What needs to happen for people to get over the idea that disagreement=division?

Why is modern thinking so binary? Why is every debate framed as a black and white issue of adversity where choosing a position means picking a team? It’s the case in politics. It’s the case in sport. It’s especially the case in the internal mechanisms of Christianity. And frankly. I’m over it. Life is complex. Life is a constant stream of sacrifice and compromise – tolerance even – so that we can love people despite our differences, not hate people because of them.

I don’t mean this in a wishy washy way – we are going to disagree on things, and though I’m sure some questions are more complex than others, there is, in most cases, a right answer, and in other cases, a better answer.

The answers we come up with to any problems are a product of the quality of the conflict, or debate, that produces them. Ideas are best clarified by criticism, by cutting out the rubbish, by considering new perspectives. Argument is part of the process. It’s profoundly part of being together, working together, and striving together.

This is profoundly, and obviously, true. Especially within teams, but also within, say, politics – a healthy debate where both sides are actually listened to, and both sets of political priorities (say – the concerns of employers, and employees) are properly considered – will produce better policy outcomes (though not necessarily from the perspective of the employer, or employee – because we act most naturally out of self interest. In fact, mitigating self interest, or special interests, is one of the best parts of healthy debate… And yet, there’s a certain stream of thinking so put off by the overly robust approach to argument, that equates disagreement with hostility, or put off by the sanguine approach to argument that merges all answers into no answer, that insists the answer is we must all agree on everything, if not at all times, at least in public – especially in the church.

This is dumb. It’s going to lead to a watered down and unhealthy church where the strongest willed wins. Where either the overwhelming will to move with the times, or the underwhelming will to stay exactly as things were 40 years ago, will win unopposed.

Disagreement, public disagreement, direct and robust public disagreement, is vital for the health of the church and its mission. Disunity can be unattractive – but disagreement isn’t disunity. Unless you say “this person is not a Christian” you’re ultimately not dividing over the issue that unites you – who Jesus is… so it’s not division. It’s debate. And the fact that we debate, in public, not only shows that we care, it brings others with us – others who are on mission with us, and others who are interested in what Christians think, and how they think, and how they make decisions.

Tone is important – speaking lovingly is important – but it’s not loving to pull a punch. It’s not loving to not express the seriousness of an issue in order to avoid the appearance of disunity. It’s like my old soccer coach used to tell me – if you’re in training and you go into a tackle with a team mate half heartedly – you’re both more likely to be injured. You put things in the wrong spot. Everything is askew. To continue the analogy – If all you do is train without tackling, the first time you’re properly tackled by an opponent will break you. But if you’re on the same team, you’ll pick the guy up after you smash him, and you won’t hold a grudge or be out to get him in a different context. Because hitting each other is part of the process of being on a team – and it doesn’t mean you don’t think you’re on the same team, and it certainly doesn’t mean you don’t like the person… if the principle is so easy to see in the context of team sport, why is it so difficult in the rest of life? Why are we so sensitive that at the first inkling that somebody might think someone else is wrong about something? Why do we assume that the only way to interpret any disagreement that is articulated is to assume the people who disagree don’t like each other?

It is, quite frankly, bizarre. And unhelpful. And, for Christians, profoundly out of kilter with what we know of how Christian community should work. As Christians our unity is in Christ.

Lets assume. For the moment. That the Bible is a public document – that it was written to be read as something other than private correspondence. Now read

The objection – that Paul rules out lawsuits amongst believers (1 Cor 6) – therefore any public disagreement is wrong – is an attempt to extrapolate a general principle from a specific example. I’d suggest this general principle is fatally flawed – and ruled out by 1 Corinthians itself. It runs counter to the fact that Paul is writing a public document that criticises the Corinthian Church on several fronts, and when he gets to the disagreement that’s happening in the church about food and being involved in temple life – he not only publicly takes a position (he takes the position that idols are nothing, all food is from God (1 Cor 8, 10), and they shouldn’t take part in emperor worship (1 Cor 10)), in what was obviously a public debate (the gatherings weren’t private, if they were, the Christians could have been charged as being a seditious and illegal association, he writes a letter to be read in the gatherings)… he also lays down the proper principles for disagreement – to make sure that unity in Christ triumphs over individual freedoms in those passages – he says do what is loving and doesn’t destroy people’s weak faith. He obviously doesn’t think discussing the disagreement, or suggesting a solution, is a threat to people’s faith – or that it should be.

He also names people who are doing the wrong thing, and spells out past disputes (Philippians 4:2, Galatians 2:11-14) where necessary.

Disagreement isn’t wrong. Public disagreement isn’t wrong. I’ve tried to make this case in many more words here

Where those who have genuine concerns about debate have a point is on the question of manner – I don’t think the substance of a debate is the problem, provided both sides are representing one another clearly, and avoiding fallacies, is the problem if people are genuinely seeking the same goal, and operating from the same starting point. Wrong thinking should be sorted out pretty quickly by right thinking, all else being equal – this is the basis of our court systems, our democracies, and televised debates – unless there’s an unhelpful power disparity (which, incidentally there was when it came to law suits in Corinth), good and right answers should usually be reached, or at least. Adopting an unhelpful posture or manner is a rhetorical short cut, and it works. The reason strawmans, ad hominems, well poisoning – all those fallacies when you attack the person you’re debating, rather than the issue – the reason these keep being trotted out in arguments is because they are effective.

Tone matters. Paul makes this pretty clear in 2 Timothy 2.

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”

Tone is a two way street. Or rather, charity is a two way street. One of the things that has struck me most about some of the criticism I’ve copped, public (in comments), or private (in rebukes sent to me personally) in response to what I thought was a fairly gentle and genuine post about Guy Sebastian was that the expectation that I should be nicer (based on assuming that I wrote sarcastically, which I didn’t), and that, in the case of the comments, this point was made in a fairly nasty way. It seems people will tell you in whatever way they see fit that you need to speak nicer.

It also seems that people don’t really like to read things charitably – several people jumped to the conclusion that I was sarcastically calling Guy Sebastian out, or picking a fight with him, over his decision to publicly describe where he’s at with God. That couldn’t really be further from the truth. It required a deliberately uncharitable reading of what I wrote, with little regard to interpretive tools like genre, context, tone, and intent – and with almost no interest in what I’m increasingly thinking is the essential interpretive tool – no regard to the ethos, or character, of the person producing the text. You can’t, I don’t think, assume sarcasm under every word on the internet. Sarcasm is usually indicated by context. I don’t think you can call somebody out on what they’ve written without first asking if they meant what they’ve written a particular way. I hope that when I read something I disagree with the interpretive mindset I bring to the table is “what is this person actually trying to say, what are the thoughts behind it, and what is the reading that puts their words in the best possible light?” I fail at this sometime. But it’s my goal. It’s a good rule of thumb for avoiding stupid quarrels on the Internet.

This isn’t the first time people have deliberately chosen to be offended – not necessarily at what I’ve said, but because I’ve said something that might cause division, or cause people to think that Christians aren’t united on every issue – there are several examples I could point to where I’ve written something that somebody doesn’t like, and rather than gently being corrected, I’ve been insulted, told I’m damaging the kingdom (in a relatively public setting), and then the clincher – unfriended on Facebook… Well. That was just one. Other people have just done the first two… sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. Pretty much based on some assumptions about what speaking graciously and lovingly is, and on what division is…

It’s all well and good to tell somebody to work on their tone – and I certainly need to be told that frequently, especially when I so often blog while I’m feeling passionate and engaged with some issue, rather than dispassionate and objective – but if you’re going to do that, it behooves you to make sure your tone isn’t just creating a prevailing sense of irony.

To conclude this rambling rant – I think a quote often misattributed to Augustine is a nice principle for writing, reading, and commenting on things as part of the process of conversation on the internet… and for thinking about how disagreement can happen without the idea that somebody is less than human or ‘the enemy’ simply if they happen to voice an opinion contrary to your own…

“In necessary things: unity, in uncertain things: liberty, in everything: charity.”

I no doubt need to work harder at this – but when I’m talking about other Christians, including the ACL, I assume they are Christians – and explicitly say that whenever it might appear that I’m bringing this into question – just Christians who are wrong. I assume they’re free to be wrong, but that I’m equally free to disagree – rather than unite with them, and I hope (though I often fail) to speak about people I disagree with, and read and interpret what they’ve said, with charity.

We’re not called to be united on every issue – we’re called to be united in Christ. This aspirational “unity on essentials, unity on uncertainty, unity on all things” mantra is unhelpful. We have our unity – most necessarily – in Christ. There are other necessary things, but without this foundation, they’re trivial. Unless somebody is questioning that unity or undermining its necessity some freedom to charitably disagree without one’s contribution to the work of the kingdom being called into question would be lovely.

That is all.

Confessions #6: I want people to agree with me… sometimes

I feel like I’ve been doing a fair bit of arguing lately. And I enjoy arguing. In person and online. Mostly I enjoy constructive arguing. And I like the process of road testing ideas in the form of an argument. I’m also fine with being a minority voice. I just don’t like being a solitary voice.

Today at college I was in such an argument at lunch time. Surrounded by some innocent bystanders who could well have been on my side. But they didn’t say anything. And a group of other intelligent people who clearly weren’t.

For a moment I truly understood Tony Abbott’s comment about only taken carefully thought out written statements as gospel, and being flexible on the rest. Because when you’re being badgered with four or five complex counterpoints to your one point and trying to address them all it’s pretty easy to be led down an argumentative garden path where you end up saying something inconsistent with your actual position that then can not be unsaid – and it essentially is impossible to recover that ground.

It’s hard to think, and speak, and address multiple questions at once. It’s easier when somebody else is on your team. I’m going to try harder to voice agreement with people when I agree, rather than just speaking when I disagree.

I’ve covered the issue at the heart of this particular debate before (basically I said that all our actions will be tainted by sin, which means even questions of being right and wrong are sinful, and even “righteous” acts carry some sin) – but I might develop the argument further in a subsequent post.

For those not following at home…

If you’re not already reading the comments on Simone’s follow up post to the one she took down the other day… then do yourself a favour.

I’ve witnessed other people having long discussions with Mark Baddeley, but never had the pleasure myself up until this one. Mostly because I agree with him on other issues.

Lets just say, not this time…

See if you can catch my veiled homage to Godwin’s Law.

Some holds barred

Did you know that the term “no holds barred” comes from wrestling? Not the fake stuff. The real ancient art.

I’ve been reading a bunch of articles and discussions online recently surrounding a Christian response to cagefighting. Craig started it in his column at SydneyAnglicans. He suggested we should be coming up with an articulate position on what appears to be a pretty divisive matter of conscience populated by two unbiblical extremes…

For many, their first gut reaction to the sport will define their position. But it may be worth spending some time to work through the issue properly. I predict this sport will become enormously popular in Australia over the next few years, especially amongst young men. If this happens, it will be good if we have done some proper thinking on the subject beforehand.

Now everywhere I turn on the interwebs I’m reading the debate.

Ben commented on it yesterday, the NY Times ran a story about cage fighting churches, Justin Taylor quoted this rebuttal to the kind of Christianity modeled in the times piece and Mark Driscoll has been banging on about UFC for years. Cage fighting is well and truly established there and I haven’t read a middle ground response from the Christian community – you’re either in the Jesus was a cage fighter camp or the sissy pacifist camp… which led to this quote.

It discourages and mocks godly men who aren’t macho. There is an undercurrent of disdain in all of this. Proponents of this testosterone Christianity can’t help but take shots at guys who wear pastels and drink cappuccino. You might not like guys with manicures, but there’s absolutely nothing morally wrong with it. A reserved, quiet, well-groomed man can be a good Christian. Believe it or not.

I think the debate is pretty silly and out of all the Christian interactions I’ve read or experienced they descend in to ad hominem non-arguments the quickest (though arguments about Genesis 1 and alcohol consumption are up there).

From the NY Times:

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”

Some of the arguments for cage fighting are just stupid. Jesus was not a cage fighter. No matter how hard some of the Americans want to believe that to be the case. Being a cage fighter does not make one a man, it does not even make one more manly. If this is just a correction to the feminisation of the church then it’s an odd and ill directed attempt to get more men along – but Craig was right. This is a discussion we need to have. Cage fighting is huge.

While I think some of the extreme positions on the pro fighting side are silly I wonder how much of the bellicose criticism coming from the anti-violence side of the debate is just ill-conceived grandstanding.

Gentleness is a good thing. Sure. And Christians are called on to turn the other cheek. But to suggest that a sporting endeavour where two combatants engage in a competition with agreed upon rules and parameters is somehow definitively ruled out in the Bible just seems odd to me. It’s a conscience issue – surely.

I’m not out to change anybody’s opinion on this matter – if you think violent sports are wrong then don’t watch or take part in them. I watch boxing. I enjoy WWE (which isn’t real). I haven’t watched much UFC – but I don’t have a problem with it – really. It’s just not my preference. I’d rather watch a bunch of other sports. I love the violence and physicality of league. Anybody who says they don’t watch league for the collisions is just a touch football fan in disguise. Does this make me a bad person? Anybody who thinks that league players don’t go out of their way to “hurt” others has never seen a forward make a tackle or a hit up (and they certainly haven’t spoken to any successful league players).

Why are we pain averse? I don’t understand why causing other people pain it’s clearly expected and mitigated by rules is possibly wrong? Is it less good than not causing them pain? I don’t know… but lines drawn in this debate seem completely arbitrary. League is ok (or perhaps Union), UFC is not – where does the line fall? How do you decide? As an aside – in the comments on Craig’s post Kutz suggested we need a doctrine of sport. I like that idea.

The clincher (for me) came up in the Sydney Anglicans discussion. I love the stories of violence in the Old Testament – I don’t glory in them (too much) – but I see them as pictures of justice and of the struggle between good and evil. The Bible contains more violence from righteous men than UFC will ever produce.

If it comes down to a question of “purpose” and violence not being suitable for entertainment then I wonder how many of the brothers coming out against UFC enjoy violent movies or TV shows? How can one affirm the quality of the Godfather while decrying a sport?

If it’s a problem with the unholiness of the entertainment then what about every TV show that contains sexual immorality… if it’s that the sin is real and not imagined then what about game shows where contestants are motivated by greed?

I don’t see why the objections to this passion or interest are so heated and so different to the reactions to anything else – except perhaps for a declaration that one considers the earth to be billions, not thousands, of years old or the suggestion that beer is one of God’s best ideas.

My six favourite arguments from 2009

The little post that stirred up a hornets net of atheists and caused a shift in service providers was almost worth the effort of blogging for a year all by itself. Here are my six favourite debates from 2009…

  1. Five things that would make atheists seem nicer
  2. The one where I admit to not enjoying U2 and then suggest some alternatives
  3. The one where I suggest it’s ok to treat subjective issues objectively.
  4. The one about an “open source” approach to producing ministry resources (music especially) that sprung out of this amazing discussion at Simone’s blog.
  5. The one where a pastor I don’t know took my doctrine of creation to task – and I didn’t like that very much – and my apology for being rude about it.
  6. The one where I dared to suggest parents shouldn’t overshare on Facebook.

Thank you to those of you who commented here throughout the year – I do enjoy a good verbal stoush.

Benny on “Experts”

Another thing I would like to touch on is quoting experts in arguments. I don’t like it when people argue that, as their stance is backed up by the word of an expert, they must be right. Most knowledge is quite readily and easily obtainable. Most people who do research have a tendency to promote their findings (I know, it’s crazy). So, if anyone is willing to really find out about a topic, if they are willing to spend the time to trudge through the literature, there wouldn’t be too many points of view, arguments and supporting evidence they wouldn’t have stumbled across. Researchers may add to the pool of knowledge, but I think most people will be able to understand the current pool of knowledge, and make their own inferences once properly informed.

Blogology

I’ve been, as a result of some ill conceived posts in the last couple of weeks, and heated debates here and elsewhere, rethinking my approach to blogging. A little. Not a lot.

My problems involve a gap in my understanding of this blog and its function, and my approach to posting my thoughts and opinions.

Izaac is experiencing similar reservations much earlier in his blogging career. I’d like to prolong that career as long as possible, because I enjoy reading his thoughts and opinions.

To start with – I repent of the times when I have not been loving in the comments. It’s easy to forget that there’s no non-verbal communication at play and that other people own their opinions and positions much more vehemently than I may.

I love discourse, discussion and argument. I love the free and frank exchange of ideas and opinions. What I don’t love is snide pedantry, discussion free of warmth, and comments just for the purpose of disagreement. Wise people whose company I enjoy most in the real world have indicated that I’m not as pleasurable here as in the real world – both in comments here, and elsewhere. One such person made a comment that offering sarcasm and objections without solutions is pretty hollow. I agree. I was convicted by that. And I think commenters here should be too.

Another person suggested that I need to be more careful that I don’t come across as an arrogant chauvinist. These comments both came from people I love and respect – so thanks guys.

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that not all of my readers know me in the real world – and that’s exciting on some levels, but also scary. Because observers looking at some of my arguments in comments here and elsewhere may not be aware of the real world relationships at play. It’s just something else for me to be mindful as I write, and others to be mindful as they read.

But, the onus for fixing this “problem” does not rest solely on me…

You, dear readers (and commenters), have a job to do too.

1. Understand the medium.
This is a blog. It until very recently was a blog that bore my name, and as such could not be mistaken for anything but my thoughts and personal opinion. It needs to be read as such. It’s not gospel. It’s often not set in stone. I think of some of my posts as a bit of a journal tracking my thoughts, or an opportunity to flesh out my thoughts. I’m more than happy for you to engage, debate and discuss… but if you insult or annoy me it’s likely that I’ll respond defensively.

2. Play nice
I was pretty horrified a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned the oversharing saga on Facebook and one of my friends jokingly took another non-mutual friend to task for their lengthy response.
I’d like to think that the many people who come here would pay each other a certain degree of courtesy.

The blogosphere is a wonderful place – and it’s great for sharing ideas, meeting new people, networking, etc. But in every society there must be “rules”… Communicate Jesus has a list of “rules” that Desiring God (John Piper’s blog) uses to moderate discussion. I don’t really like them. They won’t really work here because I’m happy for people to do many of the things it rules out (commenting off topic, self promotion etc).

But I have one rule to propose. I am happy for people to disagree with what I have to say. I love discussing things. I don’t like constant negativity. I recognise that I will often say things that need to be disagreed with.

Also, given that my wife, and one of my sisters, are now blogging here occasionally (and I’m happy to throw open the doors to other people who express an interest in posting from time to time) I’m going to treat being nasty to them pretty seriously as is my want as a husband and brother…

So I’m instituting this rule:

If you are going to engage in commenting here you must write one encouraging comment for every two negative comments.

I’m not going to enforce this strictly. It would be too hard to police. But if I do notice a string of negativity I’m just going to edit your comments (because I have that power) to make them say really nice things about me. Or delete them.

Your thoughts? How can we make the online world – and this neck of the woods – a nicer place? What would make you comment more often?

Pick your battles

This SolaPanel post comes at a particularly relevant moment what with all my inner-argumentative-angst navel gazing and debates about what issues are worth fighting for.

  1. Fight for what is right. (truth)
  2. Argue for what will work. (tactics)
  3. And keep quiet about everything else. (preference)

Fight for the God-given Biblical principles, argue for how to put them into practice and just leave all the personality or preference issues up to each person to work out for themselves.  I can hesitate on preference, in a meeting I can even back down on my view of tactics, but I must never back down on truth.

Me, I fight on all three, but care about 1 and 2 almost equally (and interchangeably – the media is the message afterall… Or something like that).

Convicted

I realise that at times I am stubborn, obstinate even, in discussions on this blog. But I really like to argue.

So this is a bind.

There’s at least one person who has exiled themselves from commenting because I’m arrogant.

And that’s convicting.

I do really like to argue – though I have a habit of divorcing myself from the implications of the argument and just enjoying the progressive development of ideas.

I have, as a way of warning prospective commenters, introduced a disclaimer to this site. You should read it. Though it’s annoyingly written in third person…

If you’d like to suggest anything that should be added – do so in the comments… though I may disagree with you…

You should also check out the discussion I’ve been having with Dave about the ACL, government and all that stuff, for an example of an argument where I don’t really believe exactly what I’m arguing, but also disagree with some of the counter-arguments. Feel free to chime in their too…

Frustration

I enjoy a good argument. So much so that I’m able to completely distance myself from the ramifications of taking a particular side in an argument just to see it continue. I am sure other people find this frustrating. Actually, I know for a fact that some people do.

In my mind it’s only when arguing through an issue that you’re truly able to shape your thinking on something – at least that’s how it works for me.

Arguing a point brings clarity to my position because it lets me consider the criticisms of my position and understand the applications of holding to a particular idea. Other people might not approach this the same way. 

Sometimes I find myself reading things that I know will frustrate me for the sheer purpose of entering into an argument – or I’ll bait an issue to create an argument out of it. I’m sure this is also annoying. 

Simone made an interesting point the other day:

“Today I’ve been bored, so bored that I was visiting blogs that annoy me on purpose so that I would get annoyed. Because its more fun to be annoyed than bored.”

I wonder how many people do this. I know I spend a lot of time reading things written by people I disagree with. Probably more time than I spend reading things by people I agree with. And I know too that my hits go up dramatically if I write something controversial that you, my readers, disagree with. 

So now I’m left wondering – should I write things I know will get a bite? It seems people want to bite, and it gives me the opportunity to argue. Or should I write things that there will be consensus on and not actually challenge anyone or anything. I like the first option. Your thoughts?

The danger is that if I go down this path there’s a real chance people will be offended – or caught up in an argument in an emotional sense – if I happen to attack one of their sacred cows. And that’s never really my intention in an argument. Unless I’m arguing about something that I think is a black and white issue, which, for example, climate change and charitable giving is not.

Also – Frustration is the name of a pretty cool card game. You should check it out.