Are you like me concerned about the lack of thoughtful, intelligent discussion and debate about the issues of our day, large and small?
There is a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald that says “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 he is correct, our current norms of behavior do not demonstrate much intelligence. They are just not very smart. It is stunning to see, repeatedly, our collective inability to hold two or more ideas in tension. From what we hear, it seems our thinking (and therefore our discussion and debate) is as gerrymandered as our Ohio voting districts. Extreme voices seem to take every opportunity, and even make opportunities, to drown out more nuanced opinions. Nuanced opinions seem to be automatically looked at with skepticism. Or in too many cases either as a lack of knowledge or lack of willingness to be committed. Heaven help those who might pose a question! 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. Within my home denomination of PC(USA) we are certainly not immune to this behavior. We are quick to judge one another’s righteousness, forgetting that none of us is without sin.
I would like to call for moment of silence, please. Might we use a strategy of a time of silence to ponder the possibilities before we speak? A time where both parties agree the air waves do not need to be filled. This is not a call for us to look on mutely in the face of exploitation or oppression. This is not to commend silence or inaction when enemies or even friends are behaving badly. When others are being victimized or abused. Those are times to speak boldly, clearly and without hesitation. However, knowing when to speak and what to say requires discernment. Discernment requires listening. Listening requires a form of silence.
I propose we entertain the novel idea that neither we, nor the groups and positions with which we associate ourselves, completely know full truth. Those of us with a religious bent may express this as not knowing the mind of Christ and the will of God. We are not God. If you accept that premise, I ask that we use the following recipe. First, take a moment before you speak (or type or post or tweet) to listen to, or for, the “other” side(s). Really listen with the intensity. Not with the objective to defeat, not with the objective to have the snappiest response, but with the goal of intelligent understanding of the other and maybe better understanding yourself as well. Second, then in the silence, even if for the briefest of moments, say a prayer and ask for guidance before speaking. Third, respond respectfully and humbly. Fourth, repeat previous three steps as necessary.
Can we do Fitzgerald’s task? Could we attempt to hold two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously and still function? Can we create time to begin to imagine that those who hold those opposing ideas aren’t necessarily our opponents? Might we listen, carefully, including to God, before we speak? Doing so might indeed increase our intelligence. A moment of silence. It might also improve our discipleship, giving room for God’s voice to speak to us. For God’s voice to speak through us. Thanks be to God for purposeful silence.
Robert J. Gustafson is pastor of West Berlin Presbyterian Church, 2911 Berlin Station Road, Delaware.