So I left it behind. I can still critique the folly of the world, but I don’t linger there. I know what Anton Ego, the food critic in Ratatouille, came to understand, as he wrote,
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.One of the best compliments I have ever received on my ministry came from a member of a small country church where I was preaching part-time while working on my doctorate. The member said, “I like how you always try to offer something positive in your preaching. You encourage people.” That meant that I was succeeding in doing the very hard work of preaching for instead of against, which I had set out to do from my early days in the pulpit.
Then came the internet. I discovered how easy it was for someone to stumble into a flame war. I saw how many trolls there were out there, eager to lunge out from beneath their bridges and attack anyone who disagreed with them. I was amazed at the number of sheer cranks there are in the world. And yet, the internet, with its blogs and social networks, is an important meeting place for those who talk about ideas. For both political and theological discourse, it is the Areopagus of our day. So, if you deal in ideas – in vision, in policy, in social or spiritual guidance – you’ve got to be there.
It’s a free-for-all. The debate can be rough and tumble, and there are hecklers a-plenty. You’ve got to keep your cool and not give in to the outrageousness of others. And sitting alone at your computer, the old temptation – to the slashing attack, to the battle-song of your own inner berserker – returns in force. You don’t even face the restraints imposed by addressing a live audience. It’s all too easy to just slash and burn, particularly when the issues are great and you believe your cause is just.
Out in the face-to-face world (the world of IRL, as it is called on-line), as the issues of our day have gotten ever more contentious, I have also faced the problem of maintaining relationships with people with whom I disagree. This has two sides to it. First, I have always been just a little reticent about airing my personal opinions with parishioners, since I would have to be the pastor of those who would disagree with me on various matters, political or aesthetic. I have tended to avoid controversies and political stands. When it was impossible to avoid talking about the elephant in the room, I have worked very hard to be fair. But I notice that blogging on the internet, even with the ability to friends-lock certain things and not post them for all to see, has given those of my parishioners who follow my blogging a more complete view of who I am and what I think. That’s good, in that perhaps I am more “real” to them, not just the guy in the robe talking about God – but it’s also challenging, in that we aren’t always going to agree on things. So, I’ve got to be careful about just how nasty I am in critiquing things I don’t like.
Then there are my friends with whom I disagree. Being a Methodist minister, I know a lot of people on the other side of the political spectrum, clergy and lay. Some are old friends, some are friends I have made along the way through Annual Conference or Scouting ministry. I like them, and it matters very much to me that they like me. But there’s no getting around the fact that we utterly disagree over some very big things. I am very wary of offending people I want to hang onto; after all, I don’t want to end up a lonely old man with no friends but the voices in my head, bitterly complaining about how everybody is wrong about everything. So, how to go about disagreeing without being disagreeable? That’s the problem.
When I am talking/posting – arguing, sometimes – with a friend, I study to control my “voice.” I try to project reasonableness. I don’t go for the slashing attack. I want to convince, not conquer. Sometimes, that isn’t possible. We are always going to disagree on some things that we both feel passionate about. On these things, I will draw back, not press my case. It is enough to insist upon the legitimacy of my point of view. I can be friends with those with whom I disagree, so long as they allow that I have a right to my opinions; and I will grant them the same.
The problem comes with those who will not allow the legitimacy of my point of view. There are many folks out there, IRL and on-line, who believe so passionately in their creed or cause that they do not believe that anyone on the other side of the issue can be advocating in good faith. He who is not with me is against me. Those who disagree with them are not merely opponents, they are the enemy. From where I sit, the Progressives are particularly guilty of this. As the old saying goes, Conservatives think Liberals are stupid, but Liberals think Conservatives are evil. Some of those whose opinions I encounter will not allow that I could believe what I believe without being a racist, or a bigot of some other stripe, or a tool of oppression. They think that attacking me is a full substitute for engaging my ideas, which they believe are beneath contempt.
I avoid such people. Life is too short to spend your time butting heads with people like that. And I fear being drawn into so many confrontations that I turn into someone just like them. Me genoito! But what shall I do with a friend, one of my oldest friends, a brother I love from the depths of my heart, who has become such a one? Who cannot see me – ME – in our exchanges, but who rakes and bashes me as if I were the personification of the bogeyman he carries in his head? I have twice written letters to him that I have left unsent. I want so much to be able to retain some sort of relationship with him. I’m just not sure that there’s anyone left in his head that I can recognize.
This same brother once gave me a very great compliment. Someone had accused me of being cold and arrogant. He said, “Art, there’s no doubt about your intelligence, but I think what people notice first about you is your love.” I have tried very hard to be worthy of that positive critique ever since. I try, now, to show him my love and not just my intelligence. I just don’t know if he can see it anymore. That grieves me more than I can say. I mourn the loss of our friendship, for when you lose a friend, a part of your own soul dies, too.