Last week Rachel asked me to participate, along with many others and the entire Christian blogosphere, in The Rally to Restore Unity. You can follow and participate in the Rally on Rachel's blog and on Facebook (I'm not on Facebook so I don't know where to go exactly, but Rachel's blog has the Facebook link.)
I missed Rachel's deadline to send her few lines on this subject and I've been slow to come up with something of value to share this week.
The trouble I'm having is this. Whenever I tried to write anything on this topic I couldn't stop preaching to the choir. That is, I expect that if you are participating in the Rally to Restore Unity then you think Christian unity is more important than doctrinal distinctives. Which, let's face it, kind of marks you as a liberal. The point is, if you think a bit of doctrine is critical to salvation then you are not going to be able to let that go. Nor should you if this doctrine is critical to salvation. But that's the rub, isn't it? Is doctrine critical to salvation? If you don't think so you can go to the Rally. If you do think so, well, the Rally is going to feel like an ice cube dropped down your shirt.
All this is the predictable product of the psychology of moral conviction. The work of psychologist Linda Skitka is helpful here. According to Skitka a moral conviction is characterized by these three features:
1. EmotionalYou can see the problem. If someone is morally convicted about something there is little room for "unity." Feature Three rules out a middle ground. Feature Two means you are talking to idiots ("How could anyone deny the obvious?"). And Feature One brings on the shouting, snarkiness, and ad hominem.
Moral convictions tend to involve a great deal of emotion, often outrage. This makes dispassionate, critical dialogue a bit of a trick.
Moral convictions are believed to be objective realities, a sort of moral fact. Abortion is obviously murder. Homosexuality is obviously a sexual perversion. Keeping chickens cooped up to make Chicken McNuggets is obviously cruel and inhumane. And so on.
Moral convictions are morally binding on everyone. You can't opt out. A moral conviction isn't an opinion. Nor is it culturally relative. It's absolute. No exceptions.
The point is, if you are rallying to restore unity you are already saying that you're not morally convicted about a lot of the stuff Christians are fighting over. You're willing to let it go, to "agree to disagree." This is Rachel's story as she recounts it in her wonderful memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, a book I highly recommend. It's her evolution from certainty to doubt, to living into the questions. And I've made the exact same journey. As have many of you.
So it's easy for us to let a lot of this doctrine go in the name of unity.
But what if someone is morally convicted on a given point? How is a Rally to Restore Unity going to work for them? Not very well. The whole notion of a rally suggests you're willing to compromise a bit, that you are willing to hold your beliefs more lightly.
You can see my problem. Hasn't, by its very nature, the Rally excluded those it was intended to embrace? And, thus, isn't my participation just simply preaching to the choir?
I mean, if you are participating in the Rally to Restore Unity we likely weren't fighting in the first place. Right?
Okay, fine, but isn't it possible for Christians to disagree strongly and still love each other? You think I'm a heretic bound for hell. Fantastic. I can respect that opinion. I really can. But will you wash my feet? Eat dinner with my family? Visit me in the hospital? Lend me 20 bucks? Pray for my sick child? And work alongside me in the inner city ministry?
Or, to get all Biblical on you: Will you love me?
Now that's the key question, isn't it? Is it possible, psychologically speaking, to love a person you feel is a heretic? We are not talking here about being nice and pleasant, everyone can slap a smile on their face for a few minutes, we are talking about actually loving this person.
Is it, psychologically speaking, possible to love someone when they are violating a moral conviction of yours? To, as they say, "hate the sin but love the sinner." Or, in this case, to "hate the heresy but love the heretic"?
It might be possible, but I expect that it is the very rare exception rather than the rule. And it's not hard to see why given the psychology of moral convictions. You feel the heretic is a malevolent agent, a person damaging the faith and the faith of others. And in light of this it would be very hard for you could love this person given what you think they are doing.
Overall, I think the dynamics here parallel the dynamics I try to unpack in my book Unclean. If you've read the book I'm sure you can see the connections. Unclean is preoccupied with the problems inherent in the "hate the sin but love the sinner" formulation, and it's only a short step to apply its analysis to the "hate the heresy but love the heretic." I'm particularly thinking about the material on infrahumanization and the moral circle, how we tend to see outgroup members as less than fully human and, thus, less worthy of love. Heretics are prime examples of this process.
So it seems we've come full circle in this post. Can you rally for unity with heretics? That is, can you love those heretics while maintaining your moral convictions? My own answer is that I'm not sure that's possible. If you are going to truly love a heretic you are going to have to put your doctrine on the back-burner. To put the person first, and not the heresy. You'll have to adopt what Miroslav Volf calls "the will to embrace." A commitment to love that precedes any discussion of doctrine. But again, I can't help but shake the feeling that if you're able to do this you've already begun to hold your beliefs more tentatively and lightly. That you've become able to put your doctrine on the back-burner.
And, thus, suddenly I'm back to preaching to the choir.
So that's the question I keep kicking around about the Rally to Restore Unity given my work in Unclean. Can you hate the heresy but love the heretic? Or does loving the heretic imply that, in some deep psychological way, you have come to you hold your beliefs more lightly? Are these processes, paralleling the analysis of love and purity in Unclean, reciprocally related? Does in the increase of one (love) necessarily involve the decrease of the other (dogmatism)? And vice versa?
My guess? I don't think it's possible to love heretics. You have to burn them.
So if you want to love. You have to choose.