I certainly hope that what M&M recently called “civil, honest sharing” is the ideal we strive for around here. And I wholeheartedly agree with her that we need to break down us-them dichotomies and strenuously avoid casting anyone as an enemy. But, in my view anyway, avoiding differences by removing uncomfortable labels actually grants them more, not less, power. If I’m attempting dialogue with a Jew, a Muslim, and a Catholic, we can’t indefinitely suspend our religious identities and subsume ourselves under some more general label of “religious persons.” At some point we have to confront what divides us as well as what unites us. If we avoid confronting differences of opinion and experience, whether in religion, politics, intellectual discussion, marriage, family life, or friendship, we fail each other; we stunt intimacy and understanding and fearfully concede that differences are so threatening they can’t even be spoken. This pattern of denial and insincere “niceness” too often characterizes church culture, and I suspect it contributes to Bloggernacle eruptions of nastiness because genuine difference has too long been suffocated and festered unspoken in people’s lives.
As I see it, facing the differences among us with tact and sensitivity is vital to the process of breaking down walls and barriers. Naming and exploring difference of whatever kind requires trust and rapport, and the more fraught the difference, of course, the more trust and rapport are required. But few things erode a relationship like the avoidance of difference. There’s a reason the movies convey that a marriage is on the rocks with long silences and voiceovers of unspoken private thoughts.
Not to be too rapturous about it, but I see acknowledging and exploring the differences among us as central to the basic purposes of mortality and of eternity (I hope differences will persist into eternity. What a bore it will be if they don’t!). Considering the questions, perspectives, arguments, and experiences of others is how we broaden and deepen the scope of our understanding, refine our thinking, develop compassion, learn the art of mercy, in short, how we ultimately become godlike.
Although I unfortunately face a lifelong struggle with my quick temper, I hate conflict and contention. It eats me up inside; being hurt and angry with someone literally makes me ill. But I think we do each other a profound disservice if we equate difference with contention. No doubt they far too often accompany one another, and in addressing the deep differences constituitive of identity, building trust and rapport is a vital and continuous enterprise. But I, for one, desperately need the differences of others in order to learn. There are few things I relish more than discussing differences of opinion or experience, trivial and serious, with someone I’ve known long enough to trust that our relationship can sustain disagreement. I love hearing why others love books I don’t, for example, or why they don’t love the books I do, and I love the stories of people’s lives, what they’ve experienced, and how they understand those experiences. And although it’s not always comfortable for my cherished preconceptions, I need to know how others have drawn different conclusions about theories and concepts and politics and faith; I need to measure my ideas against theirs and consider where mine might be lacking. Over time I hope to learn a deeper and deeper hunger for the multiple prisms on life and art and books and religion and politics that only others can offer me.
Vive la difference!