Civility in the public square (II): Seeing across worldviews  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,


Just to be sure we are communicating as clearly as possible, I’ll start by defining the terms I’m using here. Every person has a worldview. A worldview is the basic assumptions, beliefs and values a person has adopted over the years, consciously or subconsciously as being true and good. All our knowing, doing and feeling is intimately interlaced in our worldview, and its content produces the answers we tend to give to the most important questions of life, reality and death. Our worldview shapes our life, and defines our perspective on things.

Hopefully that is not controversial. I do not mean it to be. Assuming it isn’t, let me suggest a few modest proposals linking the lack of civility in the public square with the notion of worldviews.

Proposal #1: Different worldviews tend to lead to different conclusions. This can involve differing—even conflicting—conclusions about everything from the proper goal of government, to lifestyles, to the definition of the common good, to the identity of superstition, to the meaning of marriage, to you name it. Again, not very controversial.

Proposal #2: Speaking effectively across worldviews is immensely, amazingly difficult. For one thing, an idea that in my worldview is beloved, obvious, and sacred may appear in another worldview to be irrational, inconceivable, and dangerous. In order to truly communicate the speakers must engage one another on levels far deeper than the idea being debated, and that takes unhurried time, trust, and a willingness to both listen and accept challenges to our own worldview. It can’t be done in slogans, debates, or brief commentaries designed to maintain a media audience. Again, I don’t see this as very controversial, but there it is.

Proposal #3: Of all people, Christians should understand proposal #2. Some of us experienced the stunning reversal of having to radically change worldviews when we came to faith. The rest of us know how hard repentance is, how resistant we are to facing the hidden idolatries in our hearts, and how difficult it is to drop ideas when shown in Scripture they are legalisms or hypocritical or simply devoid of grace. But we forget. Because something is obvious to us, it must be obvious to everyone, and to make it so, we believe that speaking more loudly will do the trick. And to reassure ourselves, we summarize our opponent’s position in a way that gets a laugh from our side, apparently assuming that whatever is laughable to us is simply laughable. A bit more controversial, I suppose, but fairly easily defended I think.

Proposal #4: If we—I am referring to Christians, here—if we are not engaged in the sort of conversation that involves unhurried time, the intentional building of trust, and a willingness to both listen and accept challenges to our own worldview, we should remain silent in the public square. If you need a biblical reason, how about 1 Corinthians 13—the reason being that we should never choose to be a clanging, clattering gong before the watching world. OK, this is the controversial one, so I’d like to know what you think. (But wouldn’t it be a relief?)

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15 comments

Thanks, Denis, for calling a spade a spade. Too often we are (the first person usage is quite intended) "a clanging, clattering gong before the watching world." As is often the case when dealing with someone who doesn't "speak the language," we (inexplicably) think that talking more loudly will somehow bridge the communication gap.

No doubt, the ability to really listen to, and critically interact with, the ideas of others (no matter how ridiculous those ideas seem in our worldview) is an exercise we all can (and should) work on.

August 2, 2010 at 1:16 PM
pam box  

good conclusions. this certainly rings home to the reality we live in on the mission field where a less hurried lifestyle lends itself to digging deeper on often-times controversial topics. i have found that even if we speak the same language, many times we mean very different things.... utilizing the same vocabulary. my favorite question is: "and what exactly do you mean by that?" this is exponentially multiplied when living in a different culture and utilizing a second language.

August 2, 2010 at 1:19 PM

We come to the public square as whole persons, just as we come as whole persons to every other human endeavor. Civility in discourse is in short supply. My concern is that there are already many voices telling me that I should not bring my voice to the public square since it is a "religious" voice. I would encourage all to participate, and to practice civility rather than to suggest that some should be excluded.

August 2, 2010 at 1:47 PM

One of the best applications of your principles I've ever witnessed was at a dinner I hosted which included Phil Johnson and Steve Weinberg, two intelligent men whose worldviews couldn't be more dissimilar. Phil was relentlessly firm and gracious throughout. After the meal when I complimented him on how well he'd handled a difficult situation, he said something I'll always remember: "In a situation like this I try to remember that I want him to want to talk to me the next time he sees me."

August 2, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Hey Denis. Love your thoughts. I'm going to use this when I teach this year. I teach AP Human Geography and we discuss world views in depth because of how they lead someone to make decisions. The buzz word is cosmogeny and I love saying it! It just rolls off the tongue...plus it makes me sound smart! It truly is amazing how students react sometimes when they are challenged to think about this cosmogeny. I sometimes hear audible responses like, "wow" or "really?" Fun stuff! Love to ya'll!

August 2, 2010 at 4:45 PM

Pete: appreciate your thoughtful post.

Pam: I agree--refusing to assume we know what someone means is a good habit to develop.

Brian: sorry if I was not clear. I am not excluding anyone's voice, but arguing that Christians have a reason to hold themselves to a high standard.

Greg: good standard.

Scott: I'm glad the post will serve double duty.

August 2, 2010 at 6:53 PM
TJ Campo  

Thanks, Denis. I'm so happy to commend this to friends, Christians and non-Christians. Your thoughts not only help me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, to better conduct myself in discourse with others, it also sets a path by which Christians might gain some lost credibility in the national conversation. What's more: if Christians actually took on this civil tone, it might demonstrate that we actually believe the Gospel has power to convince and change people. By not relying on our hot-air and the sheer volume of our rhetoric we might help people to see the power of God. I keep remembering the passage speaking of Jesus, "He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice". Isaiah 42.2-3

August 2, 2010 at 8:00 PM
TJ Campo  

Thanks, Denis. I'm so happy to commend this to friends, Christians and non-Christians. Your thoughts not only help me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, to better conduct myself in discourse with others, it also sets a path by which Christians might gain some lost credibility in the national conversation. What's more: if Christians actually took on this civil tone, it might demonstrate that we actually believe the Gospel has power to convince and change people. By not relying on our hot-air and the sheer volume of our rhetoric we might help people to see the power of God. I keep remembering the passage speaking of Jesus, "He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice". Isaiah 42.2-3

August 2, 2010 at 8:02 PM

May I quote you in a talk I am giving to my students on Friday? This will serve so well.

August 2, 2010 at 8:35 PM

TJ: Thanks for your kind words.

Sandra: Of course you may quote me--I am honored.

Anonymous: Yes, or worse, love of political ideology over people.

August 3, 2010 at 7:44 AM

I appreciate that you've put these proposals in writing. It's so good to have this thumbnail awareness at the forefront of our minds when communicating with others. They are extremely helpful in pulling 'I/ME/MINE' out of the center of the conversation and promoting irenicism across the varied world views. This would allow a fragrance of Christ to be enjoyed rather than the stench of my own pet positions being flogged, (or the impression of it).
Thank you Denis.

August 3, 2010 at 8:50 AM
Heather  

The challenge is to use that civility to convince the clanging gongs that they are actually clanging. It is hard to reason with people who are screaming at you.

August 3, 2010 at 9:56 AM
Anonymous  

Thank you so much for this helpful post. This is helpful for Christians and non as well. The final concept is one I have long wished to articulate. I think it is well said, and it is clear to me that you are not excluding some Christians from the public arena. As I understand it, you are setting up some helpful parameters. I think it is appropriate to really invest time into a dialogue. I don't feel excluded when I realize I am not in a position to speak; I am compelled to dig deeper, so I will be able to contribute in a meaningful way. (On a good day that is.)
~Cassandra

August 3, 2010 at 11:09 AM

Denis--
This is great! I was going to say this is obvious--but I guess that is the point--it's not, unfortunately.

August 4, 2010 at 2:13 PM

By the way, I think your photo illustration in this post is perfect.

August 5, 2010 at 4:07 AM

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