Five years ago tomorrow I made some promises, some brothers laid their hands on me, and a stole was put on my shoulders. The moment itself was brief, but the journey toward that point had been anything but. Growing up as I did in a theologically conservative Lutheran context, I found myself often pushing back at the structure I found to be too rigid. In college, I was young and dumb enough to think it was my job to fix it. So I’d lash out, I’d throw grenades on the table just to see how people would react. It was fun, it may not have been kind or right, but I enjoyed being that guy who would say it just to say it.
After college came seminary, and for two years I did my best to bite my lip. Seminary was not going to change me, or so I thought. My goal was simple, keep my head down, find some people I can vent to, and some how make it through. Two years in, after some additional struggles with field work that aren’t worth rehashing right now, I decided to quit. I left the midwest I had known my whole life for the east coast because I was getting married (nine years ago this week!). We lived with my in-laws for a while, I wanted nothing to do with the denomination I had spent my entire life in, and I started working at an Apple store. Little things would happen, not the least of which was a lady asking for help with Hebrew on a mac, and I came to realize I wanted to finish pursuing my M.Div. I did not, however, want to do it where I started, so I ended up at a place in my hometown. In that new environment I realized something I hadn’t before, this theologically conservative Lutheran thing wasn’t just an identity thrust upon me, it was actually my own. It took being among those who disagreed with or were antagonistic to my theological perspective to bring that out of me. I couldn’t be more thrilled that it did. That seminary, from which I earned an MA in Christian Ministry, was the place that helped me understand where I actually belonged. So after graduating there I went back to what that seminary I had struggled in for two years to finish my M.Div., and thank God, it changed me.
Having been ordained now for five years, I have continually found that my own formation as a pastor, theologian, scholar, baptized child of God, husband, and father best takes place within the context of a community that I don’t always agree with. I love my congregation, that doesn’t mean I always agree with everyone, or perhaps even more important, that we should always agree on things. My wife couldn’t be more important to me, but that doesn’t mean we always agree either, and her challenges toward me on things push me to expand and become a better husband and father than I ever realized was possible. My scholarly development continued in a Lutheran context far different than my own. I should have known that rubbing shoulders with people I disagree with would have a salutary effect, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t amazed at how much I was formed and shaped by those colleagues.
Why am I talking about any of this? Because recently I spent twenty-seven hours driving to and from St. Louis for a dear friend’s wedding. Keeping me company through those long hours was N.T. “Tom” Wright. No, he wasn’t in the seat next to me, and he didn’t share the driving, but I listened to podcast after podcast after podcast hearing presentation after presentation after question and answer session after question and answer session. It should not shock people that there is a fair bit of Wright’s theology I love and respect and wholeheartedly agree with. It should also not shock people that there is a fair bit of Wright’s theology I think is wrong and needs to be adjusted. But the value of the twenty-seven hours with Tom and his friends is not found in me finding things to correct him on, or even me refining my own theological thought, though that certainly happened, no, it was found in hearing how fruitful dialog can form and shape people to be stronger within their own context. Even, or especially because, they disagree with what is being said. In short, the value of that time in the car listening to what I did was being able to think through and appreciate theological dialog done well. One of the podcasts I listened to included different scholars giving appraisals of Tom’s work, commending it and critiquing it. Doing so, however, not in such a way as to condemn it, so as to throw the baby out with the bath water, but in appreciating what can and should be appreciated and collegially challenging what needs to be challenged.
I believe that what is true of fruitful theological dialog is also true in other arenas of life. Carving out time in our lives to engage with those whom we disagree can and likely will have a salutary effect. This can be politically, but it isn’t limited to that. There is a catch though, the goal cannot be dialog for the sake of colonizing the other. We should not engage with people primarily in order to change them, but first and foremost, to understand them. As well respected theologian, who, by the way, I am really enjoying reading at the moment, Anthony Thiselton has said, “too often we attack or defend before we have genuinely understood.” This does not mean we cannot challenge and critique those who hold views or live lives differently than we do, but it does mean we first need to understand them. We need to hear them as they want to be heard. We need to let them tell their story on their terms. We need to listen. Then, and only then, can we appreciate what can and should be appreciated and challenge what can and should be challenged.