Thursday, July 11, 2013

On Managing Difference of Opinion

We communicate mainly with statements. Many of the statements express facts. But in situations where facts are unknown or unavailable, we express our opinions. A fact stands on evidences, but an opinion stands on the people who hold the opinion. An opinion varies from person to person and from time to time. 
How can people live and work together with their differences of opinion? Can we allow our differences of opinion affect our relationships? Let us explore this question further in a few real-life situations.

In family relationship
A few years ago I heard a story from a friend. A Christian husband and wife, who were living happily and peacefully, divorced. It all started from a difference of opinion. Well, what was that opinion they had a difference about? Get ready for a hearty laugh! The husband argued that he loved her more than she loved him. The wife argued that she loved him more than he loved her. This argument about their love for each other finally ended up in divorce. Hard to believe that such an incident did occur! It sounds like a story formed in somebody's imagination. But my friend who told me this story swears that he knew that family, and it really happened exactly so.
Let us imagine Mathew and Lily, husband and wife. Whenever they talk about something, they realize that they have different opinions about most of the things. Although they agree on a lot of things, they also differ on a lot of issues-- from global issues such as what America needs to do about Israel to their family issues such as what kind of clothes their children should wear.
If they concluded that their marriage is a failure because of their difference of opinions, and that they can't continue as husband and wife, most of us would advise them not to risk their family life for anything. OK. They listen to our advice and stay as husband and wife. A tragedy is avoided. Now how are they going to continue? How about their differing opinions? How can they face the problem of difference? What options do they have in such a situation?
They think of various solutions as follows: Whenever they sense a difference of opinion, they try to avoid it by changing the subject. But if a difference does occur, one of them simply surrenders to the opinion of the other, so that a conflict is avoided. Well, this might work for some time, but it is not going to be a lasting solution, nor is it going to be a successful one. They have to live in constant fear of an imminent difference of opinion.
Finally they discover a working solution: They agree with each other that their relationship is not based on their opinions. They believe that God united them as one body, and nothing has the power to separate that bond. This awareness of their firm foundation in God frees them from their fear of difference. They are no more afraid to have difference of opinions. In fact they welcome differences.
Whenever they sense a difference of opinion, they welcome it as a new opportunity to learn and grow. They sit together, calmly and patiently explain the reason for his/her opinion, discuss the differences further, and gain more understanding of each other and what caused the difference of opinion in the first place. Instead of running away from differences, they welcome them, face them, challenge them, and solve them. Instead of standing on two different sides fighting with each other for their opinions, they stand together, and keep the two different opinions on the other side. They do not allow opinions to divide them.

In a Prayer Fellowship
Imagine a prayer fellowship of a few young people. About ten of them meet every Saturday evening in their church. After participating in the evening worship service, they sit together in a circle, sing a few songs, read a couple chapters from the Bible, and talk to each other whatever they like to talk about. One day one of them suggests that they need to make their meeting an opportunity to learn the Bible and the faith of the church. Everyone enthusiastically supports the idea, and make arrangements for someone to present a topic each day followed by a discussion about it. The first day, the presentation and the discussion are on the topic of prayer. Isaac, one of the participants raises a slight doubt about the usefulness of praying for the departed. The next week, Isaac presents his argument more forcefully. Two others in the group think that there is some truth in what Isaac is saying. The third day, two more people join Isaac, and there is a fierce battle of words. And….. that is the end of their weekly meeting. To make matters worse, seeds of enmity are sown in those young hearts that might last all their life.
Let us now look at this situation closely. Where exactly did they go wrong? Is it wrong that they started a discussion? No! Is it wrong that they had a difference of opinion? Not at all! The problem is that they based their relationship on their opinions. They thought that they had to stand with their opinions and fight for them.
If that group had a mature moderator, he/she could have guided their discussion in a very fruitful way. He/she could say to the group this way: Look, we have an interesting opinion from Isaac. Thank you, Isaac, for contributing this interesting view. Actually a lot of people in the world hold this opinion. Now let us together think further about this view. Why do you think some people believe so? …….
See what happens. The moderator detached Isaac's opinion from Isaac, and placed it on the table for everyone to analyze it together. The result? The group stays together.

In a Sunday School Class
Let us imagine a Sunday school class. Today's lesson is the Ten Commandments. The teacher provides the students a copy of the Ten Commandments, and asks them to learn them by heart. The teacher might explain briefly what each commandment means. The next week, they are asked to recite them in order. In the final exam, they are required to write them in the correct order.
Here is another class with the same topic—the Ten Commandments. The teacher leads the students in a discussion on why those commandments were given in that particular historical/social context. The students are encouraged to think about it, and express their opinions. The teacher helps them to think further by questions such as: If God gives a set of Ten Commandments to the Christians in India today, what will they be? Will they be the same or different? Each student makes a set of Ten Commandments, and presents it to the class. They explain why some were included and some were excluded from the original ones.
Now let us compare the two classes. In the first class, students are not supposed to think. They are not encouraged to think. If anyone expresses an opinion, he will be treated as a rebel or even a heretic. The ideal behavior is to learn by heart. Their minds are like empty buckets. The teacher pours knowledge into those buckets, and they go home filled with knowledge. Also, learning is a very individualistic process.
In the second class, the students are encouraged to think. They are not empty buckets. They all share their thoughts, think together, and learn together. The teacher is a facilitator. He/she does not have the role of the provider of all knowledge. He is a co-learner with the students. Also learning is a cooperative activity.
A group of people learn together by thinking together, which is possible only by sharing their opinions. Expressing an opinion is nothing but loud thinking so that others can respond to it and think further.
Expressing opinions can be harmful only if people hold on to their opinions and fight for them. Once someone expresses an opinion, he needs to forfeit his ownership of that opinion. It becomes a property of the group to examine and discuss it constructively. He does not have to hold on to it or fight for it just because that opinion came from his mouth.

In an Online Discussion Group
An online global discussion group is something so new and great which we could not even dream of a couple of decades ago. I grew up hearing about global village, but the Internet has made our world even smaller than a village. How else can such a large number of people engage in such ongoing discussions? We can communicate to each other as if we are in a room although we are physically located at the far corners of the earth.
Usually the people who meet in an online group are more similar than different. Usually we all speak the same language, recite the same creed, and go to the same kind of church. How are we different? Primarily we are different in our opinions. How do we face this difference?
We should not allow the diversity of opinions to touch our relationship. We need to stay united whatever our opinions are. Opinions come and go, but our bond of relationship needs to stay permanent. An online forum is an opportunity for us to get to know one another, to learn from each other, and to strengthen our bond of relationship. We do not want people to become enemies as a result of airing opinions here.
Whenever someone airs an opinion, let us not be quick to pass a judgment on him/her. It is easy to brand someone as a heretic and close his/her mouth forever, and excommunicate him/her from this forum. But that won’t be a wise thing to do. As long as there are human beings, there will be opinions on all the different subjects. Just by excommunicating someone from this forum, we can’t eliminate opinions from the world. Instead of closing the mouth of those people who air their opinions, the others in the group need to face it as a challenge. Let us not be afraid of opinions!
On the other hand, we need to welcome opinions. Let people come up with their innermost thoughts. That is what we want –the real thoughts of people. Let us have real communication. Why do we want to hide something within and say something else outside? Let our hearts and tongues say the same thing.

In the Christian Church
There was a huge difference of opinion in the church in its infancy, which we can read in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letter to the Galatians. One group argued that all non-Jews who join the Church have to become Jews by undergoing circumcision. The other group argued that the non-Jews need not become Jews to join the Church. This difference of opinion aggravated to such an extent that the Church was almost at the brink of a split.
It was the wise leadership of the Apostles that kept the Church together at this crucial juncture. They called an emergency meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. It was not at all easy for them to find a solution, but they did.
Here are two groups that are going to split on their difference of opinion regarding a religious ritual. Their attention is on that one thing that divides them. The Apostles asked the two groups to turn their attention from the ritual to its meaning. Circumcision is an external physical ritual. What matters is its meaning, which is to become a new creation. The two groups did not have a difference of opinion on its meaning. The approach of the Apostles can be seen in Galatians 6:15. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” 
The split was going to happen when they emphasized the unimportant. The Apostles asked them to turn their attention from the unimportant to the important. Thus a split was avoided by the wise leadership of the apostles.

In Religions
The word for religion is ‘matham’ in India, and its root meaning is ‘opinion’. Usually we hear about panditha-matham, which means scholarly opinion. The use of the word matham for religion implies that there is so much in common between religion and opinions. Even in English, it is no different. A religion may be seen as a set of beliefs or opinions about human life, and a way of life developed based on that. This way is closely related to the life story of the community.
Considering the basic questions of life such as what life is and why we live, we have only opinions, and they vary from place to place, time to time, and from people to people. However, there can be similarity in the essentials of all religions, which is the well-being and growth of humanity.
When people who belong to various religions live together at the same place, they have two options: One, pay attention to the common essentials, and stand together. Two, pay attention to the insignificant differences and fight with one another.
The world may be seen as a classroom in which God has placed us to learn the lessons of life. The various religions may be seen as different groups of students who try to explore and untangle the mysteries of life from different angles. The short-sighted among us often hate and fight with those in the other groups by forgetting that we are in a classroom and are here to learn.
According to our tradition, the whole humanity came from Adam and Eve, which makes all human beings brothers and sisters. What we have among each other is blood-relationship, and we should not let our opinions and beliefs affect our blood-relationship.
Our tradition also teaches us that a human being is the image of God. Being an image, a human being (or the humanity as whole) is a visible representation of the invisible God. We also learn from our tradition that a human being is the temple of God.
Jesus, our Lord, taught us that the soul of a human being is more precious than the whole world. Mark 8:36. Jesus also taught us that the heavenly father loves all people in the world unconditionally. Mat 5:45
Thus according to our faith and tradition, any kind of discrimination between one human being and another one is wrong, inhuman, and ungodly, whatever the reason may be. We are expected to respect and love all human beings as our brothers and sisters. Although we belong to various races, we are all Homo sapiens. Although we all hold diverse opinions of God, God loves us all in the same way unconditionally.


An opinion causes problems mostly if and when people fail to identify it as an opinion, and take it to be a fact. Once an opinion is expressed, the person who expresses it should release its ownership, and let it become a common property. We need to look at it objectively rather than having any subjective attachment to it. Once we learn to see opinions objectively, we can encourage opinions as a means of learning. Rather than becoming roadblocks or weapons to attack, opinions need to become stepping stones.


Tony Daniel said...

A wonderful and succinct brief on the importance of opinions.
-Thesis, antithesis and synthesis-. The world would stagnate without differences in opinion. Should we not work towards a 'synthesis'? Enmity or embarrassment brought about by differences in opinion or belief can be resolved once we understand that Truth or Reality remains independent or unaffected by, whatever, ones' beliefs or opinions. Yet we must communicate.

Discussion groups give us an opportunity to thrash about our ideas and opinions in a safe and conducive manner.

[“O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me.”
A Buddhist teaching.] (Similar to 1 John 4:1)

George Joseph said...

A few years back, a couple took a house on rent at Ernakulam. As both were IT professionals, they had sufficient or more income to take a two storied building. They were living happily, neighbors and friends thought. But they had lots of time at home because most days, they ordered food from outside. So they had enough time at home to entertain themselves by watching T V. But though an IT professional and that way no way inferior to her husband, she was basically a woman and the womanish trends were very much there. Being a Malayalee woman, her entertainment interests confined with viewing Malayalam serials; but the poor husband could not tolerate this as he was a fan of foot ball and the like. This started the clash and as they were one, could not even think of buying a second T V. The clash grew and grew and ended in divorce.

Sijo George said...

Very nice article. I now understand that our relationships should not be based on opinions. Problem arises only when we fight for our opinions.