On Crappy Conversations (Part 1)

Conversations are often frustrating and counter-productive. Conversations about ethics, philosophy, religion, and politics are particularly incendiary. Indeed, politics and religion are sometimes explicitly forbidden as topics of dinner conversation.  These topics are arguably the most important things we could be talking about, and unfortunately we often seem unable to discuss them in any meaningful way.

This is particularly troubling since I have recently come to realize that successfully loving others is inextricably tied to how successful one’s epistemic practices are (i.e., practices aimed at gaining knowledge about the world, others, etc.). Thus, if we are serious about love, we must be serious about “getting our facts straight.” Genuine and productive dialogue certainly couldn’t hurt our attempts to do this.

But how exactly do we take steps towards this kind of dialogue? Since I am someone who is a big fan of Jesus, I tend to look in his direction when I am looking for normative guidance. There is a tension, however, between the ideal that I find in the gospels and the ideal that I am inclined to currently.

The gospel writers portrayed Jesus as an individual who had special access to divine knowledge. It is understandable, then, that Jesus would also be portrayed as an individual who dogmatically and dialectically dominates the dialogues in which he finds himself an interlocutor. Consider, for example, these texts for each of these points respectively:

John 3: 31He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand…

Matthew 23:23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

It seems that the two common readings of these sorts of texts both result in unsatisfactory answers to this question: “How would God want us to talk about how to be better human beings?”

On one view, the second text contains some rather bold and insulting language that some Christians should not use when they are addressing “sinful” others. This language, according to this view, is reserved for Jesus, the infallible judge. As Borg rightly points out, if we see Jesus as a sort of super-man-God in this instance, then Jesus’ actions fail to be of any guidance for us. In sum, this view cannot easy point to Jesus as providing an answer to the above question.

Another view (one that is perhaps more supported by the synoptic gospels’ picture of Jesus) is that the second text contains language and actions that are exemplary. This view at least provides an answer to the question. The problem is that the answer is ridiculous: we are privy to divine-moral laws and we ought to be telling everyone how wrong they are and how right we are. This sort of answer supports the bible thumping folk that like to call everyone on my campus masturbating hoes as they walk by. This is perhaps a bearable consequence of this view, but there is something else that is even more troubling…

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