April 1st, 2016

This article was previously published in October 2015 on the author’s blog, “Thinking Out Loud."

Compromise has become a dirty word in America—maybe in the world beyond America, too.

Some presidential candidates pout and call others names when their ideas are challenged. More than a few fellow citizens demand that their values must rule the day, “or else.” Political parties thrive on my-way-or-the-highway demands. Sadly, too many religious groups confess creeds of contempt for those of other faiths, damning to hell those who differ. I want to believe that we the people are more reasonable, more humble, and more generous than the polls portray, but there are days when one wonders.

As the author of the book of Job asks, “But where can wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?” (Job 28:12). Where indeed?

Being philosophically minded, I am tempted to place the blame for our unwillingness to compromise with Plato and his ilk who gave us what Sir Isaiah Berlin once called the philosophia perennis. This “perennial philosophy,” which has dominated Western thought (and often butted heads with the far more pluralistic vision at the heart of the Bible’s multiplicity of contrasting texts and multitude of perspectives), basically holds to three doctrines:

  1. Every legitimate question has one and only one right answer. Every real problem has one and only one right solution.
  2. All right answers and right solutions are knowable if you use the right methods of discovery.
  3. All right answers and solutions are ultimately compatible with each other, forming a harmonious whole.1

The fundamental belief behind this perennial philosophy is that all true values are absolutely universal, consistent with each other, and can be formed into a seamless hierarchy. Thus, no true values should ever come into conflict or need to compete.

In reality, of course, we see values (important and true values) conflicting all the time. Do we value free speech? Of course we do. We enshrine this value in the US Constitution, but we know that there are occasions when even a value as highly prized as free speech must be constrained. Am I free to shout “ fire” in a crowded movie theater? Of course not. We could run through the entire Constitution, finding deeply held values that live in tension with other values.

From a Christian perspective, we believe that anything that assumes the place of an “ultimate value” (as theologian Paul Tillich put it in his little classic "The Dynamics of Faith") is our God. And no relative value (and all human values are relative values) can assume the place of “ultimate value” in substitution for God without our committing idolatry. The living God who was revealed by God becoming human seems particularly resistant to being reduced to any fixed set of human values, however uncomfortable this makes us, and however hard our hard little creeds work to make God as small as we are.

The philosophical perspective inherited from Plato et al. has even affected the way we read the Bible. Biblical interpreters have been working overtime trying to come up with “harmonies of the Gospels” when the Bible itself is perfectly content to give us four separate accounts of the life of Jesus, each one titled simply “According to” in the Greek of the New Testament. (I’ll never forget my shock as a young religion major in college when I discovered this fact the first time I took up the New Testament in its original language.)

As much as I’d like to place the blame with Plato, I suspect that the problem goes much deeper. I suspect the real problem is not philosophical but theological. Maybe we are simply too arrogant and self-centered to believe that the questions we pose have lots of right answers instead of the ones we have come up with, that problems have lots of good solutions even if they cause us some other problems, and that the values we hold most precious may need to be balanced and compromised when they come into conflict with other competing values.

As the song insists: potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto. Let’s call the whole thing off. Frankly, when “the whole thing” we are tempted to call off is the experiment of this strange republic, which has always been committed to finding a way to hang together when we don’t share identical views, I think the price tag on not compromising is way too high. That doesn’t even begin to touch on “the whole thing” of trying to live together as a human family—all of us made in God’s likeness and image!

Pragmatists have always assumed that no one has all the right answers, and we are better, smarter, and stronger by integrating our ideas. Pragmatists have always assumed that great solutions surprise us when we listen to each other. Pragmatists have always been suspicious of absolutizing our favorite values at the expense of other values. And pragmatism is a distinctively sane way of thinking and living (and is even a distinctively American philosophy of life).

We often hear these days that the folks who refuse to compromise are the strong and smart ones. I’m not remotely convinced of that idea. Certainly the refusal to compromise has not been shown to make us a stronger or a smarter society. In fact, those who are least flexible and most dogmatic are often the most insecure. Compromise is a sign of intellectual and moral strength, an indication that one is realistic in facing the complexities and ambiguities of life and of forging a good society. However difficult it may be to compromise, this is a word we must learn to speak again if we are going to learn to live together in this world.

1. Sir Isaiah articulated these ideas in a variety of essays, but I will mention only two. See his “The Pursuit of the Ideal” and “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West” in his book The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy (London: John Murray, 1990).

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