Are We Just Too Quarrelsome?

Charles E. Gutenson

“The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours — and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)

In The Great Divorce, Lewis has one of the characters give this as an answer to the question, asked by the story teller, regarding what seemed a meager population in hell: Why did it seem deserted? Well, because the residents simply couldn’t stand to be around each other — their tendency to quarrel, their basically antisocial behaviors, led them to move again and again just to get away from each other.

The pastor of the church I attend recently started a sermon with this quotation from Lewis, and I have to admit my mind began immediately to wander. Surely Lewis has hit upon a truism about human nature.

What makes us so quarrelsome? What makes us so quarrelsome that we find ourselves unable to live around “those” people (whomever “those” might be for us)? Is it the need to be in control? I want things my way, albeit for reasons I think critically important. If I can’t have things be as I think they should be, well, then, I shall have to move on to “greener pastures” where folks are more enlightened and, thus, see things my way.

My mind was in full tilt meander mode by now, and the possibility of returning to the sermon had been lost. So, where would my meandering mind take me next? To the outworkings of the Protestant Reformation, as it turns out. While I had and have no intention of relitigating the issues around the abuses that the Reformers thought required a break from Rome, one has to wonder — with some 30,000+ different Protestant denominations in the world today — how much of this need to “separate from the heretics” was driven by theological necessity and how much from the need of different groups to “be in control”? On the one hand, I’m confident that every single branch in this mad spawning of new denominations and movements was undertaken because someone thought their particular issue was so important that separation was part of a good Christian witness. On the other hand, really? There are some 30,000 points of disagreement on Christian doctrine and practice such that the same God who said that followers of Jesus would be known by our love and unity will someday say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” to each one of these schismatics? Color me highly skeptical.

I didn’t get onto this line of thinking because my own beloved United Methodist denomination has seemed on the edge of schism for many years now. Once there, though, it was hard not to take that step. Are the issues facing us so severe that God will be pleased with “agreeing to go our separate ways”? The same God who inspired the early church to use only the strongest language when condemning the tendency to schism? They used metaphors like rending the body of Christ or tearing limbs from the body of our Lord. They left little doubt how they felt about those who would separate themselves to form other bodies of faith. Yet, here we are to the point where, once again, voices from both sides of the issue are calling for separation in light of their exasperation at being unable to forge a path forward where the two parties remain united. And, let us, just for a second, imagine that this path of separation is taken. Will we then be happy that we have excluded from our worshipping community those who see matters different than us? If history is any indicator, the answer to that would be no. In fact, a friend of mine who engages regularly in this debate informed me recently that he had heard one individual comment, “We are making progress on the issue of homosexual practice, and once we get it resolved, we are going to deal with whether we should allow women in ministry.” In other words, even before this split has been accomplished, we are identifying the basis for the next one.

To be clear, the rumination that consumed me that Sunday morning and since hasn’t been based on my conclusion concerning which side of the issue is right and which is wrong. Rather, my concern is much deeper than that and cuts to the core of what it means to be witnesses to the Triune God in the world today. Jesus prayed that we be one as Father, Son, and Spirit are one; so far, though, we seem either unwilling or unable (most likely some of both) to find a solution that keeps us in communion. Maybe Lewis was right, not just about the inhabitants of hell in his story, but of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

Posted Mar 06, 2017

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