The Gift of Thinking Differently

Larry was a jerk.
Everyone thought so, though we never used that word. We called him eccentric, cantankerous, or rough around the edges. We tolerated his antics, certain that loving him was earning stars in our crowns. Though many in our meeting avoided him, I didn’t have that luxury. I was Larry’s pastor—the one who heard the complaints when others rubbed against his rough edges and got irritated.

Though I always counseled patience, Larry annoyed me as much as anyone. He said what shouldn’t be said, asked what shouldn’t be asked, and pointed out what everyone else was trying to overlook. He was quick to offer his opinion even when no one was interested. He loved to be in the minority, to challenge the status quo, to oppose the pastor. If I said it was partly cloudy, he’d argue it was partly sunny. He never heard a sermon that couldn’t
be improved.

Unfortunately (from my perspective), Larry was passionately committed to our meeting, showing up whenever the doors were open and unlocking them when they weren’t. He seldom missed worship or an important meeting. He remained faithful even though his ideas were often ignored. He loved the meeting.

He wasn’t as fond of me. I sometimes wondered if Larry, like Satan with Job, had been given permission by God to test and torment me. I found myself secretly hoping Larry would get frustrated and leave, but nothing I said or did could run him off. He was not nearly as tight-lipped about his feelings toward me. He once said, "Pastors come and go. I was here before you and I’ll be here after you’re gone."

I smiled and began to fantasize about doing Larry’s funeral. He was getting old and often spoke of wanting to die in his sleep. I thought it was a good idea. I considered him dead weight, an obstacle to growth and vitality. I was certain the meeting would be better off without him. We’d finally be free to be creative.

One day, after Larry had been especially irritating, my wife was complaining about his behavior. Trying to be pastoral, I said, "We have to be patient. Larry is part of the body of Christ."

My wife, frustrated with Larry and with my pious posturing, replied, "I suppose even the body of Christ needs an a–hole."

Though she may have meant her words as a curse, I found them a blessing. They helped me think differently about Larry. She was right. If we’re serious about being the body of Christ, about being more than merely a pleasant social gathering, we have to expect to have every part of the body.

Paul wrote, "The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect." (1 Cor. 12:22-23) Could he have been thinking of someone like Larry? Was Larry really indispensable, to be treated with greater respect?

Years later, I stumbled upon the work of Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist interested in the factors involved in creativity, innovation, and problem solving. She challenged the assumption that creativity is a result of gathering the best and brightest and seeking consensus. In Profiting from Those We Underestimate: Dissent and Innovation, she wrote, "Literally hundreds of studies show the power of majority views even when incorrect. People will abdicate the information even from their own senses . . . and follow a majority view. Partly they do this because they believe that truth lives in numbers, but partly they conform because they fear rejection and dislike from maintaining a ‘minority’ or ‘deviant’ viewpoint." Apparently, Larry never developed this fear. He was more than willing to be the lone dissenter. He never understood our desire to be unified.

In most of religion, unity in thought and action is the goal. Dissension is seen as evil, even demonic. Orthodoxy is defended and heresy must be destroyed. For most of human history, priests had the option of burning people like Larry at the stake. Remembering how aggravating Larry could be, I’m glad I never had such power; it would have been too tempting. In our situation, for better or worse, we were stuck with Larry.

I’ve begun to suspect it was for the better. Charlan Nemeth argues, "The tendency for people to exclude outsiders is part of a general tendency for people . . . to seek ‘similar’ others and leads to a polarization of viewpoints. There is substantial literature showing that discussion among ‘like-minded’ people leads to a polarization or exaggeration of their views. Thus, through interaction between similar others, you can get extreme views, ones held with great confidence and ones unlikely to shift with subtly changing characteristics." Without dissension, we become self-righteous and comfortable. Rather than becoming more vital and creative, we become inflexible and arrogant.

It is interesting that shortly after the Church gained political ascendancy in the Roman Empire, after the Bible had been canonized, and after Christian thought had been stiffly defined in creeds and dogmas, Western Christianity entered a period of time, the Dark Ages, where creativity and innovation nearly disappeared. Though there were certainly other contributing factors, the brutal elimination of dissenters and heretics couldn’t have helped matters. By silencing people like Larry, we mutilated our own body. Those parts we thought less honorable and less respectable turned out to be indispensable.

Charlan Nemeth said, "My own research over the past 20 years is that minority views and, in particular, consistent minority dissent are extremely powerful correctives. They stem the likelihood of unreflective conformity. Even when wrong, a dissenter frees others from the power of the majority (J. S. Mill would say the ‘tyranny’ of the majority) and permits them to make more independent and correct judgments. Perhaps most importantly, minority dissent actually stimulates people to think in more divergent ways and in more creative ways. . . . In other words, the value of the minority views are not simply that they may be correct; even when incorrect, they serve the detection of truth and the quality of judgment."

I have come to realize how valuable Larry was to our meeting. When he asked the questions no one should ask, we had to answer. When he said what no one else would say, we couldn’t ignore the issue. When he pointed out what everyone wanted to overlook, we had to solve the problem. Even his persistent challenging of authority was helpful. He kept me honest, tempering the tendency of pastors to hoard power and to think our words, the final word.

There is something else you should know about Larry. He had a good heart. Though publicly he could be disagreeable, privately he could be generous and compassionate. He would often oppose me in meetings, but he was the first one at the hospital when my daughter was seriously ill. He made statements about blacks and gays that made me cringe, but was the first to greet such people when they came to worship. When I told him he’d offended someone in the meeting, he was always quick to go and apologize. He was genuinely surprised he’d hurt someone. Larry was caustic, but he never intended to be cruel. He told us the truth, as he understood it, in love.

In another passage, Paul writes, "The whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love." (Eph. 4:16) It never occurred to me that Larry might be playing his proper role in the Church—that we were growing because of Larry, not in spite of him. Would we have learned to love as well if we hadn’t faced the challenge of loving Larry? Would we have been as creative if we hadn’t been forced to address his concerns? Would we have been more unified if he were gone?

I’ve often confused unity in thought and action with being unified in love. I’ve acted as if Jesus said, "Everyone will know you are my disciples, if you march lockstep into the future in perfect doctrinal unity." He actually said, "By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35) Eliminating the less lovable from our midst, though often tempting, contradicts the very genius of Christianity. We are not bound together primarily by belief or practice. We are bound by love. Only love made it possible for us to endure Larry. What I didn’t appreciate before was that love also inspired Larry’s patience with us. We must have frustrated him with our obvious disdain. Yet his dedication never wavered. He once said, "If you ever close this meeting, I want to be the last one out the door." Larry taught me that dissension, when wrapped in loyalty and love, is always a gift.

Paul wrote, "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone." (1 Cor. 12:4-6) He then listed gifts like preaching, teaching, and healing, all admirable and necessary. What he neglected to mention was the gift of dissent—the gift of disputing sermons, challenging teachings and doubting even the miraculous. Without this gift, all the other gifts can become distorted and perverted. Dissension keeps us centered.

In that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, "Indeed, there have to be factions (Greek: hairesis) among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine." (1 Cor. 11:19) He implies that factions, heresies, and dissent are necessary ingredients in any healthy religious group, that without such division there is no hope of discerning the truth.

Unfortunately, we too easily assume our faction is genuine and the others are false. We beg God to allow us to weed the garden, certain we can tell the wheat from the tares. Instead of enjoying the diversity of God’s creation, we plow up the field and plant rows of identical seedlings. We resist the Spirit’s persistence in bestowing the gift of dissent. It seldom occurs to us that it may not be an enemy raising up dissenting voices in our midst. Or that what the majority believes is not necessarily true. We forget that most of the prophetic voices in religious history were initially thought to be heretical.

The prophetic writing of Judaism—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets—document God’s tenacity in raising voices of dissent. Isaiah began his critique of the political and religious powers of his day with the words, "How the faithful city has become a whore." (Isa. 1:21) He said what shouldn’t be said. Ezekiel asked, "You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep?" (Ezek. 34:2) He asked what shouldn’t be asked. Jeremiah was such an irritant that Malchiah, the king’s son, had him thrown into a cistern. This was Jeremiah’s reward for pointing out what everyone wanted to overlook—the Chaldeans were about to conquer Jerusalem. Since we once intentionally held an important meeting when Larry was out of town, I won’t be too critical of Malchiah.

These same writings also chronicle Israel’s obstinacy. They consistently ignored, opposed, and silenced these voices. They thought these men false prophets. Only after these men were dead and gone did they realize the validity of their message. Though I applaud the honesty of including these words and stories in Judaism’s holy writings, I marvel at how quickly people forget the point. We bless the dissenters of the past even as we curse and kill those in our midst.

Jesus said, "You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are the descendents of those who murdered the prophets." (Matt. 23:29-31) I doubt the religious leaders Jesus was addressing appreciated his candor. No wonder they wanted to kill him.

Jesus had many gifts—preaching, teaching, and healing—but it was the gift of dissent that got him in trouble. His primary offense was thinking differently. He said what shouldn’t be said, that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God before the religiously pure. He asked what shouldn’t be asked, why they looked for a speck in the eye of their opponents while ignoring the plank in their own. He pointed out what everyone else was trying to overlook, that the solutions to their problems would be found not in a political or military revolution, but within each of them. In the end, the political and religious leaders of his day grew irritated and arrested him. He was accused of blasphemy, of violating the accepted religious practices of his day, and of inciting rebellion. He was condemned and killed.

Many modern Christians find his crucifixion perplexing. How could people kill such an innocent man? Many seem confident they would have heard Jesus’ message, become his disciple, and stood faithfully at the foot of the cross. We pretend to be more responsive to the gift of dissent than people were in Jesus’ time. But persecuting the prophets has long been a human hobby. Jesus was not completely innocent. He was guilty of being
a heretic.

We don’t like to think of Jesus as a heretic, but he was. He thought differently than many of his peers, and his followers shared his heresy. When Paul was dragged before Felix, the Roman governor, his accusers said, "We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the heresy of the Nazarenes." (Acts 24:5) They considered Paul a dissident who was promoting a heresy.

Christianity has tried to obscure this reality. Most Biblical interpreters have translated the Greek word hairesis in this text as "sect," making Paul a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. Scholars defend this translation as appropriate since, in the 1st century, heresy didn’t carry all the negative connotations of today. It came from the root word meaning "to choose," with a heretic being a person who chose to believe a certain idea. Regardless, in the passage above, Paul’s accusers hardly seem neutral in their assessment of Jesus’ teaching or followers. Jesus was a troublemaker, and so was Paul.

Paul was certainly willing to use heresy as a negative term when he encountered his own troublemakers. In the letter to the Galatians, where Paul is listing the works of the flesh, the word hairesis is included and usually translated as heresy. Paul was doing precisely what many interpreters have done—suggesting heresy was negative only when others were the dissenters. We are a sect and they are heretics. We define heresy. We are always orthodox.

Such a conclusion confirms a common, unfortunate maxim: history is written by the victors. Until recently, most of what we’ve known about the views of early Christian dissidents was from their orthodox critics. Basing our views about them on such sources is like judging the Republicans by the opinions of the Democrats, or vice versa. It’s neither fair nor accurate.

Bart Ehrman, in his book Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew, notes how Epiphanius, a 4th-century Church father, accused the Plibionites, a Gnostic group, of bizarre sexual perversions, ritualistic orgies, and eating fetuses. For centuries, people assumed the worst of the Plibionites. Many modern scholars believe this was probably orthodox propaganda—a nice way of saying Epiphanius lied. Ehrman writes, "Gnostics were consistently attacked by orthodox Christians as sexually perverse, not because they actually were perverse but because they were the enemy." Unfortunately, Epiphanius’s words remain and the testimony of the Plibionites is lost.

Christianity didn’t do what Judaism did—it didn’t include the divergent or critical voices in its holy writings. It burned both the heretics and their words. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria in 367, not only proclaimed which Christian writings were orthodox, but ordered the destruction of every writing that dissented. If not for the courage of some unknown Egyptian monks who buried many of these sacred writings, and the recent discovery of these writings at Nag Hammadi, we wouldn’t fully appreciate the diversity of early Christianity. The lesson of those writings is that the early Church had many dissenting voices.

Christian history is not the tale of a compelling truth that won the day. Orthodoxy is the result of a far more complicated process, where power politics was as common as theological discussion. Historian Richard Rubenstien, in When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, notes, "Athanasius, a future saint and uninhibited faction fighter, had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled to distant provinces." In fairness, his Arian opponents were equally intolerant.

This is not to imply that orthodox thought is false and heresy is to be admired and adopted. Athanasius may have been right. It was his attitude toward his opponents that was wrong. He modeled a practice—demonization—that became common in Christianity and endures today. Those who disagree with us are pawns of Satan. With our emphasis on right belief, we don’t allow the gift of dissent to flourish.

Elaine Pagels, in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, quotes Tertullian, another early Christian leader: "Whenever they [heretics] hit upon something new, they immediately call their audacity a spiritual gift—no unity, only diversity! And so we see clearly that most of them disagree with one another, since they are willing to say—and even sincerely—of certain points, ‘This is not so,’ and ‘I take this to mean something different,’ and ‘I do not accept that.’" Tertullian described this activity—what the psychologist Charlan Nemeth considers a creative discernment process—as unnecessary and evil. Tertullian thought there was no need for further questioning when we had all the proper answers. Ironically, he ended his life by dissenting with the leaders in Rome and being labeled a heretic himself.

I can identify with Tertullian. Having been raised in conservative, evangelical Christianity, I spent my childhood convinced that my sole task was to memorize the truth, not to seek it. The Bible, rather than being the culmination of a long and divisive theological battle, was the Word of God, dictated perfectly and open to only one valid interpretation. Salvation was through the Church alone—and by the Church we meant our own sect. I grew up knowing there were some things you didn’t say, some questions you didn’t ask, and some problems you were encouraged to overlook.

You didn’t say non-Christians could be saved. You didn’t ask why Mohandas Gandhi, a man who lived the way of Jesus better than most, was burning in hell. You didn’t struggle with the justice of millions of sincere men and women being condemned for faithfully following another religious faith. Eventually, after many years of working to be orthodox, I found myself saying, "This is not so," "I take this to mean something different," and "I do not accept that." Like Tertullian, I found myself, once a defender of orthodoxy, being called a heretic.

I still remember the first time someone called me that. I’d preached a sermon on the salvation of all people. I’d discovered that many of the divergent voices in the early Church had believed God would save everyone, even the Devil. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that in some places universal salvation was the orthodox view. I’d reexamined what the Bible said about hell, eternal damnation, and the will of God. I’d found hints of a more universal hope for the creation. After sharing my growing convictions in that sermon, one of the older members of the congregation pulled me aside and warned me that I’d gone too far. I was speaking heresy.

Initially, it was difficult to accept my new role. One of the reasons I became a pastor was to please people. I’d been attracted to preaching and teaching, not dissenting. When many in my congregation responded to my ideas with displeasure, I was discouraged and depressed. I almost quit. I didn’t want people to think of me like I had thought of Larry. Gradually, I accepted the label of heretic. I joined the Religious Society of Friends, a group accused of heresy from its very beginnings. I reclaimed the original meaning of a heretic—I am one who chooses to think differently.

Though I think differently about many things, I continue to understand myself as a part of the body of Christ. I am a Christian, though an unorthodox one. Paul wrote, "The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’" (1 Cor. 12:21) Larry taught me that lesson years ago. You cannot say, "I have no need of you." I didn’t have to like Larry. I could admit how annoying he could be. But it was in my best interest to listen to him. I needed him.
As a pacifist, I need my friend Janet, who believes that war is often just and necessary. As a universalist, I need my friend Jerry, to take the concerns of more orthodox Christians seriously. As a supporter of same-sex marriages, I need my friend Mac, who asks me to define what I mean by marriage. As a liberal, I need my friend Chuck, who is both conservative and incredibly compassionate. And they need me.

We need each other. Most of us share a deep desire for the world to be a better place. I have discovered in the Church a place where many such people gather. The only way I’m leaving the Church is if they kick me out. And, if the world ends, I’d like to be the last one out the door. Until then, I’ll keep saying what shouldn’t be said, asking what shouldn’t be asked, and pointing out what everyone else is trying to overlook. And I will not ignore, but listen to, those who do that to me.

James Mulholland

James Mulholland, a pastor at Irvington Meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., is co-author, with Phil Gulley, of If Grace Is True.