A Matter of Tone and Approach

I (almost) always add an e-mail address to my posts, an opportunity for readers to make more specific (or lengthy) comments or ask questions off-line. I received a several interesting messages last week – and would like to put forth for discussion a composite idea emerging from these disparate sources and from Justin’s post last Friday on doubt.

One of the letters from a reader noted (used with permission, edited for anonymity):

(3) The main point of writing: one enormous obstacle is the general tone of public figures who hold to theistic evolution. Most of my evangelical friends can’t fathom how evolution could be compatible with faith. What’s needed is patient, quiet discussion. What worries me about [some] is the lack of winsome tone and approach (that’s not uniform btw; Falk’s book was excellent, and there’s no problem with the main body of Collins’s Language of God; Waltke, Keller, etc. are gems). I’m wondering how someone like you could use your platform to articulate this problem. In my opinion that is a bigger problem than the [fundamentalist] approach at Southern Seminary. The latter we can overcome via the web, books, etc.; but if the voices available to communicate about science and evolution are not winsome and helpful, but combative and derisive, where does that leave us?

(4) Second main point: … how does Keller’s argument strike you … that we need theistic evolutionists who can work well with others on the spectrum between fundamentalism and atheistic science? If Keller is correct, this would mean that (say) Gilberson’s tone is actually unhelpful and likely to do more harm than good; it may help him get a hearing in the secular sphere, but will be a problem as he tries to communicate to evangelicals.

The argument by Keller referred to here is found in his white paper for BioLogos – you can find it in pdf form on BioLogos or on First Things. I posted on some of Keller’s discussion points last December: Creation and Evolution and Adam and Eve.

The question for today is quite simple (ha!):

When you disagree strongly, and it matters to you deeply — how do you discuss the subject in such a manner that it doesn’t escalate into verbal fisticuffs? What are the most important factors in making it a genuine conversation instead of a polemical debate?

Think about it…

How should we, as Christians, approach controversial topics?

The question raised in this e-mail is part of a broader question – and perhaps at the root of some of Justin’s question from last Friday. In a Christian setting do we gain anything at all of value from a posture of dogmatic certainty? Does such a posture simply box us in and inhibit both personal spiritual growth and the broader spread of the gospel?

Lets take the questions involved in the discussion over a young vs. old earth.

I am convinced that the earth is much older than a literal historical reading of Genesis 1-3 is taken to imply. This isn’t a dogmatic certainty – it is a certainty based on a general familiarity with the strength of the evidence. If someone actually comes up with a convincing argument for the data within a young earth construct I will reconsider – but I will also subject the argument to a stringent test.

I am also convinced at this point that a young earth is not required by Christian theology or an understanding of scripture as the inspired Word of God. But this is a topic worth serious thought. We need a conversation that aims forward to the goal – which is a better understanding and living theology that manifests itself in our practice as Christians. I welcomed Dr. Mohler’s original speech in this regard because it put forth grounds for his position and thus offered an opportunity to respond to the real issues. He did not put forth his views in a dogmatic or condemnatory fashion. Challenging and responding to his statements is not a sign of disrespect, but actually, within the body of the church a sign of respect for a brother. It is a necessary exercise. Again, I am more than willing to consider arguments that counter my current position – but such ideas and arguments will be put to stringent test. Expect me to come back and poke at weakness, and I expect the same from those who consider my arguments and positions.

The same is true of Intelligent Design.

I am more ambivalent about ID than YEC. There are arguments, especially arguments of philosophy and epistemology that are well worth discussion and ID brings this to the table. But here it is even harder to carry on a useful conversation – tone and approach gets in the way. I will not single out individuals – but the guilt is distributed rather evenly in my opinion. If we can come to the table and talk critically, the church will benefit. But this means following Dr. Alexander’s admonition, (not to mention Scot’s frequent refrain) and realizing that we must all deal honestly with opposing views in a form that their proponents themselves would recognize as consistent with their view. This means that we must listen (really listen and try to understand) before responding.

This isn’t a debate or a competition – there are no winners or losers – no one is keeping score – there are only brothers and sisters looking for truth.

And this brings me to my last point – Is the gospel of Jesus Christ something we are trying to protect or something we are trying to share?

Kathyrn Applegate had a post Sunday, Sin in the Church, well worth consideration. In this post she relates a conversation she had with a fellow scientist open to consideration of the gospel.

My friend is a scientist. The other day I asked her if she would have considered Christianity at all if I had told her she had to believe the earth was only 10,000 years old. “No way!” she answered. What she said next surprised me: “People who say things like that are the same ones who say hateful things on the Internet.” We had previously been discussing an unpleasant interaction she had had with a fellow commenter on a Christian website. Being new to the faith, she had asked an honest question, but the person responded harshly, throwing Bible verses around like hand grenades.

The idea of a young earth isn’t what caused my friend’s strong reaction; we both agreed she could have had the same experience with someone from the Evolutionary Creation perspective.

Perhaps the evolutionary creationist would not throw as many bible grenades – but there are other equally deadly devices in the arsenal. Intellectual arrogance can breed contempt. The e-mail I quoted in the introduction noted that the general tone of public figures who hold to theistic evolution is a serious obstacle to the acceptance of evolutionary biology among evangelical Christians. I think this is absolutely true. And I submit that the reverse is also true. The general tone of public figures who hold to young earth creation or Intelligent Design is a serious obstacle to the acceptance of the gospel in our broader, increasingly secular, culture.

Dr. Applegate turned to 1 John 4 in her essay highlighting the need for love. I will turn to Paul – in perhaps his most famous chapter.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:1-7)

I think the science and faith discussion is of significant importance in our day and age. Having the right answer is irrelevant to salvation, justification, judgment, or even sanctification. But searching for answers to the profound challenges and questions of our day is important for the spread of the gospel and for the spiritual growth of many. We need to face the questions squarely and openly. But if we have not love, and if this love is not transparent in the way we treat others, from the words we use to the integrity with which we deal with their ideas, it profits us nothing – both individually as Christians and corporately as a church. Even if we are 100% right it profits us nothing.

Post script. After writing this post I read a post by Justin reflecting on his post from last Friday. The comments below the post – and one in particular, from a person struggling with issues of faith (many of us have been in this position at one time or other) – drove the whole subject of today’s post home with even more force: “for if I was doing research solely on the big blogs like Jesus Creed or Biologos,” the commenter wrote, “I probably would have given up by now, and if anything, the level of discussion on these blogs is probably converting some to become angry atheists.” (emphasis added)

You can disagree with me and argue with me all you want – I aim for a real discussion, not simply the opportunity to hear myself think. But I will also ratchet up the moderation of comments a notch (read 1 Cor. 13 or 1 John 4 again).

What do you think? How should we, as Christians, approach controversial topics – evolution, creation, Intelligent Design, … complementarianism, egalitarianism, … Obama?

What does it mean to love a brother or sister with whom we have significant disagreement?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit A Matter of Tone and Approach at Jesus Creed

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