Recently a young man was going to stop by to drop off some paperwork for me at the church where our homeschool group meets. He called me and said, “I’m here at the church, but I don’t see you here.” I described which doorway I was waiting in and looked around for him. He still couldn’t see me. I described the red bus in the parking lot and some other features. He didn’t see them. He asked, “Is the church white brick?” I replied, “No, it’s brown brick.” He responded, “I don’t think we are at the same church.” We clarified the address with each other. We both assured each other that we were at that address, but still could not locate each other. I described the nearby roads and directions again. Those landmarks and road names didn’t make any sense to him from where he was. I asked gently, “Are you sure you are in Oostburg?” He paused, “Let me check my GPS again”. After a minute he confessed, “My GPS took me to a different town, I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”
Instantly, it all made sense as to why he couldn’t see what I was seeing. Everything that was clear in front of my eyes couldn’t have been any more obvious, but he couldn’t see them because not only was he at a different church, but he was in a different town! (Ironically with a church at the same address!) We were both at completely different starting points, everything looked different, and perspectives didn’t make sense.
I’ve been thinking about that experience while reading a new book by Ben Sasse entitled, The Vanishing American Adult. Among other things, he expresses how important it is as a nation to have a shared understanding of our past, our starting point. He argues the importance of having a common cannon of literature that is known and understood by American citizens. He says, “It’s essential we have some common ground, some starting points, for remembering –and debating…Only with some common points of departure can we find room for healthy debate about inherited beliefs and possible alternate futures.” (p223) He goes on to say, “Our National abandonment of a shared set of readings has harmed us not just individually –it has also damaged our community and exacerbated polarization.” (p224)
And I thought of my experience at the church. We couldn’t communicate or have a conversation about what we saw, because we saw completely different things. We didn’t have a common starting point with which we could use to build off of in order to find each other. There was an irreconcilable divide. The other person just didn’t make sense.
Good conversation and debate needs to have a common point of agreement before the division or point of disagreement can enter the conversation. “We all agree on X, but some say (your thesis), while others say (counter-thesis).” Otherwise two sides are arguing blind, with no common understanding or workable idea.
As our culture’s palpable division seems to grow more divisive, let’s remember to try to find a shared starting point. What do we agree on? The American idea of freedom and liberty? What does that mean? Walk the conversation back until we find that shared starting point. From there, we can share ideas and disagreements and have a robust conversation. But without a common starting point, nothing seems to make sense.