When Was the Last Time You Talked Baseball With Your Enemies?

baseballI’m not a communications expert, but it’s a subject I think about a lot. I preach (almost) every week, blog here, tweet, Facebook, meet with students, and do all the regular sorts of communicating most humans do (because I am a human too). One of the dimensions of communication I’ve wrestled with most is how to talk to people you don’t agree with, maybe dislike or even consider an ideological enemy. It’s also one of the things we Christians seem to be particularly bad at in our internet age. I don’t need to describe this in detail. We’ve all see one too many Facebook updates blow up into a rehash of the Schisms and the Crusades to doubt that this is a problem.

While there are a number of reasons this should not be so, one of the important is Jesus’ command to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those with whom we are opposed. If we can’t do that with people with whom we share the household of God, how are we supposed to do that with those outside of it?

So, how can we love, honor, and treat with Christian dignity those with whom we disagree? How can we love someone all the while contending for a truth that is of significant moral and personal interest when they are forcibly set against you?

Sometimes I wonder if we hear this standard and are struck with this overwhelming challenge to love in its most difficult, highest form, come to the summit of the mountain, and stop because it seems all too impossible. But what if there was a simpler first step? What if we could begin with something as simple as small talk?

For instance, when was the last time you chatted baseball with your atheist cousin? Or Christopher Nolan films with your friend who watches Fox News (or MSNBC)? Or how about favorite Mexican foods with that blogger who always seems to pick the wrong opinion on every theological issue?

Phatic v. Emphatic Speech

I’m not just throwing out a bit of silly advice here. I mean this seriously. I’m not a communications expert, but one of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Timothy Muehlhoff’s book I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love was the distinction between “phatic” and “emphatic” speech (pp. 45-46).

Muehlhoff draws on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who discovered the importance of “phatic” communication for healthy relationships. Most of the conversations we have about difficult issues are “emphatic.” But that’s not most of the conversations we have with friends and family. Phatic speech is all those small interactions talking about daily routines, shared interests–small talk, basically. Healthy relationships need a significant amount of conversations dealing with the weather, sports, the price of tires, favorite sandwiches and TV shows.

Think of it this way: every relationship we have has a sort of emotional temperature to it. If you only ever talk to someone in order to argue–engage in emphatic speech–the emotional temperature is always cranked up, so every conversation only gets more heated. Too many of those in a row and things are likely to blow. Phatic speech about shared interests, innocuous cultural items, and so forth, lowers the conversation temperature so that it is less like to reach that boiling point where you finally throw up your hands and say, “That’s it! I can’t talk to this person anymore!”

I have seen this in my own life. I have found myself in a number of conversations and even friendships with people on very different sides of the theological spectrum over the years. I’ve noticed that I always make more headway–or at least less damage–when it’s someone that I have managed to find common interests, jokes, and so forth. I’ve also noticed that when one of these relationships gets strained, I can usually look back at the last few weeks and realize that all of our interactions have been in the “emphatic” mode. In that sense, willingness to trade a joke or two on Twitter can go a long way in forwarding communication between opposed camps.

I think also of one discussion group that manages to be a decent space for discussion of difficult issues: Christ and Pop Culture’s Member’s Group. (For those who don’t know what that is, Christ and Pop Culture offers a paid membership and one of the many privileges is being part of a private Facebook group to chat about issues with writers and other members.) What’s funny about the group is that discussions range from Sufjan Stevens’ last album to the latest Evangelical cultural blow-up to RFRA and things manage to stay pretty loving. I mean, people disagree plenty, but there’s such an interesting mix of phatic and emphatic speech in the group that the conversational temperature says pretty healthy and constructive. That, and the fact that when things get heated, Alan Noble swoops in with a Kermit GIF to defuse the tension.

Remember They’re Human

Why is this sort of small talk so important? Well, on top of the emotional temperature, the mix of phatic and emphatic speech in our relationships reminds us of our shared, common humanity in concrete ways. It’s not just that your “enemy” is a Democrat, or a Fox News Watcher, or a Progressive, or a Calvinist, or whatever. They’re also the person who agrees that Batman is smart enough to beat Superman and both of you have kids who, for some reason, can’t manage to eat anything that’s not a peanut butter sandwich. This is not just the “marriage revisionist”, but someone else who was also suffering last Tuesday when the dry weather was killing your sinuses.

When you know this, it changes the character of the big, real issues that stand between you. It’s not that they go away or become any less important. It’s that it is harder to reduce the person to the issue on which you are ideologically divided. It’s harder to put them in an entire different category of humanity (or non-humanity), beyond the realm of possible persuasion and hope. This, I think, maybe a communication theory spin on remembering the basic theological realities of common grace and the Image of God. I’ve written about this before, but it’s one of the reasons Chesterton was so good at staying in healthy relationships with his foe/friends like Shaw–he knew they were more than their ideas.

So, do I think that talking baseball with my ideological opponents will heal all the wounds of the Church in an internet age? No. That sort of thing can only be accomplished by the Spirit of God, supernaturally working his Word into our souls. Still, it might be one small step towards following Paul’s admonition, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

Sometimes the attempt to live peacably includes chatting with your opponent about Opening Day.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Peace That God Himself IS

peaceJohn Webster is relentless in his refrain that all of our theology, even our theology about the role of theology, needs to take its orientation in the nature and activity of the Triune God in himself and his works. Unsurprising, then, is his decision to discuss the peace of God as the necessary foundation and precursor to discussing theology’s role in establishing the peace of the church. “Theology must first speak of the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility” (The Domain of the Word, p. 150).

That God is both the “principle” as well as the “pattern” of creaturely peace is important to remember. Webster says that contemporary theology often remembers the “pattern” bit, focused as it is on the God’s outward works to create and secure peace, but forgets the principle. This can lead to an unfortunate “moralitistic” ecclesiology, deprived of the indicative grounding for the imperatives it wants to encourage. Instead, he argues we must first consider God himself as the principle of peace as the foundation and ground of the rest of our reflections.

Of course, as soon as we begin to think about God’s inner, or immanent, peace, we “encounter an inhibition: ‘God is great, and we know him not’ (Job 36.26). We know that God is great, but we scarcely know what we know” (p. 153). This stands as a warning, yes, but also as a “summons” to understand that whatever understanding of God we come to based on his Word, we need to know that God “infinitely exceeds” the operations of our reason.

So what can we say about the peace that God himself is? This:

The peace of God — the peace which God himself is— passes all understanding; ‘neither we nor the angels can understand as God, the peace which God himself enjoys’ (Augustine, City of God, XXII.29). This peace of God’s own self may be considered under the aspects of harmony and repose. First, with respect to harmony; the outer acts of the Holy Trinity are indivisible, the work of the undivided divine essence in its threefold personal modification. By appropriation, specific works may be particularly or eminently assigned to one divine person (as redemption to the Son or sanctification to the Spirit). But each person participates in all, for each shares in the undivided dvine essence, and each work is to be attributed absolutely to that one divine essence. The outer works of the Trinity are, then, harmonious — not mere conjoint or cooperative or composite action, but action which is inseparable and coinherent, and so, in a deep sense, peaceful. This harmony in the missions of the three-in-one is grounded in and gives expression to to the infinite peace which God is. There is no disorder, disruption or contradiction in the works of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the making and perfecting of the world. And so, there is in God’s inner life nothing of divergence or discord, but infinite unity and therefore peace beyond measure.

Second, to this harmony is to be added the element of repose. The outer works of God are effortlessly accomplished, without strain or agitation, without interval between willing and effecting. God rests in his work. This rest corresponds to the inner repose of God in filiation and spiriation, there is no malign diversity, no coming together out of a condition of separation, no overcoming of division or conflict, but always an already-achieved perfection of peaceful life. God’s inner peace is the peace of his triune simplicity.

This inner divine peace is the principle of creaturely peace, that upon which all other peace is founded and by which it is preserved. This is so, however, only because divine peace is in itself complete and fully satisfied. In the repleteness of his life as Father, Son, and Spirit, God is beyond need or desire. His peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence…it is the harmony and repose which, because it needs nothing, is capable of pure charity, giving life and righteous order in the works of creation and providence.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, pp. 133-135

Webster continues on from here to show how this original peace leads to his work of peace in salvation, the peace of the church, and theology’s role within God’s working of peace. For now, though, I think it enough to stop, sit, meditate, and wonder at the peace which God is.

Father, Son, and Spirit dwell in blessed, holy peace, wanting and needing nothing, fully at rest, enjoying the delight of their harmonious existence as the Three-in-One from all eternity. This peace is light, life, and love.

Now one more thought: this God invites us to share–in our own created, derivative, limited way–that peace through the Son who made peace through the blood of his Cross (Col. 1:20), who himself is our Peace (Eph. 2:14).

Soli Deo Gloria

Speech-Acts and the Peace of Jesus

Jesus talkingOne of the most interesting and useful concepts I picked up in my philosophy undergrad is the idea of a ‘speech-act.’ Speech-act philosophy takes as its basic insight that language isn’t just about representing thoughts, or making simple statements of fact, but that, we actually do things with our words. There are words that we say in order to accomplish or bring about a new state of affairs. There are innumerable examples of this sort of thing (promising, lying, etc.) and all sorts of distinctions that philosophers can, and have made, but we see the basic point that, some words can be more efficacious than others.

The classic example of this is the minister’s words in a wedding. ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ doesn’t just state the fact, but actually creates the fact. Before that statement, the two are merely engaged, but after that, they are married.

Now, of course, theologians have taken this and done all sorts of things with this over the years. For instance, we can see that a number of very important theological concepts can be understood and refined with the concept of speech-acts. When God justifies us, he is making a strongly declarative statement that, not only asserts that we are just and righteous in God’s sight, but in fact, actually brings about that situation. Or, again, God’s pronouncement of forgiveness is a constitutive speech-act. God saying ‘I forgive you’ creates the situation in which you are a forgiven person. Actually, push back farther and you’ll realize that we’re dealing with a God who speaks the world into existence (‘let there be light…’ Gen. 1). Kevin Vanhoozer and Nicholas Wolsterstorff have done extensive work with this, but, it’s safe to say it’s a fairly common concept in Biblical interpretation nowadays.

Why bring all this up? Well, the idea of speech-acts came to mind as I was going through my recent study in John’s Farewell Discourses in Calvin’s commentaries. Commenting on Jesus’ words “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27), Calvin says:

By the word ‘peace’ he means prosperity, which men are wont =to wish for each other when they meet or part; for such is the import of the word peace in the Hebrew language. He therefore alludes to the ordinary custom of his nation; as if he had said, ‘I give you my Farewell.’ But he immediately adds, that this peace is of far greater value than that which is usually to be found among men, who generally have the word peace but coldly in their mouth, by way of ceremony, or, if they sincerely wish peace for any one, yet cannot actually bestow it. But Christ reminds them that his peace does not consist in an empty and unavailing wish, but is accompanied by the effect. In short, he says that he goes away from them in body, but that his peace remains with the disciples; that is, that they will be always happy through his blessing.

Commentary on John 14:27

…his peace does not consist in an empty and unavailing wish, but is accompanied by the effect.” Calvin reminds us that when Jesus speaks ‘peace’ to us, he’s an effective speaker. When we wish each other peace, if we actually mean it, it’s just that–a wish. We’re not in a place to grant our own wishes. When Jesus speaks peace, he’s an authoritative speaker who can actually bring that peace into our lives–in fact, by speaking it, he brings it. He can do this because, as Paul says elsewhere, Jesus is, in himself, our peace (Eph. 2:14).  He is the one who brought about the reconciliation that is the foundation of peace in his cross and resurrection in our place, so that, united to him by faith, we have the peace that he himself is (Col 1:20-22).

In other words, when Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”, he wasn’t just blowing smoke.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Where is True Peace Found?

I’ve begun my second attempt through John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress this week in my attempt to find more theologically-rich devotional literature. (The first was an unfortunately broken off in college due to my immaturity.) I’m pleased to say that I have been thoroughly blessed by it. It’s easy to see why Charles Spurgeon confessed that, “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The allegory is riddled with biblical quotations and wisdom designed to illustrate the pilgrimage of the Christina through the current world on to glory.

Bunyan does this by telling a dream-vision he has of the pilgrimage of Christian, an everyman character, who is on a journey from his home-town “the City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City.” His journey is provoked by his reading of a book that causes him great distress and anguish about his spiritual state.  On the way he is met by various characters such as Worldly-Wise Man and Evangelist who give him varied instructions as to ease his turmoil. Eventually after a foolish detour in the direction of the village of Morality on the advice of Worldly-Wise Man that lands him in great peril, he takes Evangelist’s advice and heads down the narrow road that leads to life and his true journey begins.

Burdens Released

Christian is committed and so he makes great headway for a while, but from the very start of his journey he is weighed down by a burden, a pack that hinders his progress. The pack symbolizes the spiritual weight of his sins, the anxiety and fear of judgment, the encumberance of great guilt and shame. He suffers with it despite his best efforts as well as the godly counsel of those good characters such as Evangelist and Interpreter who open the truth to him and he receives no respite until he catches a vision of something glorious:

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Isaiah 26:1. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. 

Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Zech. 12:10. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” Mark 2:5; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment, Zech. 3:4; the third also set a mark on his forehead, Eph. 1:13, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing,

“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

So many of us suffer the burdens of guilt and shame. We walk day in and day out bearing a great burden, an inexpressible anxiety and grief that doesn’t seem to dissipate no matter how many self-help books we read, mantras we chant, or health-goals we set and meet.

Christian found the true source of peace: “Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be/The Man that there was put to shame for me!” In Christ all of our sins, our shames, our hurts are taken, destroyed on the cross with him, buried in the sepulchre with him, and in him we rise again to new life, freedom, joy and hope. In him we find true peace.

Soli Deo Gloria