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The importance of difference

Rather than being suspicious of other viewpoints, Aaron Neff has learned to embrace disparity as a potential vehicle for the Holy Spirit.

Photo by Sean Sinclair on Unsplash.

Last week, I dropped my daughters off for their first day of school. For one of them, it is their first day of kindergarten. I remember my first day of kindergarten. I remember I had a fresh haircut. I remember the baseball-themed outfit I was wearing. I remember my new backpack. I remember feeling pretty nervous about going to school. I also remember a pivotal moment in my childhood happening that first day. Everything was so new, and, in all of the newness, I had forgotten where my chair was and went to sit down but totally missed the chair and landed flat on the floor. The entire class erupted in laughter at my mistake, and, to my surprise, instead of feeling embarrassed, I loved that I had made everyone laugh. From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to make my friends laugh as much as I could.

I realize looking back on those childhood days, that my desire to be a “class clown” was motivated by a deeper desire to be liked by my peers. While my days of clowning around have worn off, that deep desire to be liked by others is as strong as ever. In some ways, that desire can be a vice that leads me to be disingenuous and non-confrontational. However, in other ways, that desire has actually been a huge gift to me.

Growing up, I would describe my religious worldview as being very fundamentalist and narrow-minded. I believed my church was teaching me all the right answers and that everyone who disagreed was simply wrong. However, my deep desire to be liked really counteracted my fundamentalist tendencies. Throughout childhood and, particularly, in school, I found myself in relationships with people that disagreed with me. My desire for their friendship created tolerance, and by tolerating difference, I realized that difference isn’t actually as dangerous as I was being told it was. I slowly began to learn that I didn’t have all the answers. In fact, I learned that sometimes people had good reasons for thinking differently than me — and sometimes I was even wrong!

Upon my church’s recommendation, I attended a religiously-affiliated university — they were worried that the difference I might find at a secular university could put my salvation in jeopardy. Yet, despite my insular learning environment, I still found new ideas. I remember one of my philosophy professors teaching us about “epistemological humility” (being humble about what we think we know), and that new framework changed me. I could clearly see the arrogance inherent in my fundamentalist worldview, and I wanted to be free from it. My continuous desire to be liked mixed with my newly liberated curiosity and helped me to feel a kinship with those who disagreed with me instead of suspicion or fear. I could finally see that difference was a gift. I can’t know everything and there is always a possibility that I may be wrong. To give it theological language: I learned that the Holy Spirit often changes our minds through the differences we encounter in other people.

Now, many years later, as I pastor a large “purple” church filled with people who have many points of disagreement with one another, I am still leaning on these lessons I learned during school about the importance of difference. It is, in part, because of these early life lessons that I feel better equipped to help my congregation see that we all have something to learn and that sometimes the greatest insights are only perceived through humility. Occasionally, I thank that younger version of myself for making his classmates laugh that first day of kindergarten. May all of those who are starting new school years have their own formative experiences, and may those experiences bear the fruit of love over time.