A Way Out of Our Incivility

This is a longer post, but bear with me to the end.

Thursday I saw my eye doctor. Ever since a previous surgery, my eyesight continues to diminish line by line. Things once clear have become more a blur.

As concerning as this is, there is a deeper blindness, one afflicting our culture. We are losing our ability to see—see with any sort of clarity—the people who we may not agree with. See their side, read their opinions, consider their arguments, and feel their passion. They have become blurs.

Worse, we seem to have become increasingly deaf. We no longer know how to listen to those who take a different position. We lament how universities are denying free speech, but in more subtle ways, aren’t we doing the same thing? We don’t shout people down—we just pontificate, marshal our points, throw in a little shame, and confirm our opinions by setting up a few straw men to quickly blow off. We gather other opinion-makers who will legitimize our thinking, collect an audience who think like us, and hope other voices will get lost in the noise.

This week has been an exceptional example. Congressmen and congresswomen met in hearings to share their opinions, which dissuaded no one. But then, no one was listening except the trollish hordes who share the same view. It was similar on the news. Those on the left and right followed an identical script—make their talking points, give their angles, bring in people who agree, and throw in an occasional dissenting voice—not to gain insight, but to shoot down.

It’s not so surprising. We all come with our own biases, our own subjectivity. This is the nature of being human. A fallen world makes neutral, detached observation, impossible. All of our conclusions have a certain prejudice. But it’s the oversized egos that do the real damage. In our self-centered, nearsightedness, we are prone to rush to judgment. We have this tendency to confirmation bias. We look for information that fits within our frames. We listen for what we already believe, filtering out information that conflicts with our desired conclusions.

In our day, given social media, it seems like little deference is paid to those with knowledge, experience, and proficiency. This is underscored in Tom Nichols’ recent book, The Death of Expertise. We read but we don’t examine; we receive, but we don’t question. As Jonah Goldberg puts it in his Suicide of the West,“ We drown in information but we starve for knowledge.”

There was a time reasoned arguments and civil discourse were the mode of operation. Disagreements were welcomed. Not today. Today, differences are resolved by shouting people down and shutting them out, or simply showing contempt. We have become a nation obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.

What’s most troubling is when all of this happens in the church.

Like some of you, I read Mark Galli’s opinion piece in Christianity Today, a magazine I have subscribed to for years. He came to a settled conviction that he should speak to the impeachment debate. It is his prerogative as an editor.

As he noted, his motives were less political, more about the concern that we, the church, are “dumbing down” the idea of morality. While there have been notable accomplishments by the Trump administration, Galli concluded: “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.” Witnessing an unhealthy alliance between evangelical leaders and the President. Galli writes, “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”

We may or may not agree with Galli. And while this might matter, what matters, even more, is how we respond. Soon after his comments were posted, those who disagreed went on the attack. In case you missed it, here were some of the comments made on the news last night-by those who claim to be Christ-followers—“Christianity Today” is so “Christianity Yesterday”, “out of step,” “has been moving leftward for years,” led by a “liberal editor who has made his publication irrelevant.”

This is news to me. It is one of the more relevant magazines I read, right there with First Things, WSJ, NY Times, and the Washington Post. I may not agree with some of the things Mark Galli—or David Brooks, Ross Douthat, or Andrew Sullivan, or Jonah Goldberg have to say. But I pay attention. I owe this to others, just as I hope they might take the time to understand my position.

I have assumed this is what should set the church apart. We should not be those whose ironclad opinions are plated with unexamined assumptions, faulty science, and groupthink. Pursuing truth is what keeps the wise restrained and even-tempered. It is to our glory to search truth out (Proverbs 25:2). It is to our folly to do otherwise—

“Fools find no pleasure in understanding,

But delight in airing their own opinions” (18:2)

What we need in these days is the wisdom of an inquisitive spirit. An approach to conversations with the aim of acquiring (not stifling) knowledge, one that asks—

-“Why do you take this position?”

-“What has convinced you this is true?”

-“Does it hold up to reality?”           

And do this with grace, not a condescending spirit. If we don’t, we will become the sum of our own individual understanding. In a word—foolish.

One Comment

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  • John, you know I have always valued your thoughts and your opinions….I may not always agree with you, but I value them just the same. Your writings have continually intrigued me as there is so much genuineness and wisdom in the knowledge that you share with others. Captivating lines such as this, “We have become a nation obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.” cause me to think more deeply about where I stand. And your last line regarding an inquisitive spirit, “And do this with grace, not a condescending spirit. If we don’t, we will become the sum of our own individual understanding. In a word—foolish.” draws me to sink only deeper in prayer with the One Who knows me best…I am humbled. But you should also know that I research, I study, I delve into everything available to make sure my stand is not based on human thought but only His. I do not simply agree with anyone whose opinion is similar to mine…it must be fact based to be legitimate. As you can imagine, I did not agree with the CT article…nor its response and I will leave it at that. I have done my homework, have you?

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