Conflict and the Search for Truth

Photography by Yosef Kalinko

August 15, 2022

President Peñalver delivered the following homily at St. Joseph Parish in Seattle on Aug. 14.

Conflict and discomfort are essential elements in the search for truth. 

Most of us aim to avoid conflict.  We are afraid to be the source of it, and we resent people who generate it.

But conflict avoidance is not a recipe for finding the truth, as today’s readings illustrate.

In the first reading, we hear of the misguided effort to silence Jeremiah’s inconvenient message.  As the armies of Babylon encircled Jerusalem, the prophet advised the people of Judah that the Lord wanted them to put down their weapons and submit rather than to stand and fight. 

Jeremiah believed that Judah’s subjugation to Babylon was part of God’s plan to punish the Judahites for their idolatry.  The princes – who were organizing the military defense of the city – had a different idea, and they complained to the king that Jeremiah’s message was demoralizing the troops.  The king acceded to their pressure and allowed them to silence Jeremiah by throwing him into a cistern. 

The conflict was resolved, but at the expense of the truth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes explicit the connection between discord and the search for truth, as he shares his startling message that he does not come to bring peace but rather “division” – to “set the world on fire.” 

The Jesus of today’s Gospel is not the gentle, comforting Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount.  This is the fierce Jesus who cleanses the temple. 

He comes to turn child against parent, sibling against sibling, spouse against mother-in-law.  It’s a shocking message.  (Ok, maybe conflict between spouses and in-laws isn’t so shocking.)

Considered together, the readings admonish us that if we are serious about finding the truth, we need to be comfortable with disagreement.

We can think about the habits of mind we need to cultivate from two perspectives:  the speaker and the listener.  

On the one hand, if we are serious about the truth, we need to be willing to speak, even when what we have to say may give offense, perhaps even to those we love or to those with whom we usually find ourselves in agreement – our political allies. 

Conversely, we need to develop a willingness to listen and engage, even to those with whom we usually disagree, and even when they express views that we find unsettling or offensive.

Had Jeremiah sought above all to avoid giving offense, he would have simply refused to deliver God’s message.  On the other hand, had the princes been willing to listen to his message, or even just to allow others to do so, they might have saved their own lives and the lives of many others from the punishment the king of Babylon ultimately unleashed on them.

One reason being open to disagreement is so important to our search for the truth is that we never know with certainty whether we are in the presence of a Jeremiah or a false prophet.  Indeed, we can’t really know with certainty, in any given instance, whether we ourselves are a Jeremiah or a false prophet.  

(As an aside, I don’t like the term “false prophet,” which makes them sound like snake oil salesmen.  Those are usually all too easy to spot.  But not all false prophets are hucksters who intend to deceive.  Some are simply mistaken.  That they believe in what they are selling makes them all the more convincing.)

But, whatever we call them, our uncertain relationship with truth means that we need to have the courage to speak but also the strength to listen to the views of others, to reflect on their words, and to try to discern what is true. 

This is no easy task, but it is only harder if we refuse to consider the possibility that we don’t already have all the answers.

Today’s message about disagreement resonates for me in my work, and not just because being thrown into a cistern is a well-known professional hazard for university presidents.  (I think the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that it happened three times just last week.).  Another professional hazard for university presidents is to behave like King Zedekiah and succumb to the pressure to silence controversial voices.

There is no question that conflict is something a university president needs to be comfortable with if we are to do our jobs effectively.

Compounding this observation for me is that I’m not the president of just any university but of a university that says it wants to be “innovative, progressive, Jesuit and Catholic,” as Seattle University’s vision statement puts it.  

The specific values we have chosen to identify – innovative, progressive Jesuit and Catholic – are hardly a recipe for consensus.  In fact, they seem almost perfectly designed to generate passionate dissent and disagreement. 

To my mind, the impossibility of consensus around what these words mean is a feature, not a bug.

There are many ways to be Catholic.  Even on an issue like abortion, there is a great deal of disagreement among living and breathing Catholics when it comes to the questions of how – if at all – to translate the Church’s teaching into law or how to weigh that issue against other issues in a political process where none of our political coalitions align perfectly with the Church’s social teachings.

The same diversity of perspectives exists among those who call themselves “progressive.”  Is Mayor Harrell progressive?  Is Councilwoman Sawant?  How about President Biden? 

The conjunction of these contested terms – Catholic and progressive – only creates greater scope for disagreement. 

Although we can’t hope to come to a consensus about what it means to be a Catholic AND progressive university, we can hope to learn and grow from the various answers people offer. 

As institutions dedicated to the search for truth and to the education of leaders for a just and humane world (as Seattle University’s mission statement puts it), universities can (and should) welcome these sorts of disagreements even while being clear about what their core values are.  But, to accomplish this, universities need to take affirmative steps to foster environments in which the thoughtful expression of divergent points of view is not just permitted but welcomed.

This response leads to a further question. 

Does protecting the space for the expression of contrary points of view, even about our core values, suggest that Seattle University is not in fact committed to those professed values? 

For example, would the presence of thoughtful, self-identified conservative voices on the Seattle University campus (a guest speaker, perhaps, or a contrarian faculty member) mean that we are not in fact a progressive university? 

Would the toleration of voices critical of Church teaching mean that we are not in fact a Catholic university? 

These are not fanciful questions.  In my first year as president, I have heard the following form of argument numerous times from the left and the right – Seattle University claims to (but does not really) care about X, because it tolerates speech or research that is contrary to X.

But I do not think the protection of expression on campus – even expression that is critical of the university’s stated values – constitutes a betrayal of those values. 

The reason, again, is that we cannot know with any certainty whether we are Jeremiah . . . or a mistaken prophet. 

Because we are all fallible, it is important to allow ourselves to encounter a broad range of perspectives, perspectives that push us to question the underpinnings or practical implications of our own beliefs. 

Being challenged by those with whom we disagree can lead us to deepen our understandings of the commitments that we take for granted.  It can help us learn to express our positions more persuasively.  It might even cause us to revise some of our views.

Progressives can learn from conservatives. 

Ideas and even tactics that once registered as conservative sometimes become progressive, as well as the other way around.  Opposition to zoning laws – for example – began with the libertarian right, who saw them as intrusions on property rights, but that opposition has recently come to be embraced by the progressive left, who increasingly understand how zoning constrains the supply of affordable housing.

We can derive great insight from our encounters across disagreement. But these kinds of encounters are only productive when they are grounded in mutual respect and in a culture that assures all members of the community that they are welcome, that they belong.  

And so, while a university (even a university that aspires to be progressive and Catholic) should not insist that people only express particular points of view that are sufficiently progressive or sufficiently Catholic, we absolutely can insist that they express their positions in a manner consistent with a climate conducive to our mission of teaching and learning.

To make conflict productive rather than toxic, we need to work to ensure that our disagreements are accompanied by an equally powerful commitment to our continued existence as community, to our ongoing relationships – the kinds of crucial relationships Jesus describes in the Gospel (between mothers and fathers, sons and daughters).  I would add to that list:  friends and colleagues.

Seattle University’s commitment to a vision statement that encourages – guarantees – disagreement is a recipe for a vibrant intellectual community, but not a tranquil one. 

That is just fine. 

Consensus can sometimes be a marker of truth, but it can also be a symptom of a community that is self-satisfied, complacent, or unfree. 

As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, disagreement and dissent are not necessarily signs of failure.  They can be the hoped-for markers of a healthy discursive community, on fire with the desire for truth. 

“I have come to set the earth on fire,” he says.  “How I wish it were already blazing.”

But we should ensure that our fiery disagreements, when they inevitably ignite, are accompanied by the kind of charity and generosity – what the Jesuits call presupposition – that sustains community and relationship even as we courageously challenge one another.

In sum, our goal should not be to studiously avoid disagreement but rather to become better at disagreeing. 

This is a goal that Seattle University needs to constantly work on.  The same is true for our Church, and for our society as a whole.  I know I need to work on this and become better at it in my own life.

But if we are courageous in our pursuit of the truth, if we can welcome disagreement while also remaining attentive to our relationships, we can set the world on fire without burning down all our bridges.