Communication

I’ve been thinking about some comments posted by Jeff and Tim back on my post: I’d Like to Make a Toast. They expressed their concern as to my ability to adequately express myself in a coherent manner which would allow for meaningful discussion with modern thinkers. The following are my concerns about their suggestions:

I read many blogs. (Actually, my news aggregator reads many blogs, and delivers the new stuff to my home page.) One thing I come across time and again is how tied we as believers are to the modern debate technique known as “rhetoric;” which is a worldy and impersonal approach to communication that hinders Christian discussion. Many of us have worked to rid our vocabulary of meaningless Christian jargon, (and by meaningless, I mean “religious” words for which we have no common definition even amongst ourselves, and are completely unknown outside our subculture.) but we have yet to develop a better way to communicate. Our dependence on the rhetorical debate technique is preventing us from having meaningful discussion.

For example: On the alcohol post, Tim voiced his opinion that abstaining from alcohol was, in fact a biblical position. He gave support for his opinion in the form of quotes. He then challenged me to refute his sources. In the past, this would have been a great way to discuss the issue of missionaries drinking on the field. But the days of debate being the only recognized form of “thoughtful discourse” amogst believers are over (and if they weren’t before I typed that last line, I hereby declare them to be over).

Any form of communication that necessitates pitting one against the other is a bad start. I don’t see why we would advocate a system that refers to the person with whom we are speaking as an “opponent,” or “critic,” or “adversary.” If we instead take part in a discussion between “friends,” “brothers and sisters,” and “fellow seekers,” the conversation can be unifying, encouraging, and edifying. Sure it’s ok to disagree. Sometimes, we must do it strongly even. You might think it’s a question of semantics, but the moment we start to think of the person we’re talking to as our rival, we’ve begun to play by the world’s rules.

We label every person and every person’s every thought. Without even really listening to someone, we assume we know what they’re saying and why. “Oh, you’re Amyraldian.” “You’re arguing infralapsarianism, and that’s been proven wrong.” How does this help a conversation? I’m not saying we should limit ourselves to rehashing past arguments. We should learn from the discussions that wiser men and women have had before us. But do we really need to boil everyone down to one of two camps on every issue? Liberal or Conservative? Calvinist or Arminian? Open communion, or closed? My answer, to all of these questions is yes. I’m sure there’s a label for that, too.

And don’t get me started on “hyperbole.” Exaggerating the other guy’s position just to make a point is, well, lying. But that’s what happens in every debate. Someone shares their thoughts, and we make a charicature of their statements in order to easily show the flaws in their logic. But all the while we know that the guy on the other end of the discussion isn’t really saying that homosexuality isn’t sin or that Calvinists shouldn’t participate in evangelism. We only argue with ourselves when we put words in people’s mouths.

Along those same lines, posting a list of quotes from your research here is like bringing some upper-classmen to a playground disagreement. Sharing the sources that have convinced you is a good thing, but challenging me to refute them is the opposite of discussion. By citing outside support, you’ve stepped out of the conversation, and put dead historians and Greek scholars in your place. If you didn’t want to talk (type) it out with me, you should’ve said so.

Sarcasm is ok, though. It allows us to say things that, while true, would make us look like total jerks if we weren’t just being sarcastic. Besides, it’s usually pretty funny.

Jesus convinced people by asking questions and quoting (and paraphrasing?) scripture, not by challenging anyone to refute anything. Paul even referred to pagan religions and quoted popular philosophers. I’d prefer to participate in a conversation by asking questions (my favorite lately has been: “How’s that working out for you?”) over trying to expose logical inconsistencies in someone’s “argument.” Besides, even the most rational of us hold on to beliefs that seem to be contradictions, don’t we? Our faith requires it of us.

I guess I’m advocating a system of communication that doesn’t have rules that rule anyone out. I think we shouldn’t disqualify people from participation in the conversation because they don’t argue well enough or have enough historical support of their position. I’m tired of people thinking that using Greek is a trump card that should end all questions. I love conversation. I think the free exchange of ideas is beautiful. I am not uncomfortable with unanswered questions or apparent contradictions. Why are you?

It’s funny; as I type, I’m reminded of the classroom rules for group discussion set by my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Ludlow. If I remember correctly, they went something like this:1. There are no stupid questions.2. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion.3. We can disagree, but we must do so politely.4. Always tell the truth.5. Don’t betray confidences.

6. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.