Some principles for discussing belief with those you disagree with ....


I drafted these personal principles as an attempt at a personal discipline in the bruising task of engaging with other Christians across strong and painful differences. I have no problem at the thought that Christians might deeply disagree at times - it is the way we manage our disputes that is at issue. These thoughts have borrowed widely but were inspired initially by the Gareth Moore's briefer statement of principles in his introduction to 'A Question of Truth' (Continuum 2002).


Note: The picture here is deliberately 'male'. On the internet blogs and discussion threads where I have been engaging men's voices and views routinely predominate.

(We men might at least pause and take note of that fact. Though why this should be so needs a different thread)  


I accept with gratitude the call to live my life in the fellowship of the Christian Church on earth.

I will receive and celebrate this as a joyful and also painful mystery that is nothing less than divine gift.  '…. something has been given, which we are struggling to articulate and respond to …..  you are here because God wants you to be here. And God's wanting you to be here has been mediated to you by centuries of mixed but exciting and imaginative witness within this tradition. Be thank you for that witness, and how it has made the reality of God's welcome complete for you'. (Rowan Williams).  

To be a Christian means belonging to a diverse and varied community. It means sharing my life with people who have very different views to mine.  It means learning to differ in Christian love, respecting opinions other than mine and always seeking to understand the experiences of faith and  life that lead people to the convictions that shape their discipleship. I will therefore experience the church as a place of joyful unity and painful conflict. This will be so because it is a community of forgiven sinners not finished saints, and because the questions matter deeply and passionately, and because we will always 'see dimly' in this life.


I will seek to offer a hospitable place in which to welcome those I meet.

All our meeting is in the love and mercy of Christ – even (above all) with our enemies. Henri Nouwen says this involves both receptivity and confrontation. 'Receptivity without confrontation leads to bland neutrality that serves nobody'. Receptivity is no way involves becoming neutral. 'Confrontation without receptivity leads to an oppressive aggression which hurts everybody'. Confrontation is the loving and respectful task of offering ourselves as an 'articulate presence … showing our ideas, opinions and lifestyle clearly and distinctly. An empty house is not a hospitable house Real receptivity asks for confrontation'.


I will listen first – and so hope to earn the right to be listened to.

This is a basis courtesy and also enables me to start from a position

that is open rather than defensive. So I will listen to understand before asking to be listened too to be understood.


Differences are not deficiencies


I accept the possibility that listening to others will change my own beliefs.

Unless we are open to this possibility then we will not be listening in fact. The very act of listening makes possible new understanding and appreciation – and therefore requires an openness to change.


I will accept the possibility that I may be wrong.

'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken'. (Cromwell to General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1650).


I will avoid bad arguments.

All the arguments need examining carefully – my own as well as those I argue with. We sometimes have a tendency not to examine too closely arguments that support our own position. This is especially true if we are insecure about our own conviction on an issue. Bad arguments can be used to make us feel more secure or comfortable in pre-conceived positions. Bad arguments undermine the seriousness of the debate. Bad arguments are usually 'closed'  and therefore reinforce our own prejudices. Bad arguments will not help us to know and celebrate what is true.

The best protection against bad arguments is the honest recognition that we are prone to accept them – especially where the issues at stake make us insecure or fearful.

          

I accept responsibility for my own beliefs and opinions.

Real debate cannot happen without truthful offering of what I think. There can be an isolation involved in offering our own convictions in a place of conflicting debate.  I must learn to live with this. My security is in Christ not in the strength of privately held convictions.


I accept responsibility (in so far as I can influence it) for the way I am heard and experienced by others as I offer my beliefs to others.

It is possible to champion what is true and good but to do so in such a way that it bruises, wounds and alienates others. We communicate many important things before we speak a word. I may need to ask if I do this to others. We are told that only 7% of  all communication is verbal. 'The last thing we realise about ourselves is our effect' (William Boyd).


I will argue with the best of my opponent's beliefs and practice, not

with the worst.


I will not impute disreputable personal motives or characteristics as a way of discrediting those I disagree with.

This is dishonouring and manipulative way of trying to influence an  

argument. It has no place in the search for  Christian  truth.

I will not publicly criticise individuals or groups I disagree with unless I am willing to express my views to them personally if love & wisdom required it.


I affirm that 'all truth is public truth' (Newbigin)

This means that the way the church negotiates its own life and conflicts is actually a part of its apologetic and missionary vocation in the world. The process is part of the content. But in a media driven age serious public debate is particularly difficult. Sustaining public interest requires debate to brief, to polarise and over-simplify the issues. As far as I am able I will not use public pronouncement, or court media attention as a weapon in Christian debate.


I will not use money as a means of influencing Christian debate.

Responsible stewardship of my financial resources will rightly reflect my theological convictions and concerns. But the Gospel nowhere supports the use of money as a means of manipulating debate or gaining power in the process of difficult decision-making.


I accept that there will be people and groups with whom I cannot be reconciled and where communication is no longer possible.

In this event I will confess my part in the divisions of the church and humanity and seek forgiveness to begin again. I will pray for my enemies and bless them. In even our deepest divisions we will meet in the breaking of the bread.


I understand this to be the way Christ meets us. It is therefore the way of the cross.        


I accept this and ask for grace to live faithfully in the way of Christ