I have been a professor for 25 years, and I’ve noticed that it’s becoming more and more difficult to have a really good class discussion on a controversial topic. People seem unwilling to openly voice their opinions, apparently out of fear of being attacked—or worse, out of fear of offending someone. This seems to be a symptom of a larger societal trend. In a recent article in The Atlantic, psychologist Jonathan Haidt compared the current situation in America to the Tower of Babel. As the story is told in Genesis 11, God confused the language of the people so that no-one understood anyone else. In Haidt’s imagination, he saw the people “wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.”1 Haidt traced how social media has contributed to the erosion of trust, exposing its amplified polarization around controversial topics. People who resist this trend and try to be more nuanced or moderate in their opinions are often attacked and shamed by people on their own side. Haidt concluded, “When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.”2
As I’ve noted, this communication crisis carries over into the higher education context. A recent report commissioned by the Heterodox Academy found that high percentages of students on college campuses are reluctant to discuss controversial topics such as politics, religion, and sexual orientation. A college education is intended to teach people to think well in order to become good citizens of a democratic society. In Christian higher education, it is also intended to equip students to be good citizens of God’s kingdom. But this polarized, hostile climate doesn’t just affect interactions on social media and politics; it also undermines these purposes of education. It turns out that when you only hear one perspective, you don’t learn to think as well. You are never forced to think through the weaknesses in your position, to clearly and politely articulate your thoughts, or to change your mind. In contrast, when your education is characterized by exposure to different points of view, your horizons are expanded, you learn more deeply about your own perspective, and you become a more nuanced, complex thinker. But if professors and classmates don’t express diverse perspectives because of the fear of being shamed, ostracized, or called out, everybody loses.
“…this polarized, hostile climate doesn’t just affect interactions on social media and politics; it also undermines these purposes of education.”
Where do you see yourself in this situation? Are you a participant in the divisive mobbing, attacking anyone who disagrees with you? When someone expresses an opinion with which you disagree, do you question their commitment to their faith or try to cancel them? Or are you part of the majority that self-censors, keeping a low profile and trying to avoid getting publicly shamed and socially ostracized?
Is there a stance we are called to as Christians? I think there is: we are called to love.
At first glance this may seem like a “squishy,” impractical solution that implies something like being nice to everyone, and avoiding making anyone uncomfortable. Nothing could be further from the truth. The same Jesus who argued that love of God and love of neighbor are the primary ethical commands3 also overturned tables and used a whip to drive out cattle from the temple. Presumably, even these actions were motivated by his love. Jesus’ love was also expressed in his death on the cross; love may also require sacrifices. The common theme in all these expressions of love is not that it makes people feel good; it is that it seeks the actual good of others.
It’s not always easy to know what is loving in specific contexts. This is why loving well requires cultivating virtues such as wisdom, which allows us to choose our response well. Let me briefly describe three other virtues that are necessary for loving well, and will influence our interactions with others: humility, courage, and generosity.
“…loving well requires cultivating virtues…”
Love requires humility. In Philippians 2, Paul encouraged his readers to “have the same love as Christ,” then spelled out what this means by saying, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Being loving is being humble. Being loving involves turning the other cheek when we are attacked, instead of responding in kind. Being loving involves being aware of our own limitations with respect to our views and beliefs, and open to the perspectives of others.
Love requires courage. Sometimes speaking up with conviction may expose us to the anger, criticisms, or attacks of others. Speaking up when it would be easier to remain silent may result in suffering. The pursuit of the good of others in these ways requires the virtue of courage, the readiness to face difficulties well.
Love requires generosity. It involves giving of ourselves—our time, our commitment, and our intellectual resources. We show generosity by being hospitable toward the ideas of others, even when they differ from our being. Generosity toward others may also be reflected in the ways we choose to understand their comments: thinking the best of them, rather than assuming the worst.
Where are you deficient in your love of others with respect to engaging over controversial topics? Do you lack in humility, thinking you know all the answers and denigrating the perspectives of others as stupid or unChristian? Do you lack in courage, retreating into emotional safety when you could benefit others by speaking up? Do you lack in generosity, taking the comments of others out of context and refusing to listen well? Do you lack in wisdom, unsure of what you are called to do in different situations?
As we are told in I Corinthians 16:14, “Let all that you do be done in love.” Engaging with others who are difficult, who are different from us, or who hold opinions that may strike us as dangerous or incomprehensible is never easy. But we are encouraged to “grow up” and engage with even these people as individuals formed in Christ’s image, leaving behind childish, impulsive ways4. We must learn, not just to speak the truth, but to speak it in love.
“We must learn, not just to speak the truth, but to speak it in love.”
With wisdom, we must choose whether this involves following Jesus in speaking words of peace, or in cleansing the temple. With courage, we must choose whether to sacrifice our safety or pride for the sake of others. With humility, we must carefully consider the needs and perspectives of the other. With generosity, we must give our time and energy to make the effort to build bridges instead of walls. And, over all these virtues we must put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.