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.

How to Tell If a Sermon is Good

Every week, millions of people around the world situate themselves in moderately uncomfortable seating and listen to someone talk at them for an extended period of time. I am, of course, referring to Christians who attend church services and listen to sermons. While Christian denominations differ on all manner of doctrine and practice, the proclamation of a message is accepted as standard practice by Christians worldwide.

Now, sermons vary quite a bit. They differ in title (sermon, message, homily, lesson), length (from 5 minutes to hours), style (read, Spirit-inspired, off-the-cuff, practiced), emphasis (as the central focus to a prelude to something else), and content (topical, exegetical, series, stand-alone, visionary, reactionary). Furthermore, as anyone who has attended church more than a handful of times can tell you, sermons also vary greatly in quality.

Some sermons are extremely boring, filled with clichés, poor teaching, and dragging on for what seems like an eternity. Other messages are highly engaging, composed of amusing anecdotes, motivational testimonies, and powerful calls to action. Some sermons are theologically rich, rooted in solid exegesis, overflowing with biblical wisdom, and founded on timeless truths. Other times, sermons are theologically destitute, bereft of meaningful insights, rarely referencing the scriptures, and lacking identifiably Christian content. Continue reading

The Day That Jesus Died

When students are first introduced to the historical, as opposed to a devotional, study of the Bible, one of the first things they are forced to grapple with is that the biblical text, whether Old Testament or New Testament, is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable…. In some cases seemingly trivial points of difference can actually have an enormous significance for the interpretation of a book or the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel or the life of the historical Jesus.”—Bart D. Ehrman1

Bart D. Ehrman

As this statement from contemporary (and popular) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman indicates, there those who study Christianity—its scriptures and history—who argue that the canonical gospels2 do not present a historically accurate account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Around Easter every year, scholars and journalists of this perspective often pen pieces on the ”Why the Resurrection Story is a Myth” or ”Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” In more nuanced versions of these discussions, the credibility of early Christian accounts of Christ’s passion and resurrection is called into question, even on facts as seemingly mundane as the day on which Jesus was crucified.3 Such is the position of Ehrman, who argues that the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Gospel of John portray Jesus as being killed on two different days, thus revealing their historical inaccuracy and untruthfulness.4 As is my Good Friday custom, in this post I examine this claim and explain why the canonical gospels indicate that Jesus died on the same day: Good Friday. Continue reading

Book Review: NLT Illustrated Study Bible

9781496402035The means by which one encounters the Scriptures are formative and important. That is to say, the Bible that you use—read, study with, take to Church, consult when times are tough—helps shape who you are as a Christian. Choosing the right Bible(s), then, can be a very important decision. But so many of the Bibles available today seem bland or boring, especially when compared to the increasingly technological and visual culture of the 21st century. Not so Tyndale House’s latest edition of the New Living Translation, the NLT Illustrated Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015). Continue reading

MHT: Select Bibliography

Below is a select bibliography for the series I’ve been running for the past month on Method and Historical Theology. Any additional readings and resources that you have found useful would be appreciated.

Select Bibliography

Acton, John. “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History.” In Essays on Freedom and Power. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York: Meridian, 1956.

Berkofer, Robert. “The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice.” Pages 139-157 in The Postmodern History Reader. Edited by Keith Jenkins. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. New York: Vintage, 1964. Continue reading

Method and Historical Theology: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Method and Historical TheologyThe perspective I have been outlining in this series does not to suggest that those who are not Christians cannot participate in historical truth, but rather the acknowledgement that wherever truth may be found is belongs to the Creator. Accordingly, all truly valuable work—be it academic scholarship, gardening, blacksmithing, or preaching—must stand in accordance with theological truth and be governed by it. The oft repeated dictum that theology involves “faith seeking understanding” is vital for this type of endeavor, for it reminds us that, although we make claims to the truth, the Truth is ultimately beyond our human capacities to fully understand. Conclusions, then, are necessarily tentative in the sense that the full Truth will only someday be revealed to us. Christians live in the tension of “already” and “not yet,” that Christ has come, but that He will come again in glory. Continue reading

MHT: Operating Assumptions

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Jesus - History and TheologyBuilding upon the methodological principles I have been outlining, I wish to briefly offer some of the operating assumptions of my work in historical theology. Historical theological study must always engage other voices and perspectives—there is no such thing as a “stand alone” presentation of the past. Engagement with other voices is generally most fruitful when assumptions and methodologies—those structures standing behind historical constructions—are engaged. History is different than the “lived past”, although historical theology can partially, perspectivally, and humbly speak about the past. The historical past, when invoked in the present, is always influenced by the purposes of the present. This is not to say that meaningful perspectives on the past cannot be offered, only that the context of the present influences any appeal to the past. Historical theology requires an ordered and academically rigorous approach, willing to investigate and engage truth claims of all types and origins, including those undertaking study of the Christian past. Texts remain the primary basis for historical theological work, and are to be considered within their broad historical, theological, social, linguistic, and literary contexts. Finally, historical theology must be understood as the integration of history and theology, the rigorous intellectual methodology of the study of the past—complete with its problematizations of language and context—combined with the humble practice of seeking understanding of a transcendent God and His action in the world. Continue reading

MHT: Applying Historical Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Apostolic FathersWhat does a methodology invested in both history and theology look like? First, this perspective suggests an examination of the past for the sake of the future. This means conceiving of historical theology as a tool box for investigating, understanding, and applying the points of connection between history, Biblical exegesis, and the traditions of the Church. Christian dogma cannot be justified by tradition, history, exegesis, or experience alone; instead, all these forces should converge to support the great mission of the Great Church.[58] Second, this method suggests that historical theology must become engaged with ecumenical concerns, not disregarding the boundaries of historic and current theological differences, but transcending those discussions for the sake of common causes. In particular, historical theology which affirms a dialectical interpretation of change may help differentiate between theological difference and theological error, allowing for divergences between Christian bodies to be understood as complimentary rather than contradictory.[59] Similarly, a historical theology rooted in history and theology has value for interreligious dialogue. For example, the theological similarities between Augustine and the Advaita Vedanta philosopher Ramanuja[60] offers rich opportunities for Hindu-Christian dialogue on conceptions of God and reality. Continue reading

MHT: Integration of History and Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

types-of-theology1A final—and supremely important—methodological point for the study of historical theology engages the relationship of history and theology. Existing scholarship often takes a historical or contextual approach to the study of history. And while there is nothing wrong with this approach, it lacks something, especially in situations where assumptions of philosophical naturalism critique how history cannot transcend a single person or perspective. As was indicated above, historical consciousness first arose within the context of Christian theology and history. After the Enlightenment, however, this influence of theology on the study of the past waned. The idea that history and theology are distinct and irreconcilable fields of study is challenged by a historical theological approach that takes seriously the methods of history and the invigorating influence of a God involved in human history. In this perspective, history comprises a cooperative agent in Christian theological study, and events and changes in the course of history must be examined and accounted for by both history and theology. History and theology are co-dependent in Christian historical theology, for Christian knowledge cannot distain history, nor can history reject Christian knowledge, but must acquire the “collective experience of Christ verified and realized in us.”[55] Continue reading