Parallel Universes, Politics, and Love

What Can Christians Living in “Parallel Universes of Belief” Do to Find Common Ground?

David Clay / 1.11.21

Parallel universes — the semi-serious idea that there are multiple, co-existing and self-contained dimensions of reality — make for fun thought experiments (e.g., is there a universe in which I’m a good dancer?) and are a staple for comic book writers running out of ideas. I’m also starting to think that they provide a useful metaphor in approaching a lot of the political and cultural disagreements we’re having right now in the American body politic and, sadly, in the church. 

Allow me to introduce the term “Parallel Universe of Belief” (PUB). PUBs exist when two sincere individuals sharing the same space cannot understand why the other believes the way he or she does. This is very different from a standard disagreement. I might think Medicare for All is a bad policy proposal; my friend does not. As I interact with people who are crushed under the weight of medical debt, however, I can certainly understand why my friend thinks the way he does even if I don’t change my mind.

But take, for instance, the widespread belief amongst my fellow conservatives that the people who vandalized the Capitol were really Antifa in cosplay (for the moment, bracket the fact that many of those who took part in vandalizing the Capitol are now expressing extreme annoyance that their handiwork is being ascribed to left-wing agitators). For the life of me, I cannot contort my mind in such a way that I understand how non-malicious adults with properly functioning cognitive equipment could believe such a thing in good faith. But they do. And no doubt they struggle to understand how I could be such a sheep, blindly swallowing the obvious falsehoods fed me by “the Mainstream Media.” We live, apparently, in parallel universes. 

The problem with PUBs is that the people living in them find it extremely difficult, if not actually impossible, to communicate when they bump into each other. That’s because there’s no consensus on basic facts necessary to even have a conversation. In one universe, the established media outlets, think-tanks, and magazines — while undeniably biased, flawed, and incomplete — nonetheless usually present information that is approximately true, while the fringe organizations spout crazy, easily debunked misinformation. In the other universe, “the Mainstream Media” does very little else but consciously lie, while brave souls on talk radio and smaller media corporations risk persecution or worse to get the truth out.

When these two universes collide, there is no point in one telling the other to “do your research.” 

What can Christians living in PUBs do to find common ground in matters cultural and political? Probably not much, at least not on the Internet. What can they do? At a bare minimum, wish each other well and hope for the health of their children and the success of their communities. Small acts of kindness and courtesy. Mutual forgiveness. A shared grace given by the same God. Jesus asks that we love our enemies, not to understand them or coercively argue them into the truth.

This is, of course, impossible, but just about everything Jesus commands is impossible without our consciously relying on his Spirit within us. No matter what universe you’re living in, we can all pray with St. Augustine: “Lord, give what you command, and command what you will.”