Theory over practice? Part III

Last post I gave the example of a Christian parent who is sorting out a difficulty for her child. The child’s friend is saying that the earth was not created in six days but evolved over 4 billion years. The children have discussed this a few times and looked at some science books. Her child does not appear bullied but is confused and seems upset, and the other parent is willing to talk about it.

I argued that how Christians engage on such matters depends on what their communities have modelled for them in similar situations. So when dealing with perspectives that contradict (or especially seem to threaten) the Christian faith, Christian communities typically respond not with dialogue but with dispute. I further noted that one popular model of engagement is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Expressed positively, being boundary-focused means categorizing neighbours and newcomers to the community as either insiders or outsiders in order best to interact with them and, if necessary, protect the community from them. Being boundary-focused is one way to manage the competing needs of growing your membership while preserving your values and identity.

So how does this apply to our example?

Well, in situations involving everyday problems my interest is coming to an effective solution, so long as it appears both ethical and feasible. I will know that the solution is effective if it resolves the issue in a fitting manner (in this example, a mended friendship or curtailed bullying), and if all parties agree to carry it out (it is feasible) and are respected in the process (it is ethical).

But in particularly “Christian” situations—situations bearing on or challenging my faith, whether tacitly or openly—my goal is not longer effectiveness but truth. Also, because Christians will now perceive God to be more directly involved this will reconfigure the ethical considerations (for God must certainly be respected too) and the notion of feasibility (both because “with God all things are possible” and because “the world will hate us for the sake of Christ”).

In other words, when Christians perceive God to be more directly to involved this changes the “rules of engagement.”  As a Christian in such contexts I see myself as responsible for affirming the truth (and so assuring that God is respected) and realizing that doing so has costs (recognizing that non-Christians will likely disagree and may feel hostility toward me because of my views). More pointedly, these new rules of engagement only become intensified where my church upbringing has trained me to confront disagreement or disbelief in Christianity with dispute (rather than dialogue).

So how does this play out?

Well, both my personal experience and my academic research show that, when confronted with a situation where they perceive their faith to be threatened (or sometimes even questioned) Christians experience tension. The tension is caused by two conflicting motivations.

On the one hand, as I noted last post, there is a desire to approach the matter just like other situations: discussing the matter so that both parties understand each other and thereby coming to a solution to which they all agree and by which they all feel respected. On the other hand, there is a sense that one’s Christian duty is to prioritize and protect the truth of Christianity and one’s own Christian identity, and that adopting / enforcing a boundary-focused stance is the best way to do this.

Thus because commitment to God is the primary goal for Christians, so they redefine the elements of a good solution (effectiveness, ethics, and feasibility) accordingly.

“Effectiveness” becomes that which preserves or promotes God’s truth, “ethics” means prioritizing what best respects / serves God, and “feasibility” is that which would be most broadly endorsed by their Christian community, with considerations for all other parties being secondary.

The effect?

The other party is marginalized. In a debate, one does not seek to learn from the other side but to defeat them. Where God’s interests are essential (and surely God’s interests must be the most important) then all other interests are at best optional. Where ethics concern preserving or promoting God’s position or Christian views, other views are simply unimportant. And where feasibility is what the church community supports, being swayed by the responses of the other party appears irrational and perhaps even dangerous.

So Christians have switched from engaging in a dialogue that seeks consensus and values people to performing a monologue-like debate that seeks to defeat the other party’s perspective, deprioritizes their worth, and anticipates their unwillingness to participate in our solutions.  And they have done so for the sake of truth, the sake of respecting God, and the sake of preserving the identity and integrity of their communities.

My view on this?

Simply put: too much ‘truth’, too little love (for others, oneself, and God).  And all based on a rather questionable understanding of ‘truth’ at that.  Next post draws on our previous discussion of scepticism and suspicion and prepares the way for re-situating theory and practice.

Theory over Practice? Part II

When it comes to dealing with everyday situations—whether seeking or giving advice—my aim is to meet the goals effectively, provided that this is done in a way that seems both ethical and possible.

So I value “what works,” providing that the solution seems like it would be feasible to carry out and affords good treatment to all parties. The tricky part is that, for Christians, there are actually two sets of rules, depending on the situation: a) the normal, everyday rules and b) the Christian rules. And further, that these rules have contradictory aims and boundaries.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s pretend that I am a parent who needs to sort out a dispute between my child and another. Let’s also pretend that the other parent is involved and also wants to sort this out. So the four of us sit down to discuss the matter.

In an everyday situation my overall goals will depend on certain criteria. So if the other child is my child’s friend (and I have no immediate concerns with how they treat each other or the sort of activities that they tend to engage in) then I will aim to patch up the friendship. I will broker discussion, assuage the other parent’s potential concerns, and look for options that allow the relationship to be mended and the friendship to resume. Or if it seems like one child has mistreated the other then I will aim to suggest appropriate boundaries and work with the other parent to implement limits to access and behaviour.

In any case, a key factor to a successful outcome is all parties sharing roughly the same goals.

Thus where they are effective, solutions to everyday situations tend to have shared goals and be marked by a collaborative approach that values all participants (ethics) and can count on all parties to assure the decided outcome (feasibility).

What happens though, in the same setting, if I am a Christian and the issues at hand have a particular bearing on my Christian beliefs? My experience is that, for many Christians, this changes matters significantly. So let’s take the above situation and instead pretend my child’s friend has been telling him or her that the earth was not created in six days but in 4 billion years. They have had a few discussions about it and have been looking at some science books on the subject. My child is not feeling bullied or mistreated but is confused and has sometimes seemed upset.

This new situation does not simply represent a challenging conversation that, like the last one, I may be unaccustomed (and so unskilled) at having. Instead it represents subject matter that my church upbringing has trained me not to discuss but to debate.  In other words, where I was previously prepared to dialogue—however awkward—I have instead been prepared to dispute.

And that changes everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that churches train Christians to debate with those who do not share their views. In fact, churches (and even seminaries) typically offer no communication training at all, other than basic apologetics. Instead my point is that based on how they engage with “outsiders,” whether Christian or not, our churches model certain types of interaction.  A popular one is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Boundary-focused engagement has two goals.

First, to categorize neighbours and newcomers as either insiders or outsiders, in order to know how best to interact with them. Second to foster and, if necessary, protect the people and values of the community. Being boundary-focused is a way of managing the complexity faced by communities that seeks membership from outsiders while still wishing to preserve their identity.

Managing this complexity means being attentive to who is in the community, who enters or exits the community, and why.  So this approach acts as a manner of “gate-keeping” that is very effective at preserving minimum standards of behaviour and interaction, as well as defending against potential threats. This approach values membership in the Christian community and uses membership information as the basis for how to communicate, what expectations and “rules of engagement” to set (and with whom), and simply how much to trust the various parties in or near the community.  It also implies that mismanaging this membership can be problematic and even dangerous.

Next post I examine how such an orientation might effect our parenting example, above.