Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Saturday, March 27, 2021

Guidelines for better discussions

Thursday March 4, 2021

 I enjoy good discussions. On almost any topic. My aging body no longer permits some other activities, but I haven’t lost my ability to take part in a lively discussion. Yet. 

            Along the way, though, I’ve learned that there are many ways of destroying a discussion, which range from saying too much to not saying anything. 

            In my experience, the most pernicious fault is to drag in an external authority. Perhaps relying on the insights of a famous writer. A quotation from a scientist. A definition from a dictionary. A theory from a theologian. 

            Or, in some circles, citing selected verses from a scriptural text.

            Whatever the source, the intent is clear -- the authority will squelch lesser opinions. Because obviously the authority knows more than any individual in the group. 

            Reliance on external authorities poses two problems. 

            Firstly, the only way to refute one authority is to invoke an alternate authority. The discussion then devolves into a game of “My authority can beat up your authority…”

            Secondly, it denies those authorities themselves the right to learn and change. They wrote out of a particular time and situation. If they were writing today, would they still write the same thing? Would they use the same analogies? The same reasoning?

            If they were radical enough to develop new understandings back then, might they not also have new ideas today?


Seven suggestions

            A few years ago, frustrated by a participant who could always -- always! -- produce a Bible verse as the final word on any subject, I developed some simple guidelines to facilitate more open discussion. I insisted that everyone accept those guidelines, if we were to continue. I’ve long ago lost the original printout, but here’s the gist:

1.     Speak from your own experience. (“Experience” is not necessarily something happening. It could include the experience of learning something, whether in a formal class or by individual research; your reactions to what you read or heard become part of your experience.)

2.     Everyone’s experience is valid. Even not having had a similar experience is a valid experience.

3.     No one’s experience is ever wrong. That’s how they experienced it; that’s the way it is for them.

4.     It’s legitimate to ask questions about someone’s experience -- for clarity, or to seek common links with your own experience. It’s also legitimate to summarize, in your own words, what you hear someone else saying. But you may not challenge or dispute the experience itself. You may offer alternate interpretations, but you may not insist that your interpretation is more correct than theirs. 

5.     Listen first; later, think about how to respond. 

6.     Refer to other sources (such as biblical stories or reference texts) only as parallels to your own experience. Draw on others to illustrate your own thoughts, not as a substitute for them. 

7.     Accept that anyone may tell you, at any time, that you have said enough. 

            I first introduced those guidelines in a formal study session. I was surprised how much they improved the quality of discussion. 

            I’ve never had to impose them since then. Simply encouraging people to speak out of their own experience has usually sufficed. 


Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





One thing I discovered from the email that came in is that we don’t all spell T-shirt, tee-shirt, or t-shirt the same way.


Dick Best focussed on the pink shirt theme: “Growing up in the '40s and '50s, my Mom made many of our clothes. My Dad was a Navy Department civil service employee. During a period when he was working in an office in Boston, for Christmas Mom made him a light pink dress shirt -- in a day when ‘men’ wore white shirts. My Dad had a fit and refused to wear it. Somehow, though, over time, it became one of his favorite shirts and he wore it regularly. Who knows?”


Frank Martens wrote, “I wear tee-shirts nearly every day. I don’t have a pink tee-shirt. I never buy a tee-shirt that has any advertising on it.”


Ken Nicholls took a different tack, tying together clothing choices and racial prejudice: “I really appreciated of your comments about T shirts although we do not have an anti-bullying day in Britain (as far as I know).

            “I decided some time ago to make a statement with my socks. I NEVER wear what is usually considered a pair. Socks are bought often from large stores selling them in a pack of 7 pairs. Often this means 7 different colours. I refuse to stick to what others expect. So I may wear 1 green and 1 yellow. Or 1 blue and 1 purple etc. People that I meet out or at Church often tell me that I have odd socks on. My reply is that they are wrong. This is a pair. The socks have the same size, the same material, the same shape, the same manufacturer and the same thermal value. They only differ in colour -- and colour is irrelevant to the way they are loved and valued.!!!! Why are you judging my socks by their colour? 

            “I invite you to join my campaign and to spread it through your column.”


Rich Hendricks noted, “I also am a walking billboard. I never wear matching shoes as a way to strike up conversations with strangers about how it is okay to be different. And I usually wear a T-shirt from my church or another non-profit that proclaims love in one way or another.”


Jim Hoffman mused, “Isn't it interesting how we can be affected by a billboard, whether it’s on a road sign, a t-shirt, a tote bag, a vehicle -- whatever. It can certainly affect our attitude, our mood, our emotions -- it can be positive or negative. I remember vividly a billboard on a road I travelled often many years ago. It was located at a four-way highway intersection. As I drove toward the sign head on, the attractive young lady on the billboard had a mesmerizing effect with her eyes. Then, as I turned right at the intersection, those eyes seemed to follow me until I could no longer see them. What was she trying to say to me? I shall never know -- but I will always remember those eyes.”




Psalm paraphrase


I resented Psalm 19 when I had to memorize it as a child. Now I regard it as one of the great insights of the ancient writers. 


1 Quarks and electrons, crystals and cells;
stems and trunks and limbs and bodies--

2 on the land, in the water, in the air--
the elements of the universe wait to expand our understanding. 

3 Rocks have no words, nor do cells have syllables, 

4 yet their message can be read anywhere.
Even the fiery stars, 

5 racing at unimaginable speeds through space, 

6 yield their secrets to those willing to probe the limits of God's universe. 

7 And what do they find?
An underlying harmony, a delicate equilibrium
built on the value of every thing,
living or inanimate, past, present, and future. 

8 There are no exceptions.
No one is above the law of interdependence. 

9 Life dies and becomes new life;
spirit and flesh are one.
My fate is inextricably linked to yours,
and our fate to the trees and insects.

10 This is the beginning of wisdom.
It is better than wealth, more valuable than possessions. 

11 Awareness of it will change us forever. 


12 But we are too often blind;
we close our ears to the voices of the winds and the waves, 
to the insights of the rocks and the plants.


13 God, keep us from thinking we know it all;
human minds cannot encompass eternity;
an assembly of facts does not equal truth. 

14 Keep us open to wonder, to beauty, to mystery,
O greatest of mysteries. 


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted several new poetic works there a few weeks ago. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  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”)



                  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.)





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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: discussion, experience, prooftext



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