I remember asking my dad about some political controversy when I was in high school. As with most political controversies in the United States, the primetime reductionists had paired down the issue’s complexity into a debate between sides. I’d chosen mine, but I wanted to check my opinion against the person whose insight I valued most, namely, my dad.
But when I presented him with the issue he surprised me by not choosing a side.
“I don’t know,” he said instead. “There isn’t enough information, so I intend to keep the issue in tension…at least for awhile.”
I was disappointed. The issue seemed so black-and-white to me, that while I respected the principle of his answer, I couldn’t help but feel it was a cop-out. I wouldn’t fully understand his position until late in the summer of 2009.
LaSierra University (LSU), an Adventist university in Southern California, became the center of controversy as religiously conservative students took issue with the teaching of evolution in LSU biology courses. Campus dispute became public debate as correspondence made its way to the upper echelons of Adventist hierarchy and various well-known pastors and leaders took it upon themselves to weigh in. Eventually, it seemed the entire Adventist community of North America was buzzing about LaSierra in online journals, on Facebook, in magazines, and in chat-rooms. What began as a debate over course content became a philosophical discussion about the mission and responsibilities of Christian education.
When school began again in the fall, my college campus buzzed as well. In the ritual of self-sorting that nurses partisan politics in every institution, students quizzed one another about their positions on evolution, the LaSierra controversy, and the role of Christian schools. Questions like ‘Do you think LaSierra should lose their accreditation?’ ‘Do you believe Christian schools should teach evolution?’ and ‘Do you believe in Biblical Creation?’ became tests of orthodoxy. When I was faced with these questions I found myself falling back on my dad’s words, “I don’t know.”
It was the first time I truly understood what it meant to ‘hold something in tension.’ My dad’s position years before, and position now, wasn’t a cop-out, it was an acknowledgment of ignorance, and a willful suspension of judgment. When it came to LaSierra, I lacked a sufficient education in the heart of the controversy. Having attended Adventist schools from the age of five, I never so much as read a blurb on evolution in a high school text book. I was largely ignorant of the theory—something about primordial goo—but I figured that something so important to the scientific community must be important. “I don’t know what I think about evolution,” I would say, “but as the leading scientific theory of origins, it seems like something our biology students should learn about.”
Unsurprisingly, my response received mixed reactions. Most people objected to the suggestion that a Christian institution should include risk promoting any heresy by teaching its awareness. One friend, however, objected on different grounds entirely. She felt I was being wishy-washy, showing a dearth of commitment to my faith by refusing to ‘take a stand’ for Creationism.
This is a common attitude within many communities, and I noticed it frequently in mine. Fail to tow the party line and your compatriots question your commitment, and indeed your entire belief system. Yet I think there is great value in suspending judgment, in waiting until you are better informed to comment. Sometimes I think the society I live in is enamored of opinions. There is nobility in ‘taking a stand.’ There is honor in ‘standing firm’ or ‘declaring a stance,’ the sooner the better. Quick opinions show you’re principled, ballsy, willing to put your neck out for your cause. Waiting to form an opinion until you are better informed, however, isn’t nearly as sexy.
People often mistake the suspension of judgment for weakness, but it takes strength of character to hold issues in tension, to resist the urge to act even on your gut instincts and remain neutral until you have sufficient evidence. Tension is not the respite of the uncommitted, is the art of the discerning.