Disagreeing Virtuously

March 1st, 2018 by

For almost seven years I worked at a church whose staff held a wide range of theological views – often incompatible with one another. For example, I, who was the minister over the college ministry, held to broadly Calvinistic views. Another pastor on staff was generally averse to the Calvinistic system. Despite disagreement over some fundamental theological issues, which certainly impacted the way we did ministry, we managed to work well together towards God’s kingdom purposes.

Yet, our positive experience of theological agreement isn’t always the norm at many churches. It is often the case that disagreement over theological positions which people hold near to their hearts can get quite ugly. So what should we do in light of theological or religious disagreements? How should we respond? Ian Church, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College, is interested in this very question so he joined us at our Analytic Theology Seminar to share his work on the topic.

Church began by categorizing various responses people have to disagreement about trivial things. For example, we might disagree about the color of a dress, often referred to as “The Dress.” (See image below):

Is this dress #BlueandBlack or #WhiteandGold? (IT IS BLUE PEOPLE!) Despite the viral nature of the question across social media, the reality is that this kind of disagreement does not bother us too much. So, we loosely hold to our convictions or we withhold judgment about the matter until the issue can be resolved by looking at the actual dress itself.

From these two examples it looks like we have at least two kinds of potential responses: apathy and agnosticism. Theological or religious disagreements, however, don’t seem to be the type of disagreements we should be apathetic or agnostic about. So what should we do about these agreements? Church suggests we ought to become intellectually humble people.

What is intellectual humility? According to Church it is ‘the virtue of accurately tracking what one can non-culpably take to be the positive epistemic state of one’s own beliefs.’ To put it a bit more simply, its being able to rightly estimate how sure one should be about one’s beliefs. To be clear this does not mean one needs to downplay the disagreement, it simply means that one ought to be the kind of person who recognizes that we may legitimately hold to a particular theological view, yet also assign a correct level of conviction to that view given the warrant one has for holding that view. In order to become these kinds of people we need to do what we can to form the best cognitive character as possible. This means that we ought to avail ourselves to all the available evidence, resist oversimplified narratives, and resist confirmation bias. In taking these steps, the hope is that, we will become more intellectually humble, and thus we will act in a humble manner when we disagree over significant issues.

Church’s presentation certainly has practical relevance. As I think about conversations in my own church, I know some people need a dose of intellectual humility. Whether disagreements are about theological issues – e.g. eschatology, creation, free will, gender roles – or political issues – e.g. gun control, kneeling at sporting events, news sources, climate change – having intellectual humility would help us better images of Christ’s love instead of images of vitriol and hatred. However as someone who can’t help but approach the topic from a pastoral angle I can’t help but wonder about some of the theological issues involved in virtue formation. Church mentioned the importance of resisting confirmation bias, availing oneself to all available evidence, resisting oversimplified narratives, and the role that the liberal arts can play in helping us take these actions. These are good, practical suggestions, but I am not sure they are enough. Now Church likely does not want to ignore the theological component of virtue formation, but his presentation did little to address this. Church shouldn’t necessarily be faulted for this, as it was not his goal to address the topic from a theological angle. Nevertheless, something needs to be said about the role that the Holy Spirit plays in theological disagreement among Christians. This is not something I have fully thought out yet I would think that the ways that Christians disagree about things should differ from the way that non-Christians disagree because Christians have a virtue-inculcating agent with them, namely, the Holy Spirit.

If we take seriously the fact that the Holy Spirit is God’s sanctifying agent, and that our intellectual vices, like intellectual arrogance and servility, need sanctification then we need to attend more carefully to the role that spiritual formation might play in how we disagree with others about theological matters. Again, this isn’t a critique of Church’s work or lecture, it is merely a call for more theological reflection about how we should approach our disagreements.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.

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