Expressing your Christian Beliefs with Deep Conviction, Openness, Gentleness and Respect

Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, points to the rarity of Christians combining deep convictions about their beliefs with gentleness and respect toward those who disagree with them in a fascinating and disturbing reflection on the many sermons he heard during his boyhood days in a Christian Reformed Church in New Jersey on the last two sentences in 1 Peter 3: 15.

 … Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect … (NIV)

Richard’s observation, expressed in a meeting we both attended, was that he had heard many sermons on the first sentence, but he has no recollection of ever hearing a sermon on the second sentence.

This radical example of the penchant of many Christians to tear biblical passages out of their context (within the same verse, mind you) points to the rarity of the combination of commitment and openness. Here is my own elaboration.

The first sentence from 1 Peter 3:15 suggests that Christians should be prepared to state their beliefs with clarity and conviction. That reflects strong commitment to one’s Christian beliefs. So far, so good! But the oft-neglected second sentence suggests how a Christian should state her strong convictions; with “gentleness and respect.” For me this exhortation to be “gentle and respectful” means that at the same time that you state your Christian beliefs with clarity and conviction; you are open to listening to the contrary beliefs of others and then talking respectfully about your agreements and disagreements.

In this day when many Christians succumb to the scourge of tribalism, an us-versus-them mentality that asserts that “me and my people” (e.g., my particular church or Christian tradition) have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth about the issue at hand, and “those other folks” possess very little, if any, of that truth, it is all too easy for Christians to embrace commitment, but to eschew “openness.” The rarity of this combination of “commitment” and “openness is the main obstacle to Christians embracing and learning from Christians who worship in “other” churches or Christian traditions.

Before suggesting a strategy for overcoming this obstacle, I will reflect on what I consider to be three root causes of the rarity of effectively combining commitment and openness: a denial of diversity in Christian belief; a desire for prominence and power; and a lack of humility.

Diversity in Christian belief has been prominent since the early days of the Christian church and it is here to stay. Many Christian historians have documented this truth. As Catherine Breckus and Clark Gilpin have cogently pointed out, failure to acknowledge this truth is often driven by a tendency to consider “manyness” a failure and, therefore, to falsely identify your “own part” of the entire Christian tradition “with the whole.”

… Christians usually identify “manyness” as a failure. Christians believe that in the ideal world, the tradition is supposed to be singular, and rather than confronting its plurality, they have usually chosen to identify their own part of it with the whole (American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity, 4)

One major obstacle to combining commitment and openness is the denial of “Christian diversity” that considers “manyness” to be a failure.

A second major obstacle is the tendency for some Christians to submerge or marginalize those from other Christian traditions to maintain prominence and power. It appears to me that some Christians avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions, or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue, for fear that if they are given a voice, the result could be a diminishment of the current dominance of our tradition, or our particular beliefs about the issue under consideration, or the respectability or prestige or support that our Christian organization has?

In conversations I have had with some prominent Christian leaders related to my focus on giving a voice to everyone and  creating a safe and welcoming space for the expression of disagreement (and from similar conversations that other people have reported to me), I have been saddened by a pattern in responses that in effect asks “What will our constituents or supporters think if that find out we are even talking about such a controversial issue?” Is such a response guided more by adherence to values such as cultural acceptance, admiration, prestige and power than commitment to foundational Christian values like love, courage and the quest for truth? I respectfully suggest that these prominent Christian leaders failed to dig down deep to foundational Christian values?

A third obstacle to combining commitment and openness is a lack of humility. That will take some explanation since the Christian virtue of humility is often misunderstood.

It has been my experience that elements of my biography deeply inform my beliefs, as do other elements of my social location, such as my gender, my race, my sexual orientation and my socio-economic status. The beliefs of someone who disagrees with me about a given issue may be deeply informed by her differing set of particularities that may enable her to see things that I miss; just as my unique particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God. In addition, I can be blinded when I succumb to the temptation to sin by thinking “it’s all about me and those who agree with me.” As scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is hubris; a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about the issue at hand. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that the contrary beliefs of another person may help me to refine my beliefs; possibly improving them, and possibly even correcting them.

Note that such humility does not mean being wishy-washy about your beliefs. Rather, it involves you holding in tension that very rare combination of embracing and expressing your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction at the same time that you publicly acknowledge that you may have only a partial, truncated view of the “whole truth” and you may even be “wrong” about some things.

Both Ian Barbour and Richard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following definition of “religious maturity.”

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity (136).

In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw draws on Martin Marty in highlighting the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a “convicted civility.” 

One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility … We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility (12).

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours; end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.” – Reflections on the Psalms, 28): One of the most pressing needs in our world today, is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness; giving living expression to “convicted civility.”

Do we Christians often avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions, or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue, because we lack that measure of humility required to acknowledge that our finitude and fallibility beg us to engage in conversation with other finite and fallible Christians having differing views of the truth, so that together we may gain a better approximation to the full truth as only understood by God?

Overcoming these three obstacles will be difficult in an age where many Christians have succumbed to the scourge of tribalism. Assuming that by God’s grace these formidable obstacles can be overcome, or at least ameliorated, is there a practical strategy for effectively combining commitment and openness when engaging with those “others” (Christian or otherwise) who disagree with you. I close with a strategy suggested by Richard Mouw

Based on his extensive experience with inter-faith dialogues with Catholic, Jews and Mormons, Mouw has provided excellent advice on how to signal to your conversation partners your openness to listening to their contrary viewpoints as a first step in your conversation. He used to jump right into the fray, telling the other person, in no uncertain terms, why she “is wrong,” which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person, “help me to understand what it is you believe [about the issue at hand] and your reasons for believing that.”

Mouw found that this way to start the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says (15:1), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I have some first-hand experience that testifies to the wisdom of this way to start a conversation in my many recent attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about hot-button issues. It is wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what she believes and why she holds to those beliefs, she will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding; which, hopefully, can lead to the trust needed to begin sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least illuminating remaining disagreements sufficient to enable ongoing conversation.