Long live disagreement!

Barney Zwartz thinks it's not the fact of disagreement that matters, but how we deal with it.

Much Christian commentary about the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation on October 31 has taken an oddly apologetic tone: Oh dear, how terrible that it divided the church, and we should put it behind us as soon as possible.

Disagreement does not disturb me and, while I recognise the importance of history, G.K. Chesterton is right that tradition is the democracy of the dead. No three people can agree entirely on faith, let alone more than 2 billion Christians.

Everyone must regret the wars, atrocities, cruelty, rivalries and prejudice that have marked the centuries since the Reformation, but they also marked the centuries before. Cruelty, rivalry and prejudice are always with us, whatever religious or political position we hold.

Both sides of the Reformation divide, Catholics and Protestants, are alike capable of great generosity and also mean-spiritedness, of insightful rationality and also muddled bias. Indeed, all these are commonly found in the same person.

The same is true of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and secularists – it’s part of the human condition. Many have noticed that original sin is the only Christian doctrine for which there is daily empirical evidence.

Early Christian creeds refer to “one church” – but even in the fourth century when the Nicene Creed was composed it disguised huge and critical divisions. The “one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church” is a spiritual concept.

I have learned a great deal over the years from people who disagreed with me.

As an adult convert to Christianity who did not grow up in any church, I am not bothered in the slightest that there are hundreds of millions of Christians who don’t agree with me on all manner of doctrines and practice.

So if you think the Pope is the Vicar of Christ (I don’t), that’s fine. Many Catholics blithely disregard that doctrine too. It’s not the fact of disagreement that matters, but how we deal with it.

All I hope to encounter is coherent, considered, sincerely held beliefs (religious, political, ethical), and if their holders then weigh the evidence or the imperatives differently from me, I cannot cavil.

Mind you, fundamentalists of any stripe – by my definition, anyone who says there is only one way to live, and they will tell you what it is – must be resisted. Nor, of course, do I suggest that any sincere belief is as good as any other. Truth, as the Reformers sought to demonstrate, is the most vital factor, not sincerity.

I have learned a great deal over the years from people who disagreed with me, or who engaged with the world differently, many of whom have influenced my opinions. So when it comes to religion, just as for gender, I say “vive la difference!”

This article first appeared in The Age.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.

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