The Backfire Effect

A Quote from the post, “The Backfire Effect.”  To read the full article, please Click HERE.

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party abackfire valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

No, probably not. Most online battles follow a similar pattern, each side launching attacks and pulling evidence from deep inside the web to back up their positions until, out of frustration, one party resorts to an all-out ad hominem nuclear strike. If you are lucky, the comment thread will get derailed in time for you to keep your dignity, or a neighboring commenter will help initiate a text-based dogpile on your opponent.

What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

Two more quotes from the article, this time quoting others:

When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.

– Psychologist Dan Gilbert in The New York Times

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate

– Francis Bacon

I do suggest you read the article. I can assure you, you will agree wholeheartedly with parts of it, and disagree strongly with parts of it. That is part of the reason for reading it. You can test yourself on it. If the writer says something you already agree with, “compliance bias” suggests you will accept it, pretty much without any real thought about it. On the other hand, in things the writer says that you disagree with, the “backfire effect” suggests that it is doubtful you will spend much time poring over the data and issues. Rather, it is more likely you will throw out the argument quite quickly, and feel more convinced than before that you were always right and the article wrong.

I remember listening to a talk radio show. The host was talking on some topic. It was something from the (American version of) political conservatism. A listener called in with a pretty good argument opposing the radio host. The radio host then asked for the listener’s sources for the information, and the listener was able to give them. Then the host asked him to read directly from the source, and the listener could not because it was not in front of him.  “Ah hah!!” was essentially the response as the host declared the call and the argument against his views invalid. There seemed to be no genuine attempt to take the counterargument seriously– only an attempt to undermine the caller. Strangely, the caller was better prepared then most. He had a well-thought out argument, with supporting references. But that did not matter to the host, and I suppose a majority of the listening audience. What made it a bit silly, I felt, was that so many other callers agreed with the host, giving next to nothing solid to support his viewpoint, and certainly without a rational basis with footnotes. The host made no attempt to challenge the thinking of these (“yesmen”) callers whatsoever.

So why am I talking about this?  Two things.

For one, I (we) see this all the time in Christian circles. Christians listen to the same people saying the same things about the same stuff. If one says something different, Christians change channels, or change church.

Of course, we all do it. I do too. A “Christian prophet” came to the Philippines to say how God has decided to punish the country because… well… essentially because it was not as good as it could be. I found it funny. Lots of “prophets” love to broadcast “prophecies” here because, frankly, Filipinos are pretty accommodating to pretty much everyone regardless what who they are or what they say. A few months after, there was a moderate earthquake in Bohol Island, followed by Supertyphoon Yolanda. People jumped all over it that these proved the veracity of the prophecy (and the veracity of the “prophet”).

Compliance Bias. Why do I say that this is compliance bias? Because the prophecy was mostly worded extremely vaguely so much of it was almost guaranteed to happen (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons are “situation normal” in the Philippines). Those prophecies that were much more precise and testable, such as flesh-eating bacteria in Pangasinan, did not happen. But people were so convinced that it would happen, that false reports began to circulate on the Internet… leading to an eventual news article on a major broadcast network in the Philippines declaring it true. But it wasn’t true. People wanted it to be true, because they had, for some reason, placed faith in a prophet. They had a need for it to be true, and were deeply bothered by “facts” that challenged their beliefs. I did a calculation at the time, and I GENEROUSLY gave this prophet a 35% accuracy rating. Of course, none of his prophecies had dates on them… but the numbers certainly haven’t gone up in the 3 years since I did the calculation (and 4 years after the actual “prophecy”).

On the backfire side, typhoons again play a part. Many (most?) climatolotists make the argument that typhoons are getting worse because of global warming. Typhoons are driven by thermal energy in the oceans, so a change in temperature should affect storm violence. So many Christians seem to totally reject this argument. That is fine. I don’t know how real global warming is, as a long-term macro-phenomenon at least. However, the arguments against it seem to be driven by little better than “What do those science folks know anyway” and “It was so cold last February… how silly to believe that things are getting warmer.” As more glaciers melt, the certainty that global warming is bogus by many Christians seems to drift more towards an article of unquestioning faith.

That is a shame… because faith is NOT confidence in one’s own opinion. It is trust in God. But that trust should be mediated by realistic doubts in people and ourselves. A person of true faith should have considerable doubt in his/her own ability to grasp all matters of truth… and have similar concerns with others.

Second, backfire Effect is important in sharing one’s faith as well. The idea that sharing one’s faith is more effective by coming up with clever debate points, is flawed. Few people change their minds by clever arguments. I remember one time years ago in church, our pastor then was trying to encourage people to give more money to the church (“tithing”). Each Sunday, he would have one of the church elders get up and say why people should tithe. One of the elders, a good man I believe, got up and began to say why people “gotta tithe.” In the church were two ladies who were visiting the church. One of them stood up and during the elder’s speaking, asked a question.

“Ummm… excuse me. Excuse me. Why does someone have to pay money to earn God’s love?”

The elder did not know how to respond. There was rumbling in the congregation… our church does not practice interactive services… and soon two ushers came over to escort that one woman and her friend out of the church. As they did that, a friend of mine, who loves apologetics (and arguing with people generally), got up and said, “I have an answer to that!!” But it was too late, fortunately– the moment was lost. I really doubt that my friend would be able to convince them of the importance of tithing, and I doubt the woman was able to challenge the notions on tithing in the church.

<Curiously, there was a positive result the this situation however. The pastor, thankfully, stopped asking elders to come forward and tell people why they should tithe after that. And since that particular pastor was not good at handling money, leading to huge problems with personal and church debt, hopefully some people kept God’s money in their own storehouses for awhile.>

Expressing God’s love is a better foundation for sharing faith than coming up with debate points in an atmosphere of argument. Some believe that response to salvation is through the leading of the Holy Spirit. While this may be true, there is often the unspoken assumption that sharing the message of God is always positive, or at worst neutral. But the Backfire Effect suggests that a poor or confrontational presentation may actually work against the work of the Holy Spirit in a seeker’s heart and mind. The goal is not to say “I told the truth. I did my job.” The goal is to adorn the message (Titus 2:10) to encourage response.

As my dad liked to say (quoting or approximating Benjamin Franklin I think): “He convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Trying to convince someone that he or she is wrong is unlikely to be effective.

If you disagree with me, that is fine. But take the time to think why you disagree and be open to the minuscule possibility, perhaps, that you are wrong. I will do my best to do the same.

No promises.

Modified Engel Scale and TGMX

Nice article from the work of Paul and Sue Hazelden. Rather than regurgitating it here, I am hoping you will take the time to click and read their article HERE.

Of course, it must be noted that the Engel Scale is cognitive… so it does not really include the affective aspect. If you want to look at The Gray Matrix Extended, that combines the Modified Engel Scal with the affective axis, Click on this article HERE.

As both would note, these don’t define a methodology. Rather they provides a perspective to understand spiritual transformation. So the role of social ministry, dialogue, and such are not dealt with in detail.

Additionally, as I have also noted before, In This Other Article, one could add an additional axis, to include the role of behavior. While as Evangelicals, we like to emphasize that salvation is by faith, not by works, it is also true that in many cultures people often start by adjusting their behavior to a faith community, before actually responding in faith. Even in more individualistic cultures, often connecting behaviorally with a loving community of believers (whether church, ngo, bible study, or otherwise), brings one close to a position to respond to the message of Christ. Of course, the opposite is true also, interacting with hypocritical or mean-spirited or cold Christians can lead to negative perceptions affectively, and then to cognitive and behavioral.




Bad Stuff

“What is ‘I Don’t Know’?” That is the best Jeopardy answer I can give to the statement to the answer “Why bad stuff happens to good people.” Some feel this is a “cop-out,” or taking the easy way out. Frankly, I have heard a lot of easy-way-out answers to that question:

  • “God’s ways are above our ways.” That is saying “I don’t know” while pretending to be theologically profound. bad-stuff
  • “All things work together for good.” This is saying that bad stuff really isn’t bad. How is that so? Well, “I don’t know.” So this is still the “I don’t know” answer, with some bad hermeneutics thrown in.
  • “You must be being punished for something.” Job’s friends are definitely with us today. Divine karma or generational bondage may be satisfying for those who are prone to finger-point, but that view doesn’t really stand up to Scripture.

Speaking of Scripture, what does the Bible say? The answer is complex. I had a professor who argued that the aphorisms of Proverbs (the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous are cursed) pretty much summed things up in the Bible, with the sole exception of the Book of Job. I was always a bit uncomfortable with that. First of all, if there was one exception why can’t there be two or three. Second, in fact, it seemed like there were many such exceptions in the Bible. Consider Jeremiah, for example, whose life no one would envy, despite leading an apparently godly life.

This is no attempt to work on an in-depth look at theodicy. But looking at it Biblically, in a fairly cursory manner, one could say that bad things happen to people because they are:

  • Bad. Deuteronomy and Proverbs support the human instinct of justice… good happens to good people, and bad to bad— just as it ought to be.
  • Good. I Peter, for example, and much of the Gospels supports the idea that those who do good, will suffer persecution and misery because the world is in opposition to them.
  • Either or neither. Ecclesiastes and a number of the Psalms, for example, make it clear good things and bad things often occur with no apparent connection to whether the person deserves it.

So how should one respond to someone who has suffered? One could say:

“Bad things are happening to you because you are good, because you are bad, or regardless of any consideration of your moral status.”

Such vagueness may not seem satisfying, but it is fairly consistent with what Jesus said:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

                                                                                        -Luke 13:1-5

Jesus denies the “Bad things happen to bad people” explanation for the Galileans and those crushed by a tower, at least denying proportionality between their fate and their behavior.  But then he implies that those who don’t repent for sins could be punished.

Elsewhere, Jesus heals a blind man who was blind from birth. He denies that his state was tied to personal sin, or generational punishment. Jesus said that it was so that God would be glorified by his healing. While that is an interesting answer, it does not really answer the question we are discussing. It doesn’t say why he, specifically, was blind while another had sight, for example.

It seems to me that one could sum up what Jesus said with the following:

“Bad things can happen for many reasons, but it is not beneficial to speculate as to issues of divine retribution or blessing. It is much wiser to meditate on your own situation, than the situation of others.”

So in pastoral counseling, the best answer to why bad things happen to a person is, or at least starts with, “I don’t know.” However, that should be followed by helping the person to look at his or her own situation and determine what, if anything, needs to change.

Why am I mentioning this in a Missions blog? Frankly, missionaries are commonly  most among those guilty or perpetuating limited, doubtful answers as it pertains to suffering. A number of people have made the argument that the “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa (although perpetuated by its own marketers today) was first spread unwittingly by missionaries who expressed poorly and over-simplified view of theodicy, honor, and blessing, to new believers and pre-believers in the field.

Some doctrines don’t have to be fully delved into early on. We don’t necessarily have to have new believers who can describe the major views on atonement (all of the views appear to be incorrect to some extent anyway). But suffering has immediacy and importance. If this is left to be answered by sub-Christian platitudes, it is hardly surprising if it results in a sub-Biblical view of God or of faith.



“greatness” rather than “Greatness”


Hoping you will take the time to see the Article on “Clearing Customs” entitled “Your little “g’ greatness is Still Worth Finding.” You can find it by clicking HERE.

That article, as well as associated videos, is a nice look at the Nike ad campaign in 2012 seeking to redefine greatness… away from an elitist ideal. I hate promoting advertisements… but they are well done with a curiously positive message– as the blogger says… from “capital G” greatness, to “small g” greatness. The last video is especially important as Nike describes its strategy to change cultural perceptions.

I wish as Christians we would try to do the same thing. However, so often we don’t challenge worldly perceptions of greatness. Instead we revel in them… focusing our attention on Great churches, Great leaders, and so forth. Frankly, I don’t think we need “Great” churches and leaders. We could arguably need ones that are “great” with a decidedly small-g. Or perhaps the correct word is “good.” We need good churches, we need good leaders.

The Power of Contempt

The world is full of “love songs” that suggest that the greatest power on earth is LOVE. In the Bible we are told that “God is Love,” not suggesting that the Creator of the Universe is an abstraction— but that the single-most important thing that God wants us to know about Himself is His love and intention to act according to that love, for us.


Maybe it is accurate to say that the most powerful emotion overall is love… but that does not necessarily mean that love wins in all situations. Just as an Olympic shot-putter is likely to do poorly in rhythmic gymnastics, there are situations where love is over-matched.

In a recent article in The Atlantic (Click HERE to read it), the work of The Gottman Institute was referenced that showed the power of contempt to break up marriages. Contempt destroys marriage and overwhelms love. Negative or contemptuous responses destroy marriages more effectively than loving words heal marriages.

Additionally, I remember a few years ago, I went to a training in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the issue of marriage stability (especially within the context of missionaries) was discussed. It was noted that it takes about 5 loving acts or statements to undo the damage of one act or statement that is viewed as hateful or contemptuous. Even then, it is hard to say that the damage is undone– so, for example, if a marriage has conversations shared that are 60% loving and 40% contemptuous, the marriage is doomed.

So what does that have to do with missions? Looking at social media, I find a lot of Christians who are pretty good at expressing contempt. This includes (listing a few among many):

  • Contempt for LGBTQ individuals and community
  • Contempt for drug addicts
  • Contempt for illegal aliens
  • Contempt for those from countries that are politically antagonistic to our own.
  • Contempt for those of competing religions
  • Contempt for those who vote for other political candidates

In conflict with this, these same Christians will commonly state that they love all people (in line with the Great Commandment of Jesus) and that they wish to share their faith in line with that love.

So suppose a Christian is sharing his faith to a person who is part of a group that that Christian (or others that that Christian associates or identifies with) expresses contempt for. So the hearer of the gospel recognizes a loving statement (hopefully) from the Christian of God’s grace, and equally senses contempt from that same person.

Which do you think wins?  Love or Contempt?

A nice blog post on similar concerns with contempt is HERE.

Blessing to be a Blessing

I guess I have a temperament for being task-oriented. In missions, that shows itself in trying to squeeze the last bit of ministry out of the money, and being as efficient with ministry time as possible. In teaching, I like to pump out as much information as I can, and not do too much in class that could be labelled (by people such as myself) as “frivolous.”

But then I have to remind myself of things that I have learned– things I now know are true, even though they go against my temperament.

A few years ago we did a 10-day mission trip to Palawan. It was a medical mission trip. We flew to Puerto Princesa (1), and then began a seven hour drive to Sicud (2). The next day we did a medical mission with close to a thousand patients. Then we traveled to Quezon and did a medical mission there as well (3). This one and the third were smaller medical mission sites but still handled several hundred patients each. But the day after, we take a day off and visited Tabon Caves, the local historical museum, and did some snorkeling. We then traveled back to Puerto Princesa (4), and we had another fun day snorkeling in Honda Bay. The next we preached in various local churches (I preached at Honda Bay Baptist Church… at little church for fishermen and their families… that meets on Sundays at 6:30am). The next day, we went to Concepcion barangay (5) (part of greater Puerto Princesa), and did our third medical mission. After that we returned to Puerto Princesa and flew home. palawan_map

Overall, I would consider this a successful trip. We worked effectively with local partners in Palawan (actually, this was a regionally driven short-term mission trip- I was actually the only foreigner in the group). I would like to think that the work done there was leveraged for greater work afterwards. To some extent I feel that this did occur… but I also know that some leadership changes in Palawan hampered that work as well. But one thing that made it successful was the balance of blessing and being blessed.

This was not “religious tourism.” We worked HARD, and sought to be a genuine blessing to the people in Palawan— partnering with the hosts in so doing. At the same time, we as team-members were not abused. We had fun activities, and good food, and time to socialize. We needed that as well. We need to “charge our batteries” for the rigors of the travel and the work. It also need to connect joy with serving. We may recall the hymn “There is joy in serving Jesus,” but when we work and work and work, without time for rest, recreation, and reflection, the joy can slip away. In more extreme cases, the team-members can come to believe that they are simply being used by the teamleader or the mobilizing organization.

For me, the positive experience helped me gain an appreciation for the medical mission ministry, and I eventually became a teamleader. However, I did have to remind myself more than once not to simply focus on “getting the job done.” I had to remember to ensure that the teammembers feel blessed in the experience so as to be effective channels of blessings for others.

Interfaith Dialogue Posts

For those students of mine who are taking Dialogue with Asian Religions, here is a list of my posts that relate  to this topic:

  1. What View Should Christians Take of Non-Christian Religions
  2. How Do We Dialogue Among Faiths
  3. Dialogue and Different Faiths
  4. Dialogue With Other Faiths
  5. Seven Rules of Dialoguing
  6. Problem With Debating
  7. Quote from Philip Jenkins and Timothy of Seleucia

There is definitely some redundancy… but there would still help out… especially those in class.

Salty Language and Landmines

I was looking up the etymology of the term “salty language.” According to one source, the terms salt and salacious (stimulating lustful thoughts or behavior) share a common Latin source (won’t bother on the related theories as to why that is).

I had always assumed it had a maritime source.caution-land-mine1 Sailors  are often known for foul, bawdy language. The term “talk like a sailor” means that very thing, and sailors are often said to utilize “salty language” (as a bit of a euphemism). I was in the Navy for a few years, and I can support the stereotype. In fact, it rubbed off on me, and even 25 years later, when driving by myself in Philippine traffic (a HUGE stressor), that language sometimes returns.

But I have been curious by the amazing tolerance to this sort of salty language being exhibited by Evangelical Christians in the last few months. Not trying to be prudish here. If you find Mark Driscoll’s “salty language” appropriate for a pastor… go to his church (he is famous after all… and that makes it okay, perhaps?)

But I have been more concerned about the political campaigns in the Philippines and the US. Prominent candidates have embraced foul language as not just part of their past, but seemingly as part of their political persona. Now I am not going to say much about them… I don’t see either individual as placing themselves under the authority of Christ (though I suppose I could be wrong).

But I have been astounded by the gleeful tolerance that Evangelical Christians in both countries have exhibited, as well as active support and defense for these individuals. Here in the Philippines, I had to unfriend a pastor— not because of his support for this foul-mouthed politician (I think I would lose about half of my Filipino pastor friends if I did that), but because he, pretty much literally, turned his FB page into a political advertisement factory for this politician. I got deluged with his ridiculous “spin machine.” Some defenses for that particular politician by local pastors crossed the line into fantasy where the seemingly indefensible gets reinterpreted as benign. But statements were not benign. The reinterpretation was an intentional, I believe, attempt by these pastors to deceive.

In the US, a similar candidate (in some ways) has gotten a lot of notice for foul, degrading, misogynistic language. People act shocked, as if that had not been part of his long-standing language and behavior. But amazing attempts by some of my Evangelical FB friends to excuse or minimize the words is of concern to me. Some promote the idea that “the other candidate is really worse” (As much as I dislike the other major candidate, I think we have passed the point where we can say this with a straight face). One put a post on that suggested that the ONLY bad thing about this candidate is that he “says mean things.” I suppose revelling in infidelity and sexual harassment is “mean,” but it is more than that… and ignores other glaring problems with both character and behavior. That is basically a problem with language… it reveals deeper issues. Excusing language is simply inadequate.

In the end, words mean something. Years ago, I was an engineer for a defense contractor. Despite working on navigational equipment, rather than weapons of war, I still got tired of the movement, pushed by Princess Diana at the time, to end landmines. I actually wrote a “letter to the editor” of our local paper and got it published in support of landmines. My argument was something to the effect that it is ridiculous to attack landmines and other items of war whose normal purposes are defensive in nature, while ignoring the bigger issue of weapons used for offensive use (guns, missiles, and such). The point is actually sound… up to a point. However, just because one thing is bad or even worse, is no justification for something else that is still really really bad.

Living in Southeast Asia, I have had to face the problem of applying such logic. Southeast Asia still has so much unexploded ordinance— particularly landmines. So many have been killed and maimed by landmines… many of them non-combatants, and many after the end of formal hostilities. Visiting Vietnam earlier this year, I was surprised at how many people, my age or older, were missing a leg. I don’t think that observation is irrelevant. They are also a concern in places such as nearby Cambodia and Myanmar.

So, since I did say that in a newspaper,  ‘published’ expressing that view, must I hold onto that view forever? No. Some think that a politician changing his or her mind is a sign of wishy-washyness or of political expediency— as if learning and growing as a person is a moral defect. But change and growth must be properly acknowledged. My words were not just words, they expressed things that truly I believed in and valued. (Words really aren’t JUST words.) But since I have definitely changed my view on landmines, if someone expressed anger about my past views, I need to give a better response than “I am sorry if I have offended some people.” I pretty have to say and demonstrate:

  • I was wrong
  • I have changed
  • My future language and actions will demonstrate who I now am, not who I was.

I suppose an apology is nice… especially for a politician… but I am not sure what one is apologizing for. Is one apologizing for who one was? Is one apologizing (only) for what one said?  Is one apologizing for the other person’s over-sensitivity?

Christians ARE supposed to use Salty Language. We are told to be “salt of the earth.”

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. -Matthew 5:13

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.   -James 1:26

Obviously, I am not suggesting a puritanical hypocrisy… pretending with words to hide the problems inside. I am also not suggesting transparency… justifying our bad words and behavior on our inner failings. I am suggesting SINCERITY. We stand by what is right and good, and seek to both internalize it and externalize it.

Frankly, language is powerful and dangerous. And Christians who support ___________, despite the horrible things they say, perhaps in support of the political “home team,” are truly entering a dangerous minefield.

How Do We Dialogue Among Faiths?

I will be teaching Inter-religious Dialogue this next semester at seminary. First time I have ever taught such a course. I look forward to it. But it is challenging to find good sources within the Evangelical Realm as far as how to do Interfaith Dialogue.

I think some of this is because there is a basic disrespect, and distrust, of Dialogue. To be fair, some of the concerns have merit. There are genuine concerns regarding the practice of Dialogue. But instead of dealing with that directly here… I would rather look at three basic approaches to Dialogue. Note:  These are my terms. I suppose I could use someone else’s terminology, but I like my own.


The spectrum above is based on how similarities and differences are handled.

  1.  Relativistic Approach.  On one side, people can dialogue where the emphasis is on finding similarities. The interaction seeks to be positive and finding common statements of belief. Although it sounds good, it does have problems from and Evangelical standpoint. First, there is a tendency to whitewash differences with vague terminologies. Second, a “lowest common denominator” is often sought– emphasizing as important the things we share, while trivializing the differences. Third, as the sketch suggests… there is a temptation to relativize belief– suggesting that all belief systems are equally valid and relevant. One might note that emphasizing similarities does not automatically lead to relativism… it seems to commonly happen.
  2. Apologetic Approach. On the other side, dialogue can be focused on differences. This can be problematic since it tends to lead to arguments (thus “apologetic approach.”) Additionally, by deemphasizing similarities, there is a temptation towards stereotyping or exaggerating the differences, and treating similarities as trivial. The apologetic approach often finds a welcome place among Evangelicials since it tends to promote an Exclusivistic (or at most Inclusivistic) view of Salvation. Tied to this, many Evangelicals, valuing evangelism, have the ill-considered notion that focusing on differences and arguments is a good strategy to convert other people. It is hard to imagine where such a notion would come from.
  3. Clarification Approach. Rather than emphasizing one or the other, the goal is to identify similarities and differences. The aim is neither to argue nor to relativize… but to gain mutual understanding. From such mutual understanding, one can lead to finding areas of common ground that could lead to partnerships in some areas (more in line with Relativistic end of the spectrum). On the other hand, it can also lead to finding areas of honest conflict and then develop means to express these differences in ways that can be understood and evaluated by all  (more in line with the Apologetic end of the spectrum).

It is pretty clear from the way I described these, that I primarily value the middle path… of clarification. I believe it is the most:

  • Intellectually honest. It is a bit dishonest to stereotype beliefs to emphasize differences, or to relativize or whitewash beliefs to emphasize similarities.
  • Useful. Evangelicals want to share their faith, but this is done best through open dialogue that compares and contrasts openly the beliefs of two faiths. One extreme (apologetic) makes the other faith irrelevant. The other extreme (relativistic) makes the need for change irrelevant.
  • Respectful. The Apologetic approach tends to disrespect adherents of the opposite side by emphasizes areas of conflict. The Relativistic approach tends to disrespect by trivializing the treasured beliefs of one or both groups.  The middle ground seeks to respect the beliefs (honestly clarifying similarities and differences) and respecting those of other faiths.

Frankly, the extremes are not only less respectful, they can be a bit insulting. I have had people talk to me about their own faith in such vague, generalized terms, to try to give the impression that I should really join their group because “we really believe the same thing, don’t we?” At the other extreme, I have had people from other groups who will throw verses at me from the Bible (like JWs repeating any verse using the term “Jehovah/Yahweh,” Adventists repeating any that mentions the Sabbath, or radical monotheists that refer to God’s “oneness”) as if verse dropping adequately divides the world into two groups… those who are correct and those who are dead wrong. I tend to find it insulting because it seems to me that they assume that I don’t know my own beliefs well enough to understand the complexities that go beyond “proof-texts” or generalizations. Maybe I am too sensitive… but I really doubt that I am alone in this.

Consider looking at an issue through all three approaches of the age-old question:  “Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?”

Relativizing Approach.  Of course we worship the same God. All three groups say that there is only one God. If there is only one God, it is impossible to worship another anyway. But not only that but key aspects of the revelation of the three groups identify the God of each group as being the same. This includes His Transcendance, His intent to interact and reveal Himself in history, and His power and wisdom. Additionally, we share some commonality of prophecy, such as God revealing Himself through Abraham and Moses.

Apologetic Approach. Of course we DON’T worship the same God. Both Muslims and Jews see the Christian God as really being three Gods, and thus not monotheistic. Christians reject the views of Muslims especially that minimize God’s immanance, and reject the Jewish view that does not see prophetic relevance in the teachings and nature of Jesus. In fact, our understanding of who God is, comes primarily from our Sacred Scriptures. Since Christians and Jews both reject the Quran, and Jews reject the New Testament, and Muslim Scripture in many places contradicts Jewish and Christian Scriptures (even while claiming to find value in them), it is ridiculous to think we worship the same God. If the characteristics of God in the three groups is different, and the sacred texts that are suppose to reveal God are different, clearly these are three different “gods.”

<Both of these points have merits. The Relativizing Approach can whitewash differences with common terminology. As I have noted in another post, three people may believe in “the largest animal on earth.” Since they all believe in the same term we might guess they believe in the same thing. However, if one gets past the common terminology, one may discover the person A believes that animal to be a huge fish-like creature that breathes air, person B believes it to be a large gray land animal with big nose and ears, and person C believes it to be a giant winged reptilian-like creature that breathes fire. The terminology disguises the vast differences. On the other hand, the Apologetic Approach may seek to “major on the minor,” focusing on relevant but somewhat minor differences while minimizing the major, and perhaps more important, similarities.?>

Clarification Approach respectfully listens to both sides and tries to understand their beliefs from the other’s perspective. In line with that, try to understand the terminologies so that differences are not hidden by similar terms, and similarities are not hidden by different terms. So if Muslims use the term Allah, Christians use God or Dios, and Jews use the Tetragrammaton, Elohim, or Adonai, the different terms do not necessarily point to worship of different Gods. On the other hand, using a mutually agreed upon term, like “The God of Abraham” does not necessarily mean that each understand the divine being behind the term the same way.