Between Jerusalem and Athens: Ending Crappy Conversations

In the posts that I wrote here, here, and here, I wrote about how confusing it is to find a model for Loving and productive dialogue and about some of the consequences of conversing carelessly. Here, I’ve also written about cultivating some humility, so that I can have the “right heart” when I converse with others. In the time that elapsed between the first three posts and the fourth post, I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about what conversing in a way that is pleasing to God would look like.

Fortunately, those thoughts and prayers have been fruitful, and I’ve come up with some prescriptions that I think will be helpful. It is my intention here to outline those prescriptions and to begin to applying them to my writing in the hope that I will learn to apply them to my conversations. The main lesson that I’ve learned is that for any conversation occurring, there is a meta-conversation that needs to be had, i.e., there needs to be a conversation about the topic that will be conversed about.

That meta-conversation needs to contain several questions, one of which is backwards looking. That question is this: Why do you think this way? This question is meant in a non-epistemic sense. The conversation is already concerned with the reasons people give for thinking a certain way regarding a topic. The meta-conversation, on the other hand, is concerned with the experiences that shape our thinking, experiences that are not necessarily turned into propositions that are used to support a given position.

Here’s an example: suppose that someone is arguing against moral objectivism. It may be the case (as I’ve supposed here) that this person may have had a past experience where an objectivist shoved some moral truth down his “philosophical throat.”  Thus, this person may have developed a distaste for objectivists, and thus, a distaste for objectivism. (I am not saying that all non-objectivists had some sort of bad experience with an objectivist and that this is why they are not an objectivist.) Rarely, if ever, will a person offer this past experience as a reason to suppose that objectivism is false, but it is something that is influencing the conversation nonetheless, and the more quickly this is recognized, the better.

Another meta-conversational question is this: Why do you want this to be true? This is, in a sense, a forward looking question. It is forward looking in that it asks us to consider what the conceptual consequences of any particular fact obtaining. Here, there is clearly some non-epistemic factors at play. Often times there are value judgments wrapped up in our world-views. These value judgments can often cloud clear reasoning and can absolutely halt any progress in the conversation.

Suppose that two Christians are arguing about the inerrancy of the bible. Suppose further that one of the individuals wants the bible to be inerrant because he thinks to himself, “If the bible isn’t inerrant, then I must give up my faith, and without my faith, my life is meaningless.” Clearly, this is conversation is less than ideal in this instance. To converse this way is to converse as if the Christian who does not believe that the bible is inerrant pointed a gun and the bible-believing-Christian and said, “Prove me wrong, or I’ll blow your brains out.” For nothing less than that man’s reason for living is at stake in the conversation.

Since I am also concerned with conversing humbly, I must not suppose that I am above these influences. Thus, I must pose these questions to myself: “Why do I think this way?” and  “Why do I want this to be true?” There’s something intentional going on here with the coloring: I plan on color coding certain sentences within any post so that I can see that I am actually having that meta-conversation within my posts. Again, I’m hoping that this will actually help me to pick out these meta-conversational points in real life, and thus, help me to improve my dialogue.

Here’s the color code:

  • dark blue = the backwards looking question
  • light blue = the backwards looking question asked introspectively
  • red = the forward looking question
  • light red = the forward looking question asked introspectively

There’s actually one more piece of the meta-conversation that needs to be outlined and colored.

Past experiences and value judgments often influence more than just the epistemic evaluation of any statement, i.e., the evaluation of that statement regarding its truth value. They can also influence the interpretations of any given text or statement, so the opportunity for misinterpretation is enormous. Unfortunately, we cannot always count on our interlocutor to ask for clarification of any given point. Thus, there must be statements that are dedicated simply to the clarifying of any idea or statement. This can often be accomplished by negative statements (e.g., “When I say this, I am not saying that.”)

Even if a given interlocutor succeeds in properly interpreting a statement or text, they may draw inappropriate conclusions based on any established point, and some of these conclusions can be conceptually catastrophic. Thus, there must be some time dedicated to challenging the logic that leads to these problematic “cousin conclusions,” conclusions that are related to ones that should be drawn but which are themselves inappropriate.

The great thing about these prescriptions is that they do not force me to choose between the dialogue styles of Jerusalem and Athens, something that I was quite concerned about in my first two posts. It matters not if I convey points in a confident and passionate way as though I’ve received some insight from the Divine or if I deliver some point with the caution and coolness of a philosopher. With these prescriptions, it only matters that I am conversing with humility, caution, clarity, and a dedication to finding obstacles to ascertaining the Truth (both in myself and in my interlocutor).

I think that God would be pleased with conversation of this kind, so may I get closer to conversing well, and may I finally be on my way to reducing the amount of crappy conversations in which I find myself.

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