A Humble Courage

photo from chimesnewspaper.com

photo from chimesnewspaper.com

In any kind of polarized political or religious context, disagreements can quickly lead to the use of extreme generalizations and inflammatory language which can produce further division. These rhetorical devices function as delegitimizing tools that discredit the moral and/or rational faculties of whoever the target group or individual is while at the same time bolstering support from those who already agree with the person using these devices. Although functioning as polarizing tools, the actual use of these devices is not limited to one group. These discrediting devices can even be shared by groups that oppose each other, but what they are used to determine as morally reprehensible or logically irrational is dependent on the subject who is making the claims. Those who use these tools of polarization and delegitimization are championed as courageous by their respective in-groups, which again furthers the division between those involved while also eliminating the possibility of dialogue. The first step to seeking a de-polarized context in our spheres begins with a new vision for courage. A vision, I propose, that embodies a humble courage to risk our own certainty and moral/rational high ground in an effort to respect the image-bearing value and complexity of those whom we disagree with in order to seek genuine commonality.

In contrast to categorizing those we disagree with under generalized groups, we need to possess a humble courage that values the particularity of the individual in their beliefs and expressions. By the very essence of our biological structure and dynamic ways of interacting in the world, humans exhibit and participate in the image of God. An image that cannot be reduced into the subcategories of liberal or conservative, mainline or evangelical, pro-choice or pro-life, feminist or misogynist, etc. To reduce individuals into your own socially-made categories limits the fullness of their particular expression and does violence to their value as humans. A respect for the particularity of an individual, therefore, is not rooted in abstract moral platitudes, but in an understanding of the great complexity of their image-bearing qualities. We cannot assume to possess the capabilities to fully know and define an individual or a group according to simple generalizations and assumptions. Moreso, because they are fellow image bearers, we cannot know them simply to critique them. A humble courage begins with the willingness to risk admitting that your opposition shares with you the image of God, and value them according to that standard.

Furthermore, a humble courage recognizes the complex and communally embedded nature of our moral and rational systems. We must be courageous enough to believe that the way we interpret and judge moral activity (i.e. abortion, racial issues, policing, homosexuality) and reasoning capabilities (internal coherence and its conclusions) are largely formed by communal practices and traditions. Does this mean that there are no normative truths or that God cannot reveal himself? Certainly not. Nor does it mean we cannot express any confidence or even great confidence in our beliefs. But it does mean that any kind of access we have to truth is filtered through a long list of our communal identities.

The biblical canon itself is a well-documented example of how God has formed and shaped the practices and beliefs of his people through his progressive covenantal love. In fact, a serious look at both the Old and New Testaments shows that the biblical writers often communicated to the people of God in ways that exemplify the use of polarizing language in order to show how their identity was different and unique in relation to those outside the community of God. Communal practices have the tremendous power of forming and shaping our identities and ways we filter the world.

So, how does that relate to a humble courage? Most directly, don’t assume you and the opposing individual are working from the same moral and rational understandings and immediately conclude they are morally reprehensible and rationally bankrupt. Moral judgments and rational systems have a history and a community, and those histories and communities can lead to conclusions that, although different from yours, may be internally coherent. And, probably more controversially, don’t assume you and your tradition have the wholesale grasp of truth about God and the world. A humble courage opens us up to the possibility of being corrected; the possibility that even our perceived opposition might have an insight into our own blind spots.

In all of this, I am simply making a plea for a different approach to disagreeing with each other in a polarized context. A plea for a courage not defined by our ability to delegitimize others and heroicize our own groups. Instead, to approach disagreement and opposition with a humble courage that possesses an appreciation for the dynamic particularity of humanity’s image-bearing qualities, and in that, the complexity of how humans engage with and make sense of the world. Courage does not have to be characterized by a zealous certainty and pride that argues at the expense of the other. Rather, courage can be the willingness to put yourself at the risk of being wrong and de-stabilized. It is this latter courage that might be the first step in our age of polarization.