Every now and then, students ask me for advice as they prepare to graduate and move into ministry. The advice they seek in not about anything in particular, just some bit of wisdom they believe, rightly or wrongly, I may have gleaned in the church and academy. Over the years, the pearl of wisdom I have acquired is this: Find a life-long conversation partner—preferably more than one. Such conversation partners should be authors, Christian or otherwise, whose thought strikes you as sufficiently profound and their corpus sufficiently copious. Turn to their works over and over again for the next fifty years to find insights that will give depth to your own understanding of people, the Divine economy, and the God who has called you to ministry. It is not difficult, after all, to tell the difference between ministers who are readers and those who stopped reading after seminary. And this has nothing to do with how many books are on our shelves. However, this piece of wisdom comes with a caveat my students do not expect: one of the conversation partners for life should be a profoundly disagreeable thinker.
Profoundly here carries a double meaning. First, profoundly marks the disagreement as one pertaining to a profound matter on which you profoundly differ. Therefore, profoundly disagreeable interlocutors are thinkers who hold a worldview fundamentally at odds with your own. Their metaphysical assumptions about reality are contrary to those foundational to your conception of reality. Your respective notions of the Good, which, like the North Star or the Southern Cross—that fixed point one uses to check the straightness of one’s course—are decidedly different.
In a second sense, profoundly is an adverb that describes the manner or quality of the disagreement. Profoundly disagreeable thinkers are ones who challenge others to reflect more profoundly about an issue. They press others to probe more deeply and even reexamine opinions or understandings of the world. They are a refreshing contrast to those political pundits and social commentators of both the right and the left whose facile arguments and simplistic, binary visions of life, which divides the world into “us” and “them,” leave us merely irritated or indignant. The profoundly disagreeable thinkers do not let us walk away or dismiss them off-hand. Indeed, we may want to interrupt a line of argument and raise objections as we are reading. Our blood pressure may become elevated. We may even feel defensive. Nevertheless, we keep reading because their questions are so probing and their arguments are so textured that we find ourselves thinking about their ideas and arguing with them when we are in the shower or waiting for the bus.
In a culture that is increasingly polarized—politically, aesthetically, religiously—public discourse is becoming narrowly partisan and uncharitably strident. We are, therefore, becoming habituated to avoid the social commentators on “the other side,” and instead, read only those “in our own camp.” When such propensities become habits, our thinking becomes narrowly partisan and the gospel we preach, instead of transcending party divisions and speaking words of prophetic judgments on both the GOP and the DNC, merely affirms our own cultural sensibilities and political predilections. This betrays the gospel, for Jesus, who challenged both the Pharisees and Sadducees, today casts a plague on the pretenses of elephants and donkeys alike. One of the highest compliments a preacher-friend told me she ever received for a sermon—and it was not intended as a compliment—was this: “That sermon did not sound like you.” “That’s the point,” she replied, with a polite smile. “It’s a sermon, not a blog. The word of God let’s no one walk away unscathed.” If our message is to be faithful to the breadth of gospel, then we need to listen ongoingly to voices other than the monologue in our own heads. We need conversation partners that do not allow us to succumb to the temptation in our culture of “group think.”
One last qualifier. In order for our disagreement to be profound—to be a real conversation—there must, paradoxically, be some shared set of intellectual commitments. If there are not at least some common touchstones—points of reference both parties use to ground the conversation—we will not even know where to begin. An author may be quite profound, but if she writes within a Derridean idiom and you have never plumbed the depths of Derrida, then you will be speechless—and likely frustrated. I remember a colleague’s description of attending a theology conference with people coming from radically different points on the Christian continuum. It was, he said, like listening to Charlie Brown’s mother, who in TV animations was never seen but only heard speaking gibberish, “Mwaw mwaw mwaw.” Unless there is a shared idiom, speech is unintelligible.
Very often, the point of difference that renders dialogue nearly impossible is the different starting point each takes. Two parties may agree about an central point, but if they have arrived at the same conclusion from wholly incompatible assumptions, then there will likely be a fundamental disagreement even in their respective understandings of the agreed upon point.
A commonplace example is the difference between those who approach the study of church history with a hermeneutic of suspicion and those who begin with a hermeneutic of charity. Both may agree that the history of the church, like that of ancient Israel, bears ample testimony to the reality of sin and how self-centered love leads to actions, policies, or teachings that are self-serving. If, however, a scholar makes sin, rather than the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the starting assumption when analyzing the catholic tradition, then his narrative will be decidedly different than the scholar who primarily views the church as an earthen vessel filled with spiritual treasure. The former tends to read history with a hermeneutic of suspicion (à la Nietzsche and Foucault) that, even if not entirely reductionist, assumes that power relations are at the heart of the issue. The latter, though not blind to issues of power, assumes that even in the midst of the debris of sin God is continually active in the church and the catholic tradition remains a repository of wisdom. In neither group, however, is there a univocal interpretation of the church’s history.
Even in groups where theology is not viewed an epiphenomenon—a feature of the ideological superstructure that, in Marxist terms, is a mere rationalization for society’s economic system—there can be rich disagreements. Katherine Tanner, Gene Rogers, and Rowan Williams are all theologians I greatly respect. And yet, I disagree with them on the subject of homosexuality. Since they respect the catholic tradition and engage the thought of its greatest luminaries, we can “reason together” within the logic of the catholic tradition using its resources alongside the resources of modern science. Such is not the case with those who think only in the terms of secular society.
It is important to change the character and quality of contemporary debates within the church and for Christians to contribute substantively to the debates within our pluralistic society. Having profoundly disagreeable interlocutors is an excellent way to hone our reasoning and our reflections.