How Should People Have Religious Conversations?

Have you ever tried talking to someone about religion? Have you shared your thoughts and opinions on man, where he’s going, and where he should be? or his relation to God, if He exists? The conversation can sometimes be frustrating and the atmosphere tends to be awkward once its all over. One prime example I remember was when I was discussing the meaning of life with someone I worked with and really only knew for a short time, but it was her reaction that was quite memorable. After I was done talking about death, human mortality and even suicide, it would be an under statement to say that I merely “ruined dinner.”

However, I want to aim the point of this post not so much on “seasoning our speech with salt,” (Col. 4:6) but with revealing some underlying points that are often, if not always missed in conversations regarding religious subjects. Contrary to my usual style, I want to present this in the form of a couple (but not minimal) bullet-pointed summarizing  statements that address the important elements in having a conversation about truth and/in religion.

These are:

  • (1) Addressing prior commitments to the conversation.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) once wrote in his Pensées (‘Thoughts‘) that “[w]hen we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question” [1].

John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty (ch. 2) argues that even if ninety-nine men held the same opinion, they are not justified in silencing the one man that doesn’t hold a similar opinion – because, “If the [one man’s] opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth” [2]. What we learn from Mill’s point (among others from his book) is that even in viewpoints where we may disagree, error still has the ability to teach us truth – for it is possible that we have “failed to see every aspect of the question.” What might be our solution? Let us look to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard for an answer:

If real success is to attend the effort to bring a man to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin there. This is the secret of the art of helping others. Anyone who has not mastered this is himself deluded when he proposes to help others. In order to help another effectively I must understand more than he – yet first of all surely I must understand what he understand. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will also be of no help to him. If, however, I am disposed to plume myself on my greater understanding, it is because I am vain or proud, so that at bottom, instead of benefiting him, I want to be admired. But all true effort to help begins with self-humiliation: the helper must first humble himself under him he would help. . . [3]

In other words, to bring a man to a definite position away from where he currently is, one must focus on his “situation,” so to speak. Particularly, people carry with them a worldview – a “conceptual system,” [4] a “hidden premise behind all his arguments” [5]. A worldview is “an articulation of the basic beliefs embedded in a shared grand story that are rooted in a faith commitment and that give shape and direction to the whole of our individual and corporate lives” [6]. Shortly stated, inherent within our system of beliefs contains answers to the following questions (although not limited to these): What is life all about? Who are we? Where am I going? What’s wrong with the world? How can it be fixed? and so on.

As philosopher Craig Bartholomew notes, “The answers to these great questions are not philosophical concepts; they are beliefs, often not clearly articulated, embedded firmly in the particular grand story we hold” [7]. The reason as to why worldviews are important with respect to religious conversations is because our own human knowledge has heavy dependency on our overall worldview. For instance, as philosopher Ronald Nash notes, “We all hold a number of beliefs that we presuppose or accept without support from other beliefs or arguments or evidence. Such presuppositions are necessary if we are to think at all” [8]. Hence, the reason why one should address worldview while they are on the table is to abide by our existential commitments to truth – to take a man where he is, and examine his position as such.

  • (2) Establishing conversations towards a center, not taking sides.

When it comes to being in a heated argument with someone of a differing viewpoint, I am reminded by the saying: “People do not listen. They reload” [9]. In his interesting book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs recognizes this issue of people “polarizing” and advocating a position with which they hold dear. However, rather than arguing as if you are from two “sides”, we may consider the alternative:

Generally, we think of dialogue as “better conversation.” But there is much more to it. Dialogue, as I define it, is a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it towards something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people. Dialogue fulfills deeper, more widespread needs than simply “getting to yes.” The aim of negotiation is to reach agreement among parties who differ. The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, form a totally new basis from which to think and act. . . And we seek to uncover a base of shared meaning that can greatly help coordinate and align our actions with our values.  [10]

This point can be nicely tied with our previous one – that our ultimate concern is truth, and thus not so much treating each other as polar opposites engaging in a heated debate on controversial material. We shouldn’t engage someone as if it were a one way street (arguing your point towards him and hope he is convinced) – but rather that you are concerned that he sees the truth for himself. As Pascal notes (737): “We are usually convinced more easily by reasons we have found ourselves than by those which have occurred to others.” This can be our biggest mistake.

 

 Conclusions

There are of course many other things to consider with respect to this subject – and I am willing to admit that I have not addressed all of them. However, my concern is to examine what exactly is fundamental to the conversation – existential commitments, truth, worldviews, etc. For it is these things that cause more important actions to arise: (1) Not treating the issue as merely logical but also psychological, as well as personal. (2) Recognizing that everyone sees some truth; error still has the ability to teach. Lastly but definitely most importantly that (3) we are taking these questions seriously by merely asking them not only with ourselves, but with each other. As Stewart Goetz once wrote:

[P]art of what makes us human is our self-consciousness and the ability to step back and ask high-order questions from the outside, as it were, about the justifications of our pursuits in life. What we discover with this backward step is that our practice of providing justificatory purposes presupposes that we take those purposes seriously. . . Each of us lives his or her life with a serious regard for our purposes, even if the purpose were that we not take anything seriously. [11]

 

_________________________

Notes:

  • [1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans.  Penguin/Krailsheimer (Penguin Classics: 1966) 701.
  • [2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Batoche Books: 2001) p. 19
  • [3] Translated by Walter Lowrie, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall.
  • [4] See Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Zondervan: 1992) p. 16
  • [5] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (Ignatius Press: 1993) p. 41
  • [6] Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Baker Academic: 2013) p. 16
  • [7] Ibid. – emphasis his.
  • [8] Ronald Nash (1992) p. 21
  • [9] William Isaacs, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together (Crown Business: 1999) p. 18
  • [10] Ibid., p. 10
  • [11] Stewart Goetz, The Purpose of Life: A Theistic Perspective (Continuum Press: 2012) p. 6

 

*This post was originally featured at Hellenistic Christendom  

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Steven Dunn

Steven Dunn is the author of "Hellenistic Christendom," a blog with a primary focus on the philosophy of religion and other philosophical/theological subjects relevant to his interests (existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, etc.).

  • Michael

    Conversation, with man and with God, should be constant and without reserve but with total respect.