More than 35 years ago I was working on a graduate degree in the sociology of religion at the Southern Seminary in Louisville. The time came to declare the subject of our thesis. Some of us were sure and others were lost in a sea of uncertainty.
One of the others, let’s call him David, could not come up with a topic. Finally, with a sense of exasperation his supervising professor suggested he study the difference in doctrinal beliefs of students at Southern based on how long they had been in seminary and how many degrees they pursued. David embraced this idea.
Research was required. A survey was composed for students. When it was distributed the word around the graduate student dialogues was that it would be fun to try to mess up David’s survey results. Why not complete the survey in a manner that showed rejection of core Baptist doctrines just to see what would happen when the results were released?
What a horrible idea and it alarmed me. I had the same supervising professor so I went to him with word of this plot. He rejected it as implausible. The research, compilation, thesis, graduation for David, and placement of his thesis in the library went forward.
Skip ahead a half dozen years. Southern Baptists were now in the middle in intra-Nicene warfare. David’s thesis went missing from the seminary library. Soon articles began to appear suggesting that the longer students attended Southern the more liberal they became. The proof given was David’s research as published in his thesis.
My recollection is that David had used a 5-point scale. If you absolutely agreed with his statement on a certain doctrine—let’s say the Virgin birth—you would rate it a “5”. If you even wanted to explore other perspectives for the sake of dialogue, or to mess up the research of someone who you did not believe ought to be in the master of theology program, you might rate it a “4” or “3” or worse.
The interpretation given in articles about the liberalism at Southern was that if any doctrine was not rated a “5” that was a sign of liberalism at the seminary. It had to be absolute.
This brand of absolutism in situations of great complexity of circumstances creates an either/or approach to life rather than and/both approaches. Either/or approaches tend to polarize people, focus on positions rather than principles, and result in negative accusations rather than positive dialogue.
We often see this repeated in so many cultural wars. A national election—particularly during a presidential election year—is one case. Responding to the statement by the leader of Chick-Fil-A on LGBTQ issues is another. Gun control—particularly of assault weapons—is another example.
The mantra is to agree with me fully or be absolutely wrong. We cannot accept complexity; only simplicity. The reality is that it is not a right vs. left or liberal vs. conservative issue. It is the issue for anyone who demands absolutism in a world where many things are absolutely complex.
In congregations we see it exhibited in statements around a preference for traditional worship vs. contemporary worship. Whether or not to downsize my favorite staff person or yours when the congregation cannot afford both can become an either/or issue.
The apparent requirement is too often to agree with one another absolutely because our issues are simple, and I am emotionally and spiritually intolerant. As an antagonist might say, “Do not come to me with the idea that issues are complex. I cannot accept absolute complexity, no matter how much evidence there may be to support it.”
The reality is that few answers to life’s challenges are simple. Many are complex. Most I have personally experienced are complex. How about you?