I’m tired of having conversations and dialogues. Let’s have an argument!
Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel have written an excellent overview of the emerging church movement (ECM), The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. As sociologists, they give an overview of the data they collected about the movement, without offering their own opinions about its theological correctness.
The fourth chapter is called “Faith as Conversation.” The term “conversation” is an important one for the ECM. I think it also points to something deeply wrong with that movement. Here are some key quotes:
This conversation includes questioning the idea that faith means articulating and intellectual assenting to a set of beliefs (p. 78).
Ongoing conversation is in itself a mechanism or a strategy to maintain a plurality of identities and positions within emerging congregations (p. 79, emphasis original).
For Emerging Christians, dialogue simply means listening to others’ points of view or positions without trying to change them. “It’s not about forcing a conclusion,” said one participant. This way of thinking about dialogue contrasts to what Emerging Christians see as evangelical dialogic practices: the evangelical has the “right” answers and the purpose of dialogue is to convert others to that point of view. It also differs from a traditional ecumenical approach to dialogue, which is focused on discovering points of commonality. Participants instead describe the process as a form of pedagogy in which people strive for mutual understanding. It involves “a lot of listening.” And it assertively changes the more directed, exacting forms of dialogue they’ve experienced in their past (pp. 84-85).
Emerging Christians seem comfortable embracing the tensions in what appear to be mutually exclusive positions (p. 85).
There’s both good and bad in this.
The good is that people are talking about theology and questioning each other about what they believe and why. That doesn’t always happen in churches. Does your church have a forum where people can ask questions about the faith? I bet it doesn’t happen in the main service. But does it even happen during Sunday school or Wednesday night Bible study?
My wife and I have been meeting in a small group with her friends and their husbands. The group chose to read Milton Vincent’s A Gospel Primer. A different couple would lead each week. The first few times we met had minimal conversation about what Vincent was claiming. We mostly just read it and moved on. Since I didn’t really know the people, I didn’t feel comfortable piping in. But when it came time for Abby and me to lead, I started off by saying something like, “Well, I have to admit, I disagree with some of what this guy says. I mean, do you think he’s right about this….?” And I started asking some basic questions about Vincent’s claims. I think the people were shocked, but in a good way. We started debating the different points. One guy said, “I didn’t know we were allowed to disagree with him! I just thought we had to read it and nod our heads, and say,‘Yes’!”
My point is, we typically don’t encourage people to have theological conversations about faith in the church (so they turn to Facebook!). Insofar as the ECM is encouraging those conversations, I think that’s a good thing.
However, conversation becomes a bad thing if it’s not aimed at discovering the truth. You just talk and talk and talk. And that seems to be where the ECM is stuck. Apparently, the ECM avoids trying to come up with the “right” answers. Instead, we’re told the point is to “maintain a plurality of identities and positions.” And instead of trying to discover the truth, they tolerate “mutually exclusive positions.” So it’s a theological free-for-all.
I think that’s a little hypocritical of them. Why? Because later in the chapter, we’re told the ECM places a big emphasis on having conversations about four “crises” involving: the environment, the gap between the rich and the poor, world peace, and the failure of world religions to address the first three crises. Additionally, the book also makes clear the ECM generally supports LGBTQ issues. The ECM definitely thinks there are “right” answers to those questions. And it doesn’t seem as though they tolerate “mutually exclusive positions” on, say, whether or not man-made global warming is a hoax, or whether women can be preachers, or whether or not homosexuality is an immoral perversion. So why does the ECM adopt such a skeptical attitude about coming to the truth about Christian beliefs and Bible doctrines? Why do those claims get second-class status?
It’s good to start with dialogue. People need a space to ask questions, to hear what the options are, and to know why people believe what they do. But then the conversation needs to move on. Maybe the next step is to find points of commonality. But it can’t end there. Common ground should be used as a foundation to argue further, so we can discover the truth. We need more arguments! And our arguments should be about important issues, not foolish issues (2 Tim 2:23).
Of course, I’m not talking about fighting. I’m not talking getting angry at each other, and yelling, and otherwise replacing reasoning with emoting. A good argument is rational. It has premises and a conclusion. It presupposes things like facts, evidence, and reasons. And the goal of good argumentation is not to admire how we all believe different things, but to discover the truth. Isn’t that what you want to know? Are you so in love with your own opinions that you don’t care if you’re completely wrong? If I’m wrong, I want to know. I don’t want to waste a single brain cell on a false idea. I want to know the truth.
When Paul evangelized, we aren’t told that he had “conversations” where he was happy to let everyone believe whatever they wanted. Instead, Paul argued with them:
Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there (Acts 17:17).
At least some of the people argued back:
Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing (Acts 17:18-21).
So Paul preached to them. He argued. He pointed out areas of commonality. He cited evidence. Some mocked him. Some wanted to hear more. And some believed:
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them (Acts 17:32-34).
With the ECM, I agree we need more discussions. But if you care about the truth, we also need more arguments!