I spent the first half of last week at a seminar at an Ivy League divinity school, where a friend and I gave a presentation on ministry and media. I had resolved before speaking that I would refer early on in my presentation to the fact that I belong to a denomination which does not ordain women. My discussion of ministry would be incomplete if I didn't mention this subject, though I knew my comment would draw fire at a seminar with ordained women present.

Sure enough, one of the women ministers present challenged me with some vigor on my position. For a few minutes we exchanged trenchant but civil remarks on the subject.We each spoke our minds, neither persuaded the other, and then we moved on to the larger matter in hand: The use of modern media in the church. The matter of my opposition to women’s ordination never came up again in the remaining two days of the seminar.

Later that evening, a young research student commented to me that it was amazing to see such a trenchant but respectful disagreement on an issue that typically arouses visceral passions. He added that he and those of his generation had “no idea” (his phrase, if I recall) how such things should be done. Later in the week, my youngest son confirmed that he too had never seen civil disagreement on a matter of importance in the university classroom. This is an ominous, if fascinating, indictment, for I had simply done what I had seen modeled when I was an undergraduate: Vigorous disagreement in the classroom followed by friendly conversation in the pub. If we no longer have a university system which models ways of civil engagement on such matters, then the kind of civic virtues upon which a healthy democracy depends are truly a thing of the past.

Why is civil disagreement so hard? It cannot simply be a matter of dogmatic certainty. The woman minister and I were quite convinced of the correctness of our respective positions, both at the beginning and at the end of our exchange, yet we later enjoyed a delightful conversation over a glass of wine at the post-seminar reception. No, the failure of civil disagreement cannot be a function of certainty.

I think the lack of civil disagreement in the classroom is best understood as a function of larger social and political trends. As I have noted on this site before, oppression is now a psychological category. This subverts the crucial moral difference between an actual crime, a speech crime, and (increasingly) a thought crime. It has also pressed an already pragmatic philosophy of education into an instrument of politicized therapy.

When you add this to the American tendency—right and left—to resolve difference by law court, then the kind of “live and let live” culture which a healthy liberal democratic legal system is supposed to support, ironically ends up as its exact opposite: A world where in the name of individual freedom everything is legally policed in a manner which increasingly restricts the possibility of individual diversity. 

Then there is the radical voluntarism upon which human identity is now predicated. Human beings are no longer complicated persons bound together by the deeper unity of an underlying common nature but merely aggregates of whatever opinions they happen to hold. Thus, those who hold even a single belief which the panjandrums of the culture find obnoxious are of necessity essentially defined by that, no matter how marginal it might actually be to their overall social existence and no matter how many other virtues they might embody. And we should note the role of social [sic] media in all of this: Disembodying debate, pushing clichés to the fore, reducing personal risk. It is so easy to demonize those with whom one disagrees when one does not have to look them in the eye or engage what they actually say.

Universities should be the very places where such things should not apply. They are not supposed to be confessional institutions inculcating a particular creed, nor should they be built on politicized extensions of child-rearing philosophies founded on self-esteem. They should be places where debate is part of the way of life, and where one has to live shoulder to shoulder with those with whom one differs. Yet they have become the very places where this inability to disagree is now apparently cultivated as a positive virtue. The truly educated person is now no longer the person who understands an opposing viewpoint even as he rejects it. For even to understand an alternative viewpoint is to collude in the oppression which such an opinion embodies.

I suspect that the future health of democracy depends upon university administrators worrying less about the dangers posed by whatever is the micro-aggression du jour and more about providing safe places for those who actually want to hold opinions and have debates. Safe places, that is, that are marked by the very risks and danger involved in intellectual engagement.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here

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