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Moving Towards, Rather Than Excluding One Another With Our Theological Differences

In all wars, whether large or small, whether carried out on battlefields, city streets, living rooms, or faculty lounges, we come across the same basic exclusionary polarity: “us against them,” “their gain–our loss, ” “either us or them.” The stronger the conflict, the more the rich texture of the social world disappears and the stark exclusionary polarity emerges around which all thought and practice aligns itself. No other choice seems available, no neutrality possible, and therefore no innocence sustainable. If one does not exit that whole social world, one gets sucked into its horrid polarity. Tragically enough, over time the polarity has a macabre way of mutating into its very opposite–into “both us and them” that unites the divided parties in a perverse communion of mutual hate and mourning over the dead.

……….There may indeed be situations in which “there is no choice,” though we should not forget that to destroy the other rather than to be destroyed oneself is itself a choice. In most cases, however, the choice is not constrained by an inescapable “either us or them.” If there is will, courage and imagination the stark polarity can be overcome. Those caught in the vortex of mutual exclusion can resist its pull, rediscover their common belonging, even fall into each other’s arms. People with conflicting interests, clashing perspectives, and differing cultures can avoid sliding into the cycle of escalating violence and instead maintain bonds, even make their life together flourish. (pp. 99-100) — Exclusion and Embrace by MIroslav Volf

What I know about myself is that in a theological disagreement…if I am not careful…I can become angry…and I can very quick exclude those that I disagree with. It becomes an I-It (Martin Buber) relationship, detached and void of any reciprocity.

This is very easy to do in the world of online theological debate where often little to no relationship exists between those that hurl insulting and judging comments back and forth at one another. Just read John Dyer’s post, Love Wins and Truth Prevails, But Speed Kills ‘em Both.

But theological debate is very different when in the context of an I-Thou (Martin Buber) relationship, where there is a relationship of mutuality, and differences do not form reasons for exclusion. Rather, there is space for the other. For their doubts, questions, fears, and different opinions and interpretations. Because I have a relationship with John Dyer and Brent Thomas for example, it doesn’t matter that I went to Fuller Seminary, and they went to Dallas Seminary and Southern Seminary respectively. My relationship with them is of priority over any theological disagreement or difference we may have.

I wonder what theological discourse would look like if people were not so quick to exclude others who do not believe exactly as they believe? But I think in order for that to take place at varying levels, each of us must do the hard work of really understanding the roots of why we respond the way we respond when someone believes differently than us. And we must take responsibility for that. Own that. And if we do that, I think we can put ourselves in a better position to honestly and openly hear the other views of those that we disagree with.

I just know for me that I’m always going to push back on people who dogmatically have all the “right answers” to every theological question. It may have nothing to do with that person. But it probably has a lot to do with growing up in a pastor’s home, raised in a church, and feeling like I was expected by the community at large to be a certain type of Christian. It probably has something to do with some early traumatic experiences of theological interpretation (i.e. being told by a pastor that my mom’s and aunt’s cancer was due to the sin in their lives). It has a lot to do with attending Fuller Theological Seminary where I was taught a variety of theological positions, rather than being indoctrinated into one. It probably has a lot to do with pastoring college students for 10 years, a group of people that live in questions and desire the freedom to think for themselves.

So I have been wired a certain way. And so have you. And when your buttons are pushed you instinctively react to that feeling. You may not know it, but you do. So do I. I know what my hot/fear buttons are, and I know what I tend to do in the course of a heated theological debate. Do you know what your hot/fear buttons are, and what you tend to do in the course of a heated theological debate?

If we can all be aware of that dance that we do, and take responsibility for our feelings and actions, then, I just wonder if we can move toward each other and embrace as Christians, or do we have to continue to exclude? If we can move toward each other, then our relationality to one another may be what keeps us engaged rather than disengaged from one another.

Let me leave you with a very lengthy quote by Volf on the prodigal son and the priority of relationship:

What is so profoundly different about the “new order” of the father is that it is not built around the alternatives as defined by the older brother: either strict adherence to the rules or disorder and disintegration; either you are “in” or you are “out,” depending on whether you have or have not broken a rule. He rejected this alternative because his behavior was governed by the one fundamental “rule”: relationship has priority over all rules. Before any rule can apply, he is a father to his sons and his sons are brothers to one another. The reason for celebration is that “this son of mine” (v.24) and “this brother of yours” (v.32) has been found and has come alive again. Notice the categorical difference between how the father and how the older brother interpret the prodigal’s life in the “distant country.” The older brother employs moral categories and constructs his brother’s departure along the axis of “bad/good” behavior: the brother has “devoured your property with prostitutes” (v.30). The father, though keenly aware of the moral import of his younger son’s behavior, employs relational categories and constructs his son’s departure along the axis of “lost/found” and “alive (to him)/dead (to him).” Relationship is prior to moral rules; moral performances may do something to the relationship, but relationship is not grounded in moral performance. Hence the will to embrace is independent of the quality of behavior, though at the same time “repentance,” “confession,” and the “consequences of one’s actions” all have their own proper place. The profound wisdom about the priority of the relationship, and not some sentimental insanity, explains the father’s kind of “prodigality” to both of his sons.

For the father, the priority of the relationship means not only a refusal to let moral rules be the final authority regulating “exclusion” and “embrace” but also a refusal to construct his own identity in isolation from his sons. He readjusts his identity along with the changing identities of his sons and thereby reconstructs their broken identities and relationships. He suffers being “un-fathered” by both, so that through this suffering he may regain both as his sons (if the older brother was persuaded) and help them rediscover each other as brothers. Refusing the alternatives of “self-constructed” vs. “imposed” identities, difference vs. domestication, he allows himself to be taken on the journey of their shifting identities so that he can continue to be their father and they, each other’s brothers. Why does he not lose himself on the journey? Because he is guided by indestructible love and supported by a flexible order.

Flexible order? Changing identities? The world of fixed rules and stable identities is the world of the older brother. The father destabilizes this world–and draws his older son’s anger upon himself. The father’s most basic commitment is not to rules and given identities but to his sons whose lives are too complex to be regulated by fixed rules and whose identitites are too dynamic to be defined once for all. Yet he does not give up the rules and the order. Guided by the indestructible love which makes space in the self for others in their alterity, which invites the others who have trangressed to return, which creates hospitable conditions for their confession, and rejoices over their presence, the father keeps re-configuring the order without destroying it so as to maintain it as an order of embrace rather than exclusion. (pp.164-165)

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rhettsmith@churchleaders.com'
I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (MDiv, MSMFT, LMFT-A) and pastor to youth and families. I write about the relationships between psychology, theology and technology.