From the Dean’s Desk - by Gregory E. Sterling

Gregory E. Sterling

I am deeply concerned that we are losing the capacity to have sustained conversations about our differences. This is happening across society. Academic freedom on university campuses is being eroded in light of larger societal pressures and movements. You do not believe in academic freedom unless you are willing to defend the right of someone to speak with whom you disagree.

Churches face the same pressures as the academy – perhaps more so. There are centrifugal forces that are threatening to tear churches apart or to sequester us into monochrome and monolithic units. Will we have red churches and blue churches or will we have churches that are mixed? Will we have black churches and white churches or will we have integrated churches? I attended the most recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland OR, in the summer of 2016. There were two sides – quite literally – that lined up to speak about the ordination of same-sex clergy. Someone made the reasonable motion that each district should make the decision, a suggestion that was rejected. The centrifugal forces clearly outweighed the centripedal forces. The United Methodists are far from alone in this struggle.

I am not suggesting that we improve our talking skills only. We acutely need to learn how to work through differences rather than exacerbate or ignore them. One of the reactions to the phenomenon of global awareness is the creation of hermetically sealed existences in which we preprogram all that we hear to conform to our tastes and ideologies. We can preprogram our music, listen to select news outlets that brazenly promote a particular agenda, and exclude the voices of others, others who do not see the world in the same way that we do.

I think about the tensions that existed in the early church between a group of Pharisaic Christians who insisted that Gentile Christians keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1-5) and Paul who insisted that they were under no obligation to do so (Gal 2:1-10). As described in the Acts of the Apostles, the early church found a way to mediate by stipulating that Gentile Christians observe four practices that would enable them to have table fellowship with Jewish Christians (Acts 15:20, 28; 21:25). Acts takes a centrist view that endeavors to emphasize the unity of the movement. This perspective is in minimal supply today.

This issue of Reflections explores how a group of talented scholars, clergy, and concerned others are wrestling with this urgent matter. Whether we think of the political world, the academic world, the world of churches, or even relationships within our own families, we must find ways to address our differences openly, candidly, and sensibly. What is at stake is the concept of community and what it means to be a community big enough and healthy enough to tolerate divergent perspectives and learn from them.