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Wisdom in the Midst of Disagreement

Richard J. Mouw

Thoughts from Richard J. Mouw on cultivating biblical habits of mind and engaging in civil public discourse.

President Emeritus and Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
March 9, 2015

On Honoring Everyone…

I was raised in an evangelical world where we were constantly being told 1 Peter 3: “Always be ready to give to anyone who asks of you a reason for the hope within.” Stand up for the truth. Know what you believe. But seldom did they go on to the next part of the verse: “But do so with gentleness and reverence.” We never focused on the disagreement.

What does it mean to disagree with someone and in that disagreement treat them with gentleness and with reverence? To me, that’s the challenge. It isn’t so much that we have our biblical convictions, and then we should try to be civil. The Bible itself mandates a conviction about civility, and that is the honoring of other human beings.

You can go through Peter’s first epistle, where at another point he says that we ought to fear the Lord, we ought to love the brothers and sisters in the faith—agape love—and we ought to honor the emperor. Then he says, but honor all human beings.

The important thing for thinking about the spiritual dimensions of that is to ask, “How do we bring ourselves to a point where we actually engage in that kind of honoring? That kind of reverence and gentleness toward other human beings?” And that’s a big challenge for us today. A lot of our spirituality has been a spirituality of confrontation and combat. Warfare. And it’s important to think in very different terms, because I think the Bible tells us to.

On the Family as School for Civility…

I think disagreeing well has a lot to do with family relations. Aristotle pointed out that the earliest ways in which we learn to be polite is with kinship. And then we extend it to friendship, and then ultimately to the public square, where we take another person as human simply because they’re human and not because they’re kinfolk or because we know them well. Then we recognize their humanity. But that first stage of kinship is so important.

When I’m arguing with my wife, we disagree about things. But that’s not battle. It’s a conversation. It’s a desire to better understand each other, a desire to come to some kind of peaceful accord, where there are things that are causing tension or friction. Or when you’re arguing with your kids, it’s not warfare. Although, there can be very deep disagreements about things.

In kinship… in familial relations… and in close friendships, we do encounter those disagreements, and I think one of the big problems today is that we’ve so weakened family relations and friendship relations that we haven’t been to school for civility yet. And that, to me, is a real problem.

On Surrendering the Impulse to Dominate Discourse…

A wonderful model of civil discourse in the Bible is in Psalm 139, where the psalmist says at a certain point, “Lord, I hate your enemies with a perfect hatred. You know, God, you can count on me. I’m on your side. You and me…” And then immediately, it’s like he stops and says, “Uh-oh.” And then he says, “Search me and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting.” Before God, we need to be saying, “See if there’s any wicked way in me.” And then that can transfer to our neighbors—people with whom we disagree.

One of my desires in talking about some of the most controversial issues of sexuality is to lower the rhetoric and just say to my friends in the gay and lesbian movement, “What is it about me that scares you so much?” And really to listen to that. And I hope they would listen to me when I say, “What is it about what you stand for that troubles me?”

But I think it’s that level of wanting to learn from the other person because we’ve been humbled before God. And we realize that we have no business telling God, “Oh, we’re on your side. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got it all straightened out.”

So a lot of it goes right back to our fundamental relationship with God. And I think once we say that to God, we’re free to say that to other people.