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The Inner Nego

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In 1967, a turbulent era not unlike our own, the late Northrop Frye was a biblical and literary scholar. He also was an ordained clergyman in the United Church of Canada, and he made this declaration:

No idea is more than a half truth unless it contains its own opposite, and is expanded by its own denial or qualification.


Wise words, but in the incendiary climate of today’s civic discourse, would his voice be heard? Genuine ideas today, not to be confused with mere opinion, fare poorly. Closed off from the serious play of healthy dialogue, they instead are judged as Right or Wrong and shaped into culture-war ammunition. The church, far from rising above the shooting, is the scene of some of the fiercest battles.

Before Frederick Buechner gained his reputation as a novelist and Christian apologist, he taught several years at Exeter, an elite New Hampshire prep school. For Buechner, a young convert and recent seminary graduate, these were nine years of wide-ranging, intensive, uninhibited dialogue with some of secular modernity’s most skeptical questioners: his students. As Buechner tells it, the Exeter word for these intellectual gadflies was nego, a student “negative, against, anti, just about everything.”

From his years on the firing line, Buechner learned that in a legitimate attempt to make Christianity compelling to religion’s “cultured despisers,” he must share honestly the ambiguities of his own faith. Years after leaving Exeter, the voice of the nego remained a part of his inner dialogue. In The Alphabet of Grace, a book in which he invites the reader into the workings and wanderings of his mind on an average day in his life, an inner voice unexpectedly interrupts a period of silence with a pungent comment.

Buechner describes the voice: “My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I’ve ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without guile or mercy.”

The voice speaks to him often. Sometimes it causes no little discomfort, but Buechner knows he is much richer for its presence.

What Northrop Frye and Frederick Buechner are talking about here, of course, is dialogue, whether focused on matters of faith and unbelief or the more mundane concerns we confront in our ordinary lives. In neither arena does true dialogue involve a dumbing down of the issues or a watering down of our own commitment—only our recognizing that conscientious search for truth demands a respectful consideration of opposing views.
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