We live in a deeply polarized society. But partisan polarization is just the overlay on a deep ideological, philosophical, and even theological polarization. Because despite being a people with a common language and common citizenship, we deeply disagree not only about what the best means are to agreed-upon ends but even what the proper ends are. Nevertheless, we have to get along with each other.
This calls for the ability to hold passionately to and argue for our views — and fight to win — in the sphere of public policy, observing the principles of democratic governance. Yet we cannot simply treat our adversaries as enemies to be destroyed.
Every time we open the Bible and read Genesis, we’re reminded, from the very beginning, that man has fallen. We can be in error even about the most important things. So we should begin serious dialogue with an openness to being challenged — based on the recognition that we might have something to learn. And even if we are correct, we’ve still got something to learn from engagement with a critic who, though mistaken, will force us to think more deeply about the truths we hold.
This acknowledgment can enable people who are morally and intellectually serious to have truly fruitful engagement even across a deep chasm of disagreement.
That requires us to recover a richer understanding of civility.
The term has been reduced to mere politeness. But a sound conception of civility involves taking on board what another person is saying. Civility listens; it doesn’t just hear. And what drives it is a love of truth.
It’s because we love truth and want it above all other things that we’re willing to put our opinions on the line. The person who loves truth, as Plato teaches us in the Gorgias, is the person who would rather suffer even the embarrassment of losing an argument than persist in error.
We can tolerate a lot of disagreement if we’re convinced that our adversary shares with us, as misguided as we think he may be, the desire to know and embrace the truth. That’s the point of civil dialogue: to join together in the pursuit of truth.
We Christians above all others should be committed to truth-seeking. Because we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. When we seek truth, we seek Christ. And we need both confidence in the truth and to model truth-seeking for others. That means we need civil dialogue, civil discussion, true civility in the rich sense. That civility that is necessary for us to join with others, whether or not they are Christians, in the project of truth-seeking.
as told to Aaron Cline Hanbury