It's Good to Talk!
The purpose of dialogue
Stuart (TFT): So Stefan, we’re talking today about dialogue. In particular, we’re looking at it in the context of differing views on what the Bible says about sexual morality. What do you see as the purpose of dialogue?
Stefan (S): Well, you are seeking to win people to Christ, not just winning a point in a conversation. You could present the most fantastic case for belief in Christ but do so in a way that isn’t helpful. You’re seeking both to help the person understand the reasons for your belief and help them further reflect on their own position.
TFT: The Bible says in 1 Peter 3:15 that we should always be ready with a reason for the hope that we have. That might be a bit daunting for some people to think they’ve got to justify rationally every belief that they have and not just believe it because they may have grown up with it.
S: Well, I think it offers the challenge for our generation actually. It’s a call to return to the grounding of our faith and to realise that our faith has a foundation. We stand on solid ground and we need to understand what that ground consists of.
TFT: So it sounds like when we reason with others we speak both to the other person and to our own souls. In articulating what we believe, we test and clarify our arguments and the understanding of why we hold to these beliefs.
Good dialogue... is based on reason
S: As I’ve been thinking about dialogue, I realise that it’s actually had a bad write-up for quite a number of years. I’m not sure exactly why that’s the case - I think it has become conflated with the idea of interfaith dialogue. And behind that idea was that through conversation and “dialogue” some form of compromise and shaky agreement would be reached, which would allow people to live in peace with one another.
And that’s a real misunderstanding of the nature of dialogue and it makes a number of assumptions. One is that dialogue leads basically to compromise. Secondly, there’s the assumption that reason is always going to win in some form or another - that we can reason our way into agreement and that’s going to be the how things work. And, thirdly, that the outcome of a good dialogue has to always be harmony and agreement - that there needs to be a sort of sense of “We’re all really in this together, aren’t we?” That’s a real misunderstanding about dialogue.
Dialogue seems to have had a long history. In the third and fourth centuries BC, the philosophers really saw dialogue as a way of learning, as a means of understanding another’s position - by digging into it and exploring what assumptions were behind their viewpoint. They sought to bring those assumptions to the surface through questioning, through listening to the responses and digging further in. Their intention was not so much reaching a final agreement about something, but rather ending the process by knowing more and understanding more.
So I see dialogue as a relational two-way process where people listen carefully to what the other person is saying and then responding by making the case for why they believe what they believe. So, it’s not just about people saying, “Well, I believe this, and you believe that.” It’s about saying, “What’s the reasoning behind that belief and where does it come from?”
Now this assumes of course a reasoned environment where there’s the opportunity for a to-ing and fro-ing. I think part of why dialogue has suffered over the last 10 to 20 years is that the forms of media people have used have been less face-to-face and less through a reasoning process – they’ve been more through shouting at one another: “This is what I believe, why don’t you believe it? This is the obvious truth - you should come over to my side.” And that has led to the tensions around the nature of dialogue.
TFT: So practising respectful dialogue goes beyond each person simply stating their stance. It shows for each person how what they believe is congruent with their wider understanding of the world. Although there might be difference between the two people, each person gets an opportunity to explain how it fits into their wider perspective.
S: Yes, and it gives reason a place. It doesn’t exclude personal testimony and story. It’s rare that you’ll have a dialogue with someone in the way I first described it, in terms of that more formal exploration of reasoning. You’ll also bring in your own story, but I think there’s a need to be cautious with our own story and our own tales. In our culture, people will often tend to go to personal experience and feeling and say, “Well I feel it’s right. I feel it’s important that everyone has the opportunity for sexual intimacy,” whereas, actually, we have a whole host of reasons given to us by God as to why that’s not appropriate and why it’s indeed sinful. We should be able to use the Scriptures and to evidence our assertions from Scripture, not just solely from our feelings or our beliefs.
Good dialogue... is well prepared
S: Let’s consider having dialogue with someone who’s, say, pro same-sex marriage or who says, “I’m a Christian but I think it’s important that people have an opportunity for love.” I think there are six or seven basic questions or points that people from that position will make to us. We can therefore be quite prepared ourselves in responding to those points when they come.
I think it is about work, it’s about preparation, it’s about understanding the Scriptures and being convinced yourself of the rightness of God’s Word in these particular areas. It’s about being able to handle the Scriptures as well and being able to interpret verses in their right context. We need to have an overview of Bible teaching.
Good dialogue... begins with listening
S: In the example of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus listened to what her needs were. Good dialogue begins with listening - not coming at it with, “I’ve got a list of things I’m going to tell you about.” He listened to the needs of the woman. The woman was interested in having a sort of religious dialogue with him at one point: “Well, you say you worship here and we worship over here. What do you think?”
But Jesus invited her to go beyond that and to move into what were her real needs, what were her heart needs, her soul needs. And I think that’s something to be aware of when talking to people who want a dialogue or even an argument with you. We need to look behind their questions and statements and look at what their needs are as a human being.
We can’t judge whether or not they’ve been converted or not. We might have an idea, but we’re there to help them get behind the question they’re asking. So, the questions behind the question about same-sex marriage, for example, are often, “Did God really say this? Can we believe what God has said? Can we believe in God? Can we know God? Is God’s Word the truth?” So, in listening, we’re not just listening to the topic presented. We’re also listening to heart needs, the concerns of the soul of the individual.
So listening is where dialogue begins rather than approaching it as a form of verbal evangelistic tract, which you might hand to someone else to say, “Well, I think you might have this question. Here’s my reason why I believe that’s wrong.” We must respect that the other person holds a set of beliefs for all sorts of reasons. And then we can seek the opportunity in the dialogue to be clear about why you believe what you believe and the basis for that.
Good dialogue... meets the other person where they are
S: We need to think about Paul’s approach as described in the book of Acts. So, for the Apostle Paul, dialogue was his basic approach. In Acts 17:2-4 we read about him going to the synagogue in Thessalonica.
As was his custom, he found a place where he could have a dialogue, where he knew people would come at him with a range of questions about his beliefs. And he could then reason with them, he could explain, he could prove to them.
TFT: And we also read in Acts about Paul going to places outside his own religious tradition to places like Athens and reasoning with people from completely different backgrounds. He took an interest in their culture and found poetry and inscriptions that could connect his beliefs to what they already understood of the world. This meant he could build bridges into a dialogue that was respectful and meaningful to them.
Good dialogue... is done with gentleness and respect
S: I think one important aspect of biblical teaching on this is the idea of gentleness and respect. So participating in dialogue is demonstrating the love of Christ to someone. As well as the words we use, the way we conduct ourselves communicates something important about what we believe.
So, people might get angry with what we say, they might really be angry and the Bible does make people angry. After all, we ourselves were at one time angry with what God said.
But if we consistently act with gentleness and respect, people can’t justifiably say, “I’m opposed to it because of your behaviour or the way you did it or how you spoke to me.”
TFT: So, our persuasiveness goes beyond just the coherence of our arguments: the integrity of our lines is part of that as well. Thank you, Stefan, for a very interesting discussion today.
This interview was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.