Note: Adapted from the authors’ new book, Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference.
This book’s central question is how Christians can engage with those around us, while both respecting people whose beliefs differ from our own and maintaining our gospel confidence. We want to provide a Christian response to the reality of our differences, or what scholars call “the fact of pluralism.” Too often, our actual existence is characterized more by difference and disagreement than by unity. Americans, like citizens of most Western nations today, lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing. These differences affect not only what we think but also how we think and see the world. This is the fact of pluralism today: deep and irresolvable differences over the things that matter most.
The fact of pluralism is one reason the United States is not, and has never been, a thoroughly “Christian nation.” To be sure, a white Protestant culture, or what in some circles is called Judeo-Christian culture, influenced this country’s founders and shaped middle-class norms and values for much of its history. That shared culture brought with it important social benefits, among them the building and sustaining of institutions and infrastructure. But this shared Protestant culture failed to recognize, and sometimes perpetuated, significant injustices. The social and legal power of the Protestant culture often stifled differing views about race, religion, gender, and sexuality.
Within this dominant Protestant culture, many Christians forgot the biblical counsel that on earth we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14) and are not to place our trust in earthly princes (Psalm 146:3). Over the course of many generations, some Christians surrendered to the trappings of an earthly citizenship that obscured their deeper allegiances. While we are called to love our neighbors, our proper citizenship is in heaven (Philemon 3:20).
Recently the assumed consensus of the Protestant culture has weakened, in part from a growing awareness of differences in religious (and increasingly, nonreligious) beliefs. At the same time, deep and accelerating social trends toward individualism and autonomy have eroded trust in social institutions: business, media, government, church and even the family. Yet as Protestant culture has declined, no successor has appeared.
This is the background against which we asked our questions about finding common ground, even when we don’t agree on the common good. We also wanted to explore how Christians might embody humility, patience and tolerance, the civic practices that John identifies in his book Confident Pluralism. We believe these embodied practices are fully consonant with a gospel witness in a deeply divided age. In fact, they point, respectively, to the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.
The first of these practices, humility, recognizes that in a world of deep differences about fundamental issues, Christians and non-Christians alike are not always able to prove why they are right and others are wrong. Christians are able to exercise humility in public life because we recognize the limits of human reason, including our own, and because we know we have been saved by faith, not by our moral actions and goodness. That confident faith anchors our relationship with God, but it does not supply unwavering certainty in all matters.
Patience encourages listening, understanding and questioning. Patience with others may not always bridge ideological distance, but careful listening, sympathetic understanding, and thoughtful questioning can help us draw closer to others as we come to recognize the shared experiences that unite us and the different experiences that divide us. Christians can be patient with others because we place our hope in a story whose end is already known.
Tolerance is a practical enduring of beliefs and practices that we do not share. It does not mean accepting those beliefs or approving those practices. In fact, the demand for acceptance is a philosophical impossibility. There is no way that anyone can embrace all the differing and mutually incompatible beliefs. But we can do the hard work of distinguishing people from ideas, of pursuing relationships with people created in God’s image, while recognizing that we will not approve of all their beliefs or actions. Christians can demonstrate tolerance for others because our love of neighbor flows from our love of God, and our love of God is grounded in the truth of the gospel.
All three of these practices – humility, patience and tolerance – demonstrate a principled empathy in which we speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes requires humility, and the impetus for doing so requires patience rooted in hope and tolerance grounded in love. This is increasingly difficult at a time in which, as Sherry Turkle argues, social media and other technology significantly reduce our ability to exercise empathy. Indeed, we have seen a sharp decline in our ability to sympathize, understand, and talk face-to-face with those who have different views and beliefs.
If our culture cannot form people who can speak with both conviction and empathy across deep differences, then it becomes even more important for the church to use its theological and spiritual resources to produce such people. The Christian calling is to be shaped and reshaped into people whose every thought and action is characterized by faith, hope and love – and who then speak and act in the world with humility, patience and tolerance.
In fact, when we are motivated by the love of Christ, we can do far more than simply tolerate. Think about your relationships with friends who hold beliefs different from yours. You don’t just tolerate them. You laugh, cry, celebrate and mourn with them. You risk a kind of personal vulnerability that requires more than just coexisting together in the same space. And what about those who overtly reject you or are even hostile to you? The answer is the same. Jesus doesn’t tell us to tolerate our enemies. He says to love them. And thank God that Jesus does not merely tolerate us – he embraces us across difference and welcomes us into his arms.
Taken from Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference by Timothy Keller and John Inazu. Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Keller and John Inazu. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.UncommonGroundBook.com