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Nothing annoys me more than a fake Christian conversation.
Do you know the kind that I mean? A bunch of Christians begin a discussion about a ‘hot topic’. Everyone politely acknowledges each other’s perspectives, before giving their own. Everyone repeats the politeness and then reiterates another nuance of their perspective.
It’s kind of like a Christian exhibition for any non-Christians looking on. We each do our best to showcase how nicely us Christians can play together. We perform ‘respectful disagreement’ with great aplomb and often congratulate everyone involved at the discussion’s close, in what seems to be the Christian equivalent of cigars, brandy and exclamations of “Jolly good show, old fellow!”
Yet whilst these conversations are a useful way of collating perspectives or testing communication strategies, the reality is that it seems most people involved in them have ‘chosen up sides’ before they even started talking, and have a primary agenda of expressing their viewpoint, rather than growing in their understanding.
There’s many reasons why this happens - and some of them might even be good - but there’s a consistent tone throughout them all that results from an apparent absence of humility and willingness to learn. At worst, such discussions betray us as prideful and arrogant individuals. At best, they are opportunities for our Christian community to grow in love that remain tragically unfruitful.
Here’s the good news: I think we can get better at having real conversations. Furthermore, I’d like to propose that we get started simply by thinking about thinking.
Truth be told, I spend a lot of time thinking about thinking. I am fascinated by ways that people think and what undergirds or influences their thoughts. A lot of my thinking about thinking lately has been around politics, which is unsurprising given that both Australia and the US are in the painful throes of election labour. (I’m not going to extend that metaphor, but please take a moment to do it yourself, because there’s so much un-tapped potential there. You’re welcome).
This is what I’ve noticed:
1. Most people don’t give a second thought as to why they think what they think.
2. Most people don’t give a second thought as to why other people think what they think.
And I reckon it needs to change. (I know, GENIUS. Stay with me).
I used to teach Christian Ethics at Diploma level at Hillsong College. It was amazing. I would have a room full of mostly 18-25 year old students, most of them from overseas. In general, my students had great attitudes to learning and were often extremely gifted on-the-ground team leaders. And they might have sometimes been a tad sheltered. Maybe? Well, let’s just say that there were more than a couple of pastor’s kids in my class at any given time.
The reality was that, for all their giftedness and enthusiasm, the group hadn’t necessarily spent much time thinking about thinking.
However, because they were students, and generally came with a posture of humility, we shared many ‘light bulb’ moments as we walked through different Christian ethical frameworks and discussed how they might apply to real life issues. These were moments when two students would look at each other and say words to the effect of “Oh! I see why you and I always disagree! We default to completely different ethical frameworks to make sense of our world!”
Even more exciting for me, was when a student would say, “I see why you default to that ethical framework. I don’t default to that one myself, but I can see how your understanding of scripture and your experience has led you to think that way. I respect your position, even though it is not mine.” Oh my goodness! I could not get enough of that stuff!
The truth is that we all have reasons for thinking the way that we do. We have conscious and subconscious reasons why we default to any given framework for analysing our worlds. They include our personality, our family upbringing, our church traditions, and our academic studies. And, even if we all really do our very best to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” and pray our little hearts out, we are going to come to different conclusions about what is best for our society. Handled well, these differences are an opportunity to be both evidence of our God’s creativity and an example of how a many-part body functions.
So the question becomes, of course, how we handle our different opinions well when we are in the throes of federal election labour, and everything in us wants to scream abuse at all those who are in the room (including those we love, who may or may not have gotten us into this situation), because the anesthesiologist has gone AWOL and it’s becoming increasingly clear that we are going to have to get this baby out without a God-sent, pain-blocking epidural? (OK, I went there with the metaphor myself. I couldn’t resist it. Stay with me, I’m nearly done.).
One of the most interesting pieces of political writing that I have ever read was from the 2008 US election campaign, when progressive author/ theologian/ political commenter Jim Wallis responded to conservative Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson.
Do you remember it? James Dobson had penned a fictional “Letter from Obama’s 2012” and released it through his Focus on the Family networks. He basically lamented all the changes to America that he foresaw being the consequence of Obama becoming the US President. Outraged, Jim Wallis responded via his platform in The Huffington Post, systematically decimating Dobson’s letter and leaving its carcass on the ground for progressives to pick at.
The paragraph that I found most interesting, was this:
“You make a mistake when you assume that younger Christians don’t care as much as you about the sanctity of life. They do care—very much—but they have a more consistent ethic of life. Both broader and deeper, it is inclusive of abortion, but also of the many other assaults on human life and dignity. For the new generation, poverty, hunger, and disease are also life issues; creation care is a life issue; genocide, torture, the death penalty, and human rights are life issues; war is a life issue. What happens to poor children after they are born is also a life issue.”
Oh man. That paragraph is a total smackdown, isn’t it? I mean, “You make a mistake when you assume…” kinda lulls you into it and then, BAM.
I think what makes me cringe is not so much that Wallis showed Dobson’s opinions to be wrong, as that he exposed them to be undergirded by other thoughts (or frameworks or assumptions, etc), that Dobson didn’t seem to have thought about at all. It seemed that the poor guy just hadn’t done enough thinking about thinking and, as a result, he had left himself SO. WIDE. OPEN.
Needless to say, we could all write a bunch of Wallis-esque responses to Dobson-esque statements made in current Christian political discourse, couldn’t we? We could even write one back to Wallis’ response.
But more importantly, we could probably write a bunch of them to ourselves. We could go back and look at our own comments on Facebook threads that have annoyed us and ask, “What kind of thinking about thinking did I fail to do here?” and respond to ourselves, starting with, “You make a mistake when you assume…”.
For all the bad press that postmodern theory has received, it is quite helpful to us, as Christians, to be freed from the myth of our own objectivity. For academia itself to now require us to ‘locate’ ourselves, and acknowledge our biases, before we speak on behalf of all people from all times. I mean, it positions us as exactly what we know ourselves to be – imperfect, fallible and fleshly.
After all, privilege is only a blind spot as long as it goes unacknowledged. As Walter Brueggemann himself said, “Until the middle of the twentieth century scripture study was essentially white males. And white males --including myself -- always walked under the flag of objectivity. 'We are objective scholars!' Now what we are discovering in the presence of many other voices is that what we thought was objectivity is simply white-male-experience."
The problem is that most of us don’t realise we are our privileged until we reach the place where we don’t have one (and it’s one that someone else does have). We kind of stand in a row, taking a step forward with each privileged aspect of our identity, and we only turn around to notice those who are behind us, when we stop stepping forward.
So here’s all I want to say. I think we should think more about our thinking and the thinking of others. As Christians approaching our federal election, I reckon we’ve got to get better at turning around sooner and asking “Why do you think differently to me on this?” Heck, we might even need to say, “I think I should defer to you as the expert on this particular issue, because my privilege has skewed my perspective”.
I’m not proposing that we don’t debate things out. That would be unhelpful. Rather, I propose that we let our debates extend beyond the surface of our stances on different issues and become real conversations where we ask real questions and genuinely seek to understand, rather than be understood. That we shift the goal posts from “the best argument wins” to “the best questioner wins because they understand something new” and go from there. I think that the way we can do this, practically, is by thinking (and questioning and talking) about the thinking that informs our stances
I believe we’ve got a lot to gain from it as a Christian community. Can you imagine how different Christians would seem to non-Christians if we consistently listened to others? If we consistently asked another question, rather than mentally rehearsed our best zinging comeback as we waited for our turn to speak? Granted, we might lose the comfort of a sense of certainty, but we’d also lose the tendency towards judgment that sneaks in when we presume to know the motives of someone else’s heart.
And surely real conversations like this even helps us move towards being the kind of community that Jesus instructed his followers to be in John 13.34-35, when he said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” before going on to describe that the distinctive of his disciples would be “if you love one another.”
For me, that’s the goal. Not that I win the debate game, but for people to know that I follow Jesus because I show love. And that I show that love one conversation at a time.