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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Judge Me: We Can Still Be Coffee Buddies

To follow up on the previous post, four simple ways to make sure you engage other viewpoints honestly and respectfully.

  1. Do it.  There’s no point believing something that can’t stand up to a challenge.  Engaging opposing viewpoints will either convince me for the other side (I could actually be wrong!), deepen my own beliefs by causing me to think critically about them, or at least educate me on what other people really think.  Win-Win-Win.
  2. Do it faithfully.  Represent your beliefs honestly.  Being gracious doesn’t necessitate rewriting parts that could offend.  Christians struggle with this when it comes to tough questions like “do you think I’m going to hell?”  Don’t be confrontational, but don’t try to protect God from who he is and what he’s said.  You’ll be introducing people to a watered down version of the real thing, and who needs that?
  3. Do it with integrity.  No strawmanning.  I made that up, but you know what a straw man is: you represent the other side as a weak caricature that you can beat down.  Politicians do this a lot; they describe the opposing viewpoint in such a way that only a moron could subscribe to it, and their crowd goes wild.  But smart and erudite people fall on all points along the spectrum, so always assume that your opponent is not an idiot  Represent his position in the best possible light and you’ll avoid alienating your audience.
  4. Learn to live with tension.  There are some times when we’ll just disagree, and on important subjects.  If we want to keep up meaningful dialogue without losing the core of who we are and what we think, there will be tension.  I was once part of a long, friendly email debate between Catholic and Protestant Christians.  We all learned a lot about what was similar and what differed, but in the end there were a few points on which we would never quite see eye to eye.  Which is why we have different sects and parties and faiths at all.  Sensing where the line is, where learning becomes bullying, and pulling back before you reach it, is critical.  If harmony is where all is blithely ignorant and clash is where the fists fly, seek dissonance.  Slightly off but in a way that adds interest.  
  5. When in real danger, retreat to common ground.  Coffee, beer, baseball, knitting.  Now go forth and have a diverse circle of friends!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Judge Me

I went to a multi-faith forum recently to hear a Muslim Imam, a Buddhist, and a Christian pastor (full disclosure: from my church) speak on the substance of their belief systems and field audience questions.  I spoke with the Imam afterwards about the difficulties of maintaining the tensions of disagreement with civility, and it got me thinking.

So today I’ll be ruminating on the meanings of the words respect, judgment and tolerance, and tomorrow I’ll comment on what I see as keys to representing ourselves and our views publicly.

So how do we respect a person with whom we disagree fundamentally on important issues?  First, we don’t confuse respect with obsequiousness.  Finding common ground is important, but faking it doesn’t help anyone. 

Acknowledging a disagreement where one exists is not a failure to respect the other party.  If I say, “I don’t believe Joseph Smith received true divine communiqu├ęs,” this is a crucial statement of fact.  We have to agree to disagree on the portions of our beliefs that are inherently incompatible.  Otherwise we’re just lying, which demeans our own faith and that of others.

Vegetarians often have to rub elbows with the burger-eating crowd, and sometimes there’s discomfort on all sides.  Should I avoid the Big Mac even lacking any conviction about meat, all in the name of sensitivity?  Maybe, but if I’m a carnivore, the one thing I can’t do is say things like, “I wish I could do that; it’s so admirable.”  Pretending to cede moral high ground isn’t respectful: it’s dishonest.  I can even continue to order my salad with chicken as long as I don’t rub it in anyone’s face.  Here’s where tolerance comes in. 

We can put up with each other with equanimity if we keep reminding ourselves that people who disagree with us aren’t [always] stupid.  Even if it turns out I’m right about something, recalling that an opposing position can still be reasoned, and reasonable, allows me to be clear on my point without derogating another. 

I’ll wrap up with a word on judgment.  Biblically, judgment has various meanings and it’s important to know them and differentiate.  First, there’s the punishment kind, like with fire at the end of the world.  Unless we’re actually on the bench somewhere, we don’t do this, the sentencing kind of judgment.

But often the other kinds are confused, and then lumped into a big No pile.  Condemning someone for their missteps or even their liberties, when done from a position of pride or self-righteousness, is hypocrisy.  This is the point of Matthew 7:1 (Judge not, lest ye be judged), which is often thrown back in the faces of Christians to trap them in supposed intolerance. 

But Matthew continues in that passage, and after describing hypocrisy, he goes on to clarify proper judgment.  (Really! It exists!)  The truth is, everyone is making judgments all the time, which is why relativism as a philosophy is so logically untenable.  Basically, if you can stand in front of a roller coaster and check whether you meet the height requirement to ride, you can see how judgment that is an assessment (Bible says don’t do xyz; I did xyz. Fail.) is an intellectual exercise that we can and must engage in.  Tuck it neatly into the envelopes of respect and tolerance and this kind of judgment can serve you well.

I'll post some simple rules of engagement tomorrow.  For now, these webpages have more in-depth treatments of the Biblical uses of the word judgment.  Look here and here.