Moving From Debate to Dialogue

ChurchI am preparing to lead a discussion on science and Christian faith this fall as part of a group life offering. As our church is located next door to a major research university, this is a topic of significance in our community and in our church. It is possible to play ostrich and bury our heads in the sand, but this will not help when it comes to having an impact for the gospel in our community. The apparent conflict between science and Christian faith gives many an excuse to avoid any deeper consideration of the claims of Christianity. This is not the only issue – but it is a major issue.

In preparation for this discussion I have been reading material from the Public Conversations Project (PCP). Some of the material doesn’t apply directly to our situation, but most of the general advice remains valid. The most significant is the emphasis on dialogue rather than debate. In a debate the goal is to win, often at all costs. In a dialogue the goal is understanding. It is hard to move forward on any complex and controversial topic when the focus is on the debate rather than understanding. Consider some of the following comparisons, adopted and modified from a PCP table.

Debate Dialogue
Participants tend to propound a carefully crafted position. Participants may or may not be committed to a position.
Atmosphere is threatening. Attacks are expected and permitted. Atmosphere is one of safety. There is an agreement to respect one another even in disagreement on the issues.
Participants speak to represent a group. Participants speak as individuals from their own experience.
Participants speak to the already committed. Participants speak to each other.
Difference within a “side” are denied or minimized. A broader continuum of personal positions are expressed.
Participants express unswerving commitment Both deeply held beliefs and uncertainties are expressed.
Participants listen to refute. Participants listen to understand and gain insight.
Participants aim to win. Participants desire to learn and grow.

Debates are contests with winners and losers. They can be entertaining, but they don’t generally advance they tend to harden the lines. We can also consider other contrasts complementary to the (dialogue vs. debate) such as (teach vs. preach) or (engage vs. deliver). While debate is almost always destructive (even when it is entertaining) the other pairs have pros and cons.

Teaching, Preaching, and Delivery. You can argue with my definitions but I would make these distinctions: Teaching aims at education and discipleship while the primary focus of preaching is persuasion and inspiration. There is a valuable place for preaching in the church. Inspirational preaching can bring people to a position of decision in a manner that more “mundane” teaching cannot. We need good preaching. But we also need teaching designed to grow disciples. Preaching cannot shape mature disciples of Christ in the way that good teaching can and does. Teaching allows for give and take as well as in-depth discussion and dialogue.

A slightly different distinction is found in the classroom. Delivery is focused on lecture and on the presentation of information, engagement is focused on bringing people to understanding. Lecture, like preaching, is a valuable tool. A lecture can be a powerful way to present information and deliver content. I am not one to undervalue a good lecture. But we, as educators, are learning that an opportunity for active engagement is of equal or greater importance. The education that sticks tends to come from active engagement.

At the University I am currently teaching a class that I’ve “flipped.” The student watch lecture segments introducing concepts between class sessions. In class my time is devoted to working through problems with the students. One advantage is that in this format the students can see how I work as a scientist and I gain insight into the concepts that trouble the students. In a traditional lecture class I deliver information and the students figure out how to work through the material on their own, albeit through carefully designed assignments.

Teaching and engagement can go hand-in-hand with productive dialogue. While the PCP doesn’t aim to teach, the principles remain helpful. An openness to dialogue does not mean that we accept every position as equally plausible or equally true. It is certainly possible to engage in dialogue from a position of conviction or expertise. All that is really required is a commitment to basic principles of conversation. Some of the guidelines suggested by the PCP include the following, with my comments added.

  • We will speak for ourselves with no pressure to represent or explain an entire group.

For example, I can’t speak for all professors or all Christian scientists. No one can be expected to speak for all students, musicians, pastors, teachers, mothers, etc. In a dialogue it is important to converse as individuals. Let the social scientists try to make generalizations based on data – and then realize that they are only generalizations within a distribution.

  • We will refrain from making grand pronouncements.

All professors are not atheists intent on converting our youth to secularism and all Christians are not ignorant yokels. Evolution is not synonymous with atheism. It doesn’t forward a productive dialogue to throw in such generalizations.

  • We will refrain from characterizing the views of others in a critical spirit.

This is a big one. It is possible to disagree strongly and to explain why an idea doesn’t seem reasonable to you without a critical spirit. We need to practice patience and gentleness in dialogue.

The apostle Paul should be heeded in all the conversations.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. … Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. (1 Cor 1-2, 4-5)

  • We will listen with resilience.

If someone shares an opinion that hurts you, just “hang in” and listen. This is a lesson I have learned and tried to practice when it comes to discussions of biblical manhood and womanhood and the role of women in church and society.

  • We will share “airtime” and refrain from interrupting others.

The only time it is appropriate to interrupt is if someone cannot be heard or to indicate that some previously agreed upon time limit has been reached.

  • We will maintain the confidentiality of the conversation. In particular we will not attach names or other identifying information to particular comments unless we have the permission to do so. If asked to keep something confidential we will honor the request.

This is a big one. There can be no open dialogue when there is fear of being outed. Most hard questions are at least somewhat controversial. Safety is essential and this requires a level of confidentiality. One can’t always guarantee confidentiality in an open class or meeting setting – but it should be made clear that this is the expectation. In intentional dialogue groups it should be agreed on from the outset.

  • We will avoid making negative attributions about the beliefs, values, and motives of others.

Another big one. For example, I find it frustrating when others suggest that I only accept evolution as God’s method of creation because I am caving to peer pressure; or as a pragmatic strategy for professional advancement. It is equally frustrating to be told that the only reason I remain a Christian is because I am not strong enough to break free from the bonds of my upbringing. I am sure that pastors find it equally frustrating to be accused of taking a position only to avoid ticking off the big donors. Making such accusations and negative attributions will squelch productive dialogue.

This leads to a few questions I would like to throw out for discussion.

Are there any additional agreements that you find facilitate a productive dialogue?

If you’ve led or participated in a discussion on a controversial issue – what worked or didn’t work?

Any advice to help prepare a useful class on science and Christian faith?

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

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