Wednesday, November 25, 2015


I have not written for some time. I guess that’s because I have been largely put off by blogs in general. I have wondered whether this is the best way to communicate and wonder aloud about issues related to faith, issues that are at times controversial.

The lack of civility in the blogosphere disturbs me. Dialog cannot happen when our first reaction to any idea other than our own is to attack. I was unwilling to continue to contribute to that culture of attack, in part because I see my own susceptibility to attack first and listen later, and in part because I think there is nothing less Christian than beating up on those whose opinions differ from ours.

Nonetheless, there is also a part of me that loves to ‘think in print.’ It helps me work through my ideas and reach a tentative conclusion. So I am going to try again with some clarifications about how I think.

Civility is important to me. I think it should be important to everyone. I have learned the most about civility from two of my colleagues who participate regularly in ecumenical dialog, specifically the Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogs. So my first re-entry blog is an attempt to describe civility, although excellent books have been written on this topic including Stephen Carter’s book, Civility and Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency.

Culture in general seems to think of civility as something like being nice. Christians fall into this same trap. Being nice, for many Christians, is to not make judgments, to not suggest that there is such a thing as truth and that we can know it, at least in part, and to not challenge someone’s belief system. It means that I cannot call something morally right or wrong because that could hurt your feelings and that I also cannot call some particular way of thinking the best interpretation because that would imply that your interpretation is not equally valid. Christian Smith gets a wonderful hold on all of this in his study of religious trends entitled Soul Searching.

Civility as niceness is not civility. True civility means that I have listened carefully to your ideas. I have weighed them based on criteria beyond my own feelings about the matter and I have found them wanting. It is to respect your process of thinking through some particular idea or issue and choosing to disagree with you. In fact, respect for the other as a person who is capable of thinking through issues using the same basic data that I am using is at the heart of civility.

When I respect your ideas, it does not mean I agree with you.Lack of agreement is not the same as attacking. Civility looks for points of commonality with you while remaining convicted that the conclusions I have reached are not substantially mistaken.

From a Christian perspective, particularly where doctrine and morality are concerned, it is not to think alone, but to think in the context of the Christian faith handed down through the ages, presumably guided by the Holy Spirit. It is to think with the church catholic. For more on this see the book Reformed Catholicity. Christian thinking should never be done in isolation or apart from the history of the Spirit’s work in the church.

Civil discourse does not call names, vilify, or point fingers. It simply points out errors in thinking while asserting a different point of view.

The best example of civility that is readily accessible are David Brooks and Mark Shields who are part of the PBS Newshour wrap up on Friday evenings. They stand on opposite sides of the political divide in America, yet dialog with grace and in a way that does not further polarize an issue but informs those watching.

So I will be writing with Brooks and Shields in mind. Daring to put out ideas now and again that oppose someone else, but doing so with a civil tone.