Saturday, April 18, 2015

Clear Communication in Theological and Philosophical Conversations

It’s very important to have clear communication goals when engaging in any kind of dialogue on an issue where two or more parties disagree. This is especially true in areas of theology and philosophy. Why? Because we must love God with all of our minds, amongst other things, and this requires our absolute best efforts to understand the truth. But since we are not infallible, there may be truth, or pieces of it, that we can glean from others—even those others with whom we disagree. Thus, we must be clear communicators and seek to understand accurately those with whom we are in dialogue.

One issue that I think would help significantly is to clarify the goals of the conversation. That is to say, we must raise and answer the question, “What’s the point of this?” There are at least two main points that are often used, and if used at the same time (one by each party), confusion is sure to follow. What are they?

1.     Convincing one’s dialogue partner that he/she should adopt one’s belief.

This is by far the most common. Most of us, especially on matters of religion, politics, and morality, want others to see things the way we do. But the entire point of this endeavor is to convince your opponent that he should disregard his own beliefs, insofar as they conflict with yours, and adopt yours as truth.

2.     Defending one’s belief as justifiably held by the same.

This is to say that you’re not necessarily trying to convince someone else to believe what you believe. Instead, you’re trying to show that, at least for you, and given your other justifiable or plausible beliefs, the beliefs under debate are at least somewhat rational for you to hold.

(1)  is by far more difficult to do than (2). Why does this make a difference? Quite simply, if an atheist or skeptic claims he doesn’t see why it should be true, for example, that objective morality exists (or that there are things that are objectively morally true that constitute obligations on us), this only is relevant if I am engaging in (1). If I am merely trying to show how it is that I am rationally justified in holding to God’s existence, and I trot out the moral argument, why is it that his lack of moral perception (or whatever is motivating the relevant statement) should affect what I consider to be plausible? Many times, what happens is I am engaging in (2) while the skeptic is engaging in (1). But then, if this is so, he’ll have the burden of showing me why I cannot believe in objective morality, or else change his tactics.

The same is true on the reverse scenario. Suppose I tell an atheist he ought to become a Christian because of the Resurrection, and suppose I simply repeat to him the Gospel accounts and 1 Corinthians 15 with the list of the witnesses and leave it at that. It’s quite plausible to me, perhaps, but it probably won’t be—at least without some significant explanation and philosophy of history—to him. Thus, I need to engage in better argumentation (or at least, fuller explanation).

Many times we are actually both engaging in (1). We’re both trying to convince the other he’s wrong. In these cases, it will be vitally important to follow the dialect on either side. The atheist must offer reasons for the Christian to think atheism is true, while the Christian must offer reasons for the atheist to think Christianity is true. Too often, this is not done (especially on the atheist side—this is why one sees arguments/objections against Christianity that appear extraordinarily weak to the Christian). At the bare minimum, more explanation must be done, or better argumentation.

Identifying the goals of the conversation at the outset will help set the tone and eliminate some (but definitely not all) frustration. For example, I’m not interested much in dialoguing with atheists who only want to do (2). There’s almost always something one can do to avoid God. I am interested in talking to atheists who are interested in hearing why they should adopt belief in Christ[1], and are open to it. I welcome any suggestions or thoughts below!

[1] Incidentally, we must do a better job of explaining this “belief in.” The majority of atheists (and a significant number of Christians, it seems) think this is mere intellectual belief, rather than an active exercise of faith. Perhaps Christianity would seem more important to them were they to recognize it’s not changing one’s thought patterns or reordering one’s beliefs (though that does play a part): instead, it’s ultimate trust in the ultimate being. That’s a much higher calling than what we offer sometimes now.

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