A Conversation Worth Having

How do you feel about conversations when questions are asked that don’t have easy answers?

My friend Julia wrote this post the other day with an encouragement to seek dialogue over debate.  It struck a cord with me because I’ve been struggling lately with what seems like our inability to enter into messy conversations.

I’m primarily talking about our temptation to ignore hard conversations, be they because they involve what we believe to be confrontation and or challenge. But I’m curious. Can people hold differing opinions without it threatening us?

I see this modeled by Jesus. You don’t see him engaged in much small talk {of which I am no fan}. Often he was challenged and confronted, but yet it never threatened his identity. You know the saying, he was full of grace and truth.

So why aren’t we?

I fear that we {the Church} have done much to develop disciples who cease to be conversationally reflective of the One they claim to follow. Here are my first thoughts on practices that have malformed us:

1. Teaching is done by “an expert”–everyone is expected to listen and adopt said “expert’s” position. This opens up pandora’s box about authority structures and anointment theology that needs to be discussed in another post. My concern is more focused on the passivity of our “listening as learning.” Would we benefit if there was more discussion/dialogue about truth? Isn’t it better for people to wrestle with the implications of a position and be able to defend it and assess it critically, rather than just parrot back answers that have no meaning…either in their thinking or in life? Maybe it’s possible that we are shutting down true transformation because we are shutting up people who are trying to think out their theology so it can really be theirs.

2. We master in secondaries and minor in primaries. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are absolutes. However, I’m alarmed that the list of absolutes has grown ten miles longer than the one that can be supported by Scripture. When cultural preference for TULIP, hymns, male leadership, or unfermented sacraments take priority over Christ, his salvation, and our dependence on grace, we are amiss.  Even in fundamental issues: revelation, inspiration, salvation, sanctification, and Trinity there is mystery. Don’t freak out. I’m not denying there are right ways and wrong ways to talk about these things, but you can’t script them. In each we must leave room for diversity of expression or we deny the mystery which is evidence that God Himself is alive and moving in our midst. Do we see how dangerous this is to our souls when we make the encounter with God secondary to the church mom code? One thing I’ve learned through my theological studies is how much practice it takes to talk about God in a way that is consistent with His personhood as it is revealed in the Scriptures (first) and our experiences (second). Maybe, just maybe, if we could relax about the cultural codes (or folklore, or politics, as may sometimes be the case) of our places of worship, young and old believers alike would get some space to practice talking about God without fear that they are going to step into one of the no-no zones. Can we learn to embrace mystery and bear patiently with one another as we mature in our expression of who we understand God to be in our lives?

3. This leads to what I believe is the third practice that stunts us from becoming conversationally adept in our faith: Overemphasis on evangelism and apologetic “tactics.” So many of the Church’s programs are geared toward bringing people in, keeping the status quo, and defending error. {Before you throw rocks at my page, read again that I said ‘overemphasis.’} We are told to “go and tell” (Matthew 28:19-20). We are told to “defend the faith delivered” (Jude 1:3). But sometimes I feel like we read these commands like vigilantes and we saddle up our horse and ride off to single-handedly save the village. What would happen if we remembered that these are commands given to communities. We do these things together. We must watch our life and doctrine closely (I Timothy 4:16), but how much better if we could learn to do this together; with each other rather than against one another. I believe it takes practice to welcome dialogue in this spirit. While we might easily default to argument or absolution, the wise among us will see the value of getting a conversation going and keeping it going with endurance and gentleness.

Let me give you an example of this. I’ve been preparing for a weekly Bible study on the Atonement of Christ in John’s Gospel. There are many ways to talk about atonement. The theories abound–they seem to be growing by the day. Now some, like the Swooning theory, I can set aside pretty quickly, but other theories like Penal Substitution need to converse with Christus Victor, and so on. For my preparation I gathered what I considered different voices {through their writings} who I know love Jesus and his Word, but have different ways of expressing what happened when Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected and I tried to get them dialoguing with each other. I challenged them in some places and let their ideas (supported by the Scriptures) stretch me in others. I think it would be beautiful if this could happen more often, but with real people in real churches attempting to gospel (Scot McKnight’s term) well together.

I’ve grown so much through this process. Not only in my understanding of atonement, but in my daily response to Christ’s atonement. The conversation with the divergent voices has helped me to see truth from a variety of angles. I’ve glimpsed beauty where I missed it before. I believe this could be true in other conversations that {really} need to be had in the Church. I believe we are missing truth’s beauty.

I don’t see myself as particularly skilled in the art of conversation. I do however have a heavy burden that we, the Church, must do a better job of imaging Grace and Truth. We need to find wells inside and outside the Church where people are thirsty for truth. There are conversations worth belaboring. There are people worth knowing. There are ideas worth considering. Will this take time? Of course. Will it be worth it? Well,I think all good answers come with stories of courage and perseverance.

What do you think? Do you think we’ve grown shallow? Avoidant? Combative? How can we get some real and necessary {and hopefully edifying} conversations going?

 Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. 2 Timothy 2:22-26

9 thoughts on “A Conversation Worth Having

  1. Wow! Amen, amen, amen. See, THIS is what dialogue is all about… I brought up a topic, which got you thinking, and then you took it to the next level, which is where I was aiming but you brought so, so much more to the table. I hope someone else picks up the ball and runs with it now….

    As for “This opens up pandora’s box….” Oh, don’t GET me started…..

    This is so well-written and thought-provoking. Love it!

  2. “…a pandora’s box about authority structures…”

    I’d very much appreciate hearing your views on this subject. How does one in authority serve? The fact that it seems contradictory really bothers me.

    • David,
      I am probably the least qualified to begin sharing my views on the subject of authority structures. However, maybe that’s just the conversation that needs to get started. I will begin to think about how I can contribute with grace and truth…I think the grace part is going to be the harder portion on this topic. Let me spend a few days praying about it…stay tuned for a post.

      There is someone who I believe is VERY qualified to speak about this. I have been radically shaped by Marva Dawn’s scholarship and commend her book Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God to you. ( http://www.amazon.com/Powers-Weakness-Tabernacling-Marva-Dawn/dp/0802847706/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378838166&sr=8-1&keywords=powers+marva+dawn )

      Now that I’m thinking about it, her book would be a great starting point for the conversation. Maybe we could create an online book club of sorts for this. Either way, I encourage you to read it. It will give you a new perspective.

      Thanks for your comment. …and for your candor. I always appreciate that about you.

      God bless!

  3. Thanks, Brenda. I just downloaded Powers, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God. I’m looking forward to it & appreciate your recommendation. (Hi to Julia! I very much enjoyed your article, too!)

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