Some Thoughts on Christian Public Discourse

Some time back I posted a piece called “The Slow Death of Intellectual Virtue.” In this piece, I argued that the way in which we argue is as important as what we argue. I still believe that. Intellectual virtue is one of my core commitments as an educator and as one who engages in public discourse. My friend Steve Rankin from SMU has made similar arguments, as have other bloggers whom I know and respect.

Since then, a few pieces have come out in the blogosphere claiming that my way of thinking about these issues simply doesn’t hold water. What matters is not our manner of argument, but the variety of perspectives represented in the blogosphere and in the UMC. After all, one blogger argued, Dr. Rankin and I have only made these arguments because we don’t know how bad it really is out there on the internet. On that matter, I’m simply not ready to concede that the worst of what’s out there should be the standard for Christian public discourse.

I do agree that it is crucial that a broad variety of perspectives be represented, but it also matters how those perspectives are represented. If a perspective is not presented in a way that models Christian and intellectual virtue, that doesn’t mean that the perspective is invalid, but that it not presented in the way that is most helpful for facilitating wisdom, insight, and mutual understanding.

The bottom line is this: I cannot control the way anyone else argues. I cannot control the way in which others talk and write about me or people whom I respect. I can only behave in the way that I believe most honors Christ and edifies the Church. Regardless of the ways in which others argue, the practices of respectful Christian dialogue still matter. In and of themselves, they matter.

Christ instructed us: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27). That’s hard to do. That’s not my strong suit. But with God’s help I’m going to try to do that, and I am going to encourage others to do the same.

I was reading this evening through the new volume of Wesley’s sermons edited by Ken Collins and Jason Vickers. In this volume, there is a sermon called “The Cure of Evil-Speaking.” In the introduction to this sermon, the authors write,

Concerned about avoiding unnecessary conflict and division among their preachers, John and Charles Wesley drafted a letter on January 29, 1752, that became widely known. Its contents formed the heart of the counsels offered in this present sermon against the disruptive practice of evil-speaking as revealed in the following:

1. That we will not listen, or willing inquire after any ill concerning each other.

2. That if we do hear any ill of each other, we will not be forward to believe it.

3. That as soon as possible we will communicate what we hear, by speaking or writing to the person concerned.

4. That till we have done this we will not write or speak a syllable of it to any other person whatsoever.

5. That neither will we mention it after we have done this to any other person.

6. That we will not make any exception to any of these rules, unless we think ourselves absolutely obliged in conscience to do so (p. 431).

As Wesley notes in the sermon, “the very commonness of this sin makes it difficult to be avoided. As we are encompassed with it on every side, so if we are not deeply sensible of the danger, and continually guarding against it, we are liable to be carried away by the torrent” (3). This is wise counsel, and I’m going to try to heed it.

Have I spoken evil against my fellow Christians? Perhaps I have. I’ve tried to avoid doing this, but of course I don’t always succeed at the things that I try to do. Have I always argued in a Christlike way or a way that models intellectual virtue? I’m certain I have not. But rather than back off of these efforts, I’m going to double down on them.

Yes, at some point, we have to stop talking about how we talk to one another and get to the real meat of our conversation. And, no, we will not all agree on how we should engage in discourse with one another. As for me, I can only try to model what I think is the best way to engage others. And if they have different ways of engaging me, then so be it.

12 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Christian Public Discourse

  1. Steven Rankin’s musings on method elicited the predictable sneering from the writers who most need to hear. We’ve lost the good of reason. The sexual revolution depends upon the loss of reason for its continued survival. C. S. Lewis predicted this in ABOLITION OF MAN.

    • I agree that many folks in public discourse today have lost the good of reason. This is not simply in the UMC, but quite broadly. Look at the dominance of negative attack ads in the media. God help us….

  2. I very much enjoy reading your posts, David. Measured and intelligent, they encourage thought and are challenging, and still I hear a quiet kind of passion in your words as well. This is intriguing to me–very often highly intellectual discourses are cool and dry. Frequently in the things you write, and the way you write, I hear the depth of your emotional response to your subject as well as the intellectual clarity you bring to the subject matter. I don’t often find that to be true–so many writers’ approaches are one or the other: impassioned or cold. For me, this speaks to a genuine heart for the subject and allows me to absorb your message more deeply. And certainly with more pleasure. As someone who loves words and clear communication, and also has a deep love for the Eternal Creator, this is very much a winning combination. So thank you.

    • Linda, thank you. I really appreciate that affirmation. With all the attention in the blogging world toward posts that make exaggerated claims and use incendiary rhetoric, I’m glad to hear from someone who appreciates a more measured approach.

  3. I agree with what Linda has said above. I also agree that the way something is argued is as important as what is argued. I find it almost unfathomable that others would disagree or place other priorities above that of communicating clearly, rationally, and effectively with a mind open to understanding another’s perspective and to learning. That would seem to be the model for successful communication. The whole point is to hear and be heard. This would seem to be all the more critical among diverse voices.

    • Thanks, Walt. Unfathomable, yes…. But it seems to be true. I suppose that for some folks, successful mutual communication is not the primary goal. Ideological victory has supplanted it. This way of arguing has been around for a long time. I just don’t think it’s the most helpful.

  4. In the sundown of reason going into Portland 2016, there will be a shift in blogging from strategic maneuvering to sheer tactics. We have people here in the West deft at playing the game this way. They will never concede ideological substance to spare the church. Prepare for the worst. Yes, in the end, it will be a bitterly contested debate over theology of the greatest consequence.

    • In some ways, I think orthodox/evangelicals/conservatives should just focus on mission and refrain from trying to work the conference to maintain our current stance on sexual ethics. If the liberal/progressives “win” then let the bishops deal with the fallout. If there is a change, everyone knows that there will be a split.

      If that’s what it’s going to be, let it be. We who hold to a high view of scripture should focus all of our efforts on doing mission. I think in some ways we are falling prey to the evil ones’ tactics by spending our time focused so much on this. I don’t know how many blog posts, funds, and mental energy has been devoted to this – things that should be devoted to proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. I personally have said, “Forget it – this is a waste of time.” I will speak a word in person if I feel led to but I’m not wasting any more time or energy or arguing with people who are devoted to ideology instead of Christ. It’s pointless most of the time.

      • Unfortunately, there will be no place to hide evangelical orthodoxy in a reordered UMC. In the West, where propagandist crotchets are proxy for gospel, there’s no debate over sexuality happening publicly but only a Progressive mop-up operation going on. Evangelicals are disorganized and quiet…and ostensibly focusing on mission?

      • I think my language is clear, but the message may not be “as you like it”…however, somebody’s got to say these things ahead of Portland 2016. Head in the sand in not good posture for the church. Again, that may not be the message you were looking for…

      • Alright Gary, you don’t have to be all smart-alecky. The whole post is about proper discourse. You’re assuming it’s not what I want to hear but I clearly said “I just don’t understand what you’re saying.” How are you going to make a difference talking to people if you don’t listen to them?

        And also, I didn’t say, “Go stick in your head in the sand.” I said, “Maybe it’s time to quit investing so much of our time and energy in preserving a sinking ship and instead focus it on doing mission and let the chips fall where they are going to fall. If the denomination goes under, it’s not the end of the world.” My point is, the enemy is always trying to get us to chase squirrels instead of doing God’s work. He has called us to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ. But instead, we get caught up in trying to preserve old wineskins and changing culture (Christ called us to seek transformation in people through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word – not change in culture through manipulation and human effort) and all sorts of other pointless pursuits. We are all going to stand in the presence of Christ one day and he’s going to ask us a simple question, “Did you do what I told you to do?” All I’m saying is that maybe we ought to focus on making sure that we can answer that question with confidence.

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