• Eldon Peterson

Disagreeing in Love


Recently I met with a group of church leaders to discuss a series of three articles by Roger Nicole asking, “How to deal with those who differ from us.” To answer, he suggested that we must first consider three things. What do I owe the person who differs from me? What can I learn from the person who differs from me? How can I cope with the person who differs from me?

He observes, and maybe you do by experience as well, that by skipping the first two and jumping to the third, we often end up with mixed results. Rather that starting with the possibility that we owe them something or that we may not know everything, we find ourselves assuming that all that we can do is to tolerate them. Nothing could be further from the truth!

How inclined are you to think that you OWE something to the one that disagrees with you? Every sane person believes that they are right in what they believe. Therefore, we reason that the only thing that we owe someone that disagrees with us is to straighten them out! However, such an attitude does little to help us embrace the one with whom we differ.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that truth does not matter – in fact quite the opposite. It is because truth matters that we must find productive ways to discuss the matters of our disagreement. The debt that we owe others is to show them love and respect. Nowhere is this clearer than in matters of faith.

We know the old joke that the two things that we should never talk about are religion and politics. Why? Because they can expose areas of passionate disagreement. The advice suggests that polite conversation with plastic smiles is the key to peaceful relationships. However, I have found that such peace is artificial at best.

Douglas Groothuis in his article, “Why Truth Matters Most” suggests that our culture has been swept away by spiritual apathy that he calls “apatheism.” “Apatheism rests on a benign indifference, refusing to become passionate about one’s own beliefs or the beliefs of others. One may have religious preferences, but they are not the engines of energetic commitment. One is neither called nor driven by these beliefs; one just has them. In apatheism, beliefs simply do not mean that much, nor should they.”

In the spirit of apatheism, we are told that we need to be tolerant of those with spiritual beliefs different from ours. Good advice. However, by tolerance they mean something different than, "to recognize and respect [others' beliefs, practices, etc.] without sharing them." Traditionally, tolerance means to respect and protect the rights of others with whom you disagree. It means listening to and learning from other viewpoints and in doing so, we are able to live peaceably with others in spite of differences.

Apatheism and the new tolerance insists that we must approve of and support the beliefs and behaviors of others. Every person’s truth claim is validated by his or her experience. However, this denial of truth (a shared and absolute reality) makes meaningful conversations difficult. When truth has ceased to be something objectively defined and pursued, it is reduced to being nothing greater that what I believe. This results in tension for when truth and reason are taken off the table in discussing matters of faith, I can only pity others for their unenlightenment. However, when we remember the debt of love that we owe others because of the love that God has shown us through Christ, we discover great freedom in discussing our differences.

Without the freedom to state our differences, it will be difficult for us to have meaningful relationships. If to keep peace I have to pretend that what I believe is not important, then how can we converse? The debt of love that I owe you calls me to listen to what you passionately believe with hopes of both understanding you and of sharing my beliefs with you.

In the name of tolerance we have been told that the solution is to believe that “all ways lead to God.” However, the proponents of this fail to see how insulting this is to people of faith. This view minimizes the distinct faith claims of the Christian and the Jew, the Muslim and the Mormon. Rather than sidestepping our differences, we would be wise to discuss our differences. Not merely to cope with those we differ but to grow together in understanding.


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