The challenge of living with opposable minds

One of the biggest knocks against organized religion these days is the tendency from within to take a firm ideological position, dig in collective heels and refuse to consider alternative points of view. Most of us can list the so-called “hot button” issues that have become the marquee causes, such as abortion, gay marriage, and, in general, any activity having to do with body parts touching other body parts.

Lest anyone assume I’m only referring to the evangelical right, I’ll point out explicitly that I’ve met my share of arrogant religious liberals who are as rigid and self-righteous about their personal views as any conservative. It’s a human tendency, but like many other bad habits, one that we can work against if we so choose.

But how?

In a recent column in The Christian Century magazine, Gregory Jones addressed the issue of what author Roger Martin calls “the opposable mind.” Both Martin and Jones contend that, although we are born with a basic ability to hold multiple, opposing concepts in tension in our mind, we tend to condition ourselves from childhood to do just the opposite.

The blame, it seems, is not entirely upon churches. Martin argues that the problem begins in grade school, with the way we teach our children to think. This was a familiar notion to me, given that I worked with teachers for years professionally on how to teach kids how to think. Though we begin early on to show children how to read, write and add, the skills of critical thought, rhetoric and analysis often come a decade later or more, if at all.

This vacuum of higher-order thinking trickles over into a culture that, instead of welcoming debate and opposing views, feels threatened by difference. Rather than learning from alternate perspectives, we cling to our own ideals even tighter, casting verbal volleys at the “other side,” and if we’re lucky, the fight stops before things really get messy.

Jones, now the dean of the Duke University Divinity School, suggests a strategy he was taught in school and which has had a significant impact on the way he views religion. He was given the challenge of selecting a topic about which he felt very strongly, and then researching and arguing in favor of the opposite view. The exercise pushed his intellectual and emotional skills to their limits, but he came away with a much richer sense of the importance of different viewpoints.

“Such exercises do not ask us to become less passionate or to compromise our views,” he says. “But they do help us learn to hold our own views in a deeper tension with alternative possibilities. Compelling us to find new patterns, patterns that are consistent with Jesus’ own teaching and life.”

When applied to the context of faith, Jones calls this practice “interpretive charity.” To consider availing ourselves to otherwise threatening, or at least uncomfortable, views as an act of charity somehow makes it easier to swallow. After all, we’re all called to a life of charity, even in matters of thought, dialogue and social interaction.

This is not a novel concept. In his book, “Christ and Culture,” H. Richard Niebuhr contended that our world conditions us to unlearn what Jones calls here “opposable thinking.” Niebuhr’s book, published originally in 1956, falls back on similar arguments posed by F.D. Maurice and John Stuart Mill, who preceded Niebuhr by a century in their work. One could even argue that the concept of opposable minds stretches back to the great philosophers of ancient Greece.

So why are we so slow on the uptake? Is it fear, laziness or something else that keeps us from using our opposable minds? Are we really so blind to the consequences of choosing a different, more narrow path? Worse yet, do we really believe that we’re so singular in our righteousness that the price of such attitudes is worth our willful ignorance of centuries of history?

Maybe the next 2,000 years will offer more promise in this regard, provided we don’t self-destruct in the meantime.