Innocence Lost : Duane W. H. Arnold, PhD
There was a time when civility mattered and was valued. I was reminded of this when a friend brought up an article that I had written for Christianity Today back in 1982. When I looked up the article I found that the cover story of the particular issue had been about Oregon Senator, Mark Hatfield. Reading the introduction to the interview, I felt I had been transported to another time, and possibly another society, in which such things were possible.
“What makes Sen. Mark Hatfield so different? Newsmen and radio commentators find it difficult to place him in a neat pigeonhole. As the New York Times puts it: “Mr. Hatfield does not fit the mold.” He is a Republican, but is known as a liberal in politics. He is against nuclear war, but he is not a pacifist. He supports all sorts of programs to aid the poor, but he is a diehard fiscal conservative. He is a friend of Billy Graham, and he cosponsors a resolution with Sen. Edward Kennedy. He has never been a “wheel” of the Senate’s power structure, but he has become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He antagonizes his Oregon constituency by voting flatly against a measure 90 percent of them badly want, and they turn right around and reelect him to office. He is a devout evangelical and an active member of Georgetown Baptist Church, but no fundamentalist or evangelical organization has him in its pocket.”
We might compare and contrast with our current national dilemma, but I think that would be missing the point. Something has happened in our nation and, indeed, in society at large. We certainly see that there has been a change in political discourse. I doubt if being called “the gentleman of the Senate” as Hatfield was, would be considered a compliment in our present situation. Holding different views in a creative tension is not valued or esteemed. We don’t want contradictions. On both sides of the political divide, we want “fighters”, the more aggressive the better. Coarse language and invective is not merely tolerated, it is encouraged. Bullying has become an accepted political practice, even as we try to control it and shield our children from it in our schools.
Sadly, much of this has spilled over into our churches, especially in recent decades. The extremes are easy to identify and, most often, they are the most virulent. Whether from a progressive or a fundamentalist, it is somehow believed that the loudest voice will win the day. We resort to ill-informed judgements of others, barely taking the time to listen to what they are actually saying, much less thoughtfully considering what is said. Rather than engage in conversation, we turn to interrogation. We seldom, however, ask truly honest questions, even when it concerns subjects, people or writers we do not know, preferring to make sweeping and grand statements based almost wholly upon our own theological position or faith tradition. Discussion, in which there is true give and take, devolves into rancorous debate. We want to “win” the argument, whatever it takes, even as we lose the fellowship and good will of the very person we are trying to convince. Moreover, to be honest, we are convincing no one.
Most of us as Christians began as “innocents”. We knew something of the truth of Christianity, but we needed to grow in the faith. Some of us were fortunate to have mentors and guides along the way. All of us have experienced, to some degree, the good and the bad of church life. Some of us, after a few turns in the road, may have arrived at our faith destination. Others of us may still be on that road. Now, I may be wrong, but I have seldom, if ever, encountered someone who was argued and/or bullied into a place of contentment with regard to their faith. C. S. Lewis famously described entering the life of the Church as going into a house with a hallway, with doors to different rooms on either side of the hall. We may stick our head into this room, or that room, but eventually we will decide that, “This is the room for me…” and enter. In this metaphor I cannot imagine being argued or bullied into a particular room. If someone attempted to do so, I would quite likely leave the house altogether, not wishing to be under the same roof with such people.
And too many have done exactly that… they have left the house. In church after church, denomination after denomination, they have left, leaving “the true progressives”, “the actual Bible believers”, “the real liberals” and on, and on.
Perhaps you are that certain sort of person who wants to live in a house constantly beset by bickering and arguments. I, for one, do not. I long for civility, for actual conversation. I long for the innocence that allowed me to learn from others, even those who were very different from myself. The great thing about losing something, is that with a bit of effort, you can oftentimes find it again.