I wrote a book recently. The first question people ask is what is the book about? I wish I could tell them I wrote a novel. Novelists are like superstars. I’d also have been okay with writing a book about ornithology or moral ecology, something that would make me an expert in an obscure field. In fact, I’d be fine with just making my interlocutor go ‘oooo’ or ‘ahhh.’ But I wrote a devotional book and most people simply mutter, ‘oh.’
Far from being a conversation starter, writing a book about religious faith can quickly terminate even a cordial exchange. So I tell most people my book, Winter with God, is a work of contemplative non-fiction. I might mention, if they appear interested, that it’s a series of meditations about the ways in which meaning can be present, even if God – or a higher purpose – seems absent. I sometimes even go so far as to disclose that it’s written from a religious perspective, but I rarely confide that it has a Christian point-of-view. I certainly don’t tell them that the book, at its heart, is about Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the last thing I seem to do is talk to people about Jesus. After all, I’m meant to be an educated, sophisticated urbanite with an elite, enviable résumé! I shouldn’t be a backwoods fundamentalist or retrograde religionist. I’m sympathetic to modern science and would no more gainsay the rights of another than wish my own to be naysaid. So to sell what I’ve authored I focus on the author. In an utterly shameless manner – without a modicum of modesty - I mention my endorsements, which include J.I. Packer. I name-drop my education at Oxford and work experience in the Prime Minister’s Office. I also humblebrag I’m only twenty-seven. But I do these things because I am afraid (and vain). For as much as I want people to understand whom Jesus is, I don’t want them to misunderstand who I am. But perhaps there is value in opening up about my religious beliefs – both personally, and for our pluralistic society – even if it invites disagreement.
Granted, in an age of anger and angst, when nationalistic demagoguery and ethno-populism are dividing us and making us divisive, it might seem prudent to put aside our differences and focus on what we have in common. But what if that won’t help us? What if we suffer – not so much from a lack of agreement – but from having lost the art of disagreement?
When we are public about our private faith – whether as Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Jews – we not only disclose rather than enclose our differences, but we allow people the opportunity to openly disagree with us (whether that’s about our theology, ethics, or identity). This requires courage because it can attract censure or contradiction, but this kind of spiritual sincerity allows everyone the opportunity to practice real pluralism. It can teach us – if we want to learn – how to reasonably weigh and consider other ideas, or how we can respectfully refute and refuse them. It’s the kind of pluralism that can eventually – through constructive exposure and real debate, not just polite dialogue – help navigate society through our differences rather than around them (or into them).
For a long time I thought I was doing society a service by presenting who I was and what I believed in ways and words that easily engendered agreement. Perhaps it was a service, to a certain extent, since pluralism is not monolithic. It combines pluralistic equality, which celebrates (and enforces) commonalities between disparate persons and parties, with pluralistic freedom, which not only recognizes our differences but also allows us to live differently. And pluralism does have to be promoted from almost every angle in order for the better angels of pluralism to emerge – let alone to prevail against prejudice and paranoia.
But it would be a disservice to both my neighbor and my neighborhood – not to mention my God – to deny or downplay the most central (and therefore distinctive) doctrines of my faith. It would rob others of the opportunity to disagree with me. It would take away from the practice time we need for robust pluralism. For how can we learn to disagree more agreeably – i.e. disagreement without disparagement – unless we practice real disagreements over things we really believe? The health of our democracy depends on it, because civil society requires the capacity to differ and not just to defer. In fact, the societies that face the greatest perils are those who cannot disagree and manage what divides them. So let’s agree to disagree and learn how to disagree. Let’s start by owning our differences, even though it comes with the fear of being disowned.