I think my favorite aspect of the Jewish faith has to do with how they deal with theological disagreement and debate. Namely, theological disagreement and debate are preserved in the sacred writings and traditions of the Jewish faith, rather than rejected. There is less pressure to find the “right” view. Instead, minority opinions are conserved rather than discarded.
In contrast, one of my biggest frustrations with the Christian faith is how we handle theological disagreement and debate. Instead of seeing disagreement and debate as something positive—something that can challenge us and push us closer to God—it has a tendency to make us anxious. There is pressure to get everyone on the same page. There is a sense that if you hold a less popular opinion, you might not be part of the group. And if we can’t settle our disagreements and get on the same page, the solution isn’t usually to maintain community amidst our differences. Instead, the history of the Christian church is filled with theological disagreements leading to church splits and broken communities.
The Jewish faith is different. It isn’t that the Jewish religious leaders always agreed. They didn’t. The history of the Jewish faith is filled with sharply contested disagreement and debate. But the disagreement and debate is expected. It’s okay. Even good. There’s a sense that it’s part of the process of a group of people figuring out what it means to follow and be in community with God.
What would it take for the Christian community to be more comfortable with theological disagreement and debate, and actually see this process as an important aspect of our faith? I think two key questions need to seriously considered:
- What does it mean to hold religious beliefs, values, and convictions with humility? You see humility everywhere in the life and teachings of Jesus, as well as in the Old and New Testaments. It’s an important virtue, and I don’t think any Christian would argue with that. However, we often don’t apply the value of humility to our religious beliefs, values, and convictions. For some reason, we think it’s really important to be certain about what we believe, or to “get it right.” But we are limited in our understanding and knowledge of God. As the apostle Paul said, we see God “through a glass darkly.” Christians have been wrong about many of their religious convictions in the past, and we are likely wrong about things even now. A good dose of humility would help reframe theological disagreement and debate in a positive way.
- Is God still alive and moving in our world today? Or is God dead? Is the whole story of who God is and what God is doing in the world contained in Old and New Testaments? Or is God still working and moving today, continuing to reveal himself to us through theology, the Holy Spirit, nature, and science? My view is that yes, God is absolutely still alive and moving in our world today, and it is our responsibility as Christians to continue to work out what it means to be a community in relationship to God. I think that view allows for, and even requires theological disagreement and debate. But if you believe the entirety of God’s revelation to us is locked in the Bible, continued disagreement and debate might strike you as dangerous and problematic.
What do you think about theological disagreement and debate? Is it an essential part of what it means to live in Christian community? Or is it dangerous? How could we do a better job of allowing for and even celebrating disagreement and debate?