Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why do we fight over differences of belief?

Why do we push away, or attack, or push out, others who differ in belief from us?

Christena Cleveland wrote an excellent piece about a recent book by Rob Bell and subsequent division and fighting of “pro” and “anti” camps of other Christians (see

She writes,
In my work with churches, I find that most Christians agree that we should unite across ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic lines. Few people have a problem with this idea (at least in theory). However, Christians bristle at the suggestion of unity across theological divisions. Armed with the belief that our perspective is entirely right, we easily come up with reasons why other perspectives aren’t valuable and why dissenting voices should be extinguished.
Our tendency to do this was on spectacular display last week when Christians heard wind of Rob Bell’s controversial new book and swiftly sided with either Rob Bell or his critics. A humble appreciation for different perspectives was conspicuously absent from the conversation. Rather than giving serious, respectful thought to the viewpoint with which we disagreed, we dug our heels even deeper into the ground of our pre-existing theological beliefs, unwilling to consider other ideas. An event that should have triggered respectful conversation across theological lines led to divisions that are even more dogmatic and deaf than before! It was both predictable and sad.
The metaphor of the body of Christ preaches the need to value different perspectives – to be ideologically interdependent. Hans Boersma, the J.I. Packer Professor of theology at Regent College, agrees, writing “The idea of direct and complete access to [truth] is an arrogant illusion that violates the multifaceted integrity of the created world” (Boersma, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross). We need each other’s perspectives.  So why are we so stubbornly opposed to the idea that we might learn something from another theological viewpoint?

In answer to the question, the author suggests two main reasons – that we hate ambiguity (we have a need for cognitive closure), and that we hate “black sheep.”

On the second point, I see an anthropological reality (and would point to Miroslav Volf's excellent book, Exclusion and Embrace) - it has to do with the creation of group identity, and with in-group (“us”) / out-group (“them”) dynamics. We define our group with certain boundaries (in the case of evangelicals, those boundaries tend to be marked by specific beliefs), and build walls, and push away (or out) anyone who blurs the line, or who claims to be “in” but doesn't respect our boundary markers or in-group characteristics. The wall-building phenomena is particularly evident these days between Christians and Muslims. It's sad, though, that the dynamic is also strongly at work within Christian circles, in what seems to be an ongoing effort by some to “purge” the group of those who don't fit in (and it seems to me, sadly, that evangelicals are the worst).

Personally, I think evangelicals err in defining Christian faith cognitively more than relationally, affectively or behaviorally. In my reading of the New Testament, Jesus teaches the centrality of relationship, with himself and with others. He teaches that he saves us - through relationship, and clearly indicated by our emotional (affective) and behavioral response to him (e.g., do we love him, obey him, follow him, cling to him, “feed” on him, etc.). And Jesus also taught that our relationship to him creates relationship with all others who love him and are in relationship with him (and also with all other human beings). The second great commandment, according to Jesus, is to “love our neighbor as ourselves”; and don't forget that he illustrated the nature of loving neighbor with the example of a Samaritan, someone who the Jews despised as racial/ethnic bastards and having a distorted and false religion. If his followers are to love even those who they naturally despise, how much more should they love others who are following Jesus?

It seems that we are failing to love, and to me, this is an almost total failure of our faith in Jesus, given the centrality of the love command.

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