (faulty) thinking goes something like this: "You and I are as one in the family of Christ. So I love you unconditionally and must not fall out with you. But your position is so wrong that it betrays both Christ and our family. Therefore - for your sake and the sake of our church - I am obliged to disagree with you and undermine your position, acting aggressively towards you. This makes me feel guilty and unhappy. And it's your fault!"

We Christians should distinguish between unity and uniformity and view disagreements as doors to discovery. We should be able to quarrel but - in a ringing phrase of Cardinal Martini's - "quarrel peacefully". It is possible to disagree while listening to and learning from my adversary's arguments. It is possible to cherish my adversary in and through the very process of vigorous disagreement.
It is possible to disagree emphatically with my Christian sister or brother and - at the height of this disagreement - post them a little parcel. Imagine them fearing the worst and unwrapping it with one hand while the other holds their nose. Imagine their dawning smile as they discover not excrement but a cordial card and some mouth-watering chocolates.

Chris Hardwick is a writer on religion and a playwright.

Comment: So, chastened by this fine article, I will resist telling you how I laughed when Big Pete couldn't get into Jordan for the Gay and Free Convention.