Difficult Dialogue in Distressing Days

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Another week, another round of things for people to vehemently and caustically disagree about. Whether it’s politics, economics, social issues, or religious news, we can’t seem to disagree with one another fast enough. We’ll pick up a cause and champion it for a time, only to have something else catch our attention and demand our outspoken criticism or support. Why can’t we seem to see eye to eye?

Obviously, worldview divergences stand at the heart of some disagreement. You and I (and everyone else) see the world in differing ways, which leads us to come to different conclusions or explanations for the various crises occurring in our time.

But I wonder if there’s a deeper issue at work too. An anonymous quote came across my newsfeed the other day, one that I think summarizes our current predicament well:

“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding about politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”

We’ve been taught to avoid having difficult conversations for so long that we’ve actually forgotten how to have those conversations (or never knew how to have them in the first place). We fight and quarrel amongst ourselves so readily because we don’t have the ability to have productively difficult conversations with one another. Now, I’m not the first person to point this out. Indeed, one of the major reasons that Conciliar Post was founded was to provide a space for thoughtful, faithful people to have difficult discussions. Promoting “meaningful dialogue across traditions” is what we’re all about.

But this leaves open the question of how. How do we have meaningful dialogue in today’s world? How can we make sense of our world while challenging other people in loving ways? I want to offer eight suggestions:

  1. Listen in order to understand. Instead of hearing what someone else has to say for the primary purpose of defeating their position, we must learn to listen to others in order to understand what they are actually trying to communicate. Only then can we productively explain our own viewpoint.1
  2. Listen to people with whom you disagree. Pay attention to people who think differently than you.2 Read their books. Listen to their podcasts. Subscribe to their blogs. Follow them on social media. Take them seriously. Don’t offer strawmen—engage what real people really have to say.
  3. Reflect. This might be the hardest thing to do in our social media age. Everyone wants news and reactions immediately. Immediately. Eschew the fixation on immediacy (and the posturing that comes along with it) and take a moment to reflect on what is actually going on before making a judgment about it. As human beings, we’re mostly terrible at making complex snap judgments. Take a moment to think before you engage.
  4. Verify your facts. I take it back—this is the hardest thing to do in our social media age. It’s so easy to share something that gets our blood boiling without ever pausing to see if that information is true. Last week, in the wake of the horrible violence in El Paso, Dayton, and other places, my social media feeds filled with people spouting statistics about gun violence (from both sides of the aisle, mind you). Almost no one provided any sort of verification. Sure, saying that there has been more than one mass shooting in America per day sounds enticing and horrible—but is it true? No one wants to be disseminating fake news, so make sure that you’re verifying your facts.
  5. Commit to civility. Make the decision not to debase people, engage in ad hominem attacks, interact disrespectfully, or otherwise use the relative anonymity of the internet to say horrible things about other people. Just don’t. Seek a more excellent way and communicate with other people respectfully. And on that note….
  6. Have face-to-face conversations. Don’t just interact with other people online—have face-to-face conversations with people. Get out of your bubble. Grab coffee with someone. Have people over for dinner (have your neighbors over for dinner!). Have conversations with people with whom you agree—and with whom you disagree.
  7. Do something. Don’t just share a post on social media and think that you’ve meaningfully contributed to the resolution of a problem. Do something about it. Hashtag activism that doesn’t lead to actual action is nothing short of hypocrisy. Now, you obviously can’t fix every problem; but you can do something about some issue or issues. So do it. Get involved.
  8. Pray. In my less charitable moments, I wonder how many of us say things like “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” and then never give the person or situation another meaningful thought—let alone pray for what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong; I understand and appreciate the sentiment. But as followers of the risen Jesus, our prayers must not be meaningless platitudes. We must actually throw ourselves before God in prayer. You think abortion is evil? You think mass shootings need to end? You’re not pleased with a government official? When was the last time you prayed about those things? Are you consistently bringing them before God? The people of God must bring their concerns to Him in prayer, not just in platitudes.

Will these practices and approaches solve all the world’s problems? No. Only the Second Coming of our Lord will do that.3 But committing ourselves to having productively difficult conversations in these ways will help us make better sense of our world—and enable us to serve as faithful and fruitful lights within it.

What about you: what practices and approaches help you productively dialogue with other people?


Notes

1 Relatedly, much of our media intentionally perverts this idea. Dramatic films or shows are often all about perceived (rather than real) problems that could easily be solved through conversation. Even our sports news is now filled with dramatic talking heads whose sole purpose seems to be shouting at one another rather than having an actual conversation with another person.

2 This doesn’t mean that you have to listen to everyone of course. But finding a couple of well-respected voices from “the other side” is an excellent discipline. Robert P. George and Cornel West are a fantastic example of this.

3 A fact that, it seems, Christians must do a better job of remembering in the public square when we promote this or that cause as the thing that will turn society around. As Jesus reminds us in John 16:33, in this world there will be trials and tribulations.

Orthodoxy and Relevance

Christians have long talked about life as a journey, whether as runners or pilgrims or travelers or something else. Journeys tend to involve forks in the road, decisions to make, and obstacles to overcome. Sometimes, the decisions of this journey are between light and darkness, holiness and sin, redemption and backsliding. In these instances, the follower of Christ is called to choose the path of faithfulness. Other times, however, the decisions we make along the way do not seem to be inherently good or bad—it’s not immediately clear whether one path is better than the other.

Such an image of journey has been on my mind lately as I’ve wrestled with what seems to be an increasingly common trope for contemporary Christians: the ongoing debate between orthodoxy and relevance.

Per Merriam-Webster, orthodoxy means “right belief, sound doctrine” and relevance means “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” Based on those definitions, you wouldn’t expect contemporary Christians to believe that orthodoxy and relevance are at odds with one another. But if you talk to many Christians, you’d be wrong. Let me explain. Continue reading

Suggestions for Social Media Sanity

In case you haven’t heard, social media has garnered quite the reputation. Whether you’re talking about the perniciousness of Twitter-fueled outrage, the placidity of hashtag activism, the propensity to waste hours of your life, the easy propagation of fake news, or the paucity of meaningful conversation, social media is often viewed negatively.

But social media isn’t all bad. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. In its best moments, social media still accomplishes its purpose quite well: connecting people in ways that were unthinkable just decades ago. For example, social media helps my family stay in touch with one another, even though we’re spread across four states, three time zones, and some 6,250 miles of distance. The immediacy and accessibility of social media platforms lets us communicate with one another in close to real time, helping us remain close.

Of course, not every use of social media leaves us with warm fuzzies. Undoubtedly, everyone reading this can recall at least one time when they’ve considered deactivating or otherwise no longer using a particular platform or application. My suggestion is this: establishing a few good social media habits can help us stay sane and lead to generally positive social media interactions.1 Continue reading

Kids and the Kingdom

It’s wonderful to be a father.

I always suspected as much, but there are some things in life you just have to experience in order to truly understand.

Sure, being a parent is hard work. You learn to die to your wants and to put your spouse and kid(s) ahead of yourself. You sleep less, you work more. But it’s all worth it when you see that smile, hear that laugh, and get that hug when you come home in the evening. It’s a supreme privilege to be a parent–to learn from my daughter and to be able to walk with her as she grows.

I could go on, of course, as every parent could. But what I really want to say today is this: being a father has made me realize that the Christian life is a lot like the birth and growth of a child. Let me explain.

Preparing for Birth

When couples announce the impending arrival of a child, there’s typically quite the celebration. Letting family and friends know the big news is tremendously exciting. Then, you get to figure out a clever way to tell your Facebook friends you’re pregnant. Gender reveal parties are a thing now too, so that’s fun. People throw you showers. Gifts show up in the mail. It’s quite the hullabaloo.

Of course, you and your spouse are also quite busy. There’s a room to be repurposed (and often repainted) and furniture to find. Small people require lots (and lots and lots) of clothing, so you acquire plenty of that. There are diapers, wipes, bottles, burp cloths, baby monitors, noisemakers, and a whole host of other things Babies R’ Us sells that you absolutely need in order for your kid to survive and thrive in the world.

You attend childbirth classes and go to a hospital or two. You visit a plethora of doctors and have a host of appointments (the best ones being where you actually get to see your beloved baby). A due date gets circled on the calendar. Eventually, you pack a birthing bag. One day, the birth pains begin and you drive (a little faster than absolutely necessary, truth be told) to that magic space in which your baby will be brought into the world.

And after all that fervent preparation and all that excitement, then your new life begins.

Life is a Journey

Preparation for your baby can be fun. And the actual day of birth is a wondrous time–a day you’re unlikely to ever forget. But the big day isn’t important for its own sake; it’s important because of what it brings about. The best part of parenthood is actually everything that comes after that day.

It’s taking your newborn home. Introducing them to all the important people in your life. Surviving until they sleep through the night. Helping them eat their first real food (as if baby food is something real). It’s watching them learn to crawl, then stand, then walk. The best part of parenthood isn’t the day your baby is born–it’s those moments when your child begins talking, calling your name when they need you, and growing into their personality.

Of course, parenthood isn’t all fun and games–there are plenty of sleepless nights, days of sickness, messes made, and painful lessons learned. But all of these steps and stages in life are part of the incredible process that is seeing your kid grow into the person that God created them to be.

Life is a journey–it begins with the incredible moment of birth, but it cannot ever be reduced to that moment.

Obsession with the First Part of the Journey?

It’s here that we must turn to the Christian life. Countless Christians throughout the ages have written about how following Jesus as a journey, a process. The author of Hebrews declared, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

It makes sense to highlight portions of the journey of faith. Starting strong, reaching certain milestones, and finishing well–these are all moments worthy of celebration and remembrance. Sometimes, however, Christians have overemphasized particular moments of the faith journey. Some ancient Christians, for instance, were a bit too zealous in celebrating the end of life, particularly when lives ended in martyrdom.

Writing from my current context, it seems as if contemporary American evangelicals have overemphasized the moment of conversion in the Christian life. Now, conversion is a very important and special moment in one’s faith journey. It’s rightly something to be excited about. Conversion is, in many ways, like the birth of your child–a moment to anticipate, work toward, celebrate, and remember for a long time. But some Christian churches have made the moment of conversion the pinnacle of all of Christian existence.1

If we make conversion the sole emphasis of the Christian life–or, perhaps even worse, the sole driver of the life of the Christian church–we might end up with a lot of births. But we’ll also be left with a lot of baby Christians, feeding on milk rather than meat (Heb. 5:12-14). Focusing on the “birth” moment will also result in a distorted way of life in the here-and-now; rather than looking forward to the next milestone of growth and maturity, we’re constantly looking back, yearning for a time that wasn’t quite as great as we remember it being and missing out of the opportunities available to us today.

A Life of Growth

Rather than focusing so exclusively on the day of birth, our living out the Christian life should look more like the life of a child: a birth followed by tremendous growth.

In the same way that children grow and mature, so also Christians must mature into adult members of the kingdom. When we talk about the Christian life, we must recognize that we’re ultimately talking about much more than birth–we’re talking about the journey of life. It’s instructive that Jesus commands his followers to make disciples–complete with an outline of what that entails (Matt. 28:19-20)–rather than telling them to make converts.

The Christian Church cannot be an institution that is just focused on getting people to open up the front door, walk in, and “make a decision.” We must be a Church that is obsessed with getting people to come in off the street and enter the deepest and most holy places that God has prepared for us.

In short, we must be like kids–kids who are growing and going deeper and deeper into the Kingdom.


1 Scot McKnight does a masterful job explaining this reality–as well as the distortion of the Gospel that it brings–in The King Jesus Gospel.

This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Listening to Destitute Minds

I believe we suffer from a propensity to look at people with whom we disagree and say to ourselves, “That person can’t teach me anything. They are so wrong in how they think, so insufficient in their intellectual capacities, so distorted in their worldview, that I could not possibly see reality more clearly by interacting with this person.”

Think of the political divide. Republicans decry working with “the other side” as a compromise of values. In turn, Democrats seriously question the sanity and morality of those who disagree with their principles. Both sides react with disdain when anyone seeks a third way for moving forward.

Consider the culture wars. One side sees evil lurking everywhere.Government, the news, schools, technology–-all are trying to poison the hearts and minds of the faithful. The other side sees the forces of corruption, corporate task masters, and institutional suppression reigning supreme, preventing people from experiencing true liberation.

Think of what is now 500 years of theological division (non-Chalcedonian and Orthodox brethren aside, of course). For some, the Reformation was the moment of freedom, the removal of the shackles of theological corruption, the purification of doctrine and practice, and remains a cause for great celebration. For others, the Reformation was a grave mistake, a continued blight on the landscape of Christianity, a massive embarrassment, a destruction of unity that should be mourned, not celebrated.

The very way in which we talk to and interact with others is poisoned by the mindset, “You’re wrong. I cannot learn from you.” Too often, the logic is frighteningly simple: Someone is different than me. Since I’m right, that someone is wrong. Therefore, they have nothing of value to offer me or my tribe. Continue reading

Some Post-Election Reflections

election-2016This was unexpected. For weeks, pundits were talking about the flexibility of polling (it looks like the major polls were ~3-4% points off) and the unknowability of the “Silent Trump vote” which came out en masse yesterday. This was yet another election where the experts were off in their predictions enough that it mattered in the end.

Social media matters. The idea that any press is good press undoubtedly assisted President Elect Trump during this election. Election-themed hashtags are here to stay. Additionally, our reliance on social media made it near-impossible to forget that yesterday was election day or who was running. Trump’s traditional “ground game” was non-existent in some places, but his social media furor helped alleviate those concerns. Our country is changing how we communicate and Trump did a solid job embracing that reality.

There are some intriguing parallels to the Obama 2008 election. Both Trump and Obama ran on outsider, change-centered platforms, a possible indication that the electorate really doesn’t really like either party just change. Both candidates offered rhetorically strong campaigns but did not rely much on rhetorical sophistication (“Make America Great Again” and “Hope and Change”). Obama and Trump have also “rewritten” the electoral map (insofar as you can rewrite anything that, by definition, changes constantly and very clearly every four years) in ways that pundits will be digesting and discussing for what will feel like endless election-cycles to come. Continue reading

Redeeming Halloween

826439-halloween-copyHappy Halloween! Or Happy Reformation Day. Or Happy All Hallow’s Eve. Or maybe I should just wish you all a Happy(-ish) Monday.

For many Christians, October 31 seems marked with uncertainty. Yes, we all enjoy seeing (and buying, but this isn’t the place for personal confessions) the gigantic bags of candy in the grocery store. And most of us enjoy seeing hilariously clever punny costumes. But for many others, the celebration of Halloween brings us back to that seemingly never ending question concerning how we should interact with culture. Halloween today seems far less innocent than it did even ten or fifteen years ago. Back in those days, as Richard Mouw has noted, Continue reading

Happy Fourth of July

Fourth-of-JulyHappy Birthday to the United States of America! As is my custom on this holiday, I encourage you to read the Declaration of Independence (signed this day in 1776) and to reflect on the ideals of government found therein.

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. Continue reading

Looking Forward to the Future: Goals for 2016

2016Generally, I’m not one to craft a bunch of New Year’s Resolutions. Not necessarily because I am bad at following through, but rather due to my propensity to try and “fix” something when I see that it needs fixing. Nevertheless, over the past couple of weeks I have found myself reflecting on the need to use the New Year as an opportunity to revitalize some practices in my life. Below are five goals I have set for the coming year. Continue reading