The recent controversy at Calvin College over the issue of human origins in the publications of two of its professors causes me and a friend to think about how Christians disagree with one another. In a connected blog, Jason Postma, Youth Pastor at Bethel CRC in Newmarket, Ontario, explores how at the root of these debates is how “we use (and abuse) history and tradition in the formation of our identity” as Christians of a particular denomination, in this case, the Christian Reformed Church, to which, Calvin College is affiliated. Postma suggests that we remember the dynamic nature of tradition – that tradition is a living thing that requires “continual negotiation between imagination and preservation” – and the Scripture’s call to work towards Christian unity in our disagreements over interpretations and uses of Creeds and Confessions. He implores that we “always extend a hermeneutics of charity to those with whom we are in disagreement rather than point accusatory fingers and call each other heretics.” It is this “hermeneutics of charity” that I wish to explore further in this blog post.
As I understand it, a “hermeneutics of charity” to those with whom we disagree is a loving way of interpreting their perspectives, arguments and actions that will enhance the possibility of a peaceful outcome rather than escalating the conflict. But interpretations, I believe, requires more than simply good intentions. It is not sufficient to simply have a loving attitude, or even loving actions like being civil, polite and courteous, when we engage in disagreement. There are, at least, two things that affect our ability to extend charity or love to others, namely, conceptual frameworks and symbolic fears. And the reason why these can sabotage the best and most loving intentions is how they operate mostly at the sub-conscious level of our reasoning, thinking, and acting. Conceptual frameworks that are based on hostility or antagonism foster hostility, while frameworks based on love foster love to each other. And fears projected onto particular issues that turn them into symbols of our greatest fears or enemies, making them effectively, lines in the sand, which makes, objectivity that much more difficult. Let me elaborate.
Take a closer look at how we normally frame disagreements and arguments. We use language like, “win or lose an argument,” “shooting down an opponent’s arguments,” “scored points with the argument,” and “defeated his opponent with a sound argument”. These betray a metaphorical framework of competition, rivalry, and antagonism. We tend to assume that disagreements are antagonistic and competitive events with win-lose outcomes. David W. Augsburger, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary, in his book, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) calls this an Either-Or Competitive Conflict. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Augsburger identifies another framework for conflict: Both-And Cooperative Conflict. Here’s a highly relevant paragraph from Augsburger’s book to our discussion:
The atmosphere of a relationship will foster certain acts and processes. A competitive atmosphere induces threat, coercion, deception, suspicion, rigidity, faulty communication, and so on. A cooperative atmosphere, in contrast, induces perceived similarity, trust, open communication, flexibility, concern for the other, emphasis on mutual interests, and attraction between the parties. … In cooperation, we seek to enhance each other’s strengths and contribute to the well-being of each person’s position in constructive ways. … The likelihood of achieving a mutually satisfactory solution is greatly increased. (p. 50, 53)
In other words, frameworks make a difference. A cooperative framework for conflict is, in my mind, more loving than a competitive, antagonistic, hostile framework. Since some cultures, especially the traditional Japanese and Javanese cultures, exhibit cooperative frameworks in conflict resolution, this is no pie-in-the-sky ideal. Especially, in relation to conflicts within the same family, tradition or denomination, as in the case of the Calvin College controversy, can we not approach familial conflicts with a cooperative framework? Can we not re-imagine ideological or doctrinal conflicts as mutually discovering truths for each other?
The apostle Paul gave Timothy this advice: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:24-26 NRSV) The metaphorical framework here is one of enslavement and liberation. Instead of seeing your ideological or doctrinal opponent as an enemy to be defeated, see him/her as a friend held captive by falsehood. Even though this is not inherently a Both-And Cooperative framework, it already casts the approach in a different light than a win-lose competition. And, especially, if you are humble enough to admit that you yourself might be enslaved in some areas of your thought and in need of liberation, that you have not “arrived,” as implied by Paul’s admonishments to Timothy prior to the verses above (2 Tim. 2:1-13), then, this liberation metaphor can easily turn into a loving both-and cooperative framework.
Secondly, our personal and/or collective fears add fuel to the fire that a hostile competitive framework ignites. The question of Adam and Eve’s historicity and the theory of evolution have become symbolic of something much bigger, in so many of these disagreements. It became symbolic of who is orthodox and who is not, of who is a “liberal” and who is not, and of who holds a high view of Scripture and who doesn’t. And I don’t believe that neither Adam’s historicity nor evolution actually force those polarizations on us. We have projected our own fears of losing faith, of becoming liberal, of disrespecting Scripture – for many, these are all intertwined into one – onto the conflict. And, in the case of the Calvin College controversy, we can add another symbol of fear into the equation: keeping the confessions as a symbol of Reformed identity. Thus, the fear of an erosion of Reformed identity is projected onto this controversy, making it highly unlikely that a Both-And Cooperative framework can ever be conceived. Our fears, in other words, drive out the likelihood of love by magnifying the conflict into symbolic lines in the sand.
Is there a place for either-or frameworks and are there issues that truly do represent our fears? Yes, I suspect there are. But I like to give loving frameworks a chance first, especially, in familial conflicts. If we say “Yes” to more loving, collaborative frameworks for engaging conflict/difference AND say “No” to magnifying those differences into symbols of our fears, then I believe we will lay a better foundation for achieving positive results in resolving ideological or theological conflicts.