How to Take a Stand While Turning the Other Cheek

Being willing speak up for your beliefs is a part of what it means to love

At the memorial service for Dallas Willard—the beloved teacher, philosopher and author—J.P. Moreland told a story that has stayed with me. Moreland—once Willard’s student, later his friend and colleague—spoke of Willard’s commitment to truth: not just for himself, but as something he felt responsible for sharing and advancing with others as best he could.

Moreland recalled a discussion Willard had with a student in front of peers at a 1982 doctrinal seminar. Willard made the statement that “when we look at an object or think about it, we don’t construct it or make it up,” rather it exists as it is with observable qualities and characteristics. The student “didn’t buy it,” and countered that, “when you look at something, you give it its color. It’s not colored unless you look at it.”

So Willard tested the idea: He grabbed a Styrofoam cup, placed it on a table in front of the student and their colleagues, and asked the student “why don’t you turn around and stop looking at the cup, and the rest of us will see if it stays colored?” Of course, the cup kept its color even when the color-imbuing student turned his back.

Willard was direct and sharp. He did not apologize. The tension in the room was thick.

Moreland, who felt that tension, asked Willard later in the day, “What just happened in there?”

“J.P., we have to stop being bullied.”

Moreland reflected on this scene, and what it showed him about Willard, in the memorial service:

“Now Dallas was a gracious, compassionate man. But he wasn’t bully-able. And when he knew something was true, he stood there. I want to be like that.”

What Does This Mean for Us?

I am no philosopher, and the odds are that you are not one either. Philosophers like Willard and Moreland advance and defend ideas as a vocation. But each and every one of us carries truths that are relevant not just to us as individuals, but to our friends and communities: to society.

It is inconsistent to hold something as truth in our lives, but dismiss its relevance in the lives of others. To keep truth to oneself is not equivalent to humility.

Earlier in my life, I tended to rush toward consensus even at the expense of my own convictions. It was easier to end the argument through acquiescence, and honestly, I felt holier that way. I was proud of how “humble” I could be.

Like for many in my generation, this mindset was a response to the bitter fights of the previous generation, when so often claimed truths were used as a weapon to cause harm, rather than a tool to promote good. We know too well the potential of valuing doctrine—religious or otherwise—over people.

But these dangers should not bully us into bifurcated lives. It is inconsistent to hold something as truth in our lives, but dismiss its relevance in the lives of others. To keep truth to oneself is not equivalent to humility. If it is indeed wisdom, to not share it is masochistic.

To believe in something does not require a claim of one’s own omniscience or inerrancy. The ability to think, to hold convictions, is human. Our most noble advances in society have come out of an individual and communal pursuit of what is true.

The truth is revealed in our study, our relationships and our experiences. Yet, sometimes we can be quick to back off when we are challenged. We can even doubt whether our story means anything at all. But the truth in your story, the truth you carry in you, really does matter. It matters to all of us.

The Mistake of Dismissing the Public Value of Ideas

We have too easily conflated the defense of ideas with the polarized culture of cable news debates and social media screeds. Those who debate ideas seem to always be judgmental, bitter and cranky, but we forget how central the advancement of ideas has been to the history of the Church. Indeed, much of Jesus’ ministry was about overturning false ideas that had become conventional wisdom.

This is perhaps most clear in the Beatitudes, where Jesus first confronts false or incomplete ideas (“You have heard…”), and moves to directly contest that idea with a new one. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

Yes, becoming a disciple of Jesus is about much more than acquiescence to a list of doctrinal truths, but discipleship includes the transforming of our minds.

Just think of all of the great art, literature and activism that would not exist without Christians committed to the defense and advocacy of Christian truths. There would be no Wilberforce or King to fight slavery. No C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton to inspire and educate us about orthodoxy or the foundations of our faith. As Christians, we must take the life of the mind—our mind and that of others—seriously.

Lessons for Pursuing and Advancing Truth

One of the most wonderful, humbling experiences is to be convinced of error and to turn from it. But it is only possible if we acknowledge what we currently believe, and test that belief in the light of the evidence and the truth of Scripture. 


So speak up in that meeting. Have that coffee shop conversation you have kept postponing. Write the article you have been afraid to write.

As we seek to take seriously our own ideas and those of others, we can keep the following ideas in mind:

The goal is not victory, but faithfulness.

Even Jesus gave people the opportunity to reject His teachings. When Jesus told a rich man that following him would require giving up his allegiance to his possessions (Matthew 19:21), the rich man “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matthew 19:22). Yet, the man’s unwillingness to follow the teaching did not lead Jesus to compromise. Instead, He reaffirmed and expanded on the teaching to the disciples (Matthew 19:23-24). Like Jesus, we can defend ideas without getting defensive. 

We can be wrong.

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We do not have to be 100 percent certain of every position we take, particularly in informal settings, in order to state our position. Indeed, it is often more compelling to acknowledge aspects of our argument we are uncertain about, even as we confidently advance what we believe to be true.

Humility does not require a lack of commitments or conviction. One of the most wonderful, humbling experiences is to be convinced of error and to turn from it. Christians call this repentance. But it is only possible if we acknowledge what we currently believe, and test that belief in the light of the evidence and the truth of Scripture. 


Operate in love.

There is a great temptation to take pride in our ideas for their own sake, but whatever true knowledge we have does not come from us, and it is not for our own self-aggrandizement. This is the lesson and caution of the Pharisees, who had the truth, but misused it. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because of this: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). The Pharisees used ideas to serve themselves, not others. We should resist this temptation.

As Christians, we are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind. We may take a false step, but that is always a risk of pursuing faithfulness. We can find truth together, learning from one another, but only if we love our neighbor enough to share the convictions that we hold dear.

Top Comments

Caitie Miller

1

Caitie Miller commented…

Thank you, this was a wonderful article! It's making me rethink the way I deal with people when it comes to talking about God. I've always had a "live and let live" policy, thinking that other people's beliefs were their business. But really that has to do with my fear with rejection, and worrying that when the time comes, I won't know what to say. But I have a responsibility to get out there and spread the word. Plant the seeds. God will water them. Thank you for planting a seed of faith in me.

Melinda Jensen

1

Melinda Jensen commented…

Thank you. I had grown weary of standing up for my truths. Your article has inspired and encouraged me to continue on the path.

6 Comments

Melinda Jensen

1

Melinda Jensen commented…

Thank you. I had grown weary of standing up for my truths. Your article has inspired and encouraged me to continue on the path.

Rachel

1

Rachel commented…

I agree, but I don't believe that Willard's argument, that the styrofoam cup was real because it was, (evidenced by everyone in the room seeing it) is sufficient. Berkeley, another Christian philosopher, argued that if everything only existed in our perceptions, then this would necessitate a Great Perceiver (God). This isn't a philosophical tangent for the sake of nitpicking; what I mean to say is that there are many philosophical standpoints that allow for belief in our God. To hold too tightly to "truths" unnecessary to justifiable faith, such as the one Willard held to in that demonstration, isn't a stand against bullying, but rather a way to beg the bullies to come for us. I know you addressed this issue of not knowing everything somewhat later on, but that particular example brought a rush of philosophical jumbo that had to spill forth.

Sam Sellars

1

Sam Sellars replied to Rachel's comment

I have to agree with Rachel in this instance. I agree with Dallas on the difficult philosophical issue being addressed. I've studied his writing on the that subject. The specific philosophical issue aside, the situation degenerates into a confrontation that was unnecessary. Confrontations are necessary sometimes, no doubt. I agree with Dallas that we should not be bullied. But the specific issue in question is not answered using the approach used in that context by Willard. He should have invited the student to read his writing on the subject and provided it to him. I suspect Dallas did that on more than one occasion. Who knows? Dallas may have looked back and realized this later. That would not surprise me, because I know the man pretty well. I also full agree with and echo Rachel's point that there are many philosophical and theological positions that are OK with God! These secondary matters, important no doubt, should be handled carefully.

I have watched the video where Moreland tells the story more than once. I've given it a lot of thought to it as well. I stand where I am, that Dallas could have defused the confrontation and handled it differently, and that would have been better in that academic context. Those of us who studied and love Dallas need to keep making a firm stand against all Willardism, because he wouldn't want it any other way!

The rest of the article makes some good points and is well thought out. My complements!

Michael Wear

4

Michael Wear commented…

Hi Rachel. Thanks for the comment. I just want to make sure you watch the video I linked to in the article that shows Moreland giving the full story. Due to limited space, I had to cut out some relevant context around the story that might answer some of your questions on this front (though it certainly won't answer them all...wish we could hash this out in-person!).

Caitie Miller

1

Caitie Miller commented…

Thank you, this was a wonderful article! It's making me rethink the way I deal with people when it comes to talking about God. I've always had a "live and let live" policy, thinking that other people's beliefs were their business. But really that has to do with my fear with rejection, and worrying that when the time comes, I won't know what to say. But I have a responsibility to get out there and spread the word. Plant the seeds. God will water them. Thank you for planting a seed of faith in me.

ladymaygreen

15

ladymaygreen commented…

oh, my word. where have you been all my life??? but seriously, i think this article is a great start to a conversation we really, really need to be having in the church today. thank you!

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