Inter-Theological Dialogue (ITD). To Love or to Loathe?

I saw an interesting little poll that was put on a Philippine Pastors Group. I can’t find the poll on a quick search right now but the question was something like:

WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU MEET A PASTOR OF A DIFFERENT THEOLOGY?

Since no two people on earth have ever had exactly identical theologies, the question really is more like, WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU MEET A PASTOR OF A DIFFERENT DENOMINATION, OR FAITH TRADITION, OR PERHAPS ONE YOU BELIEVE “MAJORS ON A MINOR”?

The three options given were:

#1. Pray to God that He would give enlightenment to this pastor.

#2. Argue strenuously with the pastor to convince him (her) of the error of his (her) beliefs.

#3. Love them

I think the poll was meant to be more instructive than exploratory. I think it was meant to make pastors think and then realize that love (#3) is the correct response. I found it both disturbing and charming that the Filipino pastors who had taken the poll were honest enough to have #3 as their least popular answer.

I get it. #1 (the most popular answer when I looked at it) is a very satisfying response. It assumes that the reader is on God’s side (or perhaps God is on the reader’s side). Most people want to feel like God has given His seal of approval not only ourselves, but also our beliefs.

I get #2 as well. A lot of people (and pastors are, generally, people) are not very comfortable interacting positively with people of other beliefs.. Therefore, “If you can’t join them, beat them.” Many groups simply assume that the relationship between different faith traditions within Christianity will be (and perhaps should be) antagonistic and competitive. Books on theological perspectives often are rather polemic and/or argumentative. Some take competition further and see an alternative theological perspective as something that must be rooted out and destroyed. <I recall a friend of mine on FB sharing approvingly a post from someone else that stated everyone who disagrees with the writer politically and philosophically should “Get out of my country.” That writer then listed al of the people who meet that criterion— a long list. This is a stupid thing to say, certainly, but the emotions behind it are pretty understandable.>

Of course #2 tends to be defended as an effort to root out heresy. However, heresy is not always easy to identify… and many theological positions can fit within the “tent of orthodoxy.” If not, then there is between zero and one theologically orthodox person on earth since no one shares exactly the same theology. There must be some wiggle room.

I think that #3 is a good answer. Yes we should love ministers who have a different theological perspective. But I feel like the answer has a risk of being… SNARKY. After all, to say that one should love those of other theological positions, makes many (I don’t think I am alone in this) think of the command of Jesus, “Love your enemies.” So Option #3 can be a subtle acknowledgement of the belief that Christians of divergent theological perspectives are actually our enemies.

So, despite how theologically sound Option #3 is, I feel like some other options should be given in the poll.

#4. Embrace the opportunity to learn about their beliefs to not only to increase understanding of said beliefs, but to better understand the other pastor as well.

#5. Seek dialogue to explore and appreciate the rich diversity within the Christian faith.

#6. Learn from the other pastor as part of my own path of theological reflection and theological growth.

These other options, especially #6 sounds wishy-washy. Some may hear the subtle strains of relativism in them. Let me be clear on this. I am pretty comfortable with my own theological perspective, and most any conversation with a person of a different perspective, I am likely to think I am right and the other wrong. After all, if I thought I was wrong, why would that be my belief anyway? But my own theological perspective is NOT CANON. It is a contingent, contextual interpretation of God’s general and special revelation. The most fundamental statement of Theological Anthropology is, “God is God, and I am not Him,” so it is wise for me to accept my own limitations, including in terms of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. As such, my theology should always be embraced with a tentativeness. Some aspects of our beliefs we may embrace with a certain amount of confidence. Some aspects we may embrace with a certain amount of (Kierkegaardian) “leap of faith.” But theological (over-) confidence can easily take us to a bad place.

Peter originally saw salvation as to the Jews and through the Jews. His interaction with Cornelius helped him to evaluate, and ultimate change, his theological view. Paul early on spoke confidently of becoming a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks, to win the more. However, he seemed to struggle for years in how to address a multicultural setting. In Galatians we find Paul chastizing Peter for seemingly doing what Paul taught (adjusting behavior to the setting), but in a way different than Paul preferred. In Acts 16 Paul encourages Timothy to get circumcised, seemingly in a reversal. Both situation it was unclear who was right. What does this mean? I am not sure… but if Peter and Paul struggled with their theology, don’t expect to have gotten it all correct yourself.

In fact, embracing a level of theological diversity in the church does not lead to heresy and cults particularly. It is far more likely that schisms devolve into cults when people think that their own theology is perfect and immune from challenge. Think about it… the ultimate way to win a theological argument is to state with confidence— “I talked to God and He told me I was correct.” That is what happened with Islam. Islam came out of a long history of discussions about the nature of the Godhead and the nature of Christ. There were centuries of discussion based on New Testament and Old Testament scriptures. Then in the 7th century along came one who said, in effect, “Here are my views, and these views were given to me directly from an angel of God.” The founder of Mormonism came out of a time of intense theological arguments in the “Burnt Out District” of New York, and did pretty much the same as the founder of Islam.

Rather than canonizing one’s own beliefs, dialogue with others and theological self-reflection is valuable in a diverse environment. Therefore, I don’t believe any of the three options in the original poll is a complete answer. In fact, they may hardly serve as partial answers.

Men of NO Ideas

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea.” It was written by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881). Some sources say it was written by Timothy Titcomb. However, that was his pseudonym. I have a copy of the essay in the Union Sixth Reader, a book published in 1862. Long have I sought an electronic copy of the essay. I really did not want to type it out. Thankfully, someone else did. If you want to read it, you can CLICK HERE.

Here is a short excerpt from that relatively short essay…

Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, whether spoken through nature or revelation. There is no one idea in all God’s universe so great and so nutritious that it can furnish food for an immortal soul. Variety of nutriment is absolutely essential, even to physical health. There are so many elements that enter into the structure of the human body, and such variety of stimuli requisite for the play of its vital forces, that it is necessary to lay under tribute a wide range of nature; and fruits and roots and grain, beasts of the field, fowls of the air, and fish of the sea, juices and spices and flavors, all bring their contributions to the perfection of the human animal, and the harmony of its functions. …

A mind that surrenders itself to a single idea becomes essentially insane. I know a man who has dwelt so long upon the subject of a vegetable diet that it has finally taken possession of him. It is now of such importance in his eyes that every other subject is thrown out of its legitimate relations to him. It is the constant theme of his thought–the study of his life. He questions the properties and quantities of every mouthful that passes his lips, and watches its effects upon him. He reads upon this subject everything he can lay his hands on. He talks upon it with every man he meets. He has ransacked the whole Bible for support to his theories; and the man really believes that the eternal salvation of the human race hinges upon a change of diet. It has become a standard by which to decide the validity of all other truth. If he did not believe that the Bible was on his side of the question, he would discard the Bible. Experiments or opinions that make against his faith are either contemptuously rejected or ingeniously explained away. Now this man’s mind is not only reduced to the size of his idea, and assimilated to its character, but it has lost its soundness. His reason is disordered. His judgment is perverted–depraved. He sees things in unjust and illegitimate relations. The subject that absorbs him has grown out of proper proportions, and all other subjects have shrunk away from it. I know another man–a man of fine powers–who is just as much absorbed by the subject of ventilation; and though both of these men are regarded by the community as of sound mind, I think they are demonstrably insane.

Timothy Titcomb’s essay: Men Of One Idea http://fullonlinebook.com/essays/men-of-one-idea/nibb.html

Since we are talking about the Bible, I am reminded of a few verses that (I would argue) relate strongly to the point of Holland…

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 15:22

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:14

For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Proverbs 24:6

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 12:15

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,

Proverbs 1:5

After three days they found him (Jesus) in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.

Proverbs 13:10

Reading these verses, one sees a couple of clues to gaining wisdom. First is Dialogue. Luke 2:46 and Proverbs 27:17 suggests this directly. The Luke passage is especially important since Jesus (we are tempted to think of Him as one who needs no wisdom from others) is described as holding dialogue and asking questions with experts. A few verses later, in verse 52, Jesus is described as growing in wisdom. The other verses I shared describe interaction with others, and presumably this implies dialogue of 2 or more people. Second is Counsel. Wise people listen to others. They don’t simply trust in their own self-sufficient awesomeness, but take seriously others’ perspectives, knowledge, and understanding.

But if the counsel of many leads to wisdom, what is the character of this wisdom?

#1. Broadly defined. What I mean is that it should be BOTH eductive and deductive. Deductive is classic advice-giving. The counselor tells the other something that this person does not know. This is the classic one. Eductive is the preferred method of modern psychological and pastoral counseling. Eductive counseling is a form of drawing out. It presumes that the person already knows what is right and true, but needs help in drawing this out or identifying the internal inconsistencies in that person. We see Eductive counseling masterfully integrated into broader counseling in Nathan’s counseling of King David regarding his affair with Bathsheba (and with killing Uriah). I think broadly defined also suggests both “sofia” and “phronesis.” These Greek terms suggest wisdom based on theoretical understanding of the way things are (sofia wisdom) and the practical understanding of the way things should be and how to accomplish this (phronesis wisdom).

#2. Multi-perspectival. Wisdom comes from listening to different perspectives. Because of this having a group of “Yes Men” does not count. This is not counseling. It is parroting back what the one says and thinks. They tickle the ear and confirm the prejudices of the one who needs wisdom rather than affirmation. There is no doubt that this is a failure… because there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Self.” But that brings up another thought. What if there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Other?” That is, what if one surrounds oneself with only one perspective. I would argue that this is no better. We learn by being surrounded in a sea of ideas. While we may fear drowning in such a sea, we are likely to be parched with the trickle from a spring that feeds only one stream of thought. Walter Wrigley Jr. has the great quote, “When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Perhaps this bit of wisdom applies in life as well.

It seems to me that we are suffering from this today. Perhaps as a defense against being inundated with too many ideas, we shield ourselves off from all but one viewpoint. I see this a lot. I teach in a seminary and am often shocked at how little seminarians (who are supposed to be “experts” in religion and theology) know about other religions, or even the church of a different denomination or tradition just down the road. I occasionally get notes from friends sharing interesting information. They tell me where they got this information. That is a good thing because citations are important. However, in some cases, it is clear from the context that I should believe it because it came from news source “A,” and not from news source “B.” In fact, I have had people gainsay things I have said simply because I referenced a source that they have identified as “fake.” Often, however, fake just means that it expresses a different perspective. Truthfully, I get that. There are some sources of information I am tempted to reject off-hand. I have to remind myself that even a person who is 99% wrong, must then be 1% right, and it is possible that in that 1% is something I need to hear.

If you think about it… surrounding oneself with those who share one perspective is likely to create an echo chamber that leads to more extreme and unquestioned opinions. It is in this environment that groups with cultic tendencies (authoritarian and separatist structures with extremist views) and fascination with conspiracy theories thrive. Sometimes people describe this as the “new tribalism,” and perhaps the term has some merit. Years ago, people spoke of the Internet, along with migration, and ease of travel and communication leading to a sort of globalistic mega-culture. But we love to identify with smaller groups. There are good and bad sides to this. But one bad side is the temptation to sanctify our own group (and our opinions), while demonizing other groups and opinions.

And if one places oneself into this setting where one willingly becomes a reflector and transmitter of the insulted views of another(s), it may not be enough to say that this person has become “A Man of One Idea.” Such a phrase suggests some amount of personal creativity… a bit of innovation. Creativity comes from interacting with diversity, rather than indoctrination from uniformity. As such, this person perhaps may be best described as “A Man of NO Ideas.”

I believe that God has gifted all of us with the potential for wisdom that, in part, springs from our uniqueness. This uniqueness comes from our:

  • Talents
  • Calling
  • Circumstances
  • Experiences
  • Relationships

To give a trivial example. I am “White” (Swedish-American) raised up in a region that was almost 100% White (a small percentage of Native Americans made up the remainder of the population at that time). I was raised up in a culture where an awful lot of people shared a common identity and perspective. Nothing wrong with that… geography and socio-economic factors would drive a lot of people to a common perspective. However, the US Navy got me out of the area and allowed me to see many other parts of the United States and the World. This travel in some ways helped me to treasure the uniqueness of my upbringing, but it also helped me to see its limitations. Marrying a woman who was raised up in a different country of a different ethnicity, and raising children who are considered biracial, helped me see things from a yet broader perspective. Then living for 17 years in a country where I am not part of a 99% ethnic majority, but rather a 1% ethnic minority, has further helped me see things from a decidedly different perspective.

I believe that these different circumstances have helped me grow as a person. I also believe that my perspective may also be valuable to someone who has had a decidedly different background. This doesn’t mean that I got it all together. This doesn’t mean that people of narrower experiences are of no value to me.

Multi-perspective dialogue helps. Some express fear of individuals “losing their faith” whatever faith position one is speaking of. For me, however, a faith that goes unchallenged is likely to both brittle and rotten. Rotten means it goes from something good to something bad (Holland’s essay speaks to this). This is where extreme viewpoints tend to take a person to a very bad place. Brittleness means that one has not developed the faculties to think through ones beliefs. When challenged, the person is either forced to react with hostility, or retreat ignobly. “Losing one’s faith” in this situation may be either (a) losing a faith that was unworthy of basing one’s whole life upon— or (b) never having really embraced that faith in a constructive, reflective, and creative way.

A “Man of No Ideas” will devolve toward a from of insanity (falling pray to the mind-control of a few), or instability of poorly reflected upon opinions that yield to the will of others.

Dialogue with Bad History

Teaching a class on Dialogue with Asian Religions, a question was brought up by one of the students (one raised as a Christian in a country where Christians are most definitely a minority faith). How does one effectively have dialogue (and possibly evangelizing) with someone who is focused on bad history with other Christians, or perhaps are focused on the challenging history between Christianity and the other person’s faith?

I don’t know that I have awesome answers. But I can start with one answer I believe is really wrong. When I took Intro to Evangelism class, the textbook author stated if the other person brings up such things, toss those issues aside. They are a distraction. But I really don’t think they are a distraction. Perhaps they are, but commonly they are brought up because the concerns do actually matter to the person. Completely ignoring them seems pretty insulting. People like to be heard and acknowledged.

Of course, one can’t really go into a 3 hour discussion of the moral issues of colonization, or who is at fault in the Crusades, is not really helpful either. There may however, be a middle ground.

  1. Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4 used the past to move things forward. The woman brought up the disagreement between Jews and Samaritans regarding place of worship. Truthfully, she was being pretty diplomatic (as would be culturally expected). After all, 200 years before, Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple— a pretty awful thing to do. Jesus did not attempt to defend the Jewish position. Jesus diplomatically (again) noted that the differences are real and relevant… but times are changing. The barriers between Jews and Samaritans are being torn down (elsewhere noting that Jewish temple will be torn down… much as the Samaritan temple was)— the argument of Mt. Zion versus Mt. Gerizim will soon be moot.
  2. I have always liked a story I heard years ago about a college chaplain (I would love to think that the story could be true). Incoming students have a meeting with the chaplain. Commonly the conversation would go something like this…. After the orientation spiel, the students says, “Thanks chaplain, but you won’t be seeing much of me in the future.” The chaplain responds, “So why is that?” The student explains, “Well, I don’t believe in God anymore.” The chaplain responds, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” After a bit of confusion, the student describes God as he or she was led to understand. Perhaps this God is harsh, judgmental, and unloving. After this the chaplain says,
    “Well, that is good. I don’t believe in that god either.” Sometimes at least, that helps establish a positive relationship with the chaplain. After all, they now share something with the chaplain they did not think they did.

If one brings the two points together, it can be useful to explore the problems, explore the history. For example, if the other person had a Christian neighbor who was a horrible person, it can be useful to let that story be told. It is honoring to hear their story and to affirm what one can affirm. Frankly, a good person… a good Christian… would reject the behavior of that bad neighbor. Additionally, acknowledge the past while still moving the conversation into the future. After all, the past is important, but the potentialities of the future are even more important.

God, Man, or Satan

This image above is considering where other religions come from. (from Sir Norman Anderson). Some people believe they come from God. If that is true then other religions are a Preparation for the Gospel. Other people believe they come from Satan. If that is true, then other religions are a trap, snare, and distraction. Others believe that other religions are Man’s attempt to understand the great mysteries of life, and are seeking meaning and hope in a confusing world.

Each have implications on other things. If other religions are from God, then that suggests continuity of God’s work (God is working everywhere, not simply through the church). If other religions are from Satan, then it may be more correct to think that God’s work is discontinuous… God ONLY ministers to the world through the church. If other religions are from Man, it is not so certain as to which (as I marked) but it is probable that God’s ministry is discontinuous. I am using continuity and discontinuity the way Andrew Walls does.

If other religions are from God, then our goal is for the gospel to fulfill/complete other religions. If other religions are from Satan, then other religions need to be destroyed and replaced. If other religions are man-made… it is not so clear what should be done, but the key point is that things have to change… transformation is needed.

If other religions are from God, then the contextualization form that is best (from Paul Hiebert’s model) is probably uncritical contextualization— quick to embrace what is good, focusing on common ground and ignoring problematic details. If other religions are from Satan, then non-contextualization makes more sense. Cultural imperialism, throwing out the bad and replacing it with what the missionary believes is good from outside, hopefully will work. If other religions are from Man, then Critical Contextualization makes the most sense. We have to understand others and their beliefs openly and sympathetically, but recognizing the need for God’s message to challenge and change in some areas.

If other religions come from God, then dialogue makes the most sense. We need to talk together and learn from each other. If other religions come from Satan, then didactic speech (teaching/preaching) makes the most sense. If other religions come from Man, perhaps dialectic makes the most sense— recognizing the competing values and beliefs to challenge and be challenged by the other. (Using terms as David Hesselgrave does here… I think.)

But, what if ALL THREE IS TRUE? God is at work everywhere drawing all to Himself, even before the church has arrived (like with Cornelius and Peter in Acts). Satan is the accuser and deceiver roaming over the whole earth, and is perfectly happy to work both inside and outside of religion to do this. And Man is always seeking to know what is true and what is good and what is right, and will develop religion as a vehicle to answer to answer these questions. If all three are true, then our response cannot be as simple as the diagram would have for any individual.

I put purple squares around those responses that I think make sense if other religions come from all three sources. Do you agree?

Offending for Good Reason

Darrel Whiteman says that one of three reasons for good contextualization is to “Offend for the Right Reason.” After all, Paul noted that the Gospel message is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. Yet at the same time, Paul did try to make the Gospel message palatable or adorned for these groups. Paul expressed the Gospel in terms of Deus or the Unknown God to Greek philosophers. Paul expressed the Gospel in terms of Jesus as the Messiah predicted in Scripture to Jews. So this suggests that there is Offending for good reasons and Offending for the bad reasons. And by inference, one can NOT Offend for good and bad reasons.

Offending for bad reasons can break down communication. It can make the message rejected. It can also cause the Christian faith to be viewed as foreign to the culture rather than a fulfillment of the culture.

Not offending for bad reasons can lead to confusion where the Gospel may be seen as nothing more than “the best of that culture.” Ultimately, it may result in some form of syncretism. That syncretism may be seen in “Situational Reformation” (syncretism due to confusion) or “Syncretistic Incorporation” (syncretism based on the intentional creative act of the receiver).

Not offending for good reasons helps the gospel to localize… feel at home in the new culture. Much of a local culture is good (or at least not bad) so the gospel should not undermine what is worthy of embracing.

Offending for good reasons gives motivation to transformation. If the gospel is totally in line with the culture in every way, causing of no offense, one essentially has a “state religion”– justifying the status quo. But offending for the right reason points to necessary transformation.

Two Christmases in One

I have written on Christmas here previously. One of my favorite posts is “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” I wrote it back in 2012.  I wrote it because every year (E….V….E…R…Y….   Year) people complain about Christmas for one thing or another. And so I made the following points:

  1. It is Okay to Christianize a Pagan Holiday <An Issue of Contextualization>
  2. It is Okay to Celebrate a Civil Holiday <An Issue of Separation>
  3. It is Okay to Celebrate Christmas in December <An Issue of Historicity>
  4. It is Okay to Celebrate <An Issue of Asceticism>
  5. It is Okay NOT to Listen to Me <An Issue of Conformity>

If you want to read it, then CLICK HERE.

I think the post is still pretty valid. The weakest point is actually probably the first one. It is weak NOT because it is wrong to recontextualize pagan symbols and festivities. It is weak because it is probable that Christmas was NOT actually a literal one-for-one replacement of a pagan holiday. Christmas is not on the day Winter Solstice and even less the days of Saturnalia.

A stronger point is #2. Christmas is TWO celebrations. It is Christian Christmas (CC) AND Secular Christmas (SC). If all aspects that relate to CC are enclosed in a ⭕ and all aspects that relate to SC are enclosed in another ⭕, those circles would not be fully aligned, but neither would they be separate. They would certainly overlap.

It is the overlap that is important.  Some Christians embrace a more  antagonistic and separatistic stance with the surrounding culture. For them, Christians should remove all aspects of Christmas that may be found in Secular Christmas. However, from a missional perspective, the overlap is good… even important.

If CC and SC were totally aligned, Christian Christmas may be fully relevant to the secular world, but non-impactful. If CC and SC were totally separate, Christian Christmas will not resonate with the secular world, so the potential impact is likely to not be given a foothold. The overlap provides the bridge. Both SC and CC value love, joy, peace, and giving. This is a useful bridge and can challenge the materialism, consumerism, and (frankly) superficial aspects that are also unsettling aspects of Secular Christmas.

To me, the failure to overlap can be seen in Hanukkah. Jewish Hanukkah (JH) is fairly well-defined. Secular Hanukkah (SH) exists in places like the US to a limited extent, but Christian Hanukkah (CH) doesn’t really exist. And this is strange. Christians often acting like celebrating Hanukkah is un-Christian. It celebrates the rededication of the 2nd temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucids a couple of centuries before Christian. It is part of our Christian story as well. Jesus in fact is recorded celebrating Hanukkah (Festival of Dedication) in John 10:22ff.

It seems to me that the lack of existence of CH has limited the impact of Christians in Hanukkah. One may question this in that in the US there has been a drift of Christmas traditions into Hanukkah in Reformed Judaism. This includes gift-giving and Hanukkah bushes. Arguably, however, the interaction is more from the secular side of Christmas than the Christian side.

Of course I am not saying that Hanukkah should become more like Christmas. Rather, I am trying to give an example of where unnecessary separation leads to lack of impact. So, while I think there are risks if Christians getting caught up in the excesses of Secular Christmas, the positive side of the overlap of the two Christmases is potentially a valuable bridge for positive impact.

Accepting our Mutual “Crappiness”

Before I get into my topic more fully, I would like to share a quote from Martin Buber.

Genuine conversation, and therefore, every actual fulfillment and relationship between men, means acceptance of otherness… Everything depends, as far as human life is concerned, on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way.

Marin Buber, Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays (Humanity Books, 1998), 59. Quoted by Mordechai Gordon “Listening as Embracing the Other: Martin Buber’s Philosphy of Dialogue” Education Theory. Vol. 61, No. 2 (2011) University of Illinois

I am going to relay a story very vaguely. An old friend of mine (only have communicated in the last 30 years on FB) posted a mildly humorous political joke that was presumably slightly pro-conservative (in terms of American politics) by poking light fun at pro-liberals (again, in terms of American politics). I had no real problem with it. I don’t ascribe to any particular American political ideology. But then something interesting happened. One person (who sounded strangely like me… at least in this comment) said something about the two sides should really get together and talk things out. My old friend went ballistic about that. It seemed to be an odd thing comment to get so heated about it. My old friend went into something of the sort… “Where did positive dialogue happen back in _______ when THEY __________!!!!”

That was so strange. But on reflection, it wasn’t so strange. This is a very human reaction. People don’t like to have conversations with people of different perspectives. People like to have “face moves on” (of “to dunk on”) people of other perspectives… or more likely, listen to others who like to use rhetoric to make others look bad. In the case of my friend, he essentially said that he did not want to have a healthy conversation with people of a different perspective because people of that group did “bad stuff” in the past. Curiously, the bad stuff was no more bad that people in his own camp have done at different times. Part of me wants to say that that is not logical… it is not rational. However, people aren’t really rational— and that is okay. We are emotional beings. That is good, but there are risks. Blood feuds have lasted, in some places, for years… even centuries… where each side blames the other for past crimes that their own side had done just as much.

It is not a good look (especially for Christians) when it comes to interreligious communication. But it is probably NEVER a good look. Even the most wrongheaded person is right some of the time. And even the most rightheaded person is wrong some of the time (a LOT of the time).

So what gives genuine conversation? Looking at Buber,

  1. Acceptance of otherness. The other person is not a stereotype… a strawman caricature. The other person is not a demon. In fact, if they believe things from you, it probably comes from a good place not bad. They believe their beliefs are correct and beneficial. They probably are not comic book villains who do things “to perpetuate evil” (at least from their own perspective). Thanos (the movie incarnation of the character at least) thought he was doing things to perpetuate good (even if his plan was pretty stupid).
  2. Accept their desire of others to influence. People believe they are right and that if others shared their views, the world would be at least slightly better. In other words, USUALLY people want to influence others, and this desire comes from a good place, not a bad place. If one can accept that the motives of the other are probably good.
  3. Act Intentionally. To unreservedly accept and confirm the other doesn’t happen naturally. It must be done intentionally. One must choose to override one’s natural tendency to dehumanize (demonize, move from I-you to I-it) others, and accept that different perspectives may come from good motives.
  4. Recognize our Mutual Crappiness. Despite the fact that most of us may have good motives behind our disparate beliefs, our tendency to demonize those we disagree with, and tendency to think that others have bad motives behind their differences—- well, that is pretty crappy. But if we all tend to do this, then we are mutually crappy. Knowing this can also help us break down barriers— we share a common struggle. Our conflict with others, is first of all a conflict within ourselves.

Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 2)

So what can one do to avoid falling prey to groupthink, confirmation bias, selective exposure, and being overwhelmed by information overload? Well I had several awesome ideas for this post…. but then I took a few days off, and I can’t remember some of them. But let me see where this goes.

  1. Doubt. Paul Westphal noted that we cannot look over God’s shoulder. God knows the truth, and is Truth, but others are not privy to truth without error. In practice, that means we must be humble and forgiving of ourselves, embracing our own limitations. And the same must apply to others. No human is correct all of the time… and no human is incorrect all of the time (though I swear, some really try).
  2. Respect. Doubt should minimize our trust of individuals as authorities, but if we recognize that every person is right about some things and wrong about some things, it is also likely that a person who is wrong 97% of the time is still right (in that 3%) in something that I am wrong about. That means that pretty much every person on earth I can learn from, if I am open to valuing every person. I believe every person is worthy of respect inherently because each is lovingly designed by a fully capable and creative God. But if each person is someone I can gain by learning something from, I have another reason to respect each person. After all, we tend not to learn from people we don’t respect.
  3. Dialogue. People love to preach, to teach, to talk, and to argue. They don’t like to listen much, and even less to dialogue. Yet it is in dialogue that we tend to learn. That is why people and groups that want to indoctrinate their followers do it first by isolating followers from alternative viewpoints. They also tend to breed disrespect for the people who hold other views. And this indoctrination scheme would be really a great idea if the group was right about everything. But no such group exists. We learn from each other. (I have talked enough about dialogue elsewhere, you can look at DIALOGUE IN DIVERSITY for more).
  4. Reflection. Learning is iterative… but it often takes a certain intentionality. Much religious education (and even civil education) is focused on rote learning… memorizing dogma. There is value in that, but the value is wasted if one is not also is also not trained to think reflective.

I feel like I forgot one of the big thoughts for this post, but I cannot remember. Perhaps someone else has a suggestion to share. I am happy to reflect on it.

Good and Bad Reasons for Theological Blogging

I like to blog. I do believe that those of us in ministry are theologians. I think there are great reasons to blog theologically, but perhaps I should also be realistic about it.

At one time weblogs were the hot new thing, but those times are past. Hotter and newer forms of media are here now. If you want to get views, putting cute animal pics on Instagram, and retweeting some trending conspiracy will likely get you bigger results. Blogposts almost never go viral. In over 10 years of blogging, I have only had one post that snuck up on the periphery of “going viral” and it wasn’t even a post that I liked that much. Some people speak of the possibilities of monetization. While this is indeed possible, it is not a likely trajectory for most people writing in theology. I have known a few who have succeeded in doing this, but in those cases, their blog was treated like a business with staff an advertising budget, and merch for sale. Commonly, they accepted (often quite cringy) advertisements to be on their website (“Anyone wish to talk to their own personal angel?”) I also don’t think that blogs are a great evangelism tool. There is no real substitute for real human interaction combined with compassion through action. Your awesome proofs that Jesus is God are unlikely to be read, much less leading to radical conversion. Nothing wrong with trying, but one don’t let your excitement be dashed by reality.

There are reasons, however, that theological blogging can be beneficial.

  1. It is a good place to record and hone your thoughts. As you read and meditate, you have some good thoughts and some… not so good. Both of these are likely to be forgotten, unless you write them down. The process of writing them down helps on its own, but this is enhanced if you write your thoughts down where they can be retrieved. Having them written down in an electronic form with search functions, tagging, and hyperlinks available, may work better than simply writing in notebooks. And writing to a real (potential) audience can force one to write more thoughtfully and coherently.
  2. It can serve as a repository of research and reflections that may be drawn upon for other uses. Such uses include sermons, training seminars, articles, books, videos, and so forth. I have been blogging on my main website for over 10 years. In that time, I have accumulated almost 1,200 posts that would overflow a 2000 page book. Some of the writing I have done I am quite proud of. Others… less so. But by utilizing categories and tags and searches, I can find things I have collected (with references) and thoughts that can speed up producing other material.
  3. It can be used to influence others. I do think one needs to keep things in perspective here. I average around 1000 views per month. It is okay, but hardly impressive numbers. Some do more and some do less, but if you are talking about theology, generally you will not attract big crowds. But that is okay. There are even advantages to this. If you want to blog on your favorite recipe for strawberry turnovers, or the most beautiful waterfalls in the Philippines, you will have a much larger likely audience. On the other hand, you also have much greater competition. You will not be on the first page of Google search… or second page… or third. Also, the likelihood that you will have lasting positive impact with searchers is fairly low. However, if you search on Google for “transcendental contextualization,” a blog I wrote shows up on page 2, and a slideshare I created based on blogposts I had done is on page 1. The same thing occurs if one is looking at interreligious dialogue based on the missiologist Max Warren. Writing on less common topics does have advantages sometimes.
  4. It can break down barriers, and promote communication. Two thirds of my visitors are either from the United States and the Philippines. The other third are from a large variety of nations and territories— 198 so far in 2020. Many of those locations are considered “creative access” regions. And since blogs can be set up to allow forum responses, one can also learn and grow that way. <And of course, if you find your comment feed is sounding like most youtube comment feeds, you can turn off the feature… no worries.>

I said before that I believe that all ministers are theologians. But not all ministers are good theologians. I believe blogging can help one become better. I also think it allows ministers to provide an alternative perspective to the dubious messages that float around from various other sources— both Christian and non-Christian.