Respectful Conversations about Divisive Issues, Part 3

Respectful Conversations about Divisive Issues, Part 3 December 12, 2014

I Have Seen it Happen with my Own Eyes

Talking about words that too easily roll off the tongue, my proposed strategy for facilitating respectful conversation may elicit expressions of agreement, in the abstract. But does that strategy really “work” when you manage to gather in the same room those who disagree strongly about a given controversial issue?

At one level, I am not concerned about whether my proposed strategy “works.” I have argued that it is the “right thing” for Christians to do, as a deep response to the commandment of Jesus that we who claim to be his followers should love those who disagree with us, independent of the results of such respectful engagement.

But a marvelous bonus is that, in addition to this intrinsic value of respectful conversation, such conversation also has the potential to have enormous instrumental value in the form of laying the foundation from which conversation partners may inch, however so slowly, by means of subsequent conversations, toward a greater understanding of God’s Truth relative to the difficult issue being discussed.

Lest you think this is wishful thinking in the abstract, I will provide some compelling empirical evidence for this assertion from two recent conversations in which I have participated, focusing on my claim above that the initial “getting to know you” phase of a conversation can effect a significant change in “how those who disagree with one another view each other” (the tell-tale sign that a “genuine conversation” has started, as suggested by the Mennonite scholar Carolyn Schrock-Shenk in the book Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, edited by Michael A. King, Cascadia Publishing House, 2007, p. 15).

The setting for the first conversation, in the summer or 2013, was Point Loma University in San Diego, where The Colossian Forum (TCF), for whom I serve as a Senior Fellow,  gathered a group of nine scholars who disagreed strongly about the “Origins” issue of “how” God created the universe, with the starkly contrasting views being young-earth creationism and evolutionary creationism. We got to know one another by reading scripture and praying together, and participating in a variety of informal activities, ranging from enjoying meals together to a splendid hike on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. And we talked respectfully about our disagreements.

Over these few days together, I didn’t witness huge changes in the beliefs of participants about “how” God created. But I did witness a portion of the gradual changes in how participants viewed those who disagreed with them. One young-earth creationist has changed his view that a particular evolutionary creationist who he engaged at this forum was a “dirty, rotten compromiser,” and has apologized to that other scholar and has committed to apologizing to all those to whom he portrayed the other scholar in that negative light. In the other direction, this particular evolutionary creationist has changed his view that the young-earth creationist was not interested in doing “credible science,” and now views him as a fellow highly-qualified scientist, who struggles, as he does, with reconciling scientific findings with his interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis.

The climax to our time together in San Diego was when, in our closing session, we each prayed for the person seated on our right, whatever his/her views on “how” God created, thanking God for that person and praying for specific needs that we learned about during our time together. The person on my right had recently lost his teaching position and was struggling to keep food on the table. I prayed that God would graciously provide for his needs, and it made no difference that we disagreed about “how” God created the universe.

The setting for the second conversation, also hosted by TCF in the summer of 2014, was Calvin College. TCF gathered together about 25 Christian scholars, practitioners and pastors, including gay Christians and “straight” Christians, to talk about “Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality.” The featured presenters included a prominent gay Christian who believes in the moral legitimacy of lifelong, committed, monogamous same sex-marriages and an equally prominent gay Christian who disagrees, believing that gay Christians are called to a life of celibacy. The four days of conversation were intense and challenging, while being respectful.

Once again, I didn’t witness sea-changes in the views on the participants about LGBT issues during these conversations, since we didn’t get far into Step 3. But as we got to know one another better, again through worshiping together and sharing meals and informal conversations, I did witness an increase in mutual understanding and mutual respect among those who disagreed strongly about these difficult issues, with a growing appreciation that all participants aspired to live faithful to their respective understandings of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

A humorous incident that brought home this change in how participants viewed those who disagreed with them occurred when a gay Christian said to a “straight” Christian with whom he had strong disagreements words to the effect that “based on my reading of much that you have published, I came to Grand Rapids prepared to dislike you. But now I find that I like you.” Although these two participants had some tense exchanges at these meetings, I believe they have laid the foundation for some fruitful subsequent conversations.

Some readers may view the above two examples as my making too much fuss over very modest accomplishments. But to change your view about someone who disagrees with you is no small accomplishment and is increasingly rare in our day, both inside and outside the Church. I will grant that these examples represent only a “beginning” in an attempt to gain greater clarity as to God’s Truth about some very difficult issues. These initial “getting to know you” conversations need to be followed by more in-depth conversations about substantive agreements and disagreements. But I believe it is the only fruitful place to start.

My Personal Aspirations

Closing on a personal note, I share with you the ideals to which I aspire whenever I engage someone who disagrees with me, confessing that I often fail to measure up to these ideals

  •  I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand ·         I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective.
  • I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
  • In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
  • In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love.

It is my hope and prayer that all who read this reflection will also consider embracing these ideals because I believe they are a deep expression of what it means to love the persons with whom you disagree, to which Jesus calls all who profess to be his followers.


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Photo Credit: Harold Heie

Harold Heie is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College and at The Colossian Forum. His web site, www.respectfulconversation.net, is devoted to encouraging and modeling respectful conversations concerning contentious issues about which Christians disagree. His publications include Learning to Listen: Ready to Talk (iUniverse, 2007); Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse (Cascadia, 2009); Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation (Abilene Christian University Press, 2014); and A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness and Conversation (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming 2015).


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