A Modest Goal For Public Discourse, or Not

When is a conversation “genuine?” Michael King suggests that it is when there is “a mutual quest for treasure in our own and the other’s viewpoint.”

Elaborating, King suggests that this entails making two key moves: “the first move is to make as clear as I can why I hold this position … and why you may find in it treasure to value in your own quest for truth. The second move is to see the value in the other’s view … and to grow in my own understandings by incorporating as much of the other’s perspective as I can without losing the integrity of my own convictions” (Mutual Treasure, P. 153).

This ideal for public discourse establishes a very high standard. When I am about to engage someone with whom I have major disagreements, I do not always do so with the attitude that I am going to “actively seek for treasure” in what he or she believes. I have a lot of company. Is this lofty goal attainable?

Another Mennonite scholar, Carolyn Schrock-Shenk, suggests that King may have set the bar too high when dealing with volatile and contentious issues. She asks, “Does one need to be open to changing one’s perspective or conviction about an issue?” In her view, when dealing with highly charged issues, such as homosexuality, “that readiness is the ideal, but it is rarely realistic.”

Schrock-Shenk then proposes a more modest goal that she believes is a “minimum requirement for genuine conversation”: “a readiness to change or modify one’s perspective about the person or persons holding the opposite point of view” (Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, P. 15).

Is this more modest goal for public discourse feasible? I see little evidence of it in current political debate. The rampant tendency to resort to name-calling, and even demonization, of politicians on the other side of the aisle doesn’t suggest that a result of ongoing political debate has caused many to modify their perspectives about the persons who are their political opponents.

But, closer to home, is this apparently modest goal feasible within the Christian community? When Christians engage other Christians who disagree with them on contentious issues, is there evidence that such engagement typically modifies the perspective one Christian has about the person with whom he or she disagrees? I see little broad evidence for that change in perspective, and I will conjecture as to the reason for that.

The problem, as I see it, is the prevalence of “litmus tests” among Christians relative to controversial questions, such as the following: How did God create the universe? What will be the nature of the “end times?” Is abortion ever an appropriate moral choice? What about homosexuality and gay marriage? Should a Christian ever resort to violence? Is a particular political affiliation most compatible with the Christian faith?

All of these questions are important, and should be discussed respectfully by Christians who propose different answers. But such conversations are difficult to get started or to sustain because of the up-front application of litmus tests intended to separate “us” from “them.” If you do not embrace one particular answer to one of these questions, that just proves that you have a low view of the authority of the Bible, or you are not a deeply committed Christian, if you are a Christian at all. End of conversation!

How can this problem be solved? My proposed solution is for you to get to know, on a personal level, the person with whom you disagree. Such personal knowledge will help you to understand better that person’s reasons for his or her position, which could change your perspective about that person, You may come to the realization that he or she is also a deeply committed follower of Jesus, even though you differ about the issue at hand. Lest you think this is wishful thinking, let me share with you a personal experience that caused me to change my perspective about another Christian.

My church hosted a dialogue on one of the contentious questions noted above. Although the dialogue was scheduled for two days, some were ready to go home early by applying a simple litmus test. But most of us were willing to start with the assumption that there may be alternative Christian views on the issue at hand that equally committed followers of Jesus could embrace. So the conversation proceeded, with the last session devoted to one-on-one conversations between pairs of attendees. By chance, or by design (I was later told), I was paired with a local pastor who was known to hold strong views on the issue with which I disagreed, and who was vocal about his views. How awkward would this prove to be?

It didn’t prove to be awkward at all, because we didn’t just jump into the issue at hand. Rather we started by talking about where we came from geographically (his boyhood home was in the same state as my wife’s home), about our children (his daughters were attending a Christian College in Pennsylvania with which I was familiar), and about our respective Christian pilgrimages. We then spent some time talking about the issue at hand, but I don’t think we changed each other’s basic point of view. However, our conversation changed my preconceived notions about this person, and I left our time together thankful that I had engaged another deeply committed follower of Jesus.

I learned a valuable lesson through this experience. If we get to know personally other Christians who disagree with us on contentious issues, it may slow down (albeit, probably not eliminate) the centrifugal tendency toward disunity among Christians and help us to realize that we can have Christian fellowship with other followers of Jesus who differ with us on some contentious issues because we share a common commitment to be followers of Jesus. Once we come to that realization, we may even be ready to seek and find some mutual treasures in each other’s perspectives.

In brief, your embracing the apparently modest goal of openness to changing your perspective about the person with whom you disagree may be a first step toward the loftier goal of seeking for mutual treasures.