Orthodox America

  A Matter of Opinion

The post-election drama that has been entertaining the nation for several weeks now-the counting and re-counting, the scrutinizing of "chits" and "dimples," the debates over which votes are to be counted and which votes are to be thrown out, the arguments over deadlines-has also been very educational in showing how different journalists and political analysts, working presumably from the same set of facts, can arrive at opposite conclusions, depending on their political affiliation. We often criticize the media for their bias, but how often do we ourselves make value judgments based on our own or someone else's opinion? How often do we let fly with our opinions without weighing the consequences? How often do we mistake opinion for fact? These questions deserve serious thought, particularly in view of today's widespread use of the Internet, which can communicate opinions with lightning speed across whole continents and to scores of people-with untold effect.

This is not to say that holding or sharing opinions is bad. Opinion is sometimes simply a matter of taste: I think that sapphire is the most beautiful color; you think that it's fuchsia. It would be childish to argue the point, when both of us know that there is no objective right or wrong here. Opinion differs from fact in that it is "not substantiated by positive knowledge of proof" (American Heritage Dictionary). It is formed under the influence of our culture, our upbringing, our experience, and people whom we love or admire-whose opinion we respect. Opinion can be colored by our mood or disposition: If it is a hot day and we are in a bad mood, we might say that the heat is oppressive; if we are in a good mood, the same day might appear to us to be delightfully warm. Opinion is often based on partial facts. We are all familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant. One man bumps into a leg and says, "Ah, an elephant is like a great tree trunk." Another feels the tail and says, "Not at all; he is very much like a rope." A third brushes against an ear and says, "On the contrary, he is smooth and flat."

All of this simply means that we must not think too highly of our opinions and be prepared to re-examine and to revise them in light of new facts or changing circumstances.

Audi alteram partem

It is difficult for most of us to accept limitations, to acknowledge that our opinion may be based on partial or faulty information. We become attached to our opinions, reluctant to yield to others. Eventually, we fail even to hear the other side. This is a sure sign of pride, which, says one holy father, "has a way of insisting on its own way in conversation in order to keep the upper hand; it cannot bend to another's view but stubbornly persists in its own opinion" (Schema-abbot John of Valaam, Christ Is in Our Midst). The humble man does not push his opinion. He is quick to admit that his opinion may be in error and welcomes the counsel of others.

Opinion, according to Saint John Damascene, is one of the five senses of the soul, just a step away from fantasy or imagination ("On the Virtues and the Vices"). This indicates just how careful we must be in making value judgments on the basis of opinion-our own or another's. A negative opinion of others can be formed from something as slight as a passing glance or careless remark. If we proceed to share this opinion, this judgment, with others, we can do much harm, for judgments, once formed, are not easily undone and often leave a lingering shadow, even after a more positive image of that person has been introduced. Therefore, we must be careful not to share criticisms or negative impressions, unless we are sure this is justified and necessary. As Christians, we are to look for the good in others, and to fashion our opinions accordingly.

This does not mean that we are to be spineless or to yield to another's opinion merely to exercise humility. We may stand by our opinions, if we feel they are well-founded, but we must take care that they are not infused by passion, which can provoke heated debat, arguments, discord, and division. How often someone remarks on the unedifying volleys of opinon broadcast on the Internet. This is especially grievous when it involves affairs of the Church. One is tempted to post a note recommending that the players study to be quiet and to do [their] own business (I Thess. 4:10). In areas other than dogma the Church allows a certain spectrum of opinion. We should respect this and not expect others to mold to our specifications. Watchfulness is a key word in spiritual life, and it is applicable here. Before expressing our opinion, we should pause for a moment and check it against our conscience: Is it motivated by passion? What is its purpose? Are we listening to the other side or are we simply trying to prove our point, or taking advantage of an audience to hear ourselves speak?

Opinions steeped in humility carry more weight than those puffed up with hot air. We would do well to remember the story of the blind men and the elephant. It may be that our opinions are based on the feel of the tail. - Editor

"...Just as God became angry and appointed the confusion of languages among those who were building the Tower of Babel out of pride, so something similar is happening to our unfortunate nation and to our Church. As many as we are, each one has a different language. The one will not listen to the other. Furthermore as many as are our passions, so many are our languages. The one says one thing, the other says the opposite. Everyone is speaking for their own interest, no one for the common benefit. For this reason, only sound, disturbance and confusion is occurring, and nothing good. An evil sign. A sign and most triumphant proof that faith has vanished. There is no faith. There is no faith implemented with love. The true faith and Church have union and agreement. The name of the Church is not separation, but union and agreement, says the divine Chrysostom. And wherever there is perfect faith there is one heart and one soul: "While there was a multitude of believers, their heart and soul were one."

Elder Philotheos Zervakos
Paternal Counsels, vol. II