The National Catholic Review

As an introduction to the hymn in which Paul describes Christ’s self- emptying, he pleads with the Philippians to change their minds, that is, not to shift positions on a particular issue, but to alter, transform and recondition the way in which they relate to one another.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  make my joy complete:  be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-5)

Paul does not ask for perfection from the Philippians, or from us, before acting like Christ, he asks whether we have “any” encouragement from Christ, “any” consolation from love, “any” sharing in the Spirit, “any” compassion and sympathy. Paul is asking whether we connect to a modicum of the life in Christ, a smidgen of the Spirit, an iota of compassion and sympathy, for if we do, we must then:

1)      Be of the same mind;

2)      Have the same love;

3)      Be in full accord and of one mind;

4)      Not act from selfish ambition or conceit;

5)      In humility regard others as better than ourselves.

Note that not once in Paul’s list does he ask that we divide liberal from conservative Philippians, orthodox from unorthodox Christians, smash the arguments of those with whom we disagree with apologetic tour de forces, or put down those with whom we differ.  Naturally, some might say, that was then, a time when the Church was not rife with erroneous Ephesians, problematic Philippians and cafeteria Corinthians; this is now, and the politics, civil and ecclesiastical, are much more serious, the errors much more significant. Perhaps, they might say, Paul’s advice is valid for his own age, but our task is to weed out the bad Catholics and purify the Church.   

Paul’s advice is perennially valid, as we all know intuitively. The problems faced by the Philippians are no different in significance or meaning to them than ours are to us. They faced the eternal significance of their behavior and actions just as we do. Nevertheless, we are called to act with humility not conceit, precisely with those with whom we do not share the same mind, with whom we are not in full accord, with whom we do not have the same love.  I must admit that it is to my own mind a struggle to know exactly how one gains “the same mind,” “one mind,” “full accord” when there are genuine and deep disagreements regarding serious spiritual, religious and civil issues. It cannot mean papering over hard issues or pretending they do not exist.

It is clear, however, that Paul is asking us to put Christ at the center not ourselves, as in v. 5 he says to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Christ’s behavior must be our model, but so, too, must he be the locus of our unity. It is also necessary to see the humanity of one another, for whom Christ forsook equality with God and emptied himself to take on the same human likeness as our enemies share with us.  A truism, yes, but with the coming of Christ, we are all in this together, not only in sin, but in salvation. How can the process of dehumanization be maintained when the transcendent one granted grandeur to our shared human being?  

Finally, though, disagreement must be thoroughly disarmed, and I use that word purposefully. Gary Anderson, in his book Sin: A History, 5, cites the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, who note the militaristic character of language describing argument  and dispute, such as “attacked every weak point,” “indefensible,” “won an argument,” “shot down all of my arguments,” and many others. Anderson says,

In short, the way we conduct arguments is influenced by the way we conceive and talk about them. “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance,” Lakoff and Anderson propose; “the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, and talk about them differently.” Indeed, Lakoff and Johnson conclude we would probably have a hard time understanding what these individuals were doing. So embedded is our understanding of argument in idioms of attack and aggression that we would find it difficult to label such activity “arguing” (5).

The model for disarming argument is given by the self-emptying of Christ, disclosed by Paul in the Hymn to Christ, who gave himself to those who were hostile to him. So, Paul says, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The sharing of this same mind is in the doing of it.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Leo Zanchettin | 9/25/2011 - 2:31pm
As always, very good observations, John. A couple of comments.

First, I suspect that the apostolic church faced the threat of polarization just as we do. There were deep-seated arguments over the question of circumcision, to the point that some were identified as belonging to the "circumcision faction" (or party-Galatians 2:12). And then, of course, there were the timeless divisions between rich and poor that the Letter of James deals with. There were also plenty of cults of personality, as 1 Corinthians 1 shows. Even Paul and Barnabas, two giants of the primitive church, couldn't stick together. It seems there will always be people insistent on identifying and then casting out "dissenters."

Second, I really liked your line: "The model for disarming argument is given by the self-emptying of Christ." In an earlier post, you mentioned how your wife has taught you that true humility has to do with listening. I think there's a connection here. In becoming one of us, Jesus took up a posture of deep listening. He identified so intimately with us that he healed the rift between God and humanity. We might even say that his cry of dereliction on the cross was the gathered-up cry of all humanity as they faced their spiritual isolation and loss-a cry that was answered so magnificently and tenderly in the resurrection. Jesus listened to our hearts so deeply that our cry became his. And now he invites us to listen just as closely so that his cry-a cry of love, of praise, of trust in God-can become ours.

At the end of the Christ hymn, we hear that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess "Jesus Christ is Lord." I often imagine that this universal confession is the result of all people finally perceiving the depths of Jesus' humility, not the thundering power of his might. I wonder if it isn't the self-giving love of Christ that will ultimately silence every argument and bring everyone to their knees-together.

So probably the best way to get to the like-mindedness that Paul talks about is through listening, through walking in the other person's shoes. That’s what will help us respect each other more deeply. And it's really hard to hate someone you respect.

In the end, I think you’re right: We discover our shared humanity only as we come to see how Jesus has already shared in our humanity-everyone's humanity. The real question, then, is: “How do we get there?”
Beth Cioffoletti | 9/25/2011 - 9:44am
“Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance,”

I love this metaphor.

As with nonviolence, the first step toward disarmament is laying down your own sword.  Being vulnerable.  Not so easy in today's world (or any world), but what the Gospel is asking us to do.
Anonymous | 9/27/2011 - 10:09am
The first act of a Philosopher is to observe what is. It's also the act of the child - to watch, to see. Before all argument, opinion, wish-ful thinking, before we take our emotional pulse, we must first see reality as it is.

Ditto with respect to all inside and outside baseball controversy. Let the issue to immigration and we must first see what the terms of the debate are and define them, so that when we enter the dance of divergent opinions on the best course of policy action, we at least are talking about the same thing.

It's impossible to dialogue unless both sides speak the same language, a language in which both agree to the meaning of the words.

Now, as Christ's disciples, we ought to listen to his words, accept them according to His definitions, as revealed to us through those He gave his promise of presence and authority. Once we have that in common, THEN we can start an honest debate or dialogue or argument. But until such time as the fundamental terms of the issue are laid out and defined.... such that both sides are speaking about the same thing.... it's pointless.