I often hear it said that United Methodists must agree to disagree. Okay…fine. In some matters of considerable complexity, this may be the best course of action. In most circumstances, however, wouldn’t it be better if we worked to develop a broad consensus on important issues? Are we resigned to remaining at loggerheads on any matters that are somewhat controversial?
The problem here is not simply that we cannot agree. It is that we don’t know how to generate agreement. Or, perhaps, the hard work of resolving complex problems is simply too hard. In dealing with controversial matters, in many cases we have given up on real, meaningful dialogue, the kind that can cut through seemingly intractable problems in order that participants in the dialogue can develop more informed, well reasoned, and intellectually responsible opinions.
Particularly at the levels of the annual conferences and the General Conference, important issues are decided by voting blocs and caucus groups. In other words, they are decided by processes that are primarily political, rather than intellectual. Speeches for and against are often simply pro forma, or, worse yet, opportunities for grandstanding. It became apparent during the last General Conference that there were a number of important issues on which we were not going to make any real headway. Yes, there would be a majority vote, but would there be greater understanding? Would we leave with any greater appreciation of the depth of the issues we were facing? On many issues people would leave feeling that they had simply been out-maneuvered.
I have no idea how to fix the political processes. I do know, however, that within the UMC we need an awakening of the intellectual virtues. Within our deeply divided and wounded denomination, we must begin intentionally to cultivate intellectual virtue and avoid intellectual vice.
What is intellectual virtue? It is a way of thinking characterized by certain well-formed habits. Philip E. Dow offers a clear and accessible discussion of intellectual virtue in his book, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development (IVP Academic, 2013). Dow, an evangelical Christian and philosopher, discusses seven distinct intellectual virtues:
Courage – We must have the courage to pursue questions wherever they may lead, even in the face of intense opposition.
Carefulness – We should pursue intellectual problems rigorously, with attention to the details. Overlooking even small matters may have serious consequences.
Tenacity – Hard questions require hard work. We must stick with our quest for knowledge even when it becomes tiresome, difficult, or tedious.
Fair-mindedness – We need to become expert listeners. The quest for knowledge means that we cannot caricature or minimize arguments with which we disagree. Rather, we must give them deep and careful consideration.
Curiosity — We are compelled to learn by a deep-seeded desire for knowledge.
Intellectual honesty – We should never distort the truth, take statements out of context, or mislead others in the interest of winning an argument.
Intellectual humility – It is crucial that we acknowledge that there is much that we don’t know, that we may be wrong, and that it may be necessary for us to change our positions from time to time.
These traits, says Dow, will make us not only better thinkers, but better people. They are means by which we may love God with our minds, and they will lead us to a greater love for our neighbors, as well.
Broadly speaking, our culture does not value intellectual virtue. Debates are won and lost on zingers, charisma, and sound bites. Academics, moreover, are in no way excepted from this criticism, and this includes academics in explicitly Christian settings, such as seminaries. There are entrenched positions in the academy, just as in secular politics, just as in the church.
Agreeing to disagree is sometimes necessary, but for many people it has become the defining characteristic of our denomination. This is a serious mistake. Methodists were once people of deep conviction. We can be again, but it won’t be easy.