On “Moving The Conversation Forward”

conversationI don’t know how often I’ve heard the phrase “moving the conversation forward.” We could be talking sex ethics, church and culture, science and faith, or whatever. Every subject has a conversation around it and it’s always supposed to be going forward. Now, I have to say, I don’t always know what that means. Of course, it’s very simple to say what the string of words mean together. There is a “conversation” between interlocutors on an issue, and it is to be “moved forward.” But meaning is also a function of use. So there’s a question of “how is this being used?” Well, I can think of three senses.

First, there’s the idea of “growth in mutual understanding.” When you start a conversation between people who disagree on an issue, it’s possible to be separated from each other in at least two senses. First, you can disagree on the issue. I support A, and you support B. Second, we can disagree about what the issue even is. I might support A, but you think I support C, and while you support B, I suppose you support D. In this case, the conversation can “move forward” when we grow to understand each other’s actual position, even if neither of us actually move away from our original position.

Second, there’s the sense of “new, intellectual ground being broken.” In this usage, it could be that while you support B and I support A, in the conversation, it’s possible that in the course of the conversation we find that E is an option that neither of us had been considered before that deals with both of our concern. In this option, an impasse is broken and we both move forward together.

Third, there is the sense of “you move to agreeing with me.” In this case, I support A, which is further beyond B, and so the conversation moves forward when you catch up with me. And this, I take it, is actually the most common use.

Here’s the couple of interesting things I’ve noticed about the these senses:

First, the third sense is usually somewhat hidden, or parasitic on the first or the second uses. In other words, when many today suggest we try to “move the conversation forward”, the idea is we’re to be open to find a new middle ground, or move towards greater mutual understanding is implied. And who doesn’t want that? But the problem comes when you enter the conversation, under the guise of the first or second sense, yet what you really mean is the third.

Second, we often don’t notice that in inviting people to “move the conversation forward” in the second sense, you’re already asking them to accept the premise that whatever position they currently hold is unworkable and ought to be moved beyond. But even there you’re subtly begging the question.

Of course, I don’t think most people don’t do this consciously. Rather, we subconsciously assume that “if the discussion is properly had, once you actually understand my views, you’ll end up agreeing with me.”  Or, “if the discussion is properly had, once we actually talk it all through, we’ll end up with some third position that’s not yours.” We have trouble imagining that at the end of the conversation, at least one or both of us will remain in the same place, or that it “moves forward” only in the first sense.

This is caught up with another phenomena I’ve noted before, which is our tendency to think that everyone holding a position on an issue (atonement, salvation, etc) must be in the same place in the process of discernment that we ourselves are. So, if I’m only now discovering the other side’s view on a subject, and I’ve hitherto held my position naively, then I tend to assume that all of my interlocutors must be in that same epistemic boat. It fails to occur to me that others might have had those “conversations”, made their judgments on the issue one way or another, and have now justifiably moved on to a different conversation entirely.

In any case, this equivocation on the sense of the term “moving the conversation forward” is a peeve precisely because of its rhetorically obscuring quality. Instead of openly proceeding with the very understandable and commendable goal of trying to debate or persuade someone into a position you hold as true, or out of one you believe is false, we falsely move under the more “humble” guise “moving the conversation forward.” In which case, if you don’t want to be “open” to a new way of thinking because you’ve already given it due thought, well, isn’t that still so “narrow” and backwards and stultifying to the conversation which ought to be going “forward”? It becomes a rather disingenuous rhetorical tool to move the conversation in your direction without owning your intended aims.

I have no solution here other than to commend a greater sense of self-awareness regarding our speech and intentions. There are times when you enter the conversation in order to learn, or in order to move beyond current paradigms, or, quite legitimately, in order to persuade others of a position you honestly hold.

Soli Deo Gloria

When Can We Stop Conversing and Believe Some Stuff? A Ramble on Intellectual Narcissism

landingI’ve written before about current failure of intellectual imagination that plagues our current, cultural conversations, especially around conversion narratives. If you used to believe something for stupid, sinful reasons, then that’s the only reason anybody could hold the position you used to hold. If people haven’t updated their beliefs along the lines you have, it’s because they haven’t read the arguments you have, so they simply need to be enlightened.

What follows is a ramble on another, related angle on the same problem.

Of late, I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to assume people are in our same intellectual position with respect to an issue that’s up for debate. For instance, if you’ve never really struggled with doubt, it’s very hard to put yourself in the position of someone who is wrestling with issues that just seem obvious and intuitive to you. In theological circles, it may be tempting to write it off as pure perversity and rebellion, rather than real intellectual and moral tension.

On the flipside, if you’ve got doubts, then it’s hard to deal with someone who doesn’t currently seem to be sharing them. Their certainty on the issue can be off-putting, or, even more, unthinkable. It’s difficult to imagine that someone has wrestled as hard as you have and then come out on the other side and still holds the beliefs you used to hold, or different beliefs, or indeed, any strong beliefs on this at all. This actually seems to be more than case nowadays, especially because our culture puts a premium on heroic doubt. I don’t remember where he said this, but Matthew Lee Anderson has pointed out that in the current intellectual climate, beliefs aren’t as valid, or true, unless we’ve passed through some period of angst, or torment over them, otherwise they appear as inauthentic expressions of bad faith.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics. While he probably pushes too hard in one direction, he talked about the fact that it’s fine to search while you haven’t found the truth, but once you found it, land and be content with the truth:

But at the outset I lay down (this position) that there is some one, and therefore definite, thing taught by Christ, which the Gentiles are by all means bound to believe, and for that purpose to “seek,” in order that they may be able, when they have “found” it, to believe. However, there can be no indefinite seeking for that which has been taught as one only definite thing. You must “seek” until you “find,” and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught.

I take him to be saying something like this: When you go seeking for a spouse, the point is to find one, right? Now, once you find one, you’re not supposed to keep searching are you? That’s not to say you’re not still learning, or exploring–but it’s of a different character now. Before I was looking for a land to settle in, but now I’m exploring the land I have. Before I was searching to find a wife. Now I’m “exploring” my wife, looking to grow and learn in the context of an already settled relationship. This is no less stimulating, adventurous, or somehow closed-minded–it’s just the way relationships work. Depth and love are not the result of constant foundation-testing and tinkering, but in building once those things have been tinkered, tested, and settled on.

Something similar is true about theological truth. I’ve searched a bit and have already landed on the Apostles Creed. That’s not up for grabs for me anymore–at least, not in a live way, really. Now, I suppose theoretically someone could provide me with defeater beliefs for it and I’d give it up, but not for now. For now I have cast my bet, rolled the dice, and landed on a basic outline of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord who reveals God as Triune, salvation by God’s grace, and so forth. The question now is learning to understand what I’ve come to believe in a deeper fashion.

Where’s all of this going? Well, I suppose it comes to a few questions. Are you okay with ever landing? Is your approach to faith one that dictates we should we continue doubting and testing the same things over and over? Or, when it comes to cultural conversations on hot-button issues, do we have to keep having the same conversation? Or rather, am I expected to constantly come into every conversation with the same level of hesitancy as you do, or be deemed inauthentic and totalitarian? Can I be confident of my beliefs even as I’m tender and understanding of yours?

In the other direction, do you enter every conversation with the expectation that people have reached the level of confidence and security that you have? In other words, is every expression of uncertainty and doubt an expression of rebellion and perversity, or do you give some space for those who are still piecing it through?

I don’t have a conclusion here other than something I try to remind myself of all of the time: when dealing with people you disagree with, try your best not to be an intellectual narcissist.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #5-How to Meet People in Coffee Shops

I meet new people in coffee shops. All. The. Time. (Seriously, 4 people in 2 days last week.) I mostly like this. I’m a decently friendly guy and I enjoy getting to know different, interesting people. On top of that, I’ve got a bit of an evangelistic streak in me. You probably won’t ever hear me roll through the 4 spiritual laws over an espresso, but it’s unsurprising to find me in a conversation with someone I’ve met 20 minutes prior, discussing their church history and views on Jesus. Still, every once in a while I feel like I have “Talk to me” written on my forehead. I’ve tried to think about how I happen to get into these conversations and I’ve come up with some reasons, both serious and silly. So, if you want to meet people in coffee shops you might try some of these methods, especially if you’re looking to be “missional” and relational in your approach to sharing the Gospel.

1. Read interesting books. Seriously, read interesting books, or at least ones with interesting covers. Then, leave them out on your table. Usually every couple of visits to a coffee shop somebody’ll ask me about the book I’m reading and we”ll start talking. Funniest conversation like that was when I was reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I got to explain that it was social commentary and American religious history, not a biography of the band.

2.  Smile. This is simple, but I generally smile at people when I see them walk in, or we make eye contact. When I’m studying, I look up a lot and almost by reflex find myself smiling at somebody. I might have no intention of talking to them, but somehow, we end up in a conversation because I guess smiling is rare. We live in an increasingly suspicious and cynical culture. In a culture where the biggest cause of depression is loneliness, signs of life and warmth are attractive. Of course, this can easily be misread. Beware the creeper smile. Still, be friendly.

3. Notice People and Ask Questions. If you’re bold and want to be the one to start the conversation, notice people and ask them questions. People are so used to going through their days without anybody taking an active interest in them and their activities that an honest question about something you’ve noticed (again, something not creepy), will usually invite an answer that you can build into a conversation. Noticing books, unique shoes, inquiring about what they’re studying, etc. will usually draw people out of their I-don’t-know-you-keep-the-traditional-3-feet-away shell. Thing is though, you should actually be interested in those things. Don’t ask about something if all you want to do is cut to the chase and get at what you’re really interested in. Be interested in the person. In any case, you probably won’t have anything useful to say to them unless you’ve first paid attention to who they actually are.

4. Commit to Being Somewhere. Place is important. Investing time and committing to going regularly to particular places at particular times, or at least on a regular basis gives you a great opportunity to become familiar with and familiar to regulars as well as randoms. It gives you the opportunity to just start saying hi, and then building out relationships from there. So, pick a place and plant yourself.

5. Have a huge mustache (Men only). Okay, this is a joke, but I seriously get comments on my mustache from random strangers 3-4 times a week. On more than one occasion this has developed into a long conversation about Jesus and inviting them to church. Just sayin’, it’s something you pastor-types might want to try out.

6. Pray. Really, if you want to meet people, engage them about life, truth, and Jesus, then pray before you go anywhere. Pray God will give you opportunities, and wait for God to work. Sometimes you meet nobody, then there are days when you end up talking to a total stranger about their deepest convictions about life, God, and reality. You really don’t know what God will throw your way if you ask him.

Alright, that’s about it. I’m not an evangelism expert, but hopefully some of these tips can help you meet the people that God has placed around you “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (Acts 17:27)

Soli Deo Gloria