The art of Christian dialogue about theology

I’ve been thinking about how we Christians talk to, at, and about each other’s theological positions. There are two poles that we tend to be attracted to. On one side we may lean toward criticalness. The plus of this pole is that details matter. We look at the details in great depth and we run with others’ positions to their possible conclusions. The downside to this polarity is that we are inclined to read associations and ideas in their worst possible light, worst possible conclusion. We describe others in ways that they would not recognize. Further, we make divisions where there may not be any. Finally, this polarity usually elevates debate and hinders real listening and dialogue.

The other polarity is apathy. This polarity attracts folks who think theological discussion isn’t all that important. On the plus side, folks over here tend to be pragmatic, relationship oriented, application oriented, etc. However, sloppy thinking and unwillingness to own the logical conclusions of a position are a downside. On this pole, some may elevate questions over answers and decisions. This leaves some really hanging and their faith threatened.

Notice that both poles encourage pride. 

Whenever you describe two poles, many will comment that they are either on both sides at the same time or they choose a completely different pole. Fair enough. Also, when a writer presents two bad poles, the obvious answer is always in the middle, right? No, not always.

But what should Christian dialogue about theology look like? That is the big question in seminaries, churches and other christian organizations. So, maybe we should first talk about some parameters.

1. Do I have the right to be picking the speck out of my brother or sister’s eye if I have significant problem with my own fruit of the spirit? (especially peace and patience) 
2. Do I give the best possible reading to the other’s position? Do I list multiple possible logical conclusions as there may be more than one (or do I just list the worst?)?
3. Do I love this person, even if they are wrong? Do I seek them out privately to dialogue (true dialogue!)?
4. Do I ask them to answer questions that I won’t answer myself? Do I demand black/white answers when I allow my own to have nuances?
5. Am I looking for proof of what I already believe rather than looking for true dialogue and growth on both sides?
6. Am I wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove?
7. Do I engage in guilt by association?
8. When someone is off-base, do I show gentleness in my teaching? Humility? Desire to restore? Recognition that, “there but for grace go I”?


Filed under Christian Apologetics, conflicts, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals

3 responses to “The art of Christian dialogue about theology

  1. Pam

    Hi. I’m a Christian and graduate student in CT, working to obtain my LPC. I am not at a Christian school, but am taking a spirituality track that the school offers. My problem is taking classes with a teacher who claims to be Christian but then teach the Word of God differently than it is written. Here are a few examples:

    1. “Get Thee behind me Satan”. My professor claims that this was just Jesus talking to Peter the way “guys” do. You know, name calling in jest, etc. Personally, I would never call my brother or sister in Christ (or anyone) the name of my archenemy.

    2. The professor claims it is not necessary to forgive in order to heal.

    3. Adam and Eve made a mistake in the garden. It’s ridiculous to think that we still have to pay for that mistake all these years later.

    There are many people in the class who have not fully formed their faith beliefs and because everyone reveres this professor, it makes me angry that she may be turning people away from the Truth. Yet I don’t want to begin a theological debate in class either, and I haven’t felt the Lord telling me to open my mouth. I know He can defend His name.

    As an aspiring counselor, I can see I have my work cut out for me, and not only with my clients, but with the secular world. It’s more difficult than I thought it would be. Thanks for allowing me to share this.

  2. Pam, welcome and thanks for your thoughts. It is tough dealing with differences. I do think there are places where we can raise our beliefs and opinions and ask someone to defend their opinions agains the history of orthodox thinking. However, we can do that in winsome or aggressive ways. Even when we are winsome, we may be attacked for being concerned about the truth. You might ask your prof to interact (#2) with Miraslav Volf’s book, the End of Memory. He is a Yale prof. He would have a different view on forgiveness and healing.

  3. I had a number of discussions back in 2005 with a pair of “apologetics ministries” people. (Each had their own such website.) It struck me that they weren’t dealing honestly with Christianity — they’d be inspecifically muttering some generality about how Christianity has sometimes betrayed itself, then the next moment they’d engage in pitting our best against other religions’ worst, or virtually putting a guarantee on something God didn’t.

    I do have a small problem with *always* putting the best construction on someone else’s expressed ideas, mainly because sometimes they are being severely dishonest with themselves and us. (Being nice doesn’t always help.) But sometimes we are, too, and that needs to be confessed as *sin* — and not just before God. But these ‘apologists’ won’t. No wonder we’re seen as arrogant.

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