Arguing Against the Argument Culture (Christianity Today Interview)

Tim Muehlhoff

Blood pumping. Temperature rising. Voices thundering. Anger and confusion. Do all of our conversations about difficult topics—politics, family, finances—need to be this way? Tim Muehlhoff, a marriage expert and professor of communication studies at Biola University, doesn’t think so. In I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love (InterVarsity Press), Muehlhoff charts a path for navigating difficult conversations with grace and truth. Derek Rishmawy, a minister to students and young adults in California, spoke with Muehlhoff about combining modern insights from communication theory with timeless biblical truth.

What makes the subject of communication methods so urgent?

As a culture, we’re losing the ability to talk about the deepest things in a tolerant and civil way. That’s bleeding down into our personal relationships. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen calls it the “argument culture.” You see it in American politics any time we try to talk about same-sex marriage, immigration, or other hot-button issues.

We have to find productive ways to communicate with family members, coworkers, and children, whether it’s sharing our faith or talking about the kid’s schedule that’s gotten out of control. This book takes modern research on communication and develops a practical strategy for entering tough conversations in a productive way.

Please go read the interview over at Christianity Today, or catch it in this month’s print edition. Also, please pick up this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Soli Deo Gloria 

‘Catching Sleep’ & Catching the Spirit (Or, a Note on the Phenomenology of The Spiritual Disciplines)

I’ve found a number of dangers when it comes to introducing my students to the spiritual disciplines, or the regular rhythms of the Christian life like prayer, Scripture-reading, and commitment to regular corporate worship. Aside from giving them the false impression that I’m good at them, the chief difficulty I find is explaining their importance while avoiding a sort of magical ex opere operato idea that encourages discouragement when nothing happens as you first attempt to adopt them in your own life.

sleepTo do this I’ve sort described them as ways of putting yourself in a position to communicate (commune) with God. In the same way that it’s silly to expect hear from your friend if you’ve got your phone turned off, it’s silly to expect to hear from God if you never actually open your Bible, try to pray, or go to church with regularity. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll “hear”, in the sense of having some subjective experience, from him each time.  Yet still, if its going to happen, it’s more likely to happen in one of these ways.

James K.A. Smith uses an analogy from philosopher Maurice Mearleu-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (PP), that I found quite illuminating on this point:

In the context of discussing this mode of intentionality between intellect and instinct, and a kind of action that is neither voluntary nor involuntary, Merleau-Ponty points to an intriguing analogy: sleep. I cannot “choose” to fall asleep.  The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythms that welcomes sleep. “I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there” (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed–but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. “I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep ‘comes’,’ settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be.” (PP 189-90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception–a kind of active welcome.

Then Smith asks the money question:

What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit” precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?

-Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, pg. 65

Much in the same way that we can’t force ourselves to fall asleep but can only adopt postures that welcome it, so in the same way, we cannot force God to attend to us, speak to us, make his presence known, and so forth. And yet, and yet, we can adopt practices and postures in prayer, Scripture, and corporate worship (alongside of the other classic disciplines such as silence, solitude, etc.) that indicate a welcome, an openness to the Spirit of God to work in our lives.

Soli Deo Gloria

Akot Beatrice: A Portrait of Empowerment

I have a friend named Sean Galaway. He’s fabulous. One of the reasons he’s fabulous is because he works for a great non-profit named Krochet Kids. Here’s a little picture of what they do:

I love the model. There are a lot of great charity organizations out there, or even enterprises that harness the power of the market for the common good. But the focus that I so love about Krochet Kids is the holistic approach to empowering the women in the programs, beyond just the first job they get with organization. There are education programs, banking options, mentors, and a host of other facets to their multi-layered approach to community uplift.

beatriceNow, I normally don’t do this sort of thing, but, I’d like to ask you to consider joining in their work in one of three ways:

You can buy – This one is maybe the simplest. Krochet Kids makes and sells clothes for men and women, bags, hip baby attire, and other such things. These things are good quality. They look good. You can wear them and also look good. This is an easy win. You can shop for stuff here.

You can donate – If you’re not sure you can pull off a beanie or a knit bow-tie, they will allow you to simply give them money, without them sending you clothes. That’s also a good option. You can do that here.

You can pray – Please pray for the work. It’s that simple. J.C. Ryle says that prayer “moves him who can move heaven and earth.” Ask God to bless the efforts of the Krochet Kids team, the women working in Uganda and Peru, and the communities being transformed by the work.

If you want to know more, you can read about their story here, and their model here.  Also, transparent as they are, they’ve posted their financials here.

Soli Deo Gloria

If God is a Blackguard, then He Isn’t

C.S. LewisTucked away in this fabulous little essay by C.S. Lewis on the problem of the “futility” or pointlessness of the universe, is the crux of one of his more famous arguments against the problem of evil:

But there is a real difficulty about accusing it of anything. An accusation always implies a standard. You call a man a bad golf player because you know what a bogey is. You call a boy’s answer to a sum wrong because you know the right answer. You call a man cruel or idle because you have in mind a standard of kindness or diligence. And while you are making the accusation you have to accept the standard as a valid one. If you begin to doubt the standard you automatically doubt the cogency of your accusation. If you are skeptical about grammar you must be equally skeptical about your condemnation of bad grammar. If nothing is certainly right, then of course it follows that nothing is certainly wrong. And that is the snag about what I call Heroic Pessimism–I mean the kind of Pessimism you get in Swinburne, Hardy and Shelley’s Prometheus and which is magnificently summed up in Housman’s line ‘Whatever brute and blackguard made the world’. Do not imagine I lack sympathy with that kind of poetry: on the contrary, at one time of my life I tried very hard to writ–as far as quantity goes, I succeeded. I produced reams of it. But there is a catch. If a Brute and a Blackguard made the world, he also made that very standard in them whereby we judge him to be a Brute and Blackguard. And how can we trust a standard that comes from such a brutal and blackguardly source? If we reject him, we ought also reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him. Heroic anti-theism thus has a contradiction in its centre. You must trust the universe in one respect even in order to condemn it in every other.

De Futilitate, in Christian Reflections, pp. 65-67

So, if you want to accuse God of being a Brute and a Blackguard, if you think your complaints are just and true, and not simply your own preferences about things, then he isn’t a Brute and Blackguard.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

What in Heaven’s Name Do You Mean by ‘Better’?

rulerThe other day I had an argument with a friend about what he meant by the word ‘better.’ You see, we currently hold differing metaphysical views, me being a Christian, he being a, well, something of an inquisitive philosophical floater with former Christian inheritance. Now, I love chatting with him because he’s brilliant, keeps me on my toes, and is, well, a funny guy. Still, I was pressing him on the notion of what he meant when he talked about the idea of ‘better’, or ‘health’, or ‘good’, and so forth, if he didn’t hold to some supernatural standard, or that the world was created with a certain rhythm and order, a God-given way things ‘ought’ to be that it failed to live up to.

I was reminded of this when I ran across Lewis’s argument in “On the Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections. Here he’s dealing with the sort of moral relativism that results from rejecting the idea of natural Law written into the order of things by the Creator, and recognized, however imperfectly, by human nature made in the Image of God. Instead, our moral opinions are socially-constructed value judgments that we have been socially-conditioned to accept, and which we can create, change at will, and even “improve.” But this, says Lewis, is a rather confused approach to things (oh, and, just to note, he’s writing in the middle of WW2):

‘Perhaps’, thinks the reformer or the educational expert, ‘it would be better if we were [socially-conditioned otherwise]. Let us improve our morality.’ Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that our indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words. (pg. 73)

Lewis then bemoans how obvious, and yet how little this is understood by his contemporaries:

All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”?

He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” – as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. (pg. 74)

And here’s where we start to get to the point where my disagreement with my friend comes up. For him, the notion of making life better, or progress was tied up with what science could tell us about what leads to the objective flourishing of humans. But where, pray tell, does science find this standard of human flourishing?

Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them. (pg. 74)

In a sense, science can’t tell you what to value as good. It can only measure and tell you how to arrive at what you already value as good. If you value survival, then science can tell you how to survive best. We have to assume certain values and then use science to measure reality in light of those we already possess.

In which case, we’re still left with the question: “What in Heaven’s name does he mean by ‘better’?”

Soli Deo Gloria

The Danger of “What This Really Means…” (TGC)

At some level we’re all Nietzcheans now. During online debate and interaction with those whom we disagree, we often default to a “hermeneutic of suspicion” associated with Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and their later disciples Foucalt and Derrida. For those happily unaware of what that phrase means, it’s essentially a way of interpreting and reading everything with a certain level of skepticism, concerned to uncover the real, hidden motives behind any argument, statement, or position. It rejects the face-value reading, because “what this really means” is probably something else, mostly an attempt maintain hidden relations of power or control.

friedrich-nietzsche-540x304For instance, claims about maintaining the order of the family made by a politician are “really” about supporting the material interests who profit from current structure of society. In the religious realm, a claim by a pastor about the nature of church government is about maintaining his own clerical position of authority.

When it comes to debating the hot-button issues of the day, it’s quite tempting to resort to “what they really mean” stories about our opponents. For instance, are they opposed to gay marriage? Then it’s not really about the Bible, but about maintaining their own righteousness by comparison. Are they in favor of it? It’s not because of a moral stance, but it’s really about their inability to stand up to the culture for Jesus.

Actually, a hermeneutic of suspicion is necessary at times. Often we see that claims to truth really are pragmatic masks worn by those looking to sell something or increase their own power. There’s a reason nobody trusts politicians. There is good reason to query claims made by “experts” in commercials trying to sell us things. One of Kevin Vanhoozer’s 10 rules of cultural interpretation is this: “Determine what ‘powers’ are served by particular texts or trends by discovering whose material interests are served (e.g.. follow the money!).” In fact, as Christians, we’re called to exercise a sort of hermeneutic of suspicion against our own self-serving hearts, the claims of the world against the truth of the gospel, and so forth.

That said, there are some problems with our stumbling rush to decode the hidden motives of our interlocutors.

You can read the problems with this approach over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Keller, Evangelical Polarization, and the Folly of Measuring Coffins

So, the Evangelical twitter world just had another blowout this week. While these sorts of things happen every month or so, providing a bit of cathartic release from the build-up of rage, veiled contempt, and genuine frustration, this last one over the World Vision hiring policy kerfuffle seemed particularly nasty. Hysterical accusations were levelled, tweets were tweeted, unfriendly farewells were traded across the aisle, and a few sane arguments were sprinkled in for good measure.

In the middle of it all, on an unrelated note, Tim Keller tweeted out this:

It echoed his opening analysis in his best-seller The Reason for God, which seems worth quoting at length:

There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture.

Which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right.

Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade. A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. As a result, those with traditional religious beliefs have little foothold in any of the institutions of cultural power. But even as more and more people identify themselves as having “no religious preference,” certain churches with supposedly obsolete beliefs in an infallible Bible and miracles are growing in the United States and exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Even in much of Europe, there is some growth in church attendance. And despite the secularism of most universities and colleges, religious faith is growing in some corners of academia. It is estimated that 10 to 25 percent of all the teachers and professors of philosophy in the country are orthodox Christians, up from less than 1 percent just thirty years ago…

In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist forms or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancement brings inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought. Even Europe may not face a secular future, with Christianity growing modestly and Islam growing exponentially.

–The Reason for God, pp. ix-x

As I thought about it, I couldn’t help observing that it seems like we’re witnessing something of the same thing at work in Evangelicalism, with some slight variations. On the one hand, you see more conservative tribes, especially of the Reformed sort, talking about the growth of the movement, praising the blitz of theologically-conservative books, and conferences. On the other hand, its not hard to find progressives and post-Evangelicals speak about the tide going their way, the upsurge of popular support amongst the younger generations, a similar spate of books, and general grass-roots rejection of conservative ham-handedness.

So who’s right? From where I’m standing, they both are. What seems to be getting lost is the Evangelical middle. Why? Well, probably a lot of reasons, but in view of the last week’s “dialogue”, in the technologically-amplified Argument Culture, centrist voices tend to get marginalized and the loudest mouths dominate the air/screen-time.

Now, though I line up theologically more to the Reformed right, as I you might be able to tell, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. While the ‘Evangelical middle’ isn’t always some theological safe zone, a spectrum is usually more helpful in terms of thoughtful conversation and deliberation that a highly-politicized, whole-package, two-party system you have to buy into in order to have a voice. In a polarized culture, every event, every issue becomes a battle-line to take your place on. While I don’t mind laying my cards on the table most of the time, I do like having a full deck to choose from.

(This, by the way, is why I love Christ and Pop Culture’s voice. And have you seen the slick new site?)

As for long-term prospects, I’d say that in light the overall secularization of culture and the broader influence of liberal theology in the culture, despite the institutional decline of the mainline that Christian Smith and others have talked about, progressives and Post-Evangelicals do seem to have the cultural edge. Of course, it’s an open issue whether they can pull their disparate streams into the corresponding institutions needed to sustain a full-fledged movement. Its anti-hierarchical, and, at times, anti-doctrinal stance makes that more difficult than more conservative or confessional groups. What’s more, I have admit, I do wonder if the superficial unity we see on flash-point cultural issues, or in vocal opposition to mutually-disdained conservative organizations, covers a deeper, disunity on fundamental presuppositions within it. Who knows? I’m just spit-balling here.

CoffinsFollowing off of this, if Church history teaches us anything, it’s that measuring coffins is an ugly business and an unpredictable one. All you have to do is study the ebb and flow of the Trinitarian controversies in the 4th century to know what I mean. A lot happened between the First and the Second councils of Nicaea. Which is why I’ll admit that I kind of cringe when some Reformed types talk in self-assured tones about the “death” of the emergent movement. The name died, sure, and Brian McClaren books maybe don’t have the sex-factor they used to, but evaluations like that still underestimate the movement’s long-term impact, and metamorphosis into the Post-Evangelicalisms of various sorts we’re seeing.

On the flipside, when progressives talk about millennial exodus from Evangelicalism and hopefully predict the imminent death of its conservative expressions, they ignore how much of that movement is not to progressive forms, but to conservative communions like Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and other confessional traditions. What’s more, these prognostications seem a bit parochial in their focus on the Western, American context at the expense of the growth of robustly conservative Christianity in the Majority world and Asia.

Now, for a final note that may undermine all of my ramblings: we Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Twitteratti (and yes, I do include myself in the mix now), often-times have an over-inflated sense of the importance of our own conversations. For every blog post shared, thousands wouldn’t think to waste their time reading one. Not that it’s right, but more American Evangelicals probably know about Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow breaking up than they do about the World Vision (non-)decision this week. Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and take a breathe on this stuff.

Soli Deo Gloria