Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Time to Speak

Just over two years ago, I decided to go on a blogging hiatus while I attended seminary. One of the reasons for this was because I knew that my belief system had some holes in it, and I needed to be quicker to listen and slower to speak while I addressed them. This proved to be a good idea. As it turned out, I am more capable of admitting that I am wrong and changing my opinions when I am not publicly committing myself to a particular view. Of course, this is NOT to say that it is wrong to proclaim our views publicly or that it is impossible to admit fault when we make public mistakes. It’s simply to appreciate the wisdom in Ecclesiastes 3:7, that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Now, I believe that it’s time for me to speak again.

I’d like to share what I’ve come to believe with you. Moreover, I’d like to invite you to dialogue with me, ESPECIALLY if you disagree with what I say. Often times, I hear people bemoan the fact that there is no “civil conversation” in society today. Culture wars dominate the media, between liberals and conservatives, Evangelicals and homosexual rights advocates, religious believers and atheists, etc. We all know it, we all hate it, and yet we all make it worse. How do we do this? By responding in one of two ways: (1) by casting the opposing view as ridiculous, which we do because we have no idea how to have a productive conversation with its adherents and so we depict them as “irrational,” or (2) by not telling our friends that we disagree with them when we do. But if we don’t tell our own friends about these things, then “friendly” conversation is literally impossible!

Contrary to our instincts, I believe that the LACK of friendly criticism actually contributes to “the culture wars.” When you actually talk to people who hold opposing views in a constructive way, it becomes much harder to see them as morons or monsters, even if you continue to disagree with them. So, I am inviting you to counter this trend by expressing your disagreement with me. (Of course, your agreement is also welcome!) On my part, I will try to accept your criticism in any form that it’s offered, but let me offer the following suggestions for those of you who want to have civil disagreements over the next few weeks:

(1) Try not to make any blanket comments about “conservatives,” “liberals,” “Evangelicals,” “homosexuals,” etc. You’re welcomed to make specific critiques of any ideology, and even express grave concern over particular points, but that’s different from making blanket statements about how all (fill-in-the-blank)’s are. Also keep in mind that I have dear friends who are conservative, liberal, Evangelical, homosexual, atheist, Muslim, etc., so if you make a stereotyping comment, there’s a decent chance that they will read it, and I will be inclined to defend them.

(2) Ask questions. It’s generally a better (and more honest) way of expressing disagreement than making an argument. For example, asking, “How did you come to this conclusion from this principle?” is preferable to saying, “You’re making a logical fallacy here. This principle doesn’t lead to this conclusion.” These two responses make the same point, but the former does so in a posture of humility, which is the prerequisite of honesty.

(3) For my Facebook friends, don’t pay any attention to how well you know me “in real life.” It may be that we haven’t really been friends for ten years and you feel awkward coming out of the blue with a response to one of my posts. I welcome that. After all, that’s how Facebook works. We all have at least one friend whom we haven’t spoken to in years and yet whom we know quite a bit about because he/she posts on Facebook all the time. That’s the risk you run when you post things on Facebook. Let’s stop pretending we don’t do that and just start talking to each other.

(4) For my friends who have been trained in an academic setting, I'm going request that you cite your sources in endnotes [E1]. I know that you feel like you’re plagiarizing when you don’t cite your sources. From the scholarly perspective, it feels humble and honest to acknowledge that you got an insight from Ricoeur or Barth rather than to present it as your own. But from the perspective of those who haven’t shared your training, it feels like intellectual bullying, as it doesn’t give them way to respond to you if they haven't read the same things. Besides, we should be able to express our views clearly without appealing to someone else’s work, even if we derived it from them.

(5) Don’t be afraid of sounding stupid. I have generally found that most “stupid” comments actually have some significant insight in them. Sometimes, we don’t know how to articulate those insights very well, but if we at least put it out there, we get the conversation rolling. On my part, I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are saying something significant if you attempt to say it. After all, I have quite a few friends on Facebook who are former professors and top-notch scholars who are smarter than me, and who may or may not be reading my posts. I know the risks involved in putting your thoughts out there, but I think the possibility of productive conversation is worth the risk. I invite you to take this risk with me.

I eventually plan to address to the “hot” topics, like politics, abortion, homosexuality, foreign policy, etc. But I am first and foremost a Christian, and to be more specific, I have landed pretty firmly in a Mennonite understanding of what being a Christian means. So I must begin by expressing my faith, because all of my other beliefs are unintelligible outside of this. Note: This doesn’t mean that posts about my faith are off limits! Please, tell me when you disagree with my religious perspective, although I would prefer it if you did it respectfully. Bring on the friendly criticism! If we are too afraid to dialogue even in this context, when and where is it EVER appropriate to talk about religion?



[E1] For example, this would be appropriate place to say something about an important theologian like St. Augustine, who didn't have much interest in preserving intellectual property because he believed that all truth belongs to God, not the scholar accredited with saying it. As he writes in Sermon 254, “…nothing [really belongs to human beings] – except perhaps sin and lies, because whoever utters a lie speaks from what is his own… But when it comes to truth, if he wants to be truthful, it won’t be from his own.”:)


John Miller said...

Excited. Intrigued. First.

JE Misz said...

this last paragraph makes me so happy... and curious. we must talk soon!

B said...

Point (3) made me laugh, it is so true. You and a few other people I know from IWU have landed in the Mennonite tradition, and it is interesting because the church I go to out here in Quakertown PA has numerous ex-mennonites who have left because of a "lack of biblical focus and mission". I get that sentiment a lot out here and I want to understand more where it is coming from. Maybe it is the churches or maybe it is just their perceptions.

B said...

this is Bobby Wrigley, wouldn't want to go anonymous

Benton Oakes said...

Brian, I eagerly await your coming posts! I don't know how much I will be able to participate, as I am still in seminary, but I've already bookmarked your blog. I've learned a great deal from you, my friend, and I look forward to carrying this collegial relationship forward. My prayers are with you. Shalom.