Tag Archives: Beliefs

The disconnect with some creeds: statements vs. conversation; orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy

If you read much news about Christianity then you may be aware of the “Nashville Statement.” It has surfaced in a number of locations with much commentary pro and con. There are those who disagree with the affirmations and denials, those who agree, and those who may agree–at least in part–but find something important missing. This final group commonly notices the cold expression of facts and beliefs that seems devoid of human connection. It appears to these individuals that love and relationship are missing, that it is a statement about people rather than to people.

At the same time, I am reading Heal us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church. This is an edited volume containing the voices of Presbyterian pastors from all walks of life about race problems in the church. Though a book about an entirely different subject as the Nashville Statement, there are two details that might help us identify the significant limitations of creedal statements:

  • Ideological statements vs. redemptive conversations. When talking about the problems of racial disunity in the United States it could be easy to mis-understand which conversation we should be having at a given time. While it is good to discuss what we think are the facts, causes, and solutions to systemic discrimination, sometimes those conversations are destructive. For example, if you begin to talk about an injustice you just experienced and the listener responds by saying, “well, that might have happened but it really isn’t a big problem” chances are you will not continue long in that conversation. Why not? You were not loved, not listened to, not shown compassion. What you needed was someone to validate you and to show concern for your experience. Statements of belief, important as they are, rarely meet people in their pain and confusion. Pastoral letters often do as they invite the other into a conversation. This point is made by Rev Lance Lewis in chapter 1 (especially on pages 3-6). In that section he suggests that ideological/political conversations alone “rob us of the opportunity to show genuine concern and love for the Black community.” Conversations, on the other hand, start with experience and move towards grounding in redemptive and theological foundations.
  • Creedal orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. In chapter 5, “We’ve come this far by faith” Rev Stan Long makes this statement, “Dr. [Carl] Ellis once stated that for the White Christian community, creedal orthodoxy is supreme. It is the primary evaluative tool. However, for the Black Christian community, ethical orthopraxy is supreme. We determine  the authenticity of one’s confession through ethics, not creed.” Creedal statements often talk about facts in the abstract and rarely how it looks on the ground, in real life. Statements such as these, especially about what others should do/not do, might better start out with the author’s own failings to love the other well. While creeds are important–the church often recites ancient creeds each Sunday–what one does after the service tells us more about whether those creeds mean much.

As a Presbyterian, I am a creedal Christian. I do think there are lines to be drawn in life. There are boundaries to be observed and even protected. There are beliefs to be stated in black and white text. However, I don’t think creeds make good conversationalists as they cannot provide in-the-moment wisdom (who am I talking to, what do they need now?) nor do they reveal the kind of person you are and have been to the other person in the conversation. And if we creedal Christians are honest, we have not always done well engaging the ones we believe are operating outside the lines we cherish.


Filed under Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Uncategorized

Personal stories and the art of intellectual inquiry

Our personal stories are far more shaping of our views on things than most of us care to admit. In most academic settings we love to discuss and debate matters and show our intellectual prowess. In these settings, to think emotionally, or to be biased by past experiences usually kills our chances of winning a point. No, we must stay logical and stick to the facts. Consider what happens if a person arguing for abortion rights reveals that they had an abortion. Consider what happens if the person arguing that the Scriptures do not teach that homosexuality is wrong reveals their own failed efforts to change their sexual orientation. Put yourself on the other side of each debate. What do you think? Well, their bias is obvious. But if you haven’t had an abortion or if you haven’t experienced homosexual desire, then your bias is obvious as well. So, to avoid these point-killing experiences, one sticks to their intellectual defense of a particular belief.  

By the way, personal anecdotes are not the only non-factual influencers of our beliefs. Personality styles also weigh heavily. I have a friend who loves a good debate. They energize him. To make a point, he willingly uses hyperbole. He takes risks and tries on ideas he hasn’t fully considered. I have another friend who weighs every issue ever so carefully. He tediously considers each and every point and methodically explains his position. He rarely speaks out of impulse and so hardly ever moves from a previously decided position. In both cases personality influences my friends and influences their conversation partners. 

I have noticed that in quasi-intellectual settings (e.g., blogs, class discussions, etc.) personal stories are very common, even encouraged. The story enriches the reader/listener’s feel for the subject. And once a story has been told, it seems to kill any chance that another might present opposing thoughts and ideas critical of that experience. To critically evaluate the story-teller’s position is to disrespect that person’s life and value—so it would seem. A friend of mine recently bemoaned that it seems impossible in the public domain to call a dumb idea by its rightful name (unless the person is taking a conservative view of things).

So, what do we do with personal stories? Though they shape our ways of seeing the world and deciding what is right, it does not mean that we are incapable of intellectual inquiry and arriving at beliefs that counter our own experience. But it does beg the question as to how we should weigh personal stories in our dialogs about truth claims.

What if we dispense with personal stories? What would be lost? Gained?

“Just the facts, ma’am” isn’t really possible. Everything we believe is attached to experience and personal bias. But what if we could curtail the use of personal stories and anecdotes—would it help? Consider the debate on homosexuality. If we eliminated “I had a friend who…” stories, what would happen to the discussion? We might also eliminate conversations that start and end on fringe matters. This would be helpful since conversations starting with extreme situations rarely return to core issues. We might be able to look, in depth, at the key issues: (i.e., interpretation of key biblical texts, pastoral responses to those with same-sex attraction, exploration of sexual identity development and whether identity is immutable or not, etc.) without distraction by stories of abuse and misuse by the various parties.

But what would be lost? Compassion. Understanding. Practical responses. It seems that narratives humanize issues. We see the facts as connected to real people. Stories give context that help us to understand the experience of another. Anecdotes spawn creative responses that have real-world impact and avoid one dimensional “easy” answers. When I was in seminary, one of my professors had a sign that said, “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, easy, elegant, and wrong.”

Wedding Intellectual Inquiry and Experience 

So, how do we thoughtfully, compassionately, critically explore a controversial topic in a manner that leaves us more loving than when we started, more understanding of its complexities, more aware of (and willing to challenge) our own biases, more aware of our chosen bases for our belief systems, more capable of differentiating dogma from opinion, and more clear (and willing to state so) on what we do and don’t believe?


Monday I will present some possible ways to wed both our stories and the pursuit of the truth. 


Filed under Cognitive biases, Communication