Through Our Own Lens: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I was intrigued this last week with some of the discussions surrounding comments made by Albert Mohler. The comments and his comments in response to criticism were ill-advised, or at least badly chosen. That, however, is not what fascinated me. Rather it was the reaction to Mohler himself. He has long been considered a moderating voice in the Southern Baptist Convention and, it should be said, he is a fine and competent theologian within that tradition. Yet, it also must be said, many of the more conservative voices in that tradition regard him as a dangerous and, perhaps, radical closet liberal. On the other hand, many in the more moderate or even liberal elements of his own tradition (as well as those outside of that tradition) considered his remarks as proof that he was, in reality, simply a fundamentalist, albeit with an expanded vocabulary.
It occurs to me that we all tend to see what we want to see through the lens of our own particular theological positions.
I’m sure, for instance, that there are some readers who, owing to my articles or comments on threads, harbor the suspicion that I am really a progressive liberal who, most likely, entertains all sorts of heterodox views. Meanwhile, the view in my own denomination would be more along the lines that I am a theological conservative with traditionalist opinions and tendencies. There is, most likely, ample evidence for each to arrive at their widely disparate opinions as to who I really am in terms of my theology and practice. The root of the opinions, however, is not necessarily to be found in what I have said or written, but rather in the theological viewpoints of those making the assessment. In reality, I tend to lean to the right of center in terms of my theology, and I tend to lean to the left of center in terms of my politics. (That, however, is not unusual in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, at least so far as the first few generations were concerned.) As to me being a traditionalist in terms of liturgy and worship, I will plead “Guilty”. I revel in the beauty of holiness. Even here, however, there is an anomaly, as, on the side, I write songs, produce and record rock musicians, and have done so for some years.
So, if you wish to view me through a consistent, all embracing conservative lens… you may see someone whom you can define as “liberal”, even if I’m trying to hide it! On the other hand, if one is looking through an all embracing and decidedly liberal lens, you will most likely arrive at the conclusion that I am a conservative, most likely with underlying fundamentalist tendencies! Moreover, the truth of the matter is that both would be equally right and equally wrong. In truth, most of us in or Christian lives and experiences encounter the strain of holding in balance contradictory elements relating both to our theology and our practice. Done well, this becomes a “creative tension” that allows for growth and the consideration of other views. (Note, I have said, “consideration”, which is not the same as “acceptance”.)
Some, however, cannot, or do not wish to entertain, such a creative tension. Some find it difficult and/or confusing. They want certainty. This is an assessment that is usually leveled at conservatives or fundamentalists. In my experience, however, this can be equally true of liberals, who, failing to convince others of their viewpoint, are anything but “liberal” in their treatment of those who disagree. You see, they also want “certainty” and, as with many conservatives, they are not tolerant of dissenting voices, or even of unspoken, suspected, dissenting opinions. So, on both sides of the divide, we devise our shibboleths, our tests, to see who is “in” and who is “out”. The big tent of a generous orthodoxy becomes a distant memory and, meanwhile, we wonder at our decline…
Perhaps we need to stop seeing others through the lens of our own particular theological position. Perhaps we need to reconsider imputing hidden motives to those who truly are our brothers and sisters in Christ. I am afraid, however, in this age of fragmentation and binary thinking, it may be too much to hope for; but then again, I’m conservative enough to believe in prayer, and liberal enough to believe in change.
I agree. Everyone has and needs a filter. How we use that filter is I think your point. A filter provides a mechanism to process information. I think what is missing is the ability to “pause” that filter, and learn how to use someone else’s filter, at least temporarily.
I saw a quote around the recent climate change town hall where someone said that we need to filter every issue through climate change. That’s a pretty bold statement, especially in light of the fact that these people would also say that no one should force their views on anyone else. But I digress.
I think part of what needs to happen is the need to split being comfortable in my own skin from my sense of being/feeling right. Too many people, Christians in this context be they liberal or conservative in whatever aspect, vest their value in being right. I believe the Bible to be the word of God -> I have this theological bent -> I hold tightly to this doctrine -> if I’m wrong there is something wrong with me.
That’s what I think drives people who are entrenched. It’s pride and insecurity at the same time. The extreme playing-out of this is that it applies to every detail of everything, even how one lives out their lives.
That said, I think/know most people here will still have heated discussions around topics they care about. The difference is, we need to not find our sense of self-value in the outcome. “I think I’m right, but I could be wrong. I don’t think I’m wrong, and I will live out what I think is right, but I need to be at least open to the possibility that I’m wrong.” That’s where I am at least trying to be.
Good observation, Duane. The Mohler kerfuffle is interesting.
” I believe the Bible to be the word of God -> I have this theological bent -> I hold tightly to this doctrine -> if I’m wrong there is something wrong with me.”
You just nailed it…
I think with the reaction to Mohler was less about a theological lens (fundamentalist, conservative, liberal, progressive) and more about the status in life lens (married, kids, single, etc.). It really doesn’t matter if you are a fundamentalist or a progressive, what mattered was the offense people took personally or sympathy towards others that were in the status of single, no kids, etc. I suppose the reaction was couched in theological jargon to emphasize ones own bias but I believe the root is not so much about theological lens but more about ones identify and stage in life. Mohler made the mistake to conflate status in life with ones theology or sin and this is why there is so much backlash that he rightly deserves on both sides. Kind of like James Comey former director of FBI who is despised on both the left and the right.
I have people” friend” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter because they like one thing I wrote…assuming I align with their whole political and theological checklist.
They unfriend and unfollow me soon afterwards…because I don’t fit the categories perfectly…
As I said, his comments were ill-advised, but then people on both sides used the remarks…
We live in a time in which most people (on both sides of issues) wish to present binary choices… nuance or complexity is now suspect…
That’s why, despite how much to sometimes gripes me, I refuse to turn this place into an echo chamber.
We have to learn to disagree agreeably and learn from each other again…
Agreed. As I said, consideration of another point of view does not entail acceptance. For some, even simple consideration seems to cross some line…
Duane,. I think folks try to make sense of nonsensical statements and they default to what they know. The basis of language and logic uses negation or binary chooses. It’s the way computers ultimately operate with 1s and 0s and people by nature are contrary. Politicians know and exploit this all the time. This is why the general election is very close to a 50/50 mix. Your article is helpful because I think it can help people to think more critically and get out of the rut of polarization.
Yes, and the problem is that as people we are complex. Moreover, many of the things we confront in life are complex and do not lend themselves to simplistic solutions…
“For some, even simple consideration seems to cross some line…”
One is not even allowed to think outside the proscribed box…so there is little thinking going on at all…
You claim to be “lean politically liberal”, just curious what your stance is on abortion? I get when people take a bleeding heart approach regarding some political issues, then there’s the problem of abortion.