We Have Never Talked with Mere Mortals. So, Let’s Elevate the Conversation.

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In his essay “The Weight of Glory” in the book by the same title, C. S. Lewis claims that you and I “have never talked to a mere mortal.” [C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, originally published in 1946), page 46.] Many of the essays in the volume were sermons Lewis delivered during WWII. During times of war, we see the best and worst in one another. People’s true colors are often manifest during times of great travail when we face death head-on, perhaps even foreshadowing the “immortal horrors” or “everlasting splendours” that Lewis claims we may become.

It is easy to caricature others during times of crisis for the purposes of propaganda to rally the troops in hopes of winning. All too often, we approach culture war topics in quite the same way. It is all too easy to jump into our fox holes, toss grenades, and bayonet the opposition to extinction. That will not do.

Since you and I have never met mere mortals, since “there are no ordinary people,” we must not approach others in an ordinary manner. As Lewis writes, we must take each other quite seriously—with “no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption” (46). For Lewis, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses” (46).

Francis Collins’ relationship with the late Christopher Hitchens was almost sacramental. “In remembrance of my friend Hitch” is a moving memorial account of the relationship between Hitchens—the famed author, public intellectual and antitheist, and Collins—the director of the National Institutes of Health, who is also an Evangelical Christian. The bread, the wine and cheese of their evening dialogues at Hitchens’ apartment that included consideration of how to treat Hitchens’ aggressive cancer transformed them from mere debaters of opposing camps to soul mates. Collins closes his memorial for his friend,

I will miss Christopher. I will miss the brilliant turn of phrase, the good-natured banter, the wry sideways smile when he was about to make a remark that would make me laugh out loud. No doubt he now knows the answer to the question of whether there is more to the spirit than just atoms and molecules. I hope he was surprised by the answer. I hope to hear him tell about it someday. He will tell it really well.

Hitchens and Collins elevated their conversation beyond one of mere debate. There was no flippancy, superiority or presumption in their friendship as atheist and Christian. Their differences did not go away, but the polarizing tension bound up with their positions did.

Can we give one another permission to elevate the conversation and to view one another—regardless of our positions—as more than our remarks? Whether or not we are more than molecules and atoms, we are more than mere words and ideas that divide us. Can we approach one another with a spirit of wonder? Perhaps we could ask the person on the other side of an issue, perhaps even on faith and science, “I wonder why you hold to that position? Will you please let me know why, and why it is so important to you? How does it shape your approach to life?” Such questions don’t close off conversations. They open them up for further exploration.

You and I may not agree on the question of the after-life, or if there is more to life than just atoms and molecules. But hopefully, you and I can agree that we need to elevate the conversation beyond culture war rhetoric on matters of theism vs. atheism, or on matters of faith vs. science. The posturing has become all-too predictable and boring.

Hitchens once told Collins that he was more afraid of boredom than death. If only the fear of boredom bound up with predictable debates and culture war battles would cause us to approach one another with a sense of wonder, of anticipation that perhaps we can make a truce and move beyond party lines and war zones, as in the WWI movie Joyeux Noel, when the French, German and Scottish troops laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas Eve with one another in no man’s land. Hitchens and Collins elevated the conversation for more than a day—their endearing discourse lingers on. Will we follow their lead?

Wednesday, May 4th, The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins is partnering with New Hope Community Church and Mt. Scott Church of God to present “Equipping Christians to Engage Faith in a Secular and Scientific Age.” If you are in the Portland area, please join Pastor John Rosensteel, Pastor David Wilson, missional thought leader and author Tony Kriz, Dr. Robert Potter, and me. We will be encouraging one another to re-imagine our conversations and relationships and give one another as Christians permission to approach faith and science questions with a sense of wonder in the church and culture at large. This endeavor is part of Multnomah Biblical Seminary’s grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and New Wine’s conference “Church and Science: Partners for the Common Good.” We will gather from 7:00-8:30 PM at New Hope Community Church at 11731 SE Stevens Rd. Happy Valley, OR 97086.

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