I recently finished a weeklong seminar at the Witherspoon Institute, in Princeton, NJ, concerning common themes in the work of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Taylor. The seminar was illuminating (though often over my head!) and engaged important questions about human nature, individuals and society, ethics, religion and secularism. Though I found the discussions stimulating and the level of engagement inspiring, my favorite moment proved much more personal and came from an unlikely source.
I tend to have a high regard for successful academics, people who’ve “made it” in the cutthroat world of university education. Perhaps it’s their ability to reason at such a high level, or the fact that they’ve read (and in some cases written) so many books, or that they’ve managed to secure a tenured job in a world where hundreds apply for a single post. Whatever the case, I find myself admiring such people and perhaps viewing them as above the ordinary.
Yet, near the end of my seminar, something shattered that illusion beautifully.
I listened as one of our professors—a woman with two PhDs and who teaches at a world-class institution—broke through the wall of formal academic discourse, in order to share about something unusual: her church. Yet it wasn’t just the fact that she spoke about something so personal, so intimate, that struck me; it was what she said about it.
Her church is located on the outskirts of Chicago, in a particularly troubled neighborhood, where passersby might pose an inconvenience if not a danger. Nevertheless, the church teaches its members to be able to look at the strangers around them and say (in quiet, if not aloud):
“You are someone for whom Jesus died. You are made in the Image of God.”
Perhaps you’ve never sat through a philosophy seminar, in which case let me assure you: this is not the sort of thing one often hears—certainly not from tenured faculty at leading research institutions. Nonetheless, what interests me here is not the sheer novelty of my professor’s words or even their theological insight. Rather, what interests me are the implications of this way of thinking for our broader social life.
What would our society look like if we regarded our neighbor as “someone for whom Jesus died, someone made in the Image of God”? Like a child trying to wrap his arms around the world, I can’t grasp the full implications of that thought. Therefore, let’s narrow our subject a bit: what would our disputes look like, were we to see our neighbors in the way described?
This brings us to the realm of civility. Briefly, let me suggest a few implications that I think would have to follow, insofar as we seek to live out this understanding of our neighbor in the context of our disputes.
First, those who understand their neighbors along the above theological lines will find themselves constrained in important ways. If my neighbors really do bear the image of Almighty God, and if God really did love them enough to die for them, as the Christian gospel proclaims, then, even if I find myself in a serious dispute with those neighbors, I cannot pursue my dispute by whatever means I might like. Contrary to the old saying, all is not fair in love and war.
First and foremost, I must not resort to violence against my neighbor. That sounds simple enough, but a whole host of recent events show our propensity to do exactly the opposite.
Yet, I think the constraints imposed by this theological understanding of our neighbor go further than that. They extend to what I say and how I say it. I must refrain from insults, slander and that perennial temptation: the rumor mill. If the person with whom I’m disputing is absent and I am speaking with a friend, in private and in full confidence, even then I need to speak of the person in question with respect. Does the fact of my neighbor’s absence somehow change the status that person has as a Divine Image bearer and someone loved by God? Of course it doesn’t—in the same way that when I’m sleeping I do not cease to be a human being. As such, my obligation to constrain my disputes extends even in such cases.
However, lest one think that the theological understanding of our neighbor imposes merely a negative burden—a series of “Thou shalt not’s”—let me suggest some positive counterparts.
To the extent that I love God and seek to grow more like Him, I will want to love what He loves. If it turns out that He loves my neighbor, I will need—and want!—to love that person too. At the very least, I will recognize my need and ask for help to do so more fully. In a famous passage from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle writes:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13: 4-7).
Can you imagine if we brought these qualities to our disputes—whether in the newsroom or debate floor, the classroom or public square, online or off? What would our society look like if we extended the patience, kindness and regard for others described above, even as we disputed vigorously with our neighbors?
For those who do not regard their neighbor as someone for whom Jesus died, someone made in the Image of God, this may have seemed like an interesting (albeit hypothetical) exercise. Yet, for the millions of people who really do hold this view, I hope it gets us thinking.
I am one such person. By no means have I fully practiced the above ethic—not even toward my family, let alone perfect strangers or those I don’t like. I want to live it, though, and so should you. A society that aspired—however imperfectly—to live this ethic would be far better than the one we have at present. We might just find that we could bridge some or more of the yawning chasms that divide us and recover the basic goodwill needed to hold together our common life.