I have a friend who believes almost the opposite of everything that I believe.
At the center of the Venn Diagram, showing all the beliefs, interests, preferences, and hobbies that we share, there is golf, football, exactly one Tex Mex restaurant, and that’s about it.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a very solid foundation for a friendship. But it’s actually one of the reasons that I value this relationship as highly as any in my life.
I have other friends who think like me, talk like me, vote like me, agree with me. What I love about this friendship is that this one is different. And there is data to show that this kind of friendship—a mixed-belief friendship—is increasingly rare in our society.
According to sociologist Bill Bishop, in the 50s and 60s your typical American neighborhood, regardless of population, would have been split about 50/50 in terms of who voted democratic and who voted Republican in the last election. Now, after the decades long internal migration process that he refers to as The Big Sort, it’s far more common now for a neighborhood in this country to vote over 70 percent one way or the other. And every election the number of “landslide counties” increases. Why? Because people are moving to be with people who think like they do.
This political segregation is resulting in some oddly visible cultural hallmarks. And we’ve all subconsciously begun to learn the subtle clues, which tell us whether a certain locale is “our kind of people” or not. For instance, you can predict with remarkable regularity, whether an Applebees or a Caribou Coffee is more likely to be located in proximity to a given neighborhood, based on whether that neighborhood voted red or blue in the last election.
Just reading this, I’m sure you already know which business corresponds to which voting record, because you’ve downloaded the same cultural cues that we all have. If you know our society well, I’ll bet you can probably walk into any restaurant or cafe, taking in no other information than the general aesthetic and feel of the place, and know a great deal about the political and religious leanings of the target clientele.
This was not the case several decades ago. And it’s why I need friendships with people who share very little of my Venn Diagram. I’m afraid for a society where such friendships don’t exist.
If we think of our belief systems as being like the medieval town in which we live, like-minded people tend to want to live in our town with us. When we are together all the time, each of us tends to reinforce what the other already believes, which is like putting up a wall to protect our town from the outside world. There is something about putting up a wall of this sort that always acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we have a wall to protect us, we become evermore convinced that there was someone from which we needed protection in the first place. And the outside world begins to look increasingly strange and alien as we confirm each other’s worst suspicions and fears about people beyond the wall.
On the other hand, forming a relationship with someone who thinks differently than we do is like building a bridge to a neighboring town. Having built a bridge, we’re not necessarily going to adopt their way of seeing the world, but we’re probably not going to feel threatened by them either. A bridge becomes its own sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: if that other village were so scary, then why do we have this bridge?
This is why beliefs are overrated as a basis for finding an in-group and why it is so important that Castle Church Faith Community not define itself by the beliefs we all share but by the dinner invite we’ve all received. In theology-speak, it's the difference between being sacramentally defined instead of ideologically defined. Anyone who can chew is in, is one of us, with a generous exception for those who can't.
God doesn’t care how right my beliefs are over against my neighbor. God cares very much how I treat my neighbor—whether I can reconcile with her and be in relationship with her.
This isn’t the same as the kneejerk, postmodern move of saying that beliefs just don’t matter anymore. But beliefs have no functional importance, if we’re only repeating to our own choirs what they already think—if there is no active and respectful dialogue with anyone who thinks differently.
Conversely, when you build a relationship over differences, differences diminish in importance. The disagreements don’t necessarily get smoothed over, but they become a secondary characteristic of the relationship rather than its controlling narrative.
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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