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My Goal in Fostering Dialogue

My Goal in Fostering Dialogue

I get this question quite frequently: What are you trying to accomplish? If it’s not presented as a question, it’s presented as an assumption.

Here are some major options:

  1. My goal is to advance a liberal theological agenda, i.e., to make people more liberal by getting conservatives to listen to or read liberal opinions.
  2. My goal is to advance a conservative theological agenda by getting liberals to listen to conservatives through the sneaky ploy of listening to the liberals first.
  3. I hope to get us all to agree on the TRUTH, and thus be unified as Christian believers, or in the case of political goals, generally unified as a country (whichever one that is).
  4. I hope to get us all to decide that it doesn’t really matter what we believe, so long as we’re tolerant of one another.

None of those are correct.

At this point it might be worthwhile to read my essay on the Energion Discussion Network, posted yesterday, in which I discuss my theology of dialogue.

You see, my goal in fostering dialogue is to … foster a spirit of dialogue.

1893729389I think that having a spirit of dialogue is an excellent state of mind, and is itself an excellent goal. Some may be concerned that dialogue is not, in fact, a destination. You carry out dialogue to produce other effects. And indeed you do. But one of those effects is the spirit that goes with dialogue, an inquiring spirit, a listening spirit, a humble spirit. You get the point. And yes, those attitudes lead to other beneficial results.

In discussing defending your faith with some young people this past summer I told them the first question when they want to argue with someone should be how that person came to their particular belief, not how you can challenge that belief. Some might think this is giving up the high ground of TRUTH. On the contrary, even if you decide you must argue vigorously against their position, that their position is dangerous and destructive, knowing how they came to that opinion can only make discussion more effective.

But, and it’s a big “but,” you may also discover weaknesses in your own position on the way to understanding how they came to theirs. That’s another benefit for you. It’s possible you might even change your mind in the process.

From the letters of Paul (but see below) we get two statements that are in tension. The first is in 1 Corinthians 8:2, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” (NIV. I got this from Bible Gateway, a very useful resource.) Think about that! It doesn’t stop biting you if you want to stand on your knowledge with pride. Then there is 2 Timothy 3:7, “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Somewhere in the tension between those two there is a good place where you humbly hold your ideas, always willing to learn, yet can be firm in your faith. (You should be aware that many scholars do not credit 2 Timothy, or the other pastoral letters, to Paul. That is another good subject for dialogue.)

In fact, I believe that we humans are much too likely to set a current position in concrete, and very unlikely to let new knowledge or overlooked facts change our opinion. A spirit of dialogue helps us overcome that. We don’t have to accept every idea that comes along, but we listen to others and we examine the various options before we make a final choice. And when we make a final choice, it is final only until we discover new reasons to continue.

This applies to many fields of endeavor. In science it is perhaps easier to express. It takes a great deal of effort to change a scientific consensus. I have heard science and scientists criticized for this. The major triumphs of scientific endeavor have sometimes been portrayed as failures, as a history of being wrong. The discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe or even of this solar system is also the discovery that we were wrong before. But that is not the important thing. The important thing is that we moved on to something better. Relativity tells us that Newtonian physics was wrong, but Newtonian physics fostered many accomplishments and many new discoveries. The most wonderful thing, however, is that continued study resulted in a new understanding. We may yet discover that Einstein was wrong, or that his understanding was just too limited. Then we’ll move on. That is the triumph of science.

People are currently complaining about the level of fraud in scientific results. You can find stories about this through such search engines as Google News. But you need to also realize that it is scientists looking for faults who are discovering the problems. Yes, people are wrong. People do wrong. But it is the idea that the study and the dialogue about the results must continue that makes it possible for these wrongs to be corrected.

In theology and faith we often set our ideas in stone. We have a number of ways of expressing this:

  • It’s not me, it’s just what the Bible teaches.
  • I heard from God.
  • God showed me this after much prayer.
  • This is God’s absolute, unchangeable truth.

All of these sayings precede (or follow as an “author’s credit”) the expression of a human opinion about what the Bible says, what God has said, or what absolute truth actually is. We think this is a way to avoid arrogance, but it is, in fact, one of the most arrogant forms of expression. Yet almost all of us are guilty of something similar at some point.

There is no weakness in changing these statements just a bit:

  • This is what I believe I have heard from the Holy Spirit, or my study has led me to believe, but I’d like to hear about your study, also guided by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we’ll combine what we’ve heard and get closer to God’s will.
  • I’ve been trying to listen for God’s will; will you also listen and share with me?
  • I’ve studied prayerfully, and finally I think I have found an answer. Will you help test it with me?
  • As far as my limited mind can understand, I think this reflects one of God’s eternal principles.

The spirit of dialogue doesn’t say there is no truth. In fact, it respects truth more strongly by admitting one’s own weakness and looking to others to help test.

I certainly have my own opinions. I have opinions on just about everything. But my goal in publishing is not to convince everyone of some set of opinions, but to foster the continued testing of opinions and the continued discovery of more about God’s wonderful universe in whatever fields of knowledge there are.

We may find agreement. Check out the video on stewardship posted today on EDN. Here are two people from different denominations, different tradition streams, and different generations who examined a topic and came to very similar conclusions.

We may find continued disagreement. That is a sign to keep looking.

We may find that one or the other changes position.

We may find that we both change position.

We may find that there are no good answers to our questions, and that we’ll have to wait for new light or new information.

But we’ll always find value in the search.


Three Good Posts on Inerrancy

Three Good Posts on Inerrancy

Why I Hate the Word “Inerrancy”

The Bible Isn’t Perfect and It Says So Itself

In All Things Necessary to Our Salvation

I owe a hat tip to the author of the first one for the links to the other two. All express important points, though there are certain differences of nuance between the three.

I think it is also important, however, to relate our fallible interpretation to the idea of inerrancy. If we are to be able to prove that the Bible is true, then we will have to read it correctly. (I’ll ignore another issue, that of the standard by which we judge it to be inerrant, for right now.) Here’s an extract on this point from my book:

Thus the question is not only the accuracy of the content, but rather in what is to be conveyed, and how well we are capable of understanding it. I would presume God would write his character quite perfectly in nature, and yet that may be the hardest message to interpret. Some people prefer the immediate revelation of modern prophets or of dreams and visions. I too believe that God is as capable of speaking today as ever, and as likely to do so, but in that case we have the additional burden of deciding on the authenticity of the message, and we still need to interpret what we hear, especially if it is a vision or dream. Even a verbal message must be verified as to accuracy and then applied correctly.

This is one of the reasons I believe that the doctrine of inerrancy, an evangelical standard today, is not only wrong, it is inadequate. It deals only with the source. It seems to be a way of guarding the barn door after the cattle have departed. Interpretation has gone in a thousand directions while some are arguing that the message was absolutely correct at the starting point. In addition, somehow it’s OK for us to lose part of the source in the process of copying–something acknowledged when inerrancy is postulated solely of the conveniently missing autographs–and yet if one supposes that instead something got altered on the way from God to the prophet, all revelation must immediately become suspect.

Revelation is of value when I comprehend and apply it, and assertions of its validity apart from adding the line “and you can understand it” are pointless. I think that is part of the reason why there is wisdom literature in the Bible. It’s God’s message, but you have to think about it and comprehend it. Who you are, and how you have exercised your mind will make a difference in what you will understand. Revelation is not a replacement for reason, nor in appropriate areas is reason independent of revelation.

No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense. (pp. 3-4, emphasis added for this post)


Only Inerrantists Read the Bible?

Only Inerrantists Read the Bible?

I responded to this post over at Jesus Creed because the graphic seems to suggest that only those who accept inerrancy take the Bible seriously. That is simply false. I’d actually suggest, as I do in my book, that those who accept that inerrancy describes the Bible poorly are taking the Bible more seriously. They avoid making the Bible in their own image.

The comments are interesting because of the number of people with the same objection. I was seventh, I think, to object on the same grounds in the comments.

Note: The material I object to is presented and linked to at Jesus Creed. Scot McKnight doesn’t make these claims. Here’s a link to the Barna post on the study.


Peter Enns on Inerrancy

Peter Enns on Inerrancy

Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation) has an excellent post on inerrancy. On of my arguments in When People Speak for God is that we need to create our doctrine of inspiration primarily from observing scripture rather than by trying to extract theological statements about inspiration. The title of Dr. Enns’ post, I think someone forgot to tell the Bible, almost says enough in itself. In any case, go check out the complete article.

Loosening One’s Doctrine of Scripture (Resources)

Loosening One’s Doctrine of Scripture (Resources)

I just completed a post on my Participatory Bible Study blog which includes a couple of pages from the book When People Speak for God.

I’ve been connecting one’s understanding of inspiration and extended reading of the Bible for some time. In my view, we have tended to focus on inerrancy and simultaneously on the bits and pieces of scripture. A broader view of inspiration can go well with a broader view of scripture. This is not universal. Many advocates of inerrancy also view scripture broadly while many who oppose it tend to ignore what it says. The stereotypes tend not to work!

From Inspiration to UnderstandingI’ve used these ideas in teaching and in publishing. I started a Bible study series, co-authored a book on how to study the Bible, and wrote a book on inspiration, for which this web site is named. Then as a publisher, I published another book, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully. That book could serve as the big brother to mine, even though it was written later. If it had been written earlier, it could have provided many footnotes for my own book.

In addition, I’ve written a few pamphlets, available in PDF format for downloading. You can print as many as you need free of charge.

There are a few more listed on this page.

Finally, I’ve had the idea of seeing the whole of scripture emphasized to me when editing a recent book, Creation in Scripture by Herold Weiss. What Dr. Weiss has done is look beyond Genesis in forming a scriptural doctrine of creation. It’s easy to say that one ought to go beyond Genesis, but the argument tends to stay in the first couple of chapters of Genesis even so. It’s interesting to see the broader commentary of scripture shape up.

Joel Watts on Theopneustos and Theosis

Joel Watts on Theopneustos and Theosis

Joel Watts has started a discussion on the nature of inspiration, comparing the breathing of the Spirit into the text of scripture with the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and the individual.

Thus far he has gotten little discussion, and he think his ideas deserve some further discussion. This reminds me of a couple of paragraphs I wrote for my book When People Speak for God (which this web site supports):

. . . 2 Timothy 3:16 provides us with the word “theopneustos” or “God-breathed” which has been made to carry a great deal of freight. But when God breathed into Adam he didn’t make him inerrant, he made him alive. What exactly is the content of a text that is God-breathed? But this issue applies much more to verbal inspiration. The evidence against verbal inspiration is very strong in the text and the history itself. There are certainly words that are attributed to God, but there are also words that are clearly not attributed to God. The synoptic problem presents us with clear evidence that the gospel writers copied from one another, that there are different sources in the Pentateuch, Samuel, and Kings, just as examples (237, 238).

The breathing of the Holy Spirit finds its roots, I believe, in this earlier breath of God and thus both provide an excellent analogy for the breathing of scripture. Theopneustos itself requires more definition; it doesn’t provide an adequate definition for inspiration in and of itself.