Last week I took a look at Bennedetta Craveri’s book, The Age of Conversation, and this week I’d like to begin reflecting on conversation in a more explicitly and self-consciously Christian context. Here’s the crucial setting for me: by and large I don’t think evangelical Christians know how to converse.
The fundamental obstacles to conversation among evangelicals (and the same applies to the stronger progressive groups) are two-fold: most conversations are blocked either by a right vs. wrong obstacle or by an information-only obstacle. Let’s look at these two today, and I’d be glad for you to reflect on your own “conversations” with others. What are they about? Are they about who is right, about information, or about exploration of what one another thinks?
Let us say that a person wants to converse about world religions, about the presence of “silent Christians” in the Islamic world, about the issues surrounding eschatology in the New Testament, about how to “do church” in a postmodern context, about preaching in today’s world, about homosexuality, about the church and the poor, about the gospel and social justice, about marriage, about rearing children… any topic that matters and any topic about which a person has concerns and wonders what is the best way to think about. Bring into the mix a person who is young or a person who really has serious and good questions about traditions … and you create the only kind of conversation that really can a conversation. Something important, a couple of people, and a desire to learn from one another. But, often mutual exploration is not what happens. Why?
The first obstacle is the right vs. wrong risk. Orthodoxy is right; anything else or less than orthodoxy is wrong. With that looming behind every conversation, when a person raises a question there is immediately a worry if what the person is asking is orthodox or not; whether or not by participating in such a conversation a person will be seen as harboring doubts about orthodoxy; and whether associating with such persons calls into question one’s reputation. Quickly, in many cases, the conversation stops being conversation and becomes instead a quick lesson on what tradition teaches the Bible says and that if one strays from that one is questioning the Bible and, there you have it, it all becomes a reduction to whether or not a person believes in inerrancy.
When conversation is shaped like this — and this is what I want to contend — there is no conversation. Instead, it becomes didactic. Which leads me to the second issue.
The second obstacle is that conversations, instead of becoming explorations of one another’s minds on a given topic as each reflects on how each makes theological decisions, become information-exchange sessions. Whoever knows the most becomes the teacher; whoever knows the least becomes the student. That’s all. It’s about information exchange. It becomes catechesis instead of conversation.
But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.
I believe that the emerging movement wants “conversation,” and I believe evangelicals by and large are nervous about it because it has not learned to converse. I do not deny the value of information, nor do I deny the importance of orthodoxy.
But, I ask, is everything a matter of orthodoxy? The answer is “No,” a hundred times “No.”
So, in next week’s post I want to explore the art of conversation when at least two can gather to converse about a topic and learn to explore one another’s thoughts with one another.