Throughout my life I have encountered people who think differently than me; people who have different beliefs, ideas, convictions, and ideologies than me. This is inevitable. But what I’ve found to be most problematic about engaging with someone who has a differing opinion, stance, viewpoint or idea on something is that many folks can’t disentangle “themselves” from those opinions/ideas/beliefs/
This entangled defensiveness is a problem to be sure, but consider that this is compounded by the commonly held idea that there is a neutral concept of “peace” or compromise that can be achieved, and this whole thing becomes doubly aggravating. At root I feel this is a philosophical problem regarding how one views the “self” and, ultimately, how one views “reality.”
In this post I reflect on the problem of “hot button topics” and ask why they tend to be so emotionally charged. I also discuss my understandings of change, the Biblical notion of Principalities and Powers, and systems theory, proposing that these tools can help one better navigate hot button topics.
Hot Button Topics
When social, economic, theological, spiritual, scientific or legal issues become political issues, they’re commonly referred to as “hot button topics” because they usually elicit a strong emotional reaction or response from people.
Recently, I was involved in an online conversation, the subject of which was a current “hot button” topic. I was basically labeled a hypocrite for suggesting that Christian theological systems, which tend to fixate on “sin” as being moral depravity or some kind of moral stain and which intentionally discriminate against homosexuals, are “warped.” This person (a Christian) took offense at my choice of language, and felt that by labeling a certain theological system as “warped” I was also, simultaneously, disparaging those people who appreciate or function within that system. Therefore, I was committing hypocrisy by reverse discriminating, judging these people who discriminate against homosexuals and, ultimately, creating unnecessary polarization and doing a poor job of “loving my enemy.” Being a Christian myself, I take this assertion very seriously; loving my enemy is something I do want to do!
However, discussing topics that are sensitive, controversial, “hot-button” topics is always worrisome because it’s so easy to set off defense mechanisms. I’ve noticed though that when these “hot-button” issues involve power hierarchies, such as racism or LGBTQ discrimination, for example, the powerful really do enjoy defining the status quo. As Adam Kotsko points out:
“The powerful always define peace as the status quo that empowers them. They regard their power as stemming from the natural order of things, so that any challenge to that power is a violation of that order — hence protestors we recognize as not engaged in any significant literal violence can appear to the powers as “violent.” Meanwhile, for the oppressed, the day-to-day reality of the status quo is the real violence. The implicit claim of the hypocrisy attack is that there is some neutral concept of “peace” that both sides can abide by. There is not. The battle is, in part, over the very meaning of peace and violence.”
Kotsko is right here, I think. The person who accused me of being a hypocrite admitted they weren’t even concerned, necessarily, with who was right or wrong regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality in regard to the Bible and/or Christianity. They were more concerned with setting the conditions for how I should go about discussing the subject with people who disagreed with me.
Now, I’m as post-modern as they come. I fully accept the post-modern criticism of meta-narratives and absolute truth. I understand values to essentially be shared societal agreements that generally arise out of the struggle to find solutions to the problematic life conditions faced by those who participate in a given worldview. I am also partial to the Integral view that each stage of culture develops a discrete set of values that are tailored to its location along the time-line of human history, therefore, this is one reason why values are ‘location specific.’ As Steve McIntosh writes, “as life conditions change with the progress of cultural evolution, that which is most valuable for producing further evolution likewise changes.”
So, value relativity being a reality, I do confess that I put stakes in the ground. We all do.
Admittedly, in regard to the online discussion I had with my Christian friend, I could have used a different negative word to describe the theology I have a strong disdain for, but I have to be truthful here that my comment wasn’t meant to be to be constructive or helpful, it was meant to be scolding and condemning of a certain brand of Christian theology that I think is ultimately pathological. And I think pathology is a good word to use here because if we think in terms of medicine, a disease (cancer for instance) that is causing someone great suffering is not looked at as something to be respected and reconciled with. No one tries to make “peace” with cancer or agrees to disagree with a disease that is causing suffering. No. We do all we can to eradicate diseases when we contract them.
And lets be honest, when a doctor does all she can to heal someone and eradicate a harmful disease, that doctor is not, simultaneously, attempting to eradicate the person. I think this is an important distinction to understand and serves as a good analogical starting place to show how I can still love my enemies while attempting to eradicate bad ideas.
Change and the “Principalities and Powers”
As I mentioned above, if one even does the slightest amount of reflection on this subject it’s plain to see that what we have here is a metaphysical problem: people invariably insist on viewing the world, and themselves, in terms of unchanging, timeless, enduring, static substances.
I submit that If the best science, philosophy and religion have taught us anything, it is this: Human Beings are better understood as Human Becomings.
People are NOT “enduring individuals” which are temporally ordered into societies. We’re NOT autonomous, isolated little billiard balls bouncing around, occasionally bumping into one another, only affected and acted upon by outside forces. We’re NOT unchanging static things. And if one thinks this is how it is, that amid the flow of our experience from birth to death there is some enduring substance which remains unchanged over time, I simply urge that person to observe the lived life; the contradictions should become apparent.
However, if one continues insisting that deep down, beneath the temporal, organic, cumbersome, irritating and, ultimately, illusory material of our world that reality is unchanging and static, this would explain perfectly well why those sorts of people may also think their ideas/beliefs/convictions/
What I try to remind people who get upset when their beloved ideologies are disparaged is that that ideas, like emotions and weather systems, come and go—they drift in and drift out—and although our ideas (which are real things) help to constitute us in some ways, we cannot be reduced down to our ideas. In other words, we are not necessarily our ideas. This why I come down very hard on BAD, hurtful, Christian theological systems. As Paul writes in Ephesians:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
As a systems thinker, influenced by process-relational philosophy, I interpret Paul here the way thinkers like Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, William Stringfellow, and Walter Wink interpret him. I think Stringfellow sums up the idea of the Principalities and Powers the most succinctly for our contemporary context. Nathan Scheinder explains that for Stringfellow the principalities and powers are:
“…institutions, ideologies, companies, countries, economies, and religions that command our daily concern. What is so theological about them? Despite people’s ambitions to power, the principalities lie beyond human control. Yet we depend on them, devote ourselves to them, and even die for them. They organize our efforts into horrific wars as well as into marvelous orchestras.”
Thinking about Principalities and Powers as idolatrous, unchanging systems and subsystems that we become beholden to and which keep us enslaved and in bondage is helpful for me because it means, as Paul suggests, that we can attack and fight against these systems while at the same time not necessarily be fighting against flesh and blood.
Systems thinking is helpful here.
“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’” –Peter Senge
Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems.
There can be simple systems and complex systems. Some examples of systems are: biological systems (e.g., the heart), mechanical systems (e.g., a thermostat), human/mechanical systems (e.g., riding a bicycle), ecological systems (e.g., predator/prey) and social systems (e.g., supply and demand and also friendship).
Social systems are highly complex and are comprised of numerous subsystems. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts, and includes various inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Complex systems usually interact with their environments and are, thus, open systems.
Hegel is famous for developing a theory to explain historical development as a dynamic process. Marx and Darwin used Hegel in their work and, more recently, biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy then applied this thinking to his work, attempting to find a non-reductionistic way to unify science.
This is what I like so much about systems theory. Although there are many, many fundamental subsystems making up any system, that system cannot be reduced down to the sum of its parts.
When Systems Stop Working
In systems theory, when any part or activity within a system becomes misaligned or dysfunctional, the system usually attempts to make adjustments in order to better achieve its goals. The human body is a good example. When a structure or function within the body displays a disorder or some type of particular abnormal condition, it’s called a disease. When the body’s immune system (which, again, can be broken into many subsystems) detects a pathogen it attempts to eliminate it in various ways because, if left unchecked, these pathogens (viruses, parasitic worms etc.) could lead to disease and ultimately, death, which would prevent the body from achieving its goal–to live a healthy life.
Systems of thought are systems like any other, and like any other type of system, when parts or processes or activities within that system begin to become dysfunctional (which happens all of the time) and/or become outdated, this can have negative consequences for the entire system as a whole.
As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I find it helpful to liken human systems of thought, or structures of consciousness, to operating systems and software of a computer. If we conceive of our ideologies/worldviews/beliefs/
Additionally, not updating the computer would also make the computer dysfunctional in the sense that the old browser, associated with the outdated operating system, would not be able to explore most of the modern day web. The possibility to experience/employ things like HTML5 and CSS3, for example, just aren’t there for that person using the outdated OS (and by default, the outdated web browser). In other words, there is a whole world the user could not view simply because they haven’t updated their system.
Systems of thought, then, are like computer operating systems in the sense that they need constant maintenance and updates. We can’t forget that there is always going to be new stuff out there that we need to consider and be familiar with.
I think two things could help human beings deal with “hot-button” topics:
1. We’re not, necessarily, our ideas.
Hot-button topics wouldn’t be so “hot” if we came to understand that, although our ideas and systems of thought are indeed important, they do not constitute us completely. We can’t be reduced down to our ideas. When someone has a bad idea, it doesn’t mean that person is bad.
2. Systems need to be challenged constantly.
Everything is in flux. Everything is constantly moving, changing, growing, and developing. Systems can help us grow and develop in healthy ways or, if left unattended, unchecked, and unchallenged, systems can begin to suffocate and suppress change and growth. They can enslave, oppress, and cause dysfunction.
Finally, as far as Jesus’ famous commandment goes, it could very well be argued that refusing to continually challenge dysfunctional, oppressive systems that attempt to stifle Divine creative process, is indeed the complete antithesis to loving ones enemy.
Poured resin artwork above by Bruce Riley