For the most part, I think Avery Dulles is right to say that “dissent should neither be glorified or vilified.” Dissent in the 21st century is not only permitted, it is often even required as a sign of truthfulness. Of course, that’s not entirely incorrect. To dissent, in part, is to signify that there is road left to travel, that we have not finally arrived in understanding or practice. Those who compel us towards growth in understanding, towards a more faithful discipleship, always bear something of a critical edge—they take notice of those places where we have fallen short, they push us beyond our insufficiencies. But dissent in the 21st century is also celebrated, totalized, in a way that negates its opposite: trust. Or maybe it’s the reverse: dissent in the 21st century is impossible, because there is a refusal to recognize that anything could rightly claim authority—there is nothing from which to dissent. The result of glorifying dissent, on this end of things, is an indomitable arrogance, where nothing is worth preserving and my critical edge is automatically the critical edge of truth.
Yet I wonder if Dulles has forgotten the central place of the prophets as faithful dissenters in the Old Testament canon. At least it disturbs me somewhat to hear Dulles reduce Jesus’ prophetic role to “authoritative instruction.” Instruction is certainly there, but for Jesus and the prophets before him, prophetic instruction is always instruction over against. That is, prophecy always involves judgment, and not just of individuals but (even primarily) of establishments and habits. And what is dissent if not this critical judgment of establishments and habits? Need we not maintain what Dulles forgets, a positive account of the indispensability of dissent, if we are to walk with the prophets even today?
Update: Tim Nafziger has made an important comment below, calling me out on the unnamed and narrow scope I had in mind while writing this. Ambivalence towards dissent from violent regimes or structures is but a damnable apathy towards evil, Tim is absolutely right, and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. This post has in mind dissent within the church, and in a particularly American context.