I’ve been in Russia now for 9 years, which has the advantage of allowing me to see how the frog is boiling in the US from a distance. I’ve been here so long Facebook was a near start-up, so in the earlier days one of the best means of seeing where things were on a macro-level was airport bookstores. One thing I started noticing, that is only getting worse now with social media, is the extent to which the culture is becoming polarized. No doubt it started long ago, but it must be obvious to everyone by now.
What is surprising, which I hope to demonstrate, is that not only is the tone more strident, less civil, and more polarized. At the same time there is a striking unity of perspective in one important way: everyone seems to feel the same righteous indignation at the opposition. Let me be more specific, in the context of two highly polarizing issues right now: the Presidential campaign, and the BLack Lives Matter question. It goes without saying that conservatives point to morality, traditional values, and do more than hint at the lack of these values in liberals. What is more instructive is how much liberals are using the same arguments, philosophically speaking. Liberals also call others liars. Liberals believe that stealing others’ words in text is wrong. Liberals believe in family, in love, in honor. More importantly, they, just like conservatives, hate it when those who are on the other side of an issue break any of those values.
You are feeling very tempted right now to point out one of a hundred “buts”. I am the last to suggest that the chasm between people of different persuasions in the US is not huge. It is. You will say it is how each side interprets those values. And I will add that it is also the relative emphasis each side puts on those values. This, I submit to you, is where’s the real debate is. And returning to discussing the issues on the level of value is the only way forward.
“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.” Book I, ch. 1
You’re not done with me. “But what about the fact that on basics moral issues such as homosexuality or abortion there is no agreement. Liberals have NO value for the heterosexual norm or for life.” Or, conversely, “Conservatives have NO value for honoring choice.” Again, I am not suggesting that at some level all values are shared by everyone. I am suggesting, however, that 1) when you break values down as far as possible, there are a lot more in common among humans than appears at first, and 2) the fact that we speak this way with and about each other points to something more important about what we do have in common.
We Christians talk about sin and the fall and how humans have been corrupted by it. But we also have another concept that is no less critical, what theologians call the Imago Dei, the fact that we have all been made in the the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). No amount of sinfulness can take that away, though it certainly can mar it pretty badly. But one remnant of that original beauty is the fact that we all share a common moral vocabulary. Otherwise, we would hear things like, Lying is ok. Stealing so good. Murder is good. Pro-choice advocates have never said, “Murder is good.” They just try to frame the discussion along other lines. If you dig down to root values, they are surprisingly common to all humans.
There are two main implications from this conclusion: 1) Postmodernism is dead. Postmodernism was something I heard a lot more about in the 80’s and 90’s. I don’t much any more, which also supoorts my assertion. But more than this, just looking at what people write, post, and their comments demonstrates conclusively to me that in practical terms the main pillar of postmodernism – that all truth is personal, and therefore there is no Absolute Truth – has gone the way of the world. Otherwise, we would observe passive disengagement, and active apathy about all these issues out there. For what would it matter if I think that Black lives don’t matter if that is merely my personal truth? What about all those who don’t engage, don’t participate in these discussions? Maybe their lack of participation colors my conclusions. I respond that I believe that these people are not engaged because they believe the issues to be irrelevant, or they believe their participation in the discussion would be irrelevant. Find a topic that touches their lives, and watch them come out and fight! And the reasons are obvious: ideas have consequences, so it is a philosophical AND practical impossibility to suggest that all notions of truth are environmentally generated.
And so this state of affairs encourages me at some level, not merely because, like Lewis, I see this as evidence of what does tie us together and show us part of the way back to God. More than this, my second conclusion is that 2) we are all fundamentalists in our own rights. Some of the most legalistic people and institutions I know are liberal. Liberals have rules after rules about how to behave, how to honor others, how to avoid offending others, how to treat others, how to tolerate others, etc. Liberals have no fewer moral scruples than conservatives, because they no less are deeply convinced of their moral rightness.
My hypothesis (and I say this as a Protestant myself), is that much of the root of this divisiveness comes from the Protestant reformation. Luther may have himself been extremely reluctant to break away from the Catholic Church, but once the cat got let out of the proverbial bag, it started an avalanche of debate that continues to this day. It looks like this: I protest your understanding of the truth. I stand opposed to you. I separate myself from you and invite others to join me in this protest. And of course the result is hundreds of Protestant streams. And now in a post-Christian culture, the fundamentals of the mindset are the same: bitter protest against the “enemy.” The positive side of this phenomenon is flexibility and openness to reform. What is minimized is ability to dialogue and empower others (especially those under my leadership) to do the very thing the Protestant reformation put out as a core value: the priesthood of all believers (meaning the fact that we all have access to God) to seek truth from Scriptures instead of from the mini-pope of our movement. I exaggerate, of course, but the tendency is too clear to deny.
When it comes to constructive dialogue, the greatest proponents have always been liberals. When it comes to seeking common ground on the basis of truth, the greatest proponents have been conservatives. I am starting a new training here in Russia that was suddenly birthed in me this past Winter to wed these two values together in a way I’ve never seen before. In three months the aim (and the result of the first two groups we have taken through it) is to learn how to listen deeply to each other to find agreement, and then to learn how to listen to God in Scripture and in life to agree with God. If you can come to agreement with God and others, that is a three-fold cord that will never be broken.
There are four levels of agreement (I have discovered through this process):
- Understanding the other’s position – this is a dying art;
- Understanding, and then appreciating the other’s values – this is nearly always possible, maybe even always;
- Accepting the other’s position, at least in part – the best conversationalists should be able to do this most of the time;
- Fully resonating with the other person’s perspective
There has to be a pillar of objective truth to bring us into conversation. Otherwise I would be my own god, outside of the hope of being corrected. It’s time for both sides to get a little humility. When both sides are as far apart as we see today, it’s unlikely that either is right completely.