Recently a judge named Antonin Scalia on the United States’ Supreme Court died and, despite how he is sometimes portrayed, Justice Scalia was apparently a man who exhibited intellectual hospitality, even to those who did not agree with many if any of his positions.
Justice Scalia’s reputation is pretty clear to most people. He’s called “combative,” “tough,” and “fiery.” And its his public perception that causes many to be surprised when it is revealed that he was not only willing to have Justices of other positions on the Court but that he welcomed it and even jockeyed for it.
After Justice Scalia’s passing, David Axelrod wrote an opinion piece on CNN.com that showed just that, namely that Justice Scalia tried to influence President Obama through a back channel to have a friend, now-Justice Elena Kagan, nominated despite the fact that she is more-or-less diametrically in opposition to all of his ideological positions.
Why would he want to do this? Axelrod thinks that “if Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”
To put it more succinctly: Justice Scalia was a person who valued and demonstrated intellectual hospitality.
What is intellectual hospitality?
My friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Greg Waybright says this about intellectual honesty: it is show when we “speak to one another with 1) the grace to receive and consider differing positions and 2) the courage to challenge other positions with respect-filled questions.” I love the twofold description, one in-coming (receiving other positions with grace) and one out-going (asking respectful questions).
And it appears that Justice Scalia had this kind of intellectual hospitality. He was “best buddies” with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with whom he had major disagreements, and his friendship with Justice Kagan, with whom he also disagreed, grew to such an extent that they became hunting buddies.
I can’t imagine the conversations between these legal giants never ventured into ideological territory. And when it did, they all must have demonstrated great intellectual hospitality in order to begin, foster, and deepen meaningful relationships.
This type of deference for “the other” is badly missing in the world. (Full disclosure: I almost ended that last line with the word “today” but then I remembered that humans have been around this world for quite some time and, thus, there’s always been a great deal of need for others-focused ethics!)
Jesus and Intellectual Hospitality
Much more can be said about this topic than I’m going to say here. But I want to make a similar point about Jesus that I made about Justice Scalia — namely, that Jesus was willing and able to interact meaningfully with people very different from him.
Think about the people that surrounded Jesus on the regular: Matthew (who was the mob-muscle kind of tax collector), Simon the Zealot (who may well have been part of a political terror group), and Judas Iscariot (who would betray Jesus, which Jesus knew from the beginning).
Then think about some of the people that Jesus went out of his way to spend time with: The Samaritan Woman (their conversation in John 4 is a great example of intellectual hospitality in action!), Nicodemus (who was a religious leader that may have been too ashamed and/or fearful to meet with Jesus in the light of day), Zacchaeus (who was the mob-boss kind of tax collector), and even the thief of the cross (who, unlike Jesus, earned his way to his capital punishment).
Jesus has no equals among any of us human beings and yet he chose to relate closely to all sorts of us when was incarnated here on earth.
And if we are to follow Jesus, then we too should exercise a bit more intellectual hospitality too.
Intellectual Hospitality: A Few Starting Points
So, how are we to manifest more intellectual hospitality in our lives?
Here are a few starting points:
- Interact with people who are different. We are all deeply impacted by tribalism — we want to spend time with people just like us. That’s simply not what Jesus did. And beside the usual Jesus-did-it-this-way-and-so-should-we argument, being friends with an array of different sorts of people makes life much more meaningful and fulfilling.
- Show respect before acting on anger. If we interact with people different than us, then we are sure to come up against ideas that make us angry from time to time. In those moments we have a choice to make — we can 1) lash out at the person espousing the offending idea(s) or 2) respectfully engage in conversation despite our anger. Remember, we hold positions that make others angry too! We don’t have a monopoly on indignation!
- Grow. There’s little that’s more narcissistic and ego-maniacal than refusing to grow. Think about it, not wanting to grow communicates to the world that we don’t need to grow. And we all know for a fact that we haven’t arrived — we all have miles and miles to go. Therefore, in all our relationships we need to admit that we could learn something important and make space in order to do so. And the best kind of space for growth is respectful conversation.
- Give others the same benefit of the doubt that we want given to us. This is the golden rule of intellectual hospitality. Would we want someone to belittle us for our ideas? Would we want to be ostracized because of our beliefs? Would we want someone to refuse to see the logic in our position? Would we want our personal narratives to be disregarded without a second thought?
- Pray. Intellectual hospitality can be difficult, whether we are just beginning to practice it or if we’ve been at it for decades. And, if we’re honest, none of us can do this on our own. We need the power of the Spirit within us to help us. We need him, the Spirit of God, to develop in us his fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And each aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is necessary for us to exhibit intellectual honesty. So let’s pray for the Spirit to grow his fruit in us!
What do you think about intellectual hospitality? Was Justice Scalia a good example of it? What do we learn about it from Jesus? How can we demonstrate it in our lives? Let me know in the comments below!
**If you’re really into this idea of intellectual honesty, then check out this post. In it Bob Trube makes a really strong case for having intellectual hospitality with those who differ from us greatly. It’s a short but meaningful read!