The redemptive power of disagreement

Watching the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey this evening made me feel fit to burst from the pressure of so much internal contradiction and disarray. My emotions had become conflicted to the point of a kind of bitter-sweet stasis, and I’ve rarely been so conscious of thinking diametrically opposed things at the same time, and yet somehow feeling them all as authentic insights in their own right.

The cynic in me, and quite possibly in you, just wants to dismiss it all as yet more evidence of the inability of human beings to think straight, and our seemingly inexhaustible capacity to deceive ourselves. And that might yet be the proper conclusion, and the sane thing to cling on to. But I’m not so sure.

First, perhaps, I might try and give you a flavour of some of those contrary currents. I’m an Anglican, and have long resented the Roman Catholic church’s disdainful view of the Church of England, and their proprietorial attitude to Catholicism, a tradition I firmly believe that I belong to as well. At the same time I found the Holy Father’s presence at Edward’s shrine, and his joint blessing with the Archbishop a profoundly moving moment. But that parochial consideration was only the start of my kaleidoscope of shattered disjunctures. I was caught between reverence for the incense and the robes of office, and the unsettling feeling that I’d stumbled upon a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or the Masons. Between respect for the Pope’s historic office, and dismay at his, and his church’s, total failure to comprehend or deal with the sexual scandals that threaten to overwhelm it. Between the Abbey’s Gothic splendour, and the mediaeval Church’s excesses. Between the words of service and subordination to ideals and values, and the actions of collusion with political power. Between the deep conservatism of the Church and its radical social message.

The temptation is to deal with all these tensions and contradictions by simply letting go of one end or the other. To jump into pious withdrawal from the world, and stuff my head into the sand of mass and evensong. Or to join up with Dawkins and chuck all my religious delusions onto the fire of his evolutionary purity. There’s a chunk of me that longs to do one or the other of those things, and to wriggle free of the hook I feel I’m on. Perhaps I lack the courage to be decisive. Or, just possibly, perhaps the truly courageous thing to do is to stay on the hook.

One of the things I value most about Twitter is the way it allows me to stay in contact with people that I profoundly disagree with. I doubt that in the real world I’d ever come into contact with the variety of perspectives that make up my virtual world. There aren’t many virulent atheists in my parish church, but I value my dialogue with the many I know and respect on Twitter. In the same way I regularly exchange tweets with right-wingers on Twitter to whom I’d never give real-world house room. And somewhere here is I think a profound truth. Modernity has allowed us to pick and choose our fellow travellers with too much ease. We can so easily select only those with whom we already agree, and with whom we can enter into uncritical and self-reinforcing relationships. Twitter can be a powerful means of doing just that. Or it can be a means of creative tension, rather like those I felt watching the shenanigans in Westminster Abbey tonight. And if I’m honest, I prefer those tensions to the comforting suffocation of tribal agreement. In fact, disagreement is redemptive.

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3 thoughts on “The redemptive power of disagreement

  1. As an secular atheist (er, is there any other sort?) I’ve been biting my tongue on twitter a bit over the pope. I appreciate that the Catholics I know have a great love for their church but I can’t help feeling the leadership of their church is serving them really badly.

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