Is "Agree to Disagree" enough?

I recently read this post from one of the great United Methodist Academics of our time, Dr. David F. Watson, entitled "Agreeing to disagree is not enough."  A provocative title for many of us who more and more in our families, our churches, our communities find ourselves "agreeing to disagree" about this or that - especially upon questions of values, morals, or priorities - because we have no consensus, and have little hope of coming to one.  What if, Watson asks, the problem is not simply that the issues are complex (we all admit that they are); what if we lack the intellectual discipline and honesty that is required to do the hard work of thinking and coming to an agreement?

This is how he begins the article:
I often hear it said that United Methodists must agree to disagree. Okay…fine. In some matters of considerable complexity, this may be the best course of action. In most circumstances, however, wouldn’t it be better if we worked to develop a broad consensus on important issues? Are we resigned to remaining at loggerheads on any matters that are somewhat controversial?

The problem here is not simply that we cannot agree. It is that we don’t know how to generate agreement. Or, perhaps, the hard work of resolving complex problems is simply too hard. In dealing with controversial matters, in many cases we have given up on real, meaningful dialogue, the kind that can cut through seemingly intractable problems in order that participants in the dialogue can develop more informed, well reasoned, and intellectually responsible opinions.

Particularly at the levels of the annual conferences and the General Conference, important issues are decided by voting blocs and caucus groups. In other words, they are decided by processes that are primarily political, rather than intellectual...
Now some might object that what Dr. Watson is suggesting is the long dark road to fundamentalism and the suppression of intellectual freedom.  But, do we really believe that it is not possible to use our reason to overcome misunderstanding and discern the truth, even on complex issues?  Do we think it is better to have uncertainty and disagreement/dialogue than to have convictions that have been tested by logic and shown to be sound?  Are we really resigned to a kind of agnosticism about...well, anything and everything about which people disagree? Certainly one cannot build a life, or a civilization, and certainly not a church upon nothing but uncertainty, upon "you have your truth and I have mine, and we need not bother talking about it any further."

Perhaps the best part of Dr. Watson's piece is the end:

Broadly speaking, our culture does not value intellectual virtue. Debates are won and lost on zingers, charisma, and sound bites. Academics, moreover, are in no way excepted from this criticism, and this includes academics in explicitly Christian settings, such as seminaries. There are entrenched positions in the academy, just as in secular politics, just as in the church.

Agreeing to disagree is sometimes necessary, but for many people it has become the defining characteristic of our denomination. This is a serious mistake. Methodists were once people of deep conviction. We can be again, but it won’t be easy. 
 Watson recent co-authored Key United Methodist Beliefs with another favorite professor from my time in seminary, William Abraham.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home