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Disagreement is Like Sex

Gregg Ten Elshof

Exploring the role of disagreement in human flourishing

CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
March 9, 2015

It’s not a problem—not in and of itself. In fact, it’s a powerful resource with the capacity to make its own unique contribution to the promotion of unity and flourishing.

But it’s often treated like a problem—treated like something the eradication of which would mark a significant improvement in the human condition. It’s treated like a problem because it, like sexual intimacy, is more often than not embodied problematically.

The trick with both disagreement and sexual intimacy is to disentangle them from the twisted array of dysfunctions that routinely accompany them—dysfunctions that distort our view of their beauty and power.

Of One Mind

Recently, I watched the movie Of Gods and Men with a group of undergraduate philosophy majors in my backyard. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a true story about a monastic community in Algeria who decided not to leave the people they’d been serving in response to threats from religious extremists in the area.

The decision was unanimous. But not at first.

At first the group was divided—some thinking that they should stay and continue to minister even if it meant martyrdom. Others thought they should leave. What followed was a beautiful collection of scenes wherein the monks expressed their views, listened to one another, empathized, waited, and prayed. What emerged was a unanimous conviction that God’s call for them was to stay.

But the conviction to stay was richer having come through the fires of disagreement. Compared to the reasons initially given, the post-disagreement reasons for staying were deeper, more nuanced, and better reflective of the very real and personal costs of conviction. The unity achieved by the route of honest and respectful disagreement was somehow bigger—more robust, more stable—than would have been the unity of immediate unanimity. It took in more of the picture.

Embracing Disagreement

Our hope at CCT is that the reflections in this issue of The Table will equip you to pry the beautiful and powerful resource of disagreement from the grip of its accompanying vices. May you come to see it not as something to be expunged or, worse, hidden from view, but as something to be celebrated for its capacity to enhance our understanding of the world and deepen, strengthen, and stabilize our unity.

With any luck, you may even read something in these pages with which you find yourself in disagreement. If you do, please tell us! We’d love to hear from you.