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Keeping the Conversation Going

Hand mirror

A week ago, in the middle of Holy Week, events at the Supreme Court triggered an explosion of avatar-changing activity on Facebook. If you use the social media site, you saw it. It was hard to miss. What was also hard to miss was the tension that some felt as they discovered, perhaps for the first time, that people with whom they were friends disagreed with them on an important and sensitive topic. As a pastor on this campus, I watched it happen, knowing that in just two days, on Maundy Thursday, we all would be hearing Jesus’ mandate that we love one another. (John 13:34) There was a sense of irony about it all.

Now that the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus has begun and the Supreme Court has moved on to oral arguments for other cases, it seems like a good time to give some thought to how we relate to one another in the face of substantive disagreement. This topic certainly isn’t the exclusive domain of pastors and theologians but in light of St. Paul’s encouragement  “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18), it’s not off topic for a pastoral letter.

I offer then, the following thoughts as a starting point, for your consideration:

The first might be obvious, given our recent shared experience, but I’ll state it anyway:

Facebook and Twitter are probably not the best place for quality dialogue on complex issues. Face to face conversations are always best. They’re more nuanced and do a better job of helping us remain mindful of the relational dynamics that exist between us as we debate important matters. Further, the biggest changes of heart and mind often happen in the smallest and private conversations. Even the conversion of St. Paul happened in the relative privacy of the road to Damascus, far out of town, with just his travel partners as witnesses. (Acts 9)

Second: Recognize the primary arena of the issue at stake and work to maintain your arguments in that context or in the arena in which you hold common principles or presuppositions with your conversation partner. Issues of civil government are often charged with moral components that, for many of us, are rooted in our religious commitments. In the context of public debate, however, these religious commitments that we hold firm are not the basis of our shared public life together. Be intentional about finding the common ground with your conversation partner. It might be your shared religious commitments, but it might be values more broadly held, like a commitment to the US Constitution or the idea of the rule of law.

Seek to understand the interest behind the positions taken by your conversation partner. Once a position is staked out, there’s rarely an opportunity for give and take in a conversation. If we can ask questions that seek to understand the individual’s interests behind the position, conversation may have an opportunity to open up. St. Paul famously wrote “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. (1Corinthians 9:22) In its original context, this is a declaration of freedom in the Gospel used in the service of sharing the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ, but it’s also a statement of the wisdom of seeking to understand life from the other person’s perspective as a strategy to building a relationship of trust and influence with them. In every conversation, our primary goal ought to be seeking to understand the other.

Finally, maintain humility in the midst of your conversation:

Christians believe that the only sure truth is the love of God that is expressed to the whole world in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  Everything else that we know, we know through our own discovery. Consequently, all that we know, we know only provisionally – for the time being until fuller knowledge is attained. In our lives, fuller knowledge comes with increasing study and understanding. There are always things to learn. In the largest sense, however, fuller knowledge comes with the full revelation of Christ upon his return. St. Paul put it this way:  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)>

If you’d like to talk about this or some other topic, I’m happy to do so, and I know Pastor Char is as well. As always, we prefer our conversations face to face.

Peace be with you,

Pr. Jim

April 2, 2013

Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.