I recently came across this quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function.” If Fitzgerald is correct, our current cultural ethos isn’t very smart. It stuns me to see, repeatedly, our collective inability to hold two or more ideas in tension. Our thinking (and our debate) is as gerrymandered as our voting districts, with extreme voices drowning out more nuanced sentiments. Even within church groups of mostly like-minded people, there is an increasingly narrow path that must be followed if one doesn’t want to be called out as disloyal, unfaithful or even anti-Christian. We are quick to judge one another’s righteousness, forgetting that none of us is without sin.
James Davison Hunter, in his book, “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” writes, “In public discourse, the challenge is not to stifle robust debate, but rather to make sure that it is real debate. The first obligation for Christians is to listen carefully to opponents and if they are not willing to do so, then Christians should simply be silent.” Even as I type this quote I can hear the chorus of protest. To keep silent is to capitulate to oppression and injustice. To keep silent is to allow for disobedience to flourish and God’s will to be flouted.
Silence can be an excuse for inaction or represent a lack of courage. But is it always? Are there not times when it is appropriate to hold back and listen? Are we using these times to truly listen without anticipating what we will say in response? Are we listening for understanding or even connection and commonality?
In this culture of instant and constant communication there is a scramble to say something about everything. We all want to be on record as having spoken up about the latest controversy. However, we need to ask ourselves if what we say adds to the real debate or not. We should recognize the complexity of human beings, our relationships and the world we inhabit. Could it be that there are two opposing ideas that both have merit? Might we remain silent and ponder that possibility before we speak?
I am not calling upon us to look on mutely in the face of exploitation or oppression. I am not commending keeping our mouths shut as gold is being molded into a calf to be worshipped. I fully concede I am in a position of privilege and that a stance of silence is a luxury. Much more is at stake for those right now bearing the burdens of unfair and, yes, sinister systems that exploit the vulnerable. There are times to speak boldly, clearly and without hesitation. Knowing when to speak and what to say requires discernment. Discernment requires listening. Listening requires silence.
I propose we entertain the notion that neither we, nor the groups and positions with which we align ourselves, completely know the mind of Christ and the will of God. I ask that we take a moment before we type or speak or post or tweet to listen to the “other” side. Then keep silent, even for a few minutes. Say a prayer and ask for guidance before speaking. Repeat.
Citing Donald Flow, Hunter goes on to say: “Accommodation must always be critical and resistance must always be humble. Thus, if the church has a contribution to make to a new city commons, it will depend on its sustaining these tensions in these ways.” We are not sustaining these tensions. We are critical of others’ perceived accommodations and take no small amount of pride in our resistance. Our contribution to the city commons is less than it could be as a result.
Could we attempt to hold two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously, still function and begin to imagine that those who hold those opposing ideas aren’t necessarily our opponents? Might we listen, carefully, before we speak? Doing so might increase our intelligence. It might also amplify our witness, giving room for God’s voice to speak in the silence.
Grace and peace,