Division vs. Unity

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes (requires registration) about the relative advantage (political) conservatives have vs. liberals by being so much more divided. I’m not sure this is entirely correct, though it does seem true that liberals value unity more than conservatives do. (Within the church, unity is a value clearly articulated by Jesus in John 17:21, and by Paul in Ephesians 4:1ff. If within the UMC we identify a one-dimensional theological spectrum with conservative at one end, and liberal at the other, it seems to me that the relative ranking of unity in relation to other values and concerns is higher at the liberal end of the spectrum.) Perhaps because liberals value liberty so much, they tend to see it in conservatives while conservatives would deny it. We see this in politics in talk of the “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy;” we see it in the church in the recent assertion that UM conservatives as merely political hacks working for the secular Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, aiming to take over the church (one response to these accusations can be found here). Although I could write further about which side is more paranoid about the other, I’d like to focus on a further point Dabid Brooks made in today’s column. He observes:

When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn’t even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers – Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson – to define what a just society should look like.

Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement’s views about human nature and society are true.

Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I’d asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he’d call me back. He never did.

This politcal phenomenon looks like a secular version of what I’ve heard said in the UMC: “Doctrine divides, service unites.” The implicit argument goes something like this: “Let’s not pursue questions of truth and belief too much, since we’ll inevitably disagree. Disagreement leads to rancor, rancor leads to disunity. Since unity is our highest value, we need not only to avoid doing that which harms unity (attending to doctrine) but we also need to focus on what we can all agree on – being loving, kind people who do good things for people. ” You don’t have to be in the church long to hear something like this. In this context, liberals are often quick to judge conservatives (because of their emphasis on doctrine) as not caring about love, while conservatives tend to accuse liberals of not caring about doctrine. I’ve known too many loving conservatives and too many doctrinally concerned liberals to think this is an accurate picture. I do believe, however, that what we see at work here is a combination of different understandings of the nature and function of key concepts (doctrine, love, unity) and a resulting difference in the way these concepts are valued and work themselves out in church life. (For a detailed discussion on different views of the nature and function of doctrine in the church see my book The Recovery of Doctrine in the Contemporary Church.)

If we both value unity – which as followers of Jesus we must – and if we reckon that we do not now have it (in spite of the fact that we’re the UNITED Methodist Church), then our first step will be to recognize that unity is something we have to work at. Paul says to keep the unity of the Spirit. We get the idea that it’s difficult. The road to unity is not merely the way of official pronouncements, holding hands and singing “We are One in the Spirit.” In fact, I’m convinced we need MORE, not less argument. If we’re willing to tell the truth about our current disunity, and spend time pursuing clarity about where we now stand (this is a BIG job), then we can – over time – achieve healthy unity.

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