I wrote previously about belief systems and conflict. My closing sentence was as follows:
“To align one’s inner belief system with one’s outer beliefs – to live according to one’s espoused
values… requires at least three things of the self: Humility (as one accepts the gap between
one’s espoused values and behaviour), a willingness to suffer (as one discovers how one has
impacted others) and self-compassion (because the journey toward alignment is never finished).”
But here’s a rub: What if our inner belief systems or espoused values are somehow flawed?
What if our inner way of thinking is in fact contributing to or creating our conflict-negative
behaviour? Unfortunately, and sometimes unbeknownst to us, our innermost values can include
belief constructions that quite innocently (or not) contribute to unhealthy conflict behaviour. That
this might be true requires no great leap of the imagination. Nonetheless, it has been remarkable
to me that some of the most disastrous church conflicts I have seen have been among those who
have invested significant energy in nurturing their belief systems – all of which, in principle, were
designed to promote great values and behaviours. In other words, among people who have put
energy into “getting it right” there appears at times to be something inherent in their belief systems that causes them to stumble when it comes to conflict.
My wondering is this: Could it be that the tendency in our Western culture toward dualistic (either/or) thinking contributes to unhealthy conflict behaviour? It is not difficult, after
all, to see how the dualism of judgement and grace as meted out by God leads to a dualism of
judgement and grace as meted out by humans. Not only is this commonplace, many people
cannot resist putting an order to God’s judgement and grace, usually placing judgement first and
grace second. When this happens, the two concepts are not only immediately seen through the
lens of dualism, grace itself is flavoured with the fear of judgement.
What would happen if we allowed for a non-dualistic (both/and) view of God’s action with respect to the brokenness of the self (sin, however defined, included)? Some churches might counter and say, “But we already preach both judgement and grace, not either judgement or grace and we still end up in devastating judgemental conflict.”
Agreed. So what is happening here? It is possible that dualism as a world view is so ingrained in Western thought that the people in the pews won’t notice the non-dualistic intention of those preaching both judgement and grace. The word “judgement”, after all, is so fraught with images of dualistic justice (guilty/innocent, good/bad) that it is difficult to hear the word and imagine its inclusion in a non-dualistic theology. So let’s use a different set of words.
What if the words we used to represent God’s actions with humanity were grace that both heals and challenges? How would we hear the paradigm differently? Furthermore, what would happen if we articulated that underlying both of these forms of grace was the unconditional love of God? As Richard Rohr has often said, “We change because God loves us; not in order to win God’s love.”
Lest any of us become smug, the dualism of judgement and grace is not the only dualism that leads to church conflict. Dualisms are everywhere in our culture to the degree that many are not seen. Any theology that rests on a binary right/wrong dualistic frame tends to invite similar dualisms among those to whom it “belongs.”
Dualistic thinking can take many forms: us/them, good/bad, heaven/hell, mind/matter, spirit/law, justice/peace… Non-dualism sees that truth is not often found in choosing between two contradictory terms. Instead, truth is found in living the paradox of holding two contradictory terms together at the same time. In the case of conflict, non-dualism sees the truth in both self and other.
It recognises their common humanity, sees good and brokenness in both and above all, when non-dualism is theologically driven, it mirrors the character of God’s loving both self and other unconditionally.
So, what are your personal or congregational tendencies?
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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change. Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.