You Brood of Vipers!

As I’ve been preparing to lead a discussion on issues intersecting Science and Christian faith I have been reflecting on the most effective approach to the issues involves. A couple of recent posts have explored this issue: Rules of Engagement and Moving From Debate to Dialogue. The theme of both posts is similar – how to engage productively with a controversial issue in church. I’ve gotten some push back on each posts – in a couple of public comments and in direct messages of one form or another.

Some of the push back has arisen from a misunderstanding, but some arises from a more serious difference in perspective. Two of the more common complaints involve the importance of defending truth and the biblical example of aggressive criticism. These are points to consider – especially their applicability to the questions raised by science and Christian faith.

1. We must defend the truth? An occasional reader had the impression that moving from debate to dialogue or contrasting teaching with engagement was undermining truth. It simply is not true that every position is equally correct – and it is important, the reader asserts, that we not be wishy-washy about this. While I agree with this sentiment, not every issue is clear cut with one and only obvious correct answer. We need to engage in order to pursue truth. But even when the answer is obvious to the expert, a simple proclamation will often fall on deaf ears. We need to engage in order to persuade others of the truth.

top2Several years ago I had a conversation over lunch with some colleagues when the issue of global warming came up. The conversation took a rather common turn, with a scientist expressing dismay, accompanied by a touch of disgust, at the recalcitrance of so many people on the issue of global warming. After all, the reasoning goes, any intelligent person should either learn the science or accept the consensus opinion of those who do know the science and who understand the scientific method of investigation. Truth on these questions is not determined by popular vote or a show of hands. It isn’t simply a matter of belief. It seems rather clear at this point that mankind can influence the climate, and that global warming is real. My colleague is an expert who understands the science. But many Americans (including many readers of this blog) are not going to be convinced by aggressive assertions of truth. It is important to build trust, which allows the other to hear and can eventually sway opinion.

bottom2A comic illustrating the temperature timeline of the earth over the last 22000 years (since the last ice age) was posted earlier this week at xkcd.com. The full image is too long to link or post, but worth a look (xkcd.com). The upper and lower segments are shown to the right. The average temperature of the earth has varied significantly. The changes have been gradual, at least until recently, but have had significant consequences.

If the uptick over the last fifty years or so is caused by human activity (and there is goo reason to think so) then it is an issue about which we should care and on which we should take action. The best course of action will require wisdom and prayer. But somehow dialogue is required to determine truth among those with expertise and this truth must be communicated to a larger audience.

If many people are skeptical of expert opinion when it comes the earth’s temperature and probable trajectory, why would we expect less skepticism on core claims of Christian faith?

Building trust is critical.

To engage in dialog is not a commitment to accept any idea as equally plausible or true – but to listen for understanding and to structure arguments in an atmosphere of trust.

%d7%90%d7%a4%d7%a2%d7%94_%d7%9e%d7%92%d7%95%d7%95%d7%9f-22. Confront error aggressively? I have also had commenters, including one correspondent recently, bring up the approach that Jesus took at times towards the religious elite – the scribes and Pharisees. Certainly he doesn’t mince words as recorded in Matthew 12 or 23. In both passages, proclaiming woe upon these leader he calls them a brood of vipers. “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (12:34) “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:32) (image credit) Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often brought up to illustrate this as well. In 5:12 he writes of the brothers trying to convince the men in the church in Galatia that they needed to be circumcised: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Not exactly gentle language to be sure.

It is interesting, though, that the cases raised generally involve a situation where religious leaders are using their position of power to mislead and oppress others. As a rule, hypocrisy is also plays a large role. There seems little doubt that hypocrisy and oppression are at the center of Jesus’s harangue in Matthew 23.

It may well be appropriate to confront pride and greed and hypocrisy with critical spirit. But it is also important to consider the audience and the desired outcome. Few people take aggressive criticism well from those they do not trust.

When has an aggressively critical approach worked with you, changing your position?

Why did it work?

Certainly, the aggressive approach seems only to result in a hardening of the lines when it comes to issues like biblical manhood and womanhood or egalitarianism. The same is true for most of the issues at the intersection of science and Christian faith. A culture war creates more enemies than converts.

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

You may also comment on You Brood of Vipers! at Jesus Creed.

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One Response to You Brood of Vipers!

  1. The concerns you respond to in this essay are also used in other areas within evangelicalism. For example, I’ve been critiqued by evangelicals for using a dialogical approach to mutlifaith engagement, and the claim is that this is not in keeping with the stern rebuke of Jesus in instances like the Pharisees. My response has been that that’s the wrong text and context for this kind of work in that Jesus offers harsh insiders critique of religious leaders abusing power, but this need not be construed as normative for Christian practice. Beyond that, it does not apply to disagreements and attempts at persuasion outside the community of faith. Regardless, I find it interesting that these are common evangelical theological assumptions that inform discussion over disagreement in a number of areas.

    Lastly, you question the efficacy of an aggressively critical approach in persuasion. You are correct, and this has been demonstrated through studies in social psychology. Evangelicals would do well to develop a deeper theology of communication and persuasion across deep differences that will serve well in understanding, possible persuasion, and living together in peaceful tension despite strong disagreements.

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