Why did I decide to focus this year’s Re-Mind & Re-New on the topic of civil discourse? The reasons might seem obvious, given that our capacity to talk with any but our own in-group is about as narrow as any time since the Civil War. But why should a seminary sponsor a conference on this topic? Because I believe Christians have a moral obligation to foster civil discourse. Robust, vital, civil discourse is one of the ways humankind can keep sin at bay.
By civil discourse, I mean conversation, discussion, argument and debate about matters of vital importance conducted in a manner so that the better angels of our natures are strengthened and violence is held at bay. I believe that words—using them truthfully, with care, listening to them attentively and fairly—are humankind’s major alternative to violence in settling disputes. Without civil discourse, we settle differences violently. What do school teachers say? “Use your words…”
Yes, I’m old school when it comes to sin. I believe sin is breaking relationship and living in broken relationship. I have often thought of Reinhold Niebuhr’s assertion that original sin is the only empirically provable Christian doctrine. Sin is crouching in our homes and social settings, wanting to master us. The physical layout of the brain brain only strengthens my belief that sin is nigh. The amygdala and the amphibian brain’s fear and fight response can overpower the brain’s “higher functions,” and even employ words for violent ends.
Employing our higher functions for violent ends is exactly what happens when discourse is uncivil. When argument degenerates into name-calling, taking score, and so distorting the words of the other that one bears false witness, then civil society itself is threatened with barbarism. With discourse that is uncivil, we lose trust in the power of speech and strengthen the hands of those who think talking is for wimps.
I am convinced that Christians, unwittingly or not, contribute to the uncivil tone of American discourse through a category mistake: treating public discourse as if the discourse is about dogma rather than politics. Dogma deals in fundamental, unchanging truths, about which it is hard if not impossible to compromise. Winners often call losers “heretics” and themselves “orthodox.” Politics deals with the art of the possible, about matters that could be other than what they are. Compromise is a part of the game, as is the absolute necessity not to create permanent majorities or minorities. Opponents are worthy adversaries, rather than heretics.
Christians have a moral obligation to speak the truth in love, to seek to understand and to listen fairly. The people who are speaking at this year’s R&R Conference are attempting to speak and listen in this way. I hope you’ll join us and that you will leave with a strengthened capacity and a deeper desire to contribute to civil discourse, whether in civic or religious communities.
- Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend