How are We Going to Be Able to Live Together?

Excerpts from “Restoring Political Civility,” a conversation between Krista Tippet and Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics and author or Uncommon Decency), Being, October 14, 2010:

Richard Mouw: …to be civil comes from civitas and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters and brothers, cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn't just based on blood relative stuff.

But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that's not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they're human like me and I got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship

Krista Tippett: So here's another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, "In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God."

Richard Mouw: Oh, yeah. That's right. Going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there's this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn't just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I've been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.

Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn't just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn't come easy. I'm kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it's a very important exercise to engage in.

Krista Tippett: You have been very clear and open across the years, for example, about your theological opposition to gay marriage. I could imagine that someone who is homosexual might hear what you just said and feel that in fact that doesn't find expression when you look at them.

Richard Mouw: Well, and — and it should. I have really tried to emphasize the fact that even in expressing our disagreements — and this is a very complicated thing — but that we're dealing with people who are precious works of divine art. You know, I have argued on a number of occasions and actually gotten some very positive response from folks in the gay-lesbian community that maybe — I even wrote a Newsweek piece on this.

You know, maybe it's time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something like this where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, "what is it about people like me that scare you so much? And that you in turn would listen to me when I say, what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised? And that we talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in, you know, despicable behavior, but could that shape a very different kind of discussion." As we move toward — the really important question is how are we going to be able to live together in this pluralistic society with at least some better understanding of what motivates us beneath the angry denunciations and things?