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Finding Your Own Truth in the Cacophony of Ideas

At a time of such fragmentation in our social fabric, here's a great lesson we can all learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.: the power of fusing opposites to develop a more nuanced point of view on the important and complicated issues we deal with in life and leadership.

Before King spearheaded America's nonviolent civil liberties struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, he spent time at Crozer Theological Seminary, reading, reflecting and then formulating his bedrocks--his core beliefs that informed his ultimate purpose and his path to pursuing it.

The excerpt below is from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Warner Books, 1998). Note how carefully King analyzed the argument of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, how he pulled apart the different strands of the theologian's argument, how he accepted some strands and rejected others, and how he connected these with other evidence (from Mahatma Gandhi) to form a more complete and satisfying position for himself.

    "Having been raised in a rather strict fundamentalist tradition, I was occasionally shocked when my intellectual journey carried me through new and sometimes complex doctrinal lands, but the pilgrimage was always stimulating; it gave me a new appreciation for objective appraisal and critical analysis, and knocked me out of my dogmatic slumber."

    "During my last year in theological school, I began to read the works of Reinhold Niebuhr...I became so enamored of his social ethics that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything he wrote...At first, Niebuhr's critique of pacifism left me in a state of confusion. As I continued to read, however, I came to see more and more the shortcomings of his position. For instance, many of his statements revealed that he interpreted pacifism as a sort of passive non-resistance to evil expressing naive trust in the power of love. But this was a serious distortion."

    "My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart."

    "In spite of the fact that I found many things to be desired in Niebuhr's philosophy, there were several points at which he constructively influenced my thinking...Niebuhr has extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups...[he] helped me to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism. While I still believed in man's potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man's social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil. Many pacifists, I felt, failed to see this. All too many had an unwarranted optimism concerning man and leaned unconsciously toward self-righteousness. After reading Niebuhr, I tried to arrive at a realistic pacifism."

What this passage so beautifully communicates is how King was not going to let anyone else do the thinking for him. He may have deeply respected certain experts, but ultimately, he was committed to reviewing their ideas, breaking them apart, pressure-testing them, then accepting or rejecting different elements, integrating them with others' ideas, and then, and only then, reaching his own personal convictions on the matter.

In what contexts in life or leadership might there be great value for you to take a disciplined approach like this to form your own bedrock beliefs? Where you perhaps today are reacting to an idea being promoted by others in a black-or-white way, either accepting or rejecting the idea as a whole, without first probing deeper to analyze its various elements and separating the things that you agree with versus those that you don't? Consider what you will do to practice this kind of careful critical thinking going forward so that you become a builder of bridges, rather than boundaries.

This article was originally published in Inc.