A little more than a week ago, Biola University hosted an event called The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil. It was an evening spent exploring civil disagreement, featuring Robert George and Cornel West, and moderated by Rick Warren. With West coming from the political and theological left, and George and Warren coming from the right, one would reasonably have expected fireworks. I won’t recount the event blow-by-blow; the video is online and well worth taking the time to watch for yourself. Instead, I want to reflect on a few themes that emerged over the two-hour long conversation.
I was struck, first and foremost, by the way each speaker demonstrated a kind of mastery of language. I say “kind of” because each one’s skill was unique.
Warren’s opening comments were, as Derek Rishmawy noted, epigrams: perfectly crafted sentences and phrases that carried a potent teaching point: His speech demonstrated craftsmanship, carefully expressing wisdom to-go. You’ll remember what Warren says. He ensures it.
George, on the other hand, spoke in syllogisms. Each statement just as carefully worded, but layered with nuance. A nod was given to every counter-argument. Every “i” dotted and “t” crossed.
West set yet a third tone with his speech, and was as concerned with delivery as he was content. He knew just how long to enunciate the word “love” so that its emphasis – its absolute central importance – was crystal clear. He spoke in blues poems with flowing alliterations, rhyming thoughts like a Hebrew poet and occasionally rhyming words like Langston Hughes. There was a metered, musical quality to his speech.
Historically, speech has been a powerful political tool, but contemporary society has evolved in such a way as to rob speech of its potency. We’re a culture of cynics – distrusting and mocking any efforts at sincerity. We are also a culture of tiny attention spans. If it can’t be condensed to 140 characters or summarized in a soundbite, we don’t have the time and patience for it.
The Event at Biola made a point of making space for real speech, and the space it provided enabled us to not only gain a grasp of each man’s point of view, but of their vocation: Warren, the Shepherd, guiding the flock; George, the Scholar, pursuing the Truth; West, the Activist, stirring the heart. It was easy to find each person sympathetic, and to see how their vocation shapes their words and work.
It was the depth of the conversation that made the evening compelling. Most debates I’ve witnessed – even in academic environments – feature men and women speaking past one another, parroting soundbites, and failing to actually listen and answer each other’s remarks.
Depth in conversation comes as space is given to think, to fully articulate ideas, and to answer questions. Because this kind of space was extended – not just from Biola, but from each member of the discussion to one another – the conversation was riveting. It took on a freewheeling character ranging from Shakespeare to Coltrane, from Chekov to the Constitution, from emancipation to ISIS. One can witness George and West “thinking together” as George described. And while there was much disagreement along the way, there never was a moment of hostility or disrespect, none of the all-too-familiar trampling of one another or cheap point-scoring.
It was evident from the very beginning of the conversation that these men not only respected one another, but liked each other. George and West continually referred to one another as “friend” and “brother.” They spoke of love as the foundation for dialogue and disagreement, and they modeled it, displaying their friendship as they exchanged ideas.
So much of what happened at this event runs against our culture’s primary mode of talking about politics: careful speech, the ability to articulate complete thoughts, a foundation of love and respect. Contrast these with the talk radio, cable news, or Sunday Morning political roundtable discussions. Speech is either careless and vitriolic or so neutered and sanitized as to be meaningless. Politicians and pundits are given 30 seconds to offer reflections on ISIS, same-sex marriage, or American race relations (or worse, all three). And without question, the goal of each speaker is to dominate the competition.
The Cost of Freedom didn’t describe an alternative model so much as it displayed one. Beginning with comments from Biola’s President, Barry Corey, a tone of generosity was set. Corey described Biola’s vision for cultural engagement as having a “firm center and soft edges,” a firm set of evangelical convictions at their core, and a gentle and generous way of engaging with the world around them. If your commitment is to Truth, and if you have deep confidence in the Truth, then there should be no fear in engaging people with differing ideas.
Robert George described this as well. He talked about Peter Singer, a philosopher at Princeton who defends late-term abortion and has even argued for infanticide. George said that Christians must protect freedom for people like Singer to share their ideas, no matter how repulsive those ideas are. We must lovingly, winsomely advocate the Truth in the face of such ideas, and have confidence that the Truth will reveal itself to be more compelling, or will at least hold together under the assault of its attackers. West echoed this by quipping that he would “fight for the right for Rush Limbaugh to be wrong.” Warren chimed in too: “Christians who aren’t confident in their beliefs are afraid of competing ideas. I’m not. Bring it on.”
Without ever saying the word, each man was encouraging courage as a necessary virtue for those who love the truth – courage to live in a world where the Bible’s account of the truth is constantly contested, and courage to protect that space of free exchange.
In light of this, I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversy about Q Boston, over its inclusion of Matthew Vines and David Gushee – both of whom identify as evangelicals and advocate for a shift in the church’s stance on same-sex relationships. How could the evangelical leaders at Q allow space on their platform to Vines and Gushee?
In response, Gabe Lyons, founder of Q, said, “Some people are afraid that if those who are theologically progressive are invited, it suggests they hold an equally valid idea… We still believe the historic view of sexuality is true, but we are also confident that the trueness of that view can carry its own weight.”
In other words, “I’m not afraid. Bring it on.”
It strikes me that this approach works in two ways. First, it lowers the temperature on the rhetoric surrounding contested issues, inviting an atmosphere of exchange and genuine dialogue. Second, it charitably assumes that others (our “interlocutors,” as George might say) will extend us the courtesy we extend to them. Third (and this is the point that was utterly lost on some of Q’s critics), it assumes that the Truth will endure and (ultimately) outshine its competitors.
At its core, this approach relies on virtues like winsomeness and hospitality. It calls us to gentleness and self-control, to refuse repaying evil (in the form of raging rhetoric) with evil. It doesn’t demand that we throw holy water on people whose positions we disagree with, but we might consider giving them something to drink and taking the time to listen to them. Apart from that, we certainly shouldn’t expect them to listen to us.
In the events themselves, Q and The Cost of Freedom were very different. I will say that I wish Warren had pushed the conversation more deeply into areas where George and West disagree vigorously, like same-sex marriage and abortion. But nonetheless, the conversation between West and George was rich and not without conflict, and modeled something that was clearly counter-cultural - perhaps even subversive – to the shouting matches that characterize most of our political and theological disagreements
And while not all of us have a platform like Biola or Q on which to extend such hospitality, we all have back porches and living rooms, lunch breaks and neighborhood haunts where we cross paths with people with whom we might passionately disagree. We might vilify them. They might vilify us. And then again, all of this hostility might just be guilt-by-association. Hospitality creates space to cut through the noise and meet one another as human beings. We can enter that space, learn a few things, and discover friendships. We can discover how the truth can stand up to scrutiny, and see how love can cut through a culture of vitriol and bile. But it takes courage to put them to the test.