Some principles for discussing belief with those I disagree with …

I wrote these some years back when seeking  a personal discipline when engaging with folk I have dis-agreements.  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.

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 (perhaps 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 basic 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.

I accept the possibility that listening to others will change my own beliefs. Unless I am open to this possibility then I 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. 
We will  have a tendency  to not examine too closely those arguments that support our own position. This is especially true if we are insecure about it. We can be tempted to caricature the arguments of others. This is especially tempting when we feel, or fear, the force of what they are saying. Bad arguments are usually ‘closed’ and therefore reinforce my own prejudices. Bad arguments will not help me to know and celebrate what is true.

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 practices, not
with the worst.

I will not impute disreputable personal motives or characteristics as a way of discrediting those I disagree with.
This is a 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’ (Lesslie 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, tending to over-simplify and polarise 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 will seek to embrace these principles as I seek to live faithfully in the way of Christ.

  • 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).

One thought on “Some principles for discussing belief with those I disagree with …

  1. David, thank you again for this.
    Two things that I appreciate about your writing are the wonderfully appropriate opinions you quote, and that, in all, your language is conversational and not at all ‘churchy’.
    Oh, and that in your humility you enable us to reappraise our ego.

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