I enjoy good discussions. On almost any topic. Although my aging body no longer allows some physical activities I once enjoyed, I haven’t lost my love of a lively discussion. Yet.
Along the way, though, I’ve learned that there are many ways of destroying a discussion -- from saying too much to saying too little.
Still, in my experience, the most pernicious fault is dragging in an external authority. Perhaps a quotation from a famous writer. A statement from a scientist, ripped out of context. A dictionary definition.
Or selected verses from the Bible.
Especially, perhaps, from the Bible. Because the Bible can be used to support almost any stance, from slavery to prostitution, from genocide to a flat earth. The same is probably true for the Qur’an, the Hindu Upanishads, and the Analects of Confucius. They were never written as reasoned arguments for a unified worldview.
Relying on authority
Whatever the source, the authority is expected to squelch contrary opinions. Even if those authorities lived long before, say, quantum physics. Genetic mapping. Calculus.
Reliance on external authorities poses two problems.
First, the only way to refute one authority is to quote a different authority. Discussion then devolves into “My authority can beat your authority…”
Second, treating past figures as authorities denies them the right to learn and grow. They wrote out of a particular time and situation. Would they write the same thing today? Use the same analogies? The same reasoning?
If they were radical back then, would they still defend ideas that have become conventional now?
Besides, what makes you think Nietzsche would want to support you anyway?
Speak from experience
A few years ago, I led a study group in which one member always -- always! -- produced a Bible verse as the final word on any subject. It was usually also judgemental.
In desperation, I devised some guidelines for more open discussion. Even I was surprised how much they helped.
I don’t have that original set of guidelines any more. But the gist of them was to speak out of your own experience. Not about someone else’s experience.
Experience can, of course, include your own experience of learning. But the essential thing is not what some famous person said or did, but how it affected you. Why do you still remember it?
You can quote an external source to support your own experience, but not to substitute for it. You can’t use Kant to beat others into submission.
Because a personal experience is never wrong. If that’s how you experienced it; that’s how it is for you.
It’s fair to ask questions about someone’s experience, to understand it better, to connect with your own experience (or lack thereof). It’s fair to summarize, to ensure you heard the other correctly. It’s fair to offer a different experience, or a different interpretation of someone else’s experience. But you cannot argue with the experience itself.
Obviously, these guidelines won’t replace rules of order in formal meetings. They’re a way of getting at -- and sometimes getting around -- people’s differing perceptions of contentious issues.
I’ve never had to impose those guidelines since that original group. Simply encouraging people to speak out of their own experience has usually sufficed.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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In a sense, I suppose, last week’s column was an illustration of this week’s column. I wrote about my own experiences, and extrapolated some implications from them.
Tom Watson commented, “I find it interesting that you end your deliberation on a note of ambiguity. Was what you did that day on the beach -- nothing -- right or wrong? Truth is we live in a world of ambiguity. Sometimes it's very clear to us what we should do, and at other times not nearly so clear. How do we decide on a moment's notice how to react, what to do? On occasion we know instinctively how to respond and we act accordingly, but most of the time it's not so, and it's also not clear the long-range effects of what we do...or don't do. It's all part of being human and having the capacity even to deliberate along these lines. Perhaps the key question is: What did I learn about myself, and about life, by what I did or didn't do?”
Isabel Gibson offered her own experience: “One of my sisters describes intervening with strangers being part of ‘God's volunteer brigade.’ It's not a compliment.
“I try now to limit myself to acting within my relationships, where I have earned (I hope) the right to be heard, even listened to, and where I have to work through any blowback, rather than operating in fire-and-forget mode.
“It's not always pleasant. Neither do I like it when someone pulls me up short.”
John Finlay picked up on the “coulda woulda shoulda” angle: “In one of Lewis Losoncy’s early books ‘You Can Do It, How to be an Encouraging Person’ (I think that was the title) he made reference to what he called ‘the tyranny of ought, should, and must’ and how those words can be so discouraging. I have done my best to find substitute language since then.
“I certainly laud your concepts and agree that we could and can do better in helping to correct things.
“A catchphrase from Losoncy, ‘It’s never nice to should on yourself or on other people.’ You have to say that out loud quickly a couple of times to get the double entendre.”
Eileen Wttewaall sent me an email intended for someone else. But I was rather flattered by her comment, “His psalm paraphrase is astonishing.” Thank you, Eileen.
Bob Rollwagen expanded my thoughts towards the present political campaigns: “The things you do or don’t do reflect in some small way who you might or might not be. I guess you could measure this by looking at the impact of your actions on the immediate surrounding, or on society as a whole, or on some level between these extremes. Political parties are a good example of groups that do things that either have very little impact or have great impact. It depends who you are or how well off you are. They [political parties? JT] like to feed chips to some and splash water on others at the same time. I try to avoid eating wet chips.”
I thought that Psalm 66 might fit the life of settlers, pushing on to new territories – beyond the mountains, beyond the oceans, beyond the horizon. Or perhaps refugees, fleeing to a new homeland. Or even to someone recovering from a serious illness or debility.
1 On the other side of the mountains, a new world spreads before us.
2 The rocky ridges give way to spreading grasslands;
the shadows of our past give way to endless sunshine.
4 The far horizon shimmers in holy celebration.
In sacred silence we stand, speechless before the rebirth of possibility.
3 You tested us terribly, God.
At times, we thought we would die, adrift, alone.
5 You scorched us on the deserts;
you froze us on the glaciers.
We could not help ourselves.
6 But you gave us shade against the sun, and fire against the cold.
With your help, we survived every obstacle.
7 Through our trials you taught us that you alone are almighty, and not we ourselves.
8 We could have perished. We could have fallen into shadowed chasms;
9 we could have been cornered by wild animals or incinerated by forest fires.
10 We lost loved ones; we still mourn their passing.
11 We suffered.
12 But in passing through our suffering, we discovered grace.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)