Chris Stedman is by all accounts an interesting young man. He describes himself as “an atheist and an interfaith activist,” and “a former evangelical Christian.”

Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. He is also a contributor to Huffington Post and Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University.

Recently at Huffington Post Stedman offered six potentially helpful “Tips for Christians on Talking to Non-Christians”.

Here are Stedman’s six tips with an abbreviated version of his advice, followed by my reflection on how these tips might, or might not, be helpful in a challenging conversation. For Chris Stedman’s whole post see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-stedman/6-tips-for-christians-on-talking-to-non-christians_b_2881220.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

1. Drop the stereotypes.

If you want people to see you as more than just your label, you’re going to have to do the same for them. Not just when it’s easy — when people seem to be similar to you — but in every case.

2. Don’t try to “win” the argument.

… a little intellectual humility can go a long way — particularly when trying to discuss difficult issues. Debates often descend into shouting matches where neither side is listening or trying to understand, but is instead attempting to defend a position. Whenever possible, try to see things from the other person’s point of view and empathize with their perspective, even if you don’t think it’s legitimate.

3. Speak for yourself.

… a more robust conversation can unfold when you seek to find the intersections between your beliefs and experiences and another person’s, and when you speak for yourself instead of on behalf of all Christians.

4. Highlight the diversity among Christians.

Creating more space for various expressions of Christianity, and demonstrating that Christian communities can be a welcoming place for people with alternate viewpoints, will go a long way toward deconstructing (the obviously unfair) conceptions of Christianity as one-note.

5. Acknowledge privilege and don’t try to force others to live by a certain moral code.

Freedom of religion is t he backbone of a civil society. You are free to disagree with others’ choices, and to say so, but all citizens should be granted equal rights.

6. Talk — and listen — to people about more than just their salvation status.

Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

Unfortunately for Christians at the moment, our most difficult conversations are not between Christian and Non-Christian. Our most challenging dialogue is within the church.

In the Worldwide Anglican Communion, the church to which I belong, we have struggled for the past 25 years to continue an apparently irreconcilable conversation across vast national and cultural boundaries.

How do you hold together people whose deepest most authentic life experience, history, and cultural identity, have led them to diametrically opposed views on a contentious topic. In the Anglican church we have a group of people who believe that same-gender intimacy is a blessing and a gift to be celebrated with all the same dignity and merit as heterosexual relationships. We have another group who believe that the idea of any same-gender sexual intimacy is “an abomination”?

These are not stereotypes (see Stedman’s tip #1). They are real sincerely held incompatible positions. It is difficult to forge common ground between these two stances. The people in these opposing camps simply disagree. No matter how much they talk, no matter what evidence either side proposes, neither side appears able to compromise.

Our problem is not that we necessarily lack the skills of conversation. Our problem is that we are attempting to hold together two groups who cannot hear one another and who see no possibility of reconciliation between their opposing views. Neither the “It’s a blessing” members of our church nor the “It’s an abomination” people can imagine any middle ground on which they might meet.

We are at an intractable impasse. There does not seem to be anyway forward.

Conversation is all very well; but, in any organization at some point someone is going to have to make a decision. And, when there are only two mutually opposed positions on the table, when a decision is made, one side wins and the other side loses. That’s the end of Mr. Stedman’s point #2.

Mr. Stedman’s point #3 could help. But, in the end, the lived experience of the people in these opposed camps has brought them to different places. With the best will in the world and with deep sincerity, these two points of view are mutually exclusive. Neither side is necessarily being bloody-minded about their convictions. They have just come to opposite conclusions on a contentious issue.

The diversity within the Christian church is profound (see #4). Our problem is that in a community that hopes to maintain any coherent sense of identity and to forge even a minimally consistent community life, there must be some limits to our diversity. As soon as we impose any parameters to define the operation of our communal interactions, someone is defined outside the circle.

#5 – “don’t try to force others to live by a certain moral code.”

Of course Mr. Stedman does not actually mean this. Any society that refused “to force others to live by a certain moral code” would dissolve into chaos. The police force and the justice system exist solely for the purpose of forcing “others to live by a certain moral code.”

#6 – “perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

This could certainly help. But, at the end of the day, learning “how to talk to and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner,” may still leave us with our disagreement. When a decision is made, those who feel unable to live with the decision will hopefully find that there remains enough common ground for them to overlook their distaste at the choice that has been made and continue in their common life together. If they genuinely feel they cannot remain, those who do stay must release their fellow pilgrims with as much grace and gentleness as they can manage.

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