Then a prayer circle formed around me, praying my doubts would go away…
Throughout middle and high school, I was closely involved in a number of Christian youth ministries, including a weekly bible study. I grew up in a web of semi-Baptist, evangelism- and missionally-focused faith communities, of which this bible study was a component. The bible was revered as the inerrant word of God, and both leaders and peers emphasized the importance of cultivating a “personal relationship with God.” This was the theological home I grew up in, and the site of community-building, personal formation, and the early development of my faith, values, and moral compass.
Cue an angsty teenage story arc, and I began to question the validity of my faith—what I truly believed and where my convictions fell. Several people close to me—folks who had inspired me and encouraged me to pursue faith in God from a young age—embarked on what some might call “deconstruction journeys.” They read books by the New Atheists, listened to allegedly “heretical” podcasts (i.e., theologically liberal, Emergent Church, etc.), and pushed back on literalist interpretations of scripture. The coherence of my worldview felt increasingly precarious, and I too began to explore alternatives to the cut-and-dry. Still, I remained immersed in my faith communities, attending bible study, leading worship at church and youth group, the whole evangelical nine yards.
On one particular bible study night, my dissonance manifested palpably. I don’t quite remember what doubts I expressed—I may have been pushing back at the existence of an eternal hell, or whether there really was more to humans than the material. Whatever it was, it was enough to rattle others in my bible study group. As I shared and discussed my questions, others from the community started to listen in and join our smaller group discussion. They expressed care, but mostly a worried concern. Then a prayer circle formed around me, praying my doubts would go away—that I’d rest on God’s firm foundation and have assurance of my faith. Doubts were seen as a threat, dissent as a problem to be solved.
...Doubts were seen as a threat, dissent as a problem to be solved.
Why graceful dissent?
This experience and others like it were thoroughly off-putting as a teenager exploring my faith, and they’ve pushed me to carefully consider the nature of dissent, doubt, and nonconformity. I do not mean to bash the bible study group described above—many loving, curious, and kind people made up this faith community. Yet, they often had little tolerance for doubt or dissent. Questions were encouraged, but only to a degree, set within the parameters of orthodoxy. The faith had to be protected, and too much curious poking or skepticism was perceived as a threat. Importantly, though, faith communities are not the only spaces that struggle with dissent. Historical and contemporary examples abound. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were hardly known for their toleration of dissent, many of which categorically rejected religion. Today, in our age of heightened polarization in the U.S., questioning or pushing back can place one at risk of failing various “purity tests.” Us/them dichotomies pervade social and political life. If you don’t adopt the party line wholesale, maybe you’re not truly part of the “us”—maybe you’re compromising with the enemy. For example, Republicans who have opposed Trump (e.g., Liz Cheney) have been sidelined, losing power and influence.1 In the university sphere, for some it feels like students and faculty get stuck playing linguistic Twister to avoid mispeaking or falling out of favor with prevailing norms, scripts, and values on left-leaning campuses, rather than engaging openly across differences. Clearly the marginalization of dissenters isn’t a uniquely religious or Christian problem.
"Although uncomfortable, pushing back and questioning can ultimately strengthen a community and get us closer to uncovering truth and understanding."
I find all of these phenomena troubling—symptomatic of something unhealthy and insecure in our social, political, and cultural contexts. Throughout this article, I hope to convincingly argue that dissent is a good that we ought to cherish. Although uncomfortable, pushing back and questioning can ultimately strengthen a community and get us closer to uncovering truth and understanding. In tandem with this call for dissent, however, I recognize the fragile nature of communal life. Dissent can quickly turn sour, digressing into attacks and contrarianism for its own sake, rather than a productive or generative critique. The impact on our social fabric can be devastating, fueling animosity and distrust.2 Therefore, I advocate here for a synthesis of dissent and grace; an invitation to a posture and practice of “graceful dissent.”
To accomplish this aim, I will draw upon a variety of thinkers and writings—particularly within the Christian and Jewish traditions—to flesh out grace, dissent, and why we ought to synthesize the two.
The necessity of dissent
Central to my argument is that dissent is both necessary and good. I not only see it as something to be tolerated, but embraced for the health of a social system (whether that be a religious community, a neighborhood, or a nation-state). Why is dissent essential?
A lack of dissent leads to stagnation, which has a variety of deleterious effects. Consider the Catholic Church’s frantic responses to much scientific inquiry in the 16th and 17th centuries.3 When Copernicus and Galileo proposed models of the solar system with the sun at the center (i.e., heliocentric models), religious leaders lost their minds. These researchers’ propositions went against the geocentric model which prevailed at the time and undermined the scripture that supposedly backed up that model (e.g., Genesis 1:14–18, Joshua 10:13, Psalm 104:5, Job 26:7, and Isaiah 40:22.). Of course, we now know both scientists were right, but as dissenters they were readily dubbed heretics, cast out and vilified. The pursuit of truth and understanding of our cosmos was impeded by institutions who feared ideas that challenged the status quo.
The Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC), a nonprofit founded by Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr, highlights this stagnation risk in one daily meditation post, and calls for what they dub “holy dissent.”4 Stagnation is inherent to all traditional religions, they argue. I would add that this tendency isn’t uniquely religious, but endemic to humanity more broadly: we crave stability and control. “What becomes settled and established may easily turn foul. Insight is replaced by clichés, elasticity by obstinacy, spontaneity by habit,” they write. In light of this tendency, acts of dissent can ultimately be acts of renewal, disrupting our default settings and taken-for-granted assumptions. Further, they identify resources for dissent, highlighting the central role it plays in Judaism. In Hebrew scriptures, they note, the voice of dissent is preserved, even centered. Take the prophetic books, in which the Israelites are repeatedly rebuked and called back into faithfulness. Here the prophetic voice, the voice of dissent, troubles the societal and religious waters, leading to renewal and right relationship with the Creator.
"Through dissent, we can better understand truth, better experience beauty, and continue our pursuit toward building healthy communities."
The renewing quality of dissent is a core component of why I see it as a social good. Domains like science, philosophy, and art are revitalized when people creatively critique prevailing assumptions and norms. Through dissent, we can better understand truth, better experience beauty, and continue our pursuit toward building healthy communities. In that sense, dissent as a social good is both pragmatic and epistemic.
I also see dissent as a variable that protects against malevolence. Beyond merely stagnating in beliefs and norms that aren’t true or good and losing out on potential scientific breakthroughs or artistic renaissances, humans are capable of committing a great deal of violence and oppression when dissent is sidelined. This point could be followed by a litany of citations, from the political violence of regimes like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, to the persecution from the Inquisition, to the genocide of Indigenous peoples by the United States. Humans are capable of atrocities.
When a society vilifies or silences its dissenters, these tendencies are given free reign. The most extreme voices become centered in public discourse, and those who fail the purity tests are written off as backwards, dangerous, or worse.5 Taken together, then, when we fail to tolerate dissent, we both undermine endeavors of discovery and creativity, and pave the way for the worst aspects of humanity to manifest.
Briefly, I want to name a counterexample articulated by some within the Christian tradition. Although I argue that Christianity provides compelling resources for dissent, there’s a school of thought within the Church that sees dissent as caustic, negative, and contrary to the way of Christ.6 People who advocate this position cite passages like Romans 13, in which Paul calls the church to submit to all governing authorities, because all established authorities are under God’s sovereignty (see Romans 13:1-7). Dissent is disobedient and sinful, those who advance this position argue.
This passage and others like it (see I Peter 2:13-17) need to be acknowledged. Perhaps dissent can turn sour, leading to unnecessary violence and unrest. Perhaps there are contexts in which that is inappropriate and in conflict with God’s vision. However, scripture also showcases myriad examples of people not only dissenting, but rising up against ruling authorities: fleeing Egyptian captivity (see Exodus), waging war against enemy kingdoms in the Promised Land (see Joshua), and more. Sure, Jesus told his followers to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s (Matthew 22:21). He also flipped tables in the temple (hardly conforming meekly to religious authorities’ wishes) and called various leaders “hypocrites” and a “brood of vipers.”
Finally, it’s worth noting that the dissenters might not be right. Maybe the established norms are conducive to flourishing. New ideas aren’t always better—they may even be terrible. However, even maintaining that possibility, why fear dissidents? Truth should be able to withstand dissent. In the Catholic Church, the tradition of the “Devil’s Advocate” captures this idea, wherein someone would take on an adversarial role, voicing dissent in order to develop more robust arguments for and understandings of truth.7 The wisdom literature of the Hebrew bible also speaks to this possibility. Through challenge and discourse, humans sharpen each other just as “iron sharpens iron,” pushing us in the direction of sanctification. For all these reasons, dissent ought to be protected as a good.
The call toward grace
Keeping the above case for dissent in view, let’s now consider the flip side of the dialectic: the call toward a posture of grace. Having grown up steeped in a tradition that centers grace and forgiveness, my affinity for this posture might be baked in pretty deep. Still, I see several compelling reasons why coupling grace with dissent is both right and strategic.
First, institutions are hard to build yet easier to destroy.8 Also, social cohesion isn’t a given—communal life is hard and the social calculus may be delicate. Scholarship on affective polarization, political violence, and intergroup conflict (i.e., animosity toward people of the opposing party) bears out these points. When we lose trust in each other, we’re more willing to accept political violence, less likely to hear each other out, and overall, the social fabric becomes fraught and threadbare.9 To distill, I see why people worry about dissent. Even while acknowledging the imperfections of the status quo, totally upending it might lead to violence and disarray. Point taken.
"When we lose trust in each other, we’re more willing to accept political violence, less likely to hear each other out, and overall, the social fabric becomes fraught and threadbare."
This is where I see the value of grace. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he encourages the church to live peacefully with everyone, “so far as it depends on them” (Romans 12:18). Grace is a core ingredient that can make such peaceful living happen. Centrally, it stems from the grace all people have received from the Triune God, receiving unmerited mercy, love, and forgiveness. As we negotiate living together as humans, we’re called to extend that grace toward others. Mercy always triumphs over judgment (see James 2:13).
Imagining a synthesis
To weave the strands together, let’s briefly explore the different resources that might aid us in conceptualizing a model of graceful dissent. From the Christian tradition, two core theological ideas stand out: sin and sovereignty.
The first resource in defense of dissent as a “good” is a theology of sin—an odd place to start, maybe. Many associate Christian theologies of sin with shame and deficit, hardly seeing our fallenness as a potential resource. At their core, however, Christian theologies of sin simply highlight our fundamental brokenness before God and our neighbor. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We miss the mark. We disappoint each other. We make errors, mistakes, and constantly get things wrong. The reality of sin is central to the Christian imagination and shapes our understanding of the human condition. What implications might the reality of sin have for graceful dissent?
"In short, because we are broken by sin and cannot reach perfection in this life, we are called to what Hamid dubs 'epistemological humility'—an open-handed and open-hearted posture about what we know and don’t know."
Scholars Matthew Kaemingk and Shadi Hamid explored this question in their dialogue on immigration, pluralism, and religious difference hosted by the Veritas Forum.10 In short, they emphasize that our fundamental brokenness from sin means that we must be humble about truth claims and the possibility of certainty. This does not mean that humans should stop pursuing the true, the good, and the beautiful. However, all of our pursuits are ultimately finite. Whatever methods of inquiry we levy at a question are incomplete and our interpretation of facts won’t be totally comprehensive. In short, because we are broken by sin and cannot reach perfection in this life, we are called to what Hamid dubs “epistemological humility”—an open-handed and open-hearted posture about what we know and don’t know.
This framework, which Kaemingk uses in his conceptualization of Christian pluralism, beautifully captures what graceful dissent could look like. In their discussion, Hamid and Kaemingk do not tell people to stop disagreeing, to just conform with the masses. However, neither the majority nor the dissenting minority should prop themselves up as above critique, given our broken condition. This calls us to a posture of listening, grace, humility, and curiosity. Through dialogue, we can learn a fuller picture of truth and understanding, entertaining ideas that challenge our own, all the while maintaining principled convictions where we need to.
Sovereignty also serves as an important theological resource for graceful dissent. Kaemingk, in a 2018 lecture at Wheaton College, narrates how holding the sovereignty of God in view allows for difference and dissent, specifically addressing the issue of religious pluralism and the influx of predominantly Muslim immigrants into Western Europe.11 Kaemingk documents how, in Western Europe, the largely secular societies have struggled to make sense of and respond to their newer Muslim neighbors (from diverse countries, including Syria and other places experiencing conflict). While some have responded with various assimilation strategies, Kaemingk highlights that the Christian is called to loosen their grip, to relinquish control. If Christ is King (sovereign, in control, ruling), that means that Christians are not. “You cannot take a throne that isn’t yours,” he assures. Religious and political pluralism is complex and multifaceted—that much I do not wish to gloss over. Public policy is important work. But, in light of the sovereignty of the Triune God, those of the Christian faith are to hold space for difference, for disagreement, and for dissent. The alternatives are anti-Christic coercion and control.
In summary, through the theologies of sin and sovereignty in tandem, we see first that humans are fundamentally limited and broken. Thus, we need to hold our beliefs and assumptions loosely. Further, we were never meant to be in control. Thank God! We can let go of the need to always be right, to be in power, or to fight against those different from ourselves.
Before closing, I invite you to consider the person of Jesus, the Christ, as a model for graceful dissent. Numerous stories from the Gospels could be invoked and explored to bear this out. One in particular grabs my spirit. In Luke 22 we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, accompanied by his disciples. When Judas, the chief priests, elders, captains of the temple, and others come to arrest Him, Jesus’ disciples cry out to their teacher, asking if they should use swords. In the chaos, one of the disciples draws a weapon and cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s servant. Yet Jesus models an alternate way, condemning the violence. “Permit even this,” Christ asserts. Importantly, He does not meekly go with the religious authorities. They’re not off the hook. Instead, He confronts them with their treachery. “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:52-53). While rejecting the violent reaction of His disciples, Jesus maintains His position of dissent against the religious leaders who arrested Him and called for His death. To follow His model of graceful dissent, one need not compromise on convictions. The call is not to conform to evil, oppression, or violence, no matter how mainstream or normalized. Instead, creatively subvert what you stand against, with grace and nonviolence. This is the graceful dissidence I see in Christ’s example.
We have the gift and challenge of living in a pluralistic world, one with conflicting traditions and messages about what’s true and how to live. For such societies to be healthy, they need to carve out space for dissent, bracketing control and certainty. Otherwise, our worst propensities take root.
I do not want to argue that there’s one way to do graceful dissent. Thinking back to that off-putting bible study prayer circle, I don’t have a rigid rulebook for how they should have addressed my questions. Nor do I have a blueprint for how we ought to address political dissent, cultural differences, or any other examples mentioned here. There may even be contexts where dissent should be more aggressive (e.g., the prophetic tradition, Jesus flipping tables, etc.). Yet, holding grace and dissent in a dialectical tension offers orienting principles and language as we navigate thorny, complex terrain. Hopefully, striving to learn from theological resources and emulate (with hilarious and humbling imperfection) the model of Christ, we’ll be better equipped to maintain integrity amidst difference and love our neighbors with humility and grace.
Notes 1. Miller, Katherine, “Liz Cheney Is Prepared to Lose Power, and It Shows,” The New York Times, August 1, 2022, accessed January 31, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/01/opinion/liz-cheney-trump-jan-6.html. 2. Crimston, Charlie R., Hema Preya Selvanathan, and Jolanda Jetten, “Moral Polarization Predicts Support for Authoritarian and Progressive Strong Leaders via the Perceived Breakdown of Society,” Political Psychology 43, no. 4 (August 2022): 671–91, https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12787. 3. Leveillee, Nicholas P. “Copernicus, Galileo, and the Church: Science in a Religious World,” Inquiries Journal 3, no. 05 (2011),http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1675/copernicus-galileo-and-the-church-science-in-a-religious-world. 4. OFM, Fr Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation: Holy Dissent,” Center for Action and Contemplation, July 1, 2022, https://cac.org/daily-meditations/holy-dissent-2022-07-01/. 5. Guzmán, Mónica, “Chapter 3: Siloing,” in I Never Thought of It That Way (Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc., 2022), pp. 31-47. 6. Sabalskey, Bruce, “Analysis of Dissent According to the Bible,” published 2000, accessed January 10, 2023, https://www.ourladyswarriors.org/articles/biblobey.htm. 7. Cooper, J.C., “Devil’s Advocate,” in Dictionary of Christianity (Routledge, 2013). 8. Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, (England: Penguin Books, 2013) 9. Iyengar, Shanto et al., “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States,” Annual Review of Political Science 22, no. 1 (May 11, 2019): 129–46, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051117-073034. 10. Hamid, Shadi and Matthew Kaemingk, “Once You Were Strangers: Immigration, Pluralism, & Religious Difference,” filmed February 6, 2020 by The Veritas Forum in St. Paul, MN, video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gu1T1SGVMHQ. 11. Kaemingk, Matthew, “Christian Politics and Muslim Immigration” - released December 2, 2022 by the Center for Applied Ethics at Wheaton College, IL, video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-8K_AtxMGs.
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