News, On Campus

“Why Are We at Each Other’s Throats?”: Panel Unpacks the Role of Polarization in the Church

Conflict and argument are normal and conducive to growth, but polarization is not, according to Julie Hanlon Rubio. 

“In order to argue, you have to have some foundation in common, whereas when we’re polarized, we see ourselves as so far apart that it really is pointless to argue,” said Rubio,  associate dean at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University.

Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center held a panel on Thursday titled “Why Are We At Each Other’s Throats? A Conversation About Faith, the Church, and Polarization,” featuring Rubio, Brian Robinette, Holly Taylor Coolman, and Hosffman Ospino, all professors of theology.

Robinette, associate professor of theology at BC and moderator of the panel, asked each panelist to define the term polarization and explain to what degree they considered it a problem in the world. 

Coolman, an assistant professor of theology at Providence College, said polarization can be understood by visualizing a magnet with two poles. 

“The two poles are defined as being the opposite of one another,” Coolman said. “What it means to be one is to be opposite the other.” 

Ospino, chair of the department of religious education and pastoral ministry at BC’s School of Theology and Ministry, said experiencing conflict is acceptable and normal. 

“Difference is part of our lives, and it has been powerful,” Ospino said. “As long as we can go back in history, we can recognize that people see the world in different ways.”

According to Ospino, history is characterized by people’s inability to accept perspectives contrary to their own. 

“When someone says, ‘My position is the truth … and everything else is not valid,’ that position actually has shaped many conflicts and dramatic realities throughout history,” Ospino said.

Rubio said that polarization can distract people from genuinely engaging with social issues by inhibiting productive conversations.

“Those are the problems: racism, sexism, and violence,” Rubio said.  “When we are either at each other’s throats or just not talking, then we’re not able to be in solidarity, we’re not able to be a body, and we’re less than what we could be.”

Ospino said polarization is sold and consumed like a market good. 

“We sellers serve polarization as an option—as a way of life—and that is being consumed by people in many ways,” Ospino said. “It’s being consumed by social media, it’s being sold intellectually, it’s being consumed religiously.”

Coolman added that the media can intensify polarization by capitalizing on people’s emotional reactions to social issues in an effort to build more audience engagement.

“We’re more likely to click for fear or anger than we are for complex, nuanced analysis,” Coolman said. “So in part, I just want to sound the alarm of the way in which this is a deep problem for U.S. democracy.”

Coolman said polarization is especially detrimental within the context of the church. 

“As the church reenacts some of these dynamics in the larger society, including disdain for one another, including the loss of conversation, I would argue that we are acting in some of the deepest levels in opposition to who we are as church,” Coolman said. 

According to Rubio, educational institutions have the power to change trends in polarization by exposing students to different perspectives and encouraging important conversations. 

“If professors are doing their work, I think there’s a lot of potential [in the classroom] to increase capacity for conversation,” Rubio said. “We want students to graduate with the capacity to be a part of hard conversations and even believe those conversations. That can be transformative.” 

Robinette said challenging personal views through emotional conversations takes skill and perseverance, but is possible nonetheless. 

“There has to be some kind of internal space to be able to pull a multitude of perspectives, to be able to see a variety of angles, and also to sense the deeper values out of which one is coming when you’re engaging in conversations,” Robinette said.  

December 3, 2023