Friday, 22 June 2012

St John Fisher's example

Thanks to links posted on Twitter by both @PartTimePilgrim and @Johnthelutheran, I read the Universalis post on today's saints: Sts John Fisher and Thomas More.

St Thomas More is the only member of the English bar to be canonised (so far, and I'm not holding my breath for the next one...)  So happy feast day to all lawyers.

St John Fisher, of course, was the only bishop to stand resolutely against Henry Vlll.  Here's how the  Universalis entry ends:
 He was the only bishop to oppose Henry VIII’s actions, on the grounds that they were a repudiation of papal authority, but even so he avoided direct confrontation with the other bishops, not holding himself up as a hero or boasting of his coming martyrdom: I condemn no other man’s conscience: their conscience may save them, and mine must save me. We should remember, in all the controversies in which we engage, to treat our opponents as if they were acting in good faith, even if they seem to us to be acting out of spite or self-interest.
That brings me to something I was planning to blog about anyway. 

Time and again, I see people falling out, both in real life and especially on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, because they disagree.

Just yesterday @sitsio tweeted: 'I've had 1 person I thought a 'friend' go off on a rant & de-friend me 4 this blog. It's a fine line between teaching & alienating.'

And that is more typical than abnormal.

But notice what has happened there: friendship and agreement have been conflated, so that when one goes the other follows.

That strikes me as profoundly problematic.

If we are to engage intelligently with important issues, we need to learn how to disagree and stay friends, or more importantly, stay in charity with each other.

Instead, we all too often seem to have a working assumption that anyone who disagrees with me is either insane or evil, and probably both.

That is why St John Fisher's example is so important, as summarised above: 'We should remember, in all the controversies in which we engage, to treat our opponents as if they were acting in good faith, even if they seem to us to be acting out of spite or self-interest.'

If we can learn to disagree without abusing each other, without over-doing the rhetoric to the point where the other is bound to take offence, without assuming evil-intent on the part of the other, and then seeking evidence to 'prove' that (at least to our own satisfaction), and without seeking and taking offence ourselves... if we can do that, then there is the possibility that we and others may learn from disagreements.

To put it another way, relationship does not have to be predicated on agreement. 

So when we disagree, if I make the effort to continue to respect you, to trust you in so far as I reasonably can, to assume that your intentions are good, to treat you with respect and courtesy,   I lose nothing, in terms of our disagreement.  That does not involve conceding an inch of the intellectual substance, but rather increases the likelihood of my being heard.

Whereas if I indulge in bombast, sarcasm, point-scoring, abuse, patronising and so on, if I play to the gallery to 'prove' (to my satisfaction at least) how morally and intellectually superior I am, then the likelihood of either of us benefiting from the exchange is reduced dramatically.

So why do we so often do the latter rather than the former? Could it be that our egos get in the way?  Is it just bad habits learned from the prevailing culture? Or is it, at root, fragility and pride?

That's not to say there is no place for rhetoric, or for confronting wrong ideas head on - but that we need to be very careful of both our intentions and our means: to attack the ideas, not the person, to strive for veritas, certainly, but recognise that cannot finally be at the expense of caritas.


Mark Lambert said...

Very important post, you put it very well! There is a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. The righteous are humble, the self-righteous are proud. The righteous understand doubt, the self-righteous only certainty. The righteous see the good in people, the self-righteous only the bad. The righteous leave you feeling enlarged, the self-righteous make you feel small. It is easy enough to befriend the former and avoid the latter.

Jonathan Sacks notes that he comes from a religious tradition whose canonical texts are all anthologies of arguments and which coined the phrase 'arguments for the sake of heaven'. We could all take a leaf out of that book?

Jackie Parkes said...

I posted on twitter re being righteous..I have to say that sometimes the traditional wing of which I'm not part, sometimes is offputting & we are so right sounding..

Mark Lambert said...

I wouldn't call myself "traditional". I'm as comfortable with the youth service in Lourdes as I am at Sunday Mass, or at the EF at Spanish Place. I try to be a faithful Catholic, that is all.