Some people have labeled me a “public theologian.” This is intended as a compliment because it often comes with a note that they appreciate and have learned from the way I engage.
It is a kind observation that reflects the hope I have when I enter “public discussion.” I pray that the result, even if there is debate, comes out well both in terms of the topic and relationally.
In the last decade or more I have done many media interviews in the public square, often as a kind of token evangelical. Those opportunities have pulled me into controversial discussions of faith and culture. I also host a weekly podcast called The Table. In fact, these days I spend as much time on these podcasts as I do in my New Testament work. It has taught me about engagement and about disagreeing well in public conversations. The “well” part matters because it is important not only to seek the truth and pursue it, but also to do so in ways that do not unnecessarily alienate those with whom we engage and may well disagree. It is important not only to seek the truth and pursue it, but also to do so in ways that do not unnecessarily alienate those with whom we engage and may well disagree.After all one of the core callings for a Christian is to seek to be used by God’s Spirit to draw people to the Lord. Christ saved us when our theology was not correct. I hope to offer a similar space to those with whom I engage, also being open to learn since there is much I do not know and none of us is like our Lord. So addressing the topic of healthy engagement is a crucial topic, especially on a forum devoted to an area that can be one of intense controversy and emotion. What works and what does not work as people agree, disagree, or agree to disagree?
The question is an important one for another reason. Much of the engagement I see on social media does not qualify as meaningful engagement. Often a hostile tone appears that produces a static that does not help anyone. Unfortunately, social media is not alone in giving more heat than light. Our public discourse has come to mirror more and more what we see in less formal venues. Discussions like those tied to origins and creation can fall into this trap. So how should we engage? What kind of engagement actually advances our understanding? Here are some guidelines I try to use, even if I do not always succeed in applying them. I hope they will be a part of our effort.
1. Discuss the issue, not personalities or motives, because real curiosity may well be in play and a genuine interest in finding truth or understanding reality may be what set a person out in inquiry.
It is easy to pretend to be able to read hearts, but that is decidedly above our pay grade. I try to think the best of people as I engage. I take the view that they are as sincere in their belief as I seek to be in mine. I also remind myself that neither of us is omniscient as we dive into the fray of disagreement. So respect the person is a first rule, by staying focused on the issues at hand. Sometimes an honest question is read as having an ulterior motive. That gets a discussion off on the wrong foot. It also can push people away. I remember the story of a college student asking a professor about one of those “other” gospels (Thomas) simply out of an initial curiosity she had. The professor pushed back hard initially saying that gospel was not worth reading. Why not engage directly with the questions the person has? All that push back did was spur the student’s curiosity. Today this student is a leading spokesperson for such material and adopts a skeptical take on the canonical gospels. The response gave this inquisitive student the feeling there was something to hide in the tone of the push back. That response fueled a curiosity in a negative way. My reaction would have been to invite a conversation about the material and questions the student possessed. A direct look at the materials in question is often the best form of engagement.
2. Let a representative for the view speak to the view. Do not allow your interaction of a view only be from critics.
This helps us to listen to one another and pursue understanding of the issues. It also helps us to avoid bias and distortion. A polemical take often can miss things. Too much of our public information today gets vetted for us ahead of time with a predilection not to listen to someone who has a different view. Good engagement says there is nothing to fear from an open and fair exchange of competing thoughts, but that means letting each side really speak.
3. Really try to listen.
It is so easy to let our own position lead us into a respond first, listen second mode. However the opportunity of engagement in disputes also provides a chance to learn if we will take the time to listen. I may still disagree, but I might also come to appreciate more clearly why we have such discussions.The gospel aims ultimately at invitation even as it challenges the way people live. Such empathy and deeper understanding can help in engagement.
4. Committing to engagement does not mean leaving assessment and critical reflection behind.
This point cuts in two ways. I have to be open to listening and learning that something I hold may be wrong. I also have to be ready to affirm why what is being presented to me is not persuasive. I need to develop a sense of conviction about why if the rationale for the choice is clear or leans hard in one direction.
5. Weigh your judgments and respond accordingly.
I say this to my students all the time. Some assessments we make about disputes are clearer than others. Sometimes just a slight change in the data might yield another conclusion. It is crucial to be aware of the real nature of the options and the strength of those alternatives. This can help us weigh how strongly to hold a decision or how tightly to cling to a conclusion made.
6. How we hold what we believe is as important as believing the “right” thing. Tone matters.
There are times to be honest, frank, and confront. There are times where the complexity of what is discussed calls for patience from all in a debate. Believers are said to be ambassadors in a ministry aimed at reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20). The gospel aims ultimately at invitation even as it challenges the way people live. Our engagement style should be balanced enough to show we care about the person with whom we disagree. That also keeps the door of further communication open. It is hard to persuade someone who you turn off. There are ways to disagree without being dismissive or disrespectful. In contentious contexts, this is so important because it is easy to fall short here.
7. Be committed to being gracious. Sometimes questions are better than statements.
One can disagree and be gracious. Such a commitment will mean staying tied to the issues, only raising motive when a point about motive has been raised, and asking questions where one might be inclined to disagree. Before disagreeing it is crucial to be sure one has understood the view properly. I recall another very public TV interview where paired with an imam, a pastor insisted that Islam was a violent religion. The imam responded directly that was not how he held his Muslim faith. The pastor pressed on, insistent. Again a question might have changed the direction of the confrontation. He could have asked, “Explain to me how your approach to Islam is different from the violence I see around me from other Muslims?” This could have opened the door to allow the imam to explain where he was coming from and how he saw events around him that did not seem to fit his claim. A question would have provided an opportunity to change the direction and tone of the discourse. It could also have allowed for some learning to take place for participants and listeners. It was an opportunity missed in the face of pursuing polemics. The value of good questions in engagement often goes under-appreciated.
So there are seven thoughts about engagement. It is easy for a dispute to unravel and not go well. I think these seven reminders can keep all of us well engaged. It may even lead into learning and experiencing lived out wisdom, that is, sapientia.