What a week it has been. Last week, an atheist Patheos commenter asked me if to publicly advocate for atheists to have equal rights (Lark62, you know who you are!). I expected a few naysayers, a few supportive folks, and maybe a decent amount of traffic.
I wasn’t prepared for the massive, palpable response.
The Secular Outpost blogged about my post with some very kind words and added:
In addition, her article serves as a useful reminder that all of us, regardless of what beliefs we hold or lack, should speak out in defense of the rights of others, especially those with who disagree. Along those lines, I cannot think of no better way to return the favor than for atheist activists to stand up for the rights of Christians. While the idea of Christian persecution in the United States is mostly a joke, it is veryrealoutside of the West. If you have a blog or are active on social media, please consider doing that as well.
Hundreds of comments poured in. Many of them from atheists who were absolutely shocked that a Christian would support their rights, would see that they had some really good points, and would just plain be kind to them. (The fact that this was a rare experience for them grieved me. After all, I had not said anything very radical at all. Was common kindness really so absent from our Christian communities?)
Suddenly, this turned into the most read-piece I’ve ever written anywhere. My head was spinning.
This will not stop me from telling Rebecca I think she’s wrong about religion, and I suspect it won’t stop her from telling me I should believe in Jesus. But at least we can have the conversation in good faith now, knowing that each truly cares for the other as a person rather than just seeing them as a means to victory for our ideology.
Isn’t that the best thing you’ve read, like, ever?
You see, I truly believe that it’s possible to disagree profoundly and yet to treat each other with respect.
Sure, some trolls have stopped by here in the last week. But most people have done a pretty good job of stating their case confidently but respectfully. Disagreeing with each other does not mean we have to hate each other.
If you have a computer, it’s not going to be a novel thought for me to tell you the internet has become a seriously toxic place. Oftentimes, people just don’t understand how to share what they believe without (a) suggesting all answers are equally correct, or (b) suggesting those who think differently are worthless trash.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Granted, it’s really, really hard to talk to people with whom we have serious philosophical or religious differences. Our emotions rise, our past experiences play into things, and we start reacting instead of responding. Or we get so scared of conflict that we’re not willing to clearly and firmly (though kindly) say what we believe on at least the most important matters.
There are a few things I try to hold onto when I have such conversations. Maybe they will help you as you also seek to navigate challenging discussions.
Please don’t hear me saying that I don’t find it difficult sometimes to balance these dynamics. I definitely struggle with knowing how to communicate in challenging conversations. Sometimes my emotions get triggered too. Sometimes I want to lash out. Sometimes I’m scared to say what I believe for fear of ridicule or challenge. None of this is easy, but I think it’s important. (Please note, I am writing primarily to fellow Christians in this section, but I think others will probably find some things to agree with as well.)
1) Be curious about people.
Not assuming we already know everything and already understand what’s going on with someone is a great start to any conversation. As a young pastor, I learned a very important lesson: when someone came to me with a theoretical question about something, it was pretty much always related a concrete story of pain and struggle in their lives. If I asked about why they were asking the question, I would find out what was really going on. If I neglected to learn their story, I almost always would have responded unhelpfully.
So often, we react to people’s statements on a surface level instead of stopping to ask what in their lives may have prompted them to respond as they have. So, ask more questions simply for the purpose of understanding people better and empathizing with them more. And don’t feel you have to immediately inform them of your opinion every single time. Sometimes it’s simply enough to let someone know you care about them.
2) Ask questions that open instead of close the conversation.
For those of us who are Christians, we are people of the Creed. We hold especially a few very central truths very closely. We’ve been schooled our entire religious lives on how important those tenets of belief are. And I agree. They are central and important. They have eternal significance. They have life or death implications. And we should find ways and opportunities to talk about them with those who don’t believe in God.
But all too often, we take this precious gift of God’s Word, and we use it to bash people into submission. And we use our faith as justification for only talking and not listening. This means that we think a conversation has to be something where we do all the talking and all the controlling.But think about which conversations are most valuable to you. Are they the ones where someone else does all the talking? Or are they ones where you have give-and-take? Isn’t that where you learn the most and grow the most?
Well, I think other people feel that way too. So, I feel like rather than shutting down conversation, we need to ask questions that open conversation.
Tell me more.
Can you help me understand….?
What has your experience been with ____?
I haven’t seen that in the Bible. Can you help me understand where you’re seeing that?
Tell me more about your story.
3) Lay down your burdens.
When we believe that faith is the gift of God, we can pray earnestly for folks (much to the frustration of my atheist friends, I’m sure), but we don’t have to feel the pressure for convincing them of God’s existence or forcing or legislating their conversion (or appearance of conversion). We can just like people as human beings and know them and care about them and be friends to them. We can just be real about what we believe and where we’re at and even some of our own doubts and struggles as we walk a life of faith. The burden for “forcing people to SEE” is too much for a human being to carry. It’s not our job to carry it.
4) Remember that while we are to bear witness to the Gospel, we are always to do it with gentleness and respect.
Christians! No more “sticking it to people”! No more catty message board comments! No more caricatures! Instead, follow this advice:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. 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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.–I Peter 3:15-16, NIV
This next part is for those who are atheists who have stopped by in the past week or so.
So I’ve made some new friends here on the blog. Some friends who don’t believe in God. I’m trying to figure out what to talk with these friends about next. But, mostly, I’m glad they are here. I’m grateful for their conversation. I’m grateful for the ways they’ve gotten me back into serious Bible study and intellectual thought about my faith. I used to do that stuff all the time, but life happens and I get lazy sometimes. These folks have stimulated my brain, and (ok, guys, I know you will think this is weird, but bear with me) they have helped me grow more in my faith. (I told you it was weird.) I’m grateful.
(EDIT on 11/14/14: One commenter pointed out how my phrasing above might come across as less of a compliment than I meant. Here’s what I meant: Busyness and life and little people running around my feet have made me get a bit lazy lately in intellectual engagement with faith. The folks who don’t believe in God and who came over to talk held me accountable to get back into study. It’s been a rich experience to re-engage more thoroughly with the intellectual side of faith, and I’m looking forward to continuing that. The accountability–when graciously offered–is helpful. I mean this as the highest of compliments and hope it comes across that way. Even if this is still extremely weird, I hope folks will hear my intention of a compliment being offered. You’re smart people, and you challenge me.)
I want you guys to know that there are some other weirdo Christians out there like me. Some people who believe in this crazy idea of God with all their heart and mind, and who also want to be your friend and don’t want to coerce you to believe in God and who want to treat you with respect. I’ve talked with some of them this week. Some of them have shared my post with their friends. Some of them are progressives and some are evangelicals. But I’m not the only one. I don’t pretend to guess how many people are like this and how many aren’t. I don’t know how you would measure a thing like that, anyway. But I just want you to know, when you feel really alone and friendless and like everyone in the world wants to burn you at the stake, there are at the very least a few who genuinely want to treat you respectfully and be your friend…no strings attached.
But one more word. I and my Christian friends are gonna screw up. I promise you that. As hard as I try, I will say something not fair or disappointing. In those moments, I ask for your grace. I ask for you to speak the truth to me in kindness.
In those moments when I screw up, I am so grateful for God’s grace. You see, I’m really hard on myself when I mess up. I know God deserves better, and people deserve better. I used to really have a hard time dealing with my imperfections. I still do sometimes, if I’m honest. I wrote more about these struggles here, if you’re interested. But I guess what makes a difference in my life is the belief that forgiveness is possible because of Jesus. Because of His grace, I can walk free of shame and engage in working constructively on behalf of my neighbor. I don’t have to defend myself or pretend to be perfect. That takes too much energy. I’m gonna screw up. But I can keep learning and growing precisely because forgiveness is possible.
Thank you all for being here.
Community discussion guidelines (ADDED 11/17/2014):
Because this is a Christian blog, the things I’m talking about will obviously be topics that people feel strongly about in one direction or another. Please keep in mind that this is a place for substantive, respectful conversation. All perspectives are welcome to discuss here as long as all can treat each other with kindness and respect. Please ignore trolls, refuse to engage in personal attacks, and observe the comment policy listed on the right side of the page. Comments that violate these guidelines may be deleted. For those who clearly violate these policies repeatedly, my policy is to issue a warning which, if not regarded, may lead to blacklisting. This is not about censorship, but about creating a healthy, respectful environment for discussion.
P.S. Please also note that I am not a scientist, but a person with expertise in theology and the arts. While I am very interested in the relationship between science and faith, I do not believe I personally will be able to adequately address the many questions that inevitably come up related to science and religion. I encourage you to seek out the writings of theistic or Christian scientists to help with those discussions.