What is the best ice cream? What is the greatest country in the world? What is the right way to read the Bible? From Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” Each of these questions is a trap! They tempt us to state opinion as fact. This, my friends, in my opinion, is opinionism.
Opinionism is a blindspot, and if we could see our blindspots, they wouldn’t… uhm… be blindspots. Opinionism lodges us firmly in the fallacy of the “normative perspective.” A normative perspective is easily understood this way: from where you sit, stand, or lie, you have a view of the space you are in. This view is valid, accurate, verifiable, and true. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your perspective UNLESS you decide that it is the only view or the superior view or the correct view for everyone else. The fact is, no one else can have exactly your perspective on the room. All you can do is share your view, listen to the views of others, and come to the conclusion that the whole picture is much greater than any one perspective. What a person sees, thinks, interprets, and believes is always incomplete. When we determine that the information that we receive is the only information worth receiving, we fall victim to misinformation (see Monday, June 28).
How do we avoid opinionism? We don’t. It is so ingrained in human nature that we do it without even being aware of it. To this end, becoming aware is an important first step. Looking at the first sentence of this ramble, note the words “best,” “greatest,” “right,” and the concept of identification. These are loaded words that mean different things to different people in different contexts. They sound definitive and exacting, but they are anything but. What criteria do we use to define “the best?” Most of us believe, somewhere deep down, that there is a standard of quality and excellence that defines a state that cannot be exceeded, but what is it? When we apply it to any specific context, we see the problem (and it falls again into the category of providing a simplistic answer to a complex problem). Take ice cream. Are we talking flavor, quality of ingredients, fiscal value, most popular, texture, brand, or means of production? Each of these rely on preferences, tastes, subjective evaluation, and limits of experience. A debate over “the best ice cream” is ridiculous and irresolvable because for every fixed value in the argument, there are at least an equal number of ill-defined variables involved. And it is no more valid, but much more harmful, to apply “the best” to race, ethnicity, orientation, language, country, creed, or color.
Now, it is important to note at this point that this does not mean all things are equal or should be allowed as valid options. Virtually no one will argue that racism, sexism, colonialism, injustice, and violence are “the best.” We acknowledge that some individuals live in an opinionism that supports such atrocities, but through the evolution of cultures and societies the overwhelming trend is that opinion shifts and consensus emerges about what is acceptable and preferable. In a very basic form, this is what much of the writings of Paul in the Christian scriptures is all about. He contrasts behaviors, beliefs, and standards of belonging. Time after time he says some version of, “we were this before, but in Christ we now are this.” We did harm before, but now we do good. We judged before, but now we extend grace. We hated before, but now we love. We were divided and hostile before, now we are reconciled and are one. We “took off” the things of selfishness and exclusion, now we “put on” generosity and inclusion. Both Jesus and Paul confronted individualistic opinionism reframing it into the larger context of communal consensus.
What might this mean to The United Methodist Church in 2021 (in my humble opinion)? First, chill. We have allowed ourselves to become so polarized, so adversarial, and so confused about the difference between truth and opinion, that we can’t have a civil conversation anymore.
Second, disarm our language. Hyperbole, invective, insult, accusation, and assumption of malicious intent do nothing to create a platform for collaboration, compromise, or creativity. Fueling negativity is antithetical to true Christian conversation and building up the body of Christ. Words have power, and weaponizing our language destroys their effectiveness as tools. Please note, I am talking about ALL sides, not just one. Too often one perspective will attempt to take the high road, coming off as judgmental and patronizing. Disarming our language is not just about the words themselves, but the ways we choose to use them. A haughty, sarcastic compliment can be as devastating as an overt put down.
Third, speak our own perspective and let the other sides speak theirs. I was recently in a conversations where the person remarked that they found a conservative podcast that “fully explained” the liberal point of view. My thought is that conservatives are the best people to explain conservatism and liberals are the best resource to explain the progressive point of view. In “us/them” culture, we fall easily into offering our interpretation of “the other” as gospel truth, pretending we have no bias about those who think differently than we do. Even within categories and labels, we tend to fail to acknowledge the broad diversity of thinking and understanding among those under one umbrella. Rather than looking at another and seeing a label (conservative, liberal, socialist, progressive, traditionalist, race) which misinformationally reduces a rich, complex, nuanced individual into a stereotype, let us approach each person as a multi-textural, multi-layered, and value-laden unique child of God (which again is a label and a category — see how tough this is?).
Fourth, employ healthy conditional language. There are very few absolutes in life. See what I did there? Using “very few” is conditional language. Words like “never, no, all, everyone, won’t, shouldn’t, only, ought” frame hard lines with which our options are greatly limited. To say, “No intelligent person believes this,” is a very different statement than “some people hold a view that rejects evidence that the overwhelming majority accept.” Just the commitment to own our declarative statements as personal perspective makes a huge difference: “Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream is the best ice cream in the world,” may imply one’s personal opinion, but by simply saying, “in my opinion, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is the best ice cream in the world,” leaves the door open for others to share their favorites instead of debating opinions as facts. We are not truly living in a culture of “fake news,” and “alternative facts;” we are living in a culture that confuses fact with opinion and that has lost the fine art of gracious communication. When facts are filtered through bias, opinionism is the result. It is extremely difficult (see, I am not saying impossible, though in my opinion, it is impossible…) to present any facts without some level of interpretation and reframing. The moment we speak of what something means, what was intended, what the bigger implications are, we are moving away from factual reporting to creative influencing. And there is nothing wrong with persuasion as long as it is clearly identified as such. Our main problem is not that we see the world differently from others, but that we try to impose a simplistic normative perspective on highly subjective complex situations.
Fifth, be responsive rather than reactive, and get to the real issues. In every conflict, there are both presenting issues and root causes. The current debate over human sexuality that threatens to tear The United Methodist Church apart (which is just one of many concerns that fuel the fire) is a presenting issue for a centuries-old and traditional disagreement over the interpretation and authority of scripture. It has been historically much easier to be reactive to the presenting issue of the day (slavery, rights of women, world war, rights of minorities, economic justice, civil rights, Viet Nam, human sexual identity) than it has been to resolve our deeper theological and scriptural areas of disagreement and scholarly debate. From the very launch of what became the Methodist movement, our heritage has been one that acknowledges the breadth, depth, height, and width of the interpretation of Holy scripture and the fact that God’s Holy Spirit continuously and constantly working in God’s people to grow in their comprehension, understanding, and evolution. John Wesley was very clear that there is not only one right way to read and understand the Bible. As God’s people, discerning the will of God, growing in our faithfulness in a perpetually evolving world, we work out our collective salvation with fear and trembling. The majority (conditional language) of United Methodists today do not believe the same things or share the same understanding of scripture that our early Methodist, Evangelical Association, and United Brethren in Christ siblings held. A “one right way” approach to belief and thinking simply isn’t part of the Methodist DNA, and it leads to reactivity. I hold the opinion that we have not ever taken the risk or the time to engage in the deepest Christian conference around the true issues of disagreement in our fellowship. We debate the presenting issues until people are sick of them and we have done an egregious amount of harm, but we rarely address the root causes that could end most of our skirmishes. If we could name our subjective biases, name some objective goals and outcomes, and commit to be responsive rather than reactive, I believe we could be a much healthier church.
Okay, enough for now. Opinionism is a toxin, afflicting our culture, our church, and our world. What is the antidote? If Christians actually need to ask this question, it simply indicates how deeply the opinionism poison has spread. Monday I will continue this stream of consciousness with some thoughts on Reconcilable Differences.