On Not Having Opinions


I did this cartoon for another topic that I never posted. It’s only marginally relevant here, but it should get a home somewhere.


Someone in the crowd:   Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.
Jesus:   Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator for you? (Luke 12:13-14)

Jesus didn’t even look to see which of the brothers looked more dangerous. Maybe they both looked bad, though none of that should have been a problem given how many physically fit guys Jesus traveled with. At any rate, Jesus wasn’t getting involved. If someone translates his response as “What do I care?” I won’t complain, especially given what Jesus says next (look it up).

Americans (I’m one) apparently have a God-given right to their opinions. (I use “God-given” here in the sense that my father often used it, with fully secular intent.) In other words, many of us are quite willing to express our opinions hotly on many (many!) matters about which we can do nothing else. And we are also quite willing to raise hell about each other’s opinions. Right now, just say the magic word “immigration” in a crowded place, say a bar or a church, and you will release a Pandora’s box of opinions, all of them potentially right and all of them equally ineffective.

I was recently accused of having an opinion on something else, and I have expressed what might be taken as an opinion on that magic word topic (here). And the latter, at least, must’ve been a correct opinion because I quoted the Bible in support of it. At least that’s the attitude with which we sometimes quote the much-battered book (see 2 Corinthians 11:17-19).

Otherwise, I don’t work much at having opinions. Shaping myself around hot button issues isn’t something I do. If you note a bit of pride, perhaps even self-righteousness, there, you are perceptive and correct. This is not just about politics or even primarily about politics. I have been asked for my opinion about what somebody named Kardashian should do. I’ve been asked the same about other people with whom I’m supposed to be on a first-name-only basis with, though we’ve never met. If I bother to have an opinion, will that person pay heed to it?

If you hear a bit of disillusioned grumpy old man there, you may again be correct. At other times I have deployed some fairly standard arguments for the value of expressing one’s opinions (such as here), and I’ve done that to such a degree that one might think I really do believe in American democracy. But I am usually persuaded toward having fewer opinions by that lack of answers to the question “Who gives a [your favorite expletive] about what I think?” Not the president, not somebody named Kardashian. They don’t need to care what I think. On the political side, the God-given right to our opinions is so well-managed that the most meaningful thing to do is, at the risk of being thought crazy, search for what has fallen through the cracks (see further on that here and here).

There is a freedom gained in having fewer opinions, freedom from the necessity of figuring things out (not that all of us who have opinions have bothered with that step), freedom from stomach acid and other health benefits of getting all worked up about stuff, freedom from alienating one’s in-laws, and freedom from trashing friendships (which are more important than any number of God-given rights), for instance.

There is also freedom in the sense of being released to do something else. For instance, “let’s drop off every burden” so that we can “run with endurance the race laid out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). Or read Philippians 3, but substitute that right to have and voice your opinion for Paul’s pride in being Jewish and what he does with it:

Sure I can do that, even better than anyone. I can give opinions, high quality opinions, about anything you can name. I can tell anyone you name what they should do. But I figure that that readiness to offer the benefit of my wisdom is less than nothing, and I do so for the sake of Christ. In fact, anything I might have to offer is nothing next to the far better value of knowing Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have tossed it all in the trash so that I can have him and be seen focusing on him…. I haven’t got as far as I will in knowing him, so I keep on working on it because Jesus has made a claim on me. I don’t have it all yet, so I just forget where I’ve been and press on to what’s coming around the bend so that I can finish this race of God’s calling and win the prize. (Philippians 3:4-9 and 12-14, much paraphrased)

In both passages Jesus is the pacesetter: “We keep our eyes on Jesus … who for the joy awaiting him endured the cross …” (Hebrews 12:2); “that I may … share Jesus’ sufferings and follow him in his death, if in any way I may arrive at the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

There’s more than a little Kierkegaard in this focus on the one thing that counts, but, rather than me quoting him, perhaps you can perform a paraphrase, similar to the one I inflicted on Paul above, on this from Bonhoeffer: “For Christian ethics, the mere possibility of knowing about good and evil is already a falling away from the origin. Living in the origin human beings know nothing but God alone.”

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 6; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 299-300.
  • I ran across this (again) a few days after putting up this post: “A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything.” That’s from the first chapter of Chesterton’s Heretics.