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As Everyone Trades Scripts – Again

As Everyone Trades Scripts – Again

Immediately after the last election I wrote this. Please read it before you read this.

I want to reiterate it today. I have meant it sincerely following every election in which I have been a voter, and I registered to vote at the first opportunity.

Speaking with respect is not agreement. It is a way to maximize the range of dialog. I believe deeply in the value of dialog, even with people who I may believe have not earned respect. Those in the military learn how to show respect to someone they may not respect because of that person’s rank and position. That could be a valuable lesson.

Especially with people who have not earned respect.

Identifying Hatefulness

Identifying Hatefulness

There are many people concerned about hatefulness right now, and one might think that this concern came largely from opponents of the president-elect. I’ve found, however, that the concern comes from all sides. (“Both sides” is a very dangerous concept in a complex world.)

Let me suggest a simple test. When you find a blog post, Facebook status, Tweet or something else in the form “Did you know that (derogatory term here) (name of person) did (disgusting thing) and is unfit to feed pigs,” just substitute your own favorite politician/candidate/commentator in the (name of person) block and ask yourself how you’d feel. If it would make you very angry, then it’s just possible that it’s a hateful statement.

I know the standard retort: “But (name of person) actually did it whereas (MY name of person) is actually innocent. Truth counts!”

That’s really not the point. It’s not even an issue of whether the person deserves to get called out on it. The problem is that we need discourse that is both civil and truthful if we’re going to get anywhere but deeper into fruitless conflict. You do not increase the value of a truthful comment by adding insult to it. “The other side started it” and “we have to respond” are not adequate either. How effective has your response been with regard to whatever it is you’re responding to?

There are many proposed policies right now that make my blood boil. I occasionally start writing posts that I have to delete, not because I think they’re false, but because I think they won’t advance the discussion.

To identify a couple of such issues, let me say that I consider a border wall on our border with Mexico or a registry of Muslims to be misguided, based on faulty data, and, in fact, morally wrong. It’s much easier to discuss and support those positions than some of the more personal (and even moral) claims made against specific persons. On the other hand, if I were in the Senate (not going to happen!) I would certainly have to consider such personal issues and, based on the best evidence available to me, vote for or against particular confirmations. Suggesting a free pass is silly. The losing side does it after each election.

Let me reemphasize. I oppose hateful, insulting speech not because I think the “other” side hasn’t triggered some of it, but because I think it’s both wrong and ineffective. It does nothing to convince new people that your position is right. I’m not arguing for fairness, but for effectiveness.

Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

Why I Believe in Dialogue, Respect, and the Gospel Commission

angrymanfist-300px_redI’ve recently said and written a few things about the gospel commission, including my claim in my concluding presentation for my video series on eschatology that eschatology is all about the gospel commission. You’ll hear more about this in my foreword to Dave Black’s new book Running My Race. It’s in the final stages of production and should be available soon.

This isn’t a new perspective on my part, but as soon as I start using words like “evangelism,” “mission,” or “the Great Commission,” I start getting questions about whether I believe in dialogue or whether I’ve started to think that all non-Christians are horrible people.

On the other hand, each time I start talking about respect, interfaith dialogue, inclusion, and similar topics, someone is bound to ask me whether I’ve given up on evangelism and mission. Perhaps I no longer think Jesus is important.

So let me put both of these things together. First, I am never going to abandon the Gospel Commission. It’s what being a Christian is about. I follow Jesus and I help others follow Jesus. I am a witness to Jesus as I follow Him. I proclaim his good news, and that good news is the central fact of my life. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be a Christian publisher. Frankly, while there are many things I enjoy about publishing, it’s hard work, the pay isn’t as good as it is for my other occupation (small network technical support), and I’d hardly keep at it without this greater “joy set before me.”

Second, I believe that respect and love for one’s neighbor are central to the gospel. If I don’t love my neighbor as myself, I am not following Jesus Christ, and in turn I can hardly be effective in making other disciples, who would, in turn, be expected to love their neighbors as they love themselves. (There’s a “loving God” thing in there too, but see 1 John 4:20 for my emphasis in this case.)

Contrary to the perception of many Christians, not only is respectful dialogue not opposed to carrying out of the gospel commission, it’s essential to it. But there are reasons it so commonly doesn’t seem so.

Evangelism is tainted, I believe, by two false directions, each of which bears an abundance of poisonous and rotting fruit.

The first false direction is the idea that evangelism is about giving the maximum possible number of people their “get out of hell free” card or, seen more positively, getting them their ticket to heaven. In this diversion from the gospel message we look for ways to get people to say the right prayer, then wipe the sweat from our brows (evangelism is hard work!), and say, “One more person saved.”

This leads to other spiritually dangerous activities, such as promising people prosperity if they accept Jesus, emotionally manipulating them, or even converting them at sword point or gun muzzle. We can justify whatever behavior we might engage in on the grounds that even if we did use underhanded methods, the person should thank us for not burning in hell forever.

This can also (or even in turn) lead to other shallow approaches to faith, such as the meme I saw on Facebook today built around the old idea of the wager of faith. As I understand faith, the wager simply isn’t—it isn’t faith and it isn’t even a wager, since there’s nothing of value on either side. Believing in Jesus isn’t an “in case” sort of thing. It’s not a wager, it’s a total commitment. Pascal’s Wager is an intellectual approach to a spiritual problem.prohibitionsign2-300px

Further, this sort of evangelism doesn’t actually represent love for one’s neighbor. It’s a sort of concern, but it’s more like the hunter has concern for the deer. No, I don’t mean the killing part, though that can happen as well, but rather the concern is for how the deer will fill the hunter’s needs.

The second false direction is one of church growth. In this case, evangelism is simply the process of adding members to the church, and more specifically your church. At least this has a longer term goal, i.e., to get the person into a church community. But far too often, this simply feeds into another selfish numbers game. The value of the person is not in who they are or who they can be, or even what God wants them to be, but rather on church statistics. While evangelicals are more likely to go for the first diversion, even progressive churches can fall for this second one.

As the saying goes, however, sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. I think we can identify what’s really important to us by what we pay for and what we report on, and in many of our churches I’m afraid that the concern is increasing membership, which, in turn, is to produce increasing financial support, which will allow us to get more members.

What I believe about evangelism is this: It’s a lifestyle. You live as a disciple of Jesus, and you will, in turn, make disciples. I don’t mean that we should all shut up. Of course you talk about your faith because it’s not just important it’s fundamental. There’s another dichotomy between living our faith and proclaiming our faith, but I think it’s also false. Talking about our faith is one way we live it. If we’re talking too much, that’s ineffective living of our faith. I do not keep silent about something that is fundamental.

In looking at motivation, I can say that it is a command, and it is. But at the same time it simply follows essentially from what Jesus has done for me. I will share a good thing. Sharing a good thing doesn’t mean forcing others. It’s a natural and friendly thing to share, just as it’s a natural and friendly thing—not to mention loving—to let the other person make their own decisions, including about how long they want to listen.

Conversion, in turn, is something between God and the person converted. It’s gotten almost cliched to say that I can’t convert anyone; God does. But unfortunately we turn right back around and pretend it’s all about us. Grab hold of that mustard-seed of faith (I usually feel that I have somewhat less than that, but whatever) and trust God with salvation, conversion, and the spiritual health of others.

Further, however, trust God to let you know how you need to be involved, and listen. Listen to God. Listen to other people. God loves each person involved more than you do. He even loves you more than you do.

In studying eschatology (and I just completed a video series), I’ve found that God is deeply concerned about the spiritual health of God’s earthly children. I see the story of Revelation as being one of repeated opportunities, with the bottom line message that God does have this under control. Our part is to follow Jesus and make disciples.

That doesn’t require being rude, obnoxious, manipulative, violent, or disrespectful. It requires love, and love values the other person, not some imaginary thing I think that person should be.

Why I Believe in Courtesy

Why I Believe in Courtesy

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Louder Is Not Truer

(Image Credit: OpenClipart, )

It seems that many people believe that in order to be firm in one’s convictions, one must be arrogant, loud, and generally rude. Rude and angry speech is praised as telling it like it is. Courtesy is often ridiculed with the incredibly overused term “political correctness.”

I object to political correctness when it is politically enforced, when the law mandates the use of one term over another. Let’s see, perhaps like Florida state employees being ordered not to use the term “climate change.” Not what you were thinking of? I believe it’s the same principle.

I believe in referring to people as courteously as possible, not because I am unsure of my beliefs, though I think uncertainty is certainly appropriate in many cases, but because I believe that is the best way to communicate what I believe. Shouting loudly may impress people who already agree with me, but it turns off those who are in opposition.

If you truly care about communicating your ideas and about persuading others, you need to learn to practice a firm sort of courtesy. This may involve using labels for others that they can accept. It may require you to drop cute one-liners that impress you.

One of my objections to speech codes is that by forcing people to be courteous (sort of) when they would not do so on their own initiative, it’s harder to identify those who can safely be ignored, i.e., all those folks who think their point is to be made by loud, obnoxious presentation.

Courtesy, friendship, and openness to dialogue are not enemies of the truth. Rather, they are essential to communicating it.

When to Cut Off Dialogue

When to Cut Off Dialogue

I’ve read recently about people cutting off dialogue because of certain behaviors of those on the other side. And indeed, there are times when dialogue becomes futile because someone else refuses to be honest or refuses to engage.

I’m writing this simply to appeal to those who want to see more dialogue, more working together, more actual exchange of ideas, and more true debate in which we actually engage one another’s thinking to be the good guys. Just that. You can respond to another person rationally and with sanity even if they are not likely to do the same thing. If this is done in a public forum, neutral parties who may be influenced will see what you do and be positively influenced by the way you debate as well as by the point you make.

This can involve the determination that you’ve said enough on a subject and are going to just sit back while someone else raves. If they bring nothing new to the debate, you don’t have to answer.

Dialogue will not prosper when we place too many preconditions on starting it. Be willing to let the other guy argue badly. The benefits of true dialogue are simply too great for us to allow obnoxious people to stop it.

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.

 

Finding Boundaries: Confessional Schools and Exploration Related to Publishing

Finding Boundaries: Confessional Schools and Exploration Related to Publishing

200bannerAt least I’m going to relate it to publishing. Which, if you think about it, is what I do to almost everything.

J. R. Daniel Kirk has announced he will be leaving Fuller (James McGrath comments here). You can get a feel for Dr. Kirk’s comments in Homosexuality Under the Reign of Christ on the Baker Academic web site. Yes, that’s old, but if you want to catch up with the details of the news, start from McGrath’s article. I’m already way behind.

This reminded me of a post I wrote shortly after Pete Enns lost his position at the time, Confessional Schools vs. Freedom to Explore. There is very little I’d want to add to that post, though that won’t keep me from writing many words. I would like to note that there are also boundaries to the exploration in schools that are secular, progressive, or moderate. The boundaries are just set up differently. If I might summarize, despite the fact that I had my own problems with a confessional school, as a student rather than as faculty, the pastoral concerns and responsibilities of an organization do mean that there will be some limits. Each time a professor is fired, resigns under pressure, or is edged out of one of the more conservative seminaries we have a storm of reaction. While I often sympathize with the person fired, I look back at my own choice. When I found I could no longer support the denomination in which I grew up, I left. Many years later I found another.

I even publish some authors who have lost jobs under these circumstances, and I appreciate their work very much. The fact that I publish their work should let you know that I don’t think their voices should be silenced. But while I’m often concerned by the particular boundaries set, I don’t see that confessional schools can exist without boundaries, nor do I see that any school actually does, whether confessional or not. There is a great deal of variety provided by the simple fact that there are many, many schools out there and students are not restricted to just one. And the fact is that the people who lose their jobs in these high profile cases generally find something elsewhere. I think in many cases the school doing the firing (or pressuring to resign) is impoverished because of it, but nonetheless, academic exchange goes on.

And that leads me to publishing. I have been told that I publish an extraordinary range of opinions for an individually owned publishing house. I haven’t really done any sort of survey to find out how true this is, but I do know that I have quite a variety. I sometimes wonder if certain pairs of my authors would get along well if I got them in the same room. I know some of them would differ vigorously, but would they find the dialogue constructive?

Some people assume that I do this because of a high degree of tolerance. Perhaps I am tolerant. I’m not entirely sure. But that’s not the reason for the variety.

I publish a variety of views because I find value in those views. I think they need to be considered. I believe there are few things more dangerous than coasting along with a trend either spiritually or intellectually. I heard this argument when I was in graduate school. Why are you writing that topic? Everyone now is trending away from that view. My question was whether that trend was right. Sometimes it was, for example in reigning in rampant parellomania. In other cases not so much. In some areas I’ve seen the trend roll in like a tide and then recede again, even further out than it was at the time I was urged to ride with it.

A trend can go in any direction, and the trend can be different according to the faith tradition in which you are involved, the school you attend, or your country/region of residence, amongst other factors. One of the weaknesses of academic activity, in my opinion, is that even in with the internet, people in the various streams tend not to talk to one another seriously. Certain ideas are simply dismissed without full consideration. I might be willing to assume that the ideas had received full consideration, and thus had been rejected on a broad basis, but when I look back at the writings of those who should have been providing that serious consideration, I really don’t see it.

In the hard sciences I see the boundaries much more clearly. There are specific ways that one needs to challenge those boundaries. Find new data. Do experiments. Do field work. Do the hard detailed analysis that is required to challenge a consensus. But in social sciences or historical study, I often see simply a drift of consensus as I read.

I experienced this in graduate school in the following contrast:

Form criticism is a new, wonderful tool and ought to be used all over the place. My question: Why?

vs.

Form criticism is a tool of the devil designed to destroy our faith in the inspiration of scripture. My question: Why?

I’ve come to view form criticism as a tool which is occasionally useful when used in the appropriate context on materials that have, in fact, been orally transmitted, and in a cautious way with results stated with care. I found it difficult to find the details necessary to come to that position and examine it when I did. The ratio of assertion to explanation and critique is somewhat unbalanced, in my opinion.

Pastoral concern can cover a multitude of sins. It doesn’t have to. It shouldn’t. It does. Protecting people from ideas is usually not a good strategy.

In quite a few study materials used in the United Methodist Church, for example, I see scholarly consensus views thrown out with no other explanation or support than the fact that lots of scholars believe those things. What’s the problem? You may be wondering what should be taught if not consensus views when obviously a full survey of everybody’s position is excluded for lack of time. Frequently when I talk to members and ask why they believe a certain thing they’ll respond, “Isn’t that what scholars believe?” (Which scholars? Why?)

How about spending a little bit of time explaining how scholars come to those conclusions? Perhaps you could discuss why it is that others disagree. I’ve noticed my pastor recently even in sermons noting alternative positions. The other day he mentioned that most scholars believe Mark was the first gospel. Then he also said that position is being challenged and that he thought it was possible that the consensus won’t hold. That lets the congregation know that there is lively discussion going on. If it was a class with a bit more time, perhaps one could talk about how these things are argued by historians and biblical scholars.

So not only do I find value in these various views, even (or especially) those I disagree with, but I find value in the discussion that results from making people aware of them. Let the dialogue grow!!

Seeking, Dialogue, and an Ecumenical Center

Seeking, Dialogue, and an Ecumenical Center

I’m an advocate of dialogue in everything, certainly including matters of faith. Sometimes, however, dialogue is confused with seeking. There’s nothing wrong with seeking, but it is not identical with dialogue, though they do overlap.

Dialogue can and should occur between people who do have an idea what they believe. It’s hard to have an exchange about beliefs if you don’t actually have any. This describes an extreme case, however. Seekers are rarely totally without beliefs, and someone seeking dialogue is unlikely to be locked in on everything. But I wanted to start with the contrast.

For good dialogue to take place, I believe, one needs to identify what one believes and also distinguish between core beliefs, things that anchor you spiritually, and those beliefs that you hold more loosely. Not everything is of equal importance, after all.

This is the idea of an ecumenical center. That’s not a middle of the road or moderate set of ideas. It doesn’t mean that one is a centrist. It simply means that certain ideas are central to your system of beliefs. In one sense you might say these are the things you’re going to hang onto. But I think it’s more a matter of these are the things that feel secure to you. In fact, you can discuss them without feeling threatened because they are so much a part of you.

For example, I would place the belief that Jesus has come in the flesh, the incarnation, as my core belief. I talk about everything in those terms. I even talk about my understanding of scripture from that perspective. One can debate this on a chicken and egg basis, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you which came first. It is just central. When someone challenges the incarnation, it doesn’t bother me. That’s something that is firmly founded in my thinking and my spiritual life, reinforced by study and experience.

I think some people are uncomfortable with dialogue because they believe they can’t have firm beliefs and still dialogue. I disagree. I think having a few firm beliefs is a good starting point for dialogue. It gives you something to say. It may make you a bit more interesting, even!

Dr. Bob LaRochelle has done a good bit of thinking about this idea of an ecumenical center, thinking in particular about the things that we share between denominations and how that can be a basis for cooperation. He’s one of our Energion Publications authors, and he’ll be talking about this on a Google Hangout on Air tonight, October 21, at 7 PM central time. I invite you to watch this and think about what things are central to you.

Can Liberal and Conservative Christians Meet Anywhere?

Can Liberal and Conservative Christians Meet Anywhere?

One of my goals as a publisher is to see people from various streams of Christianity talk to one another and learn from one another. I used the labels “liberal,” “charismatic,” and “evangelical” in the home video I made early in the history of my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’m embedding it here for those who haven’t seen it.

That video should answer the most common question I’m asked: Why do you publish books you don’t agree with? It’s not a question that comes up with the big boys, companies like HarperCollins, Zondervan, and so forth. (Oops! Come to think of it, Zondervan is now part of HarperCollins!) With those big companies, one expects that the editorial policy will be cover a bit of ground.

But Energion Publications is owned by one person, and that person (yours truly) is also the chief editor. So what is my goal? Why wouldn’t I look for and try to publish the TRUTH?!

I suppose I could get into epistemology and tell you that while I believe in truth, I do not believe that we, as humans (finite), ever get to know that. Rather, we make our best, and I think often quite workable, attempt at the truth. But my real reason is that I believe we need dialogue. We need sharpening by others. We need that to go on continually, not just in some starting point.

Early in my time online I was in conversation with someone on the Compuserve Religion Forum. I’m pretty sure at the time I was still accessing this by dial-up, but my memory isn’t clear on the timing. Another Christian asked me if, when engaging in dialogue with non-Christians, I were to discover I was wrong, would I change my mind. Let’s ignore the fact that “discovering I was wrong” implies that I already changed my mind. My answer was, of course, “yes.”

“Then you aren’t a real Christian,” he told me. If I was a real Christian, he explained, I would be unable to contemplate the possibility of being wrong. Now I’m a quite convinced Christian. My experience of God suggests to me that while the details may vary, my ultimate faith in God is not in question. It’s not unstable. I’ve seen it challenged. I’ve lived through times that made me question, and that faith is still there. I’m not that strong of an individual. If my faith has held up this long, it becomes evidence to me that there’s something behind it.

But dialogue means listening, and if I listen, I must consider. If I hear something that is better than what I know already, I must accept that. To do anything else would be dishonest with myself and even with the God who is the Object of my faith. Or, well, beyond object, ultimate concern, and so forth.

So I’m an advocate of dialogue because I think it’s both a critical part of how we discover truth and also of how we keep on trying to discover truth. Sharing and listening are important.

So when I decide whether to publish a book, and later when I edit that book, my question is never whether I agree or disagree with the author, but rather it is how well the author has expressed his or her position and how well supported it is. I may disagree profoundly. But is this something that should be considered and discussed? I do place boundaries on what I publish, but that is because a small publisher has to have some definition of what is and is not within its publishing scope. I have rejected manuscripts that I have then, in turn, urged others to read when another publisher released them.

9781631990915Most of these books advocate one position or another. But my company has just released a new book that is advocating dialogue, precisely the kind of dialogue I established this company to promote. That book is titled: The River of Life: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet. I’m not trying to say that I like this book better than any other book I publish. To be fair to my authors I must be as strong an advocate for each of them as I can. But I’m highlighting this one on my blog because it speaks to the core of my goals.

Do I agree with every word in this book? I’d like to think nobody would ask me that. My normal answer is that I can’t even say that with confidence about the books I have written myself. In fact, Lee Harmon’s liberal Christianity is more liberal and less charismatic than mine. You can see my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic to catch the differences.

Here is a sample from the introduction:

I am also a liberal Christian, living in a conservative world. Most of my family and friends are conservative Christians. Conservatives consider apostolic tradition of utmost importance, meaning they seek to emulate the first-century church as best they know how. This is a noble goal, but it can lead to stringent intolerance for diluted beliefs. It’s the right way or the highway. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, find the creedal requirements which develop from such strictness stifling and contrary to observation and experience. We see God in many people and places, not just in Christian circles. This can lead liberals to a violent condemnation of narrow doctrine. Intolerance is intolerable.

And round and round we go. As a liberal Christian, I have both stooped to verbal aggression and felt the sting of attack. Both sides care so dang much that we can’t help squabbling, but this hardly puts a good face on Christianity. If the two sides could merely take one step backward, digging back to the Jesus we both adore, perhaps there could be a unity of purpose. Even though there can never be agreement about religious belief, the Kingdom could nevertheless advance. That is my hope in writing this book. (pp. 1-2)

I know, of course, that not everyone will agree with Lee on what the key points are. Not even all liberals are likely to agree on that. But that’s a good opening point for discussion. In that discussion we can all hope that we’ll hear our Master’s voice and learn to love a little bit more and show a grace that’s just a bit wider and deeper.

Reality, Perception, and TEA

Reality, Perception, and TEA

One of the great experiences of my life was meeting a Calvinist evangelist. His name is John Blanchard, and I only “met” him in a fairly large group, but it was clear that he was genuinely an evangelist and genuinely a Calvinist. He was asked during a question and answer session just how he reconciled evangelism with predestination. He said: “Predestination is a doctrine and I believe it; evangelism is a command and I obey it.”

Now I had grown up in a Seventh-day Adventist home, then left the church altogether, and returned in a United Methodist congregation. That is a solidly Wesleyan-Arminian background. To me, Calvinists were always “the other guys.” We knew what we believed, we knew what they believed, and they were incomprehensibly wrong. We couldn’t understand why they would evangelize or how they could stand the thought that God might unconditionally predestine someone to eternal torment.

But my perception ran apace into an actual Calvinist, and he wasn’t what I thought he was. Now my disagreement with Calvinism is undiminished, but my perception of Calvinists has changed because of him, and because of numerous other Calvinists I have personally encountered.

“Some of my best friends are black,” became a cliched excuse for racism in decades past. But if one applied it in reverse, it could be very helpful. Make “best friends” of some people who are not the same as you are, and you will learn things that you might not otherwise have any opportunity to learn.

I have noticed this while watching responses to the tea parties. There are several odd things about this. I heard one person say that all the tea parties were simply racist and nothing more. The people involved were just upset that there was an African-American in the White House. Others focused on the word “tea-bagging” and its sexual meaning (Google if you don’t know–and want to), as though “tea-bagging” was the biggest part of the protest.

The picture you get in the media is that these are a group of really crazy people who are protesting nothing that is very important, and are probably not really patriotic Americans after all. Another line is that the protests are not spontaneous, but rather are corporate or party sponsored. (What protest doesn’t involve an element of both?)

Where have I heard that before? Oh, I remember. It was in right wing comments about war protesters and pacifists. You could generate all this commentary with a computer program. Alternatively, you could just recycle it, inserting new slurs regarding all sides.

Now doubtless there are racists at tea parties. Just how are you going to block them at the gate? Doubtless there were some people who truly did hate America at anti-war protests. How could you identify them and stop them? It’s the nature of protest that crazy people will latch on. It’s the nature of extremist commentary to latch on to the crazies on the other side while ignoring the crazies on one’s own side.

Now my perception of tea parties is impacted by the fact that I know personally some of the people there, and the ones I know are not insane, or at least no more insane than I am (which may not be saying much!). I might prefer a protest of excessive spending and thus excessive deficits, though I actually think the worst threat to our economy right now is neither excessive spending as such, nor excessive taxation as such, but the offensive concept of government bailouts. Bailouts involve excessive spending of money we don’t have, thus building the deficit, and the money goes to reward people who have done stupid and destructive things, thus encouraging behavior that should be vigorously discouraged. Bailouts are, in my view, complete stupidity, carefully packaged, and not even reasonably well disguised.

But you know, these weren’t my tea parties, so the people who organized and attended them get to protest what they want in whatever way they prefer.

There are valid points for debate in here, but in general these valid points, some of which I addressed in my post on my business blog Democracy – Taxed by a Feeling–are not getting any attention. The simple fact is that most of us don’t really know what “fair” taxation might be. Just as we have been fighting terrorism for years without a real strategy, so we fight economic hardship without any sort of strategy or plan.

(Note: A strategy requires a goal, a plan, and some reason to believe the plan will reach the goal. Lacking any of the above, it should not be called a strategy.)

There is a way out of this approach to politics, and I think the internet facilitates it. Get to know people with a variety of perceptions. Read their blogs, follow their tweets, friend them on Facebook, or whatever method you prefer. Find some locally as well. The internet isn’t a substitute for personal contact; it’s an adjunct. I regularly read as diverse a set of blogs as Levellers, Pseudo-Polymath, Pursuing Holiness, Thoughts from the Heart on the Left, Shuck and Jive, and Elgin Hushbeck: Politics and Religion.

And those aren’t all. I have 233 subscriptions in my Google reader, and I at least check the titles every day, reading a selection. I follow a variety of people on Twitter, and try to get to know as many as possible. (Twitter still challenges me with its 140 character limit and fast moving data stream, but TweetDeck helps.)

The point is that meeting people who are different will challenge your perception of who they are and why they think the way they do. This may or may not impact what you believe yourself–that should be based on better reasons than the people you happen to know. What I’m interested in is your perception of the people involved. Get to know them, not a brief stereotype of them.

For Christian readers, let me reference 1 Corinthians 12, often known as the “gifts chapter.” The thing is, I think we miss the point when we treat this as Paul’s dissertation on spiritual gifts. What Paul is doing here is drawing on the fact of different gifts, and the way in which they are necessary to a functioning church body, as a way to teach about Christian unity and service. The focus is not on a list of gifts and offices, but rather on how those are brought together.

Diverse people with diverse gifts, called to different types of service are brought together by one Spirit to work in unity for a purpose. Note that we are not told that the people are made the same. Rather, they are made part of the same body.

This would be a wonderful demonstration for Christians to make to the world. It will require us to behave differently, get to know one another, and learn to differ constructively. I think that starts by letting our perceptions crash headlong into reality.

Yes, some of the people you think are crazy, probably are. Most of them, on the other hand, are probably much saner than you think, and if you stepped past the stereotypes, you might find you could learn from them. I have!