Disagreement is as American as apple pie. In our day, it seems everyone has an opinion and we are so quick to assert our own against somebody else’s. In this post, I’d like to offer some considerations for how we can express disagreement with Christian charity and a sincere desire for truth and understanding.
1. Realize that disliking is not the same as disagreeing
Many disagreements take place not because we actually disagree with something but because we don’t like it. Often times it isn’t even a particular position we disagree with but the person who holds that position. Check out this video here.
You may not like a person and you may not even like their conclusion but unless you have sound, reasonable arguments for why their position is incorrect, harmful, misinformed, etc., you simply cannot disagree with them. Dostoyevsky once said, “Reason is the slave of passion,” and this is often how we argue. How we “feel” about something dictates what seems logical to us about it. But to be charitable and honest in our disagreement, we have to separate the two.
2. Keep an attitude of teachability.
In Mortimer Adler’s book “The Art of Reading,” he says this:
“The trouble is that many people regard disagreement as unrelated to either teaching or being taught. They think that everything is just a matter of opinion. I have mine, and you have yours; and our right to our opinions is as inviolable as our right to private property. On such a view, communication cannot be profitable if the profit to be gained is an increase in knowledge. Conversation is hardly better than a ping-pong game of opposed opinions, a game in which no one keeps score, no one wins, and everyone is satisfied because he does not lose-that is, he ends up holding the same opinions he started with.”
We enter into disagreements with a dogged resolution to hold our ground no matter what. For us, opinion is the same as knowledge. But such an attitude promotes ignorance and destroys the possibility of true learning. We must approach disagreements with an openness to increase our knowledge, not merely to stand our ground. A teachable person is not argumentative; she may argue, but it is with the intention of getting to the bottom of truth and knowledge, not merely to deflect any position that doesn’t square with how she currently thinks.
3. Seek to understand first, then to be understood.
Adler is again helpful here: “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any one of the following things: ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree.'” How often are we listening to another person only to the degree that we can prepare a rebuttal to what they are saying? We are too reactionary; we jump to our guns whenever we hear a position we don’t like from a person we don’t like, and we fire away at that person before genuinely understanding both what they are saying and the supporting arguments for what they say.
4. Love the person with whom you disagree.
Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 applies to us in this issue: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Are you being patient with the person with whom you disagree? Kind? Or are you seeking to boast your own learning and put it on display in the argument? Do you rudely interrupt the other person before they have a chance to express themselves? Do you insist you are right despite sound arguments against your position? Do you resent those you fail to convince? Are you seeking after truth or are you only after “winning” the argument? Do you believe and hope that the other person has the best of intentions unless you have concrete reasons to believe otherwise?
May God grant us humility, patience, and love as we seek to increase our understanding through charitable disagreement.