Religious discourse in an age of “I have no need of you.”

I came across this Facebook spoof the other day:

(And that’s only part of it: you can see the rest of it here.)

This spoof is funny—and depressing—because it is true. Particularly as the American election enters its final weeks, it seems my Facebook feed has become dominated by such threads. And it’s not only on Facebook. More and more, people in this country seem to believe that things would be best if the other party just disappeared. Everyone is saying—effectively—”I have no need of you.”

The trouble is that sometimes discourse in the church mirrors a little too closely discourse in society. In this regard, I am reminded of San Diego Bishop James Mathes’ article in the Daily Episcopalian a few days ago. In it, he reflects on what a Christian commitment to discourse—especially at such a polarizing time, politically—might mean:

It begins with a commitment to discourse, especially with those with whom we differ. It continues with great care with the words that we use and the judgments that we make about others. Our common conversation about things of importance should be imbued with prayer. It requires more questions of inquiry than assertions of our own position—positions we should hold gently.

In all of this, the blogosphere is presently problematic. Read, react, respond is the norm. I wonder what would happen if we read, meditated and pondered, asked only questions of inquiry for a few days, and only then positively expressed our place in the conversation. Blogging could quickly take on the character of discourse and transformation.

And here is my dream: that our larger society would take note of how Episcopalians discuss the hard questions—how we speak with care and listen in deep, searching ways. As they observe us, they would see who we are as the body of Christ and how we treat each one another. As they see us, they will want to know more about the one whom we follow. I yearn for that kind of church: quintessentially Anglican and truly inclusive.

Although Bishop Mathes’ article drew quite a lot of critical reaction, I think he’s on to something. The way Christians talk to one another—and to others—can be part of the church’s counter-cultural witness. Rather than taking a posture of hostility to those who espouse different views, I think Christians are called to take a posture of relatedness.

Two reasons immediately spring to mind:

  • The other person in the conversation is made in the image of God. Surely, this is worth something. Rather than looking to tear that person down, perhaps we might concentrate on looking for the image of God in them. This can be awfully hard to do.
  • It is basic New Testament theology that we need one another to be whole. “I have no need of you” is precisely the thing we cannot say to one another, as Paul teaches in I Cor. 12. It is relatively easy to say this to people who have traditionally been excluded or whom we agree with. It is quite another thing—though no less important—to say that to those we cannot seem to find any common ground with. But that exactly the challenge the Gospel lays before us.

These can be challenging tasks. For instance, a posture of hostility towards Adolf Hitler seems quite justified. There has to be a genuineness from all involved in the conversation for this to work.

Still, I don’t think I’m the only person who is tired with the state of political discourse in this country. If it is not depressingly predictable, it is utterly vapid. I share Bishop Mathes’ hope that people could look to the church—Episcopal or otherwise—and say, “Look at them. They disagree on some issues but that does not take way from their commitment to discourse with one another and a sharing of a common life.”

I hope for a church where issues matter and are openly debated but not at the expense of the relationships we share by virtue of our one baptism in the one body of Christ. In this context, it’s worth remembering that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is a missional prayer: “that they all may be one…so that the world may believe.”

It may be a lot to hope for. But I think there’s deep evangelical potential in it.