Temperance is the attitude of respect and careful consideration and judgement with which the disagreement is carried out. It is a spirit which is kind, gentle, self-controlled, which evidences the fruit of the spirit. We ought not think such a spirit will simply emerge, either in ourselves or in our churches. Instead, we must campaign for it, work for it, sacrifice for it. In that sense, in fact, temperance is like every other biblical virtue. It is hard won against sin, not easily achieved, in ourselves or others. But it is worth it.
Will it be any better the next time? For several years, the trifecta of COVID, an election, and race tore churches apart. What was obviously missing was that pesky fellow Paul’s understanding that we ought to put the needs of others first. (See 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.) Instead of becoming a hotbed of charity and kindness, churches reflected many of the same warring tendencies as society at large. Nor was this a new phenomenon; just ask any worship leader from the 1990’s about the “worship wars.” Christians, like the rest of society, sadly find it much easier to fight for what we want than to sacrifice for others. We simply dress it up in sheep’s clothing, telling ourselves that we are “fighting for what is right,” often not recognizing our own biases and our own enculturation of our faith, not realizing that we, ourselves are not actually enunciating pure Christianity but instead our own version, one with all sorts of cultural biases. In other words, the church of the past few years has been, in many — and concerning — ways, resembling society more than leading it.
The past year has felt better, though, as if everyone has been able to just slightly catch our collective breath. There is a tiny bit more peace now in most churches. Could it be that this disease has finally begun to generate its own antibodies? Could we have all taken a look at our failure to act with charity, at our conflict, and realized that we had lost at least some of our moorings? It could be. Or could it be that the sparks to light the cloud of fuel vapor are simply not currently present? It could be that, too. Or could the splitting already be complete, leaving only monocultural churches who now have nothing left over which to split? It could be that as well. We will only know if the church has made progress on its fractiousness once the next set of sparks flies. We won’t know until the next time.
Society more broadly, at least in the United States, shows some of the same. No one need rehearse the mess of tribalization and conflict that 2020-2022 generated. Could it be that societal strife has also begun to generate its own antibodies? It could be. Anecdotal reports indicate that traffic on the most extreme left and right websites is down. Even San Francisco has moved a bit back to the center. Or could it be that we are, again, simply waiting for the next set of sparks to light the vapor cloud afire? It could be. With both the church and society, we simply do not know until the next crisis comes.
That said, there remain huge causes for concern. The fundamental factors that created the tension and rancor of the past few years have hardly disappeared in a flurry of kindness. The internet remains, as Jonathan Haidt reminded us in a seminal Atlantic article in May, no longer a place of “techno-democratic optimism” but instead an epistemological disaster. Social media feedback loops continue to control and radicalize many, especially those with much time on their hands. It is fashionable to dunk on TikTok these days, but for a reason. Yan Wu and David Byler’s analysis of TikTok posts on abortion, for instance, concluded that the platform is “almost perfectly designed” to divide, driving “a steadily increasing dose of partisanship and extremism.” Nor, honestly, is the internet even necessary for this process. Cable news, whichever one’s ideological perspective, can provide much of the same high, serving as only a slightly less potent drug.
Again, churches have mimicked society, not lead it. Tim Keller commented last year:
In virtually every church there is a smaller or larger body of Christians who have been radicalized to the Left or to the Right by extremely effective and completely immersive internet and social media loops, newsfeeds, and communities. People are bombarded 12 hours a day with pieces that present a particular political point of view, and the main way it seeks to persuade is not through argument but through outrage. People are being formed by this immersive form of public discourse—far more than they are being formed by the Church.
Beyond social and cable media, the more basic challenges of human psychology remain. The loudest voices get the attention, even if they are irresponsible, eventually shifting the Overton window. Humans share a common tendency to take anything too far; as Alexander Hamilton famously stated, “The passions of a revolution are apt to hurry even good men into excesses.” Casting opponents in the worst possible light remains one of the easiest ways to win the argument, even if not to find real truth. Opponents are easier to shout down than to argue down. Insults win the crowd, even if they hold no real truth. Whoever disagrees is an idiot and a menace, not a responsible person with a different opinion. And, if all of that is not enough, humans still rarely abandon a position once we have publicly taken it.
False witness is alive and well in the world, and not only our society, but also those of us in the church, too often do not pause to think carefully, to stop before we share it. And, of course, no retraction or fact check ever catches up with the rumor or falsehood that sped out of the gate before it. There remain many causes for concern. Do not exhale just yet.
The question is ultimately one of temperance. “Temperance,” of course, for many of us immediately draws up images of 19th and early 20th century rallies, attempts to restrict or outlaw “booze,” replacing it with the teetotalers’ delight of 1920-1933 (at least in the United States). The association of the term “temperance” with anti-alcohol legislation is often overpowering. It can make a wine-lover’s head spin.
Yet “temperance” certainly has a broader meaning than alcohol. Most broadly, temperance is self-restraint, moderation, self-control. Such qualities are, of course, necessary when dealing with alcohol, but alcohol consumption hardly exhausts their value or need. Where older Bible translations used the English “temperance,” many modern translations will use “self-control.” Such self-control, such temperance, is clearly a biblical value.