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Rules of Engagement Part 2: How to Participate in Charitable Religious Discourse

religiousdebateA recent conversation got me thinking it was time to revisit the question of what makes for charitable and effective inter-religious dialogue–especially the proselytizing variety. I first published this post back in October.  Of course, at that time, I only had about 3 readers (and God bless you if you’re still here).  😉  I decided it might be interesting to re-post it again today.  Enjoy!

There’s a lot of bitching about God on the Internet.

And I’m kind of tired of it.

So let’s have a genuine “come to Jesus” moment, shall we?  And talk about how to be effective and kind as you boldly share your version of Truth with the world around you.

And before you get all up in my grill, let me make a couple things clear from the get-go.

First of all, I don’t think that pointing out what you believe to be error in another person’s perspective is uncharitable, nor is standing up for what you believe, testifying, or seeking to convince others of the truth as you understand it.   I don’t even have a problem with sharp rebukes.  It is important, however, that it come from a place of genuine love and respect.

It is VERY EASY to fall into a trap of pride and hostility when it comes to discussing matters of religion with others.  So I think it’s especially important to double check what’s going on in your heart and mind whenever you engage in this kind of discussion.

Here are my basic “do’s” and don’t’s:”

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Rules of Engagement: How to Participate in Charitable Religious Discourse

In my last post, I mentioned the idea of being charitable with others, even when their perspective or understanding of truth is divergent from your own.

I’d like to further expound on what I meant by that…

First of all, I don’t think that pointing out what you believe to be error in another person’s perspective is uncharitable, nor is standing up for what you believe, testifying, or seeking to convince others of the truth as you understand it.   I don’t even have a problem with sharp rebukes.  It is important, however, that it come from a place of genuine love and respect.

It is VERY EASY to fall into a trap of pride and hostility when it comes to discussing matters of religion with others.  So I think it’s especially important to double check what’s going on in your heart and mind whenever you engage in this kind of discussion.

I’ve got some basic “dos” and don’ts” below.

DON’Ts

I’ll get the negatives out of the way first.  Below are a few examples of common “violations” I have seen over and over again.  And I’ve seen everyone from General Authorities, leaders, missionaries, and common laypeople–both in AND OUT of the Church–make these mistakes.

And lest you think I’m pointing the finger of blame at others, I am FULLY AWARE that *I* have made them, too.

But I think it’s good to point them out so we can all strive to be more conscious of the level of our dialogue, and attempt to eradicate them from our discussions.

DON’T 1)–Pronounce eternal condemnation upon the heads of others. God is the only one who can judge the thoughts and intents of the heart, and He is the one who will pronounce this kind of judgment.  It is incumbent upon each of us to judge for ourselves and discern truth from error, but to say who is and isn’t going to be in hell is to exalt yourself as God and attempt to usurp His role as judge, and it is blasphemous and abhorrent.

DON’T 2)–Exult in others’ error. I have seen this happen more times than I can count when engaged in “doctrinal discussions” with people of all faiths.  (And I’ll confess, I’ve made this mistake too.  It’s ugly.)  It happens when you are so concerned with being “right” and finding ways to “prove” others wrong that you don’t listen to what they’re really saying–and, worse, you look for places you can “stick it to ’em.”  Christ soundly rebuked at times, but He NEVER did it to stroke His own ego.

DON’T 3)–Deliberately distort another’s point of view. Again, this happens all the time.  I think it is the height of “uncharity” (word?) to try and twist people’s words, no matter how imprecise or imperfect those words are, to mean something other than what the speaker is trying to make them mean.  It’s completely disrespectful and reveals unholy motivations.  Again, when one is more interested in being “right” or “making the other wrong” than teaching, exhorting, supporting, and encouraging people to discover new truths, one has the spirit of contention and not the Spirit of Christ.

DON’T 4)–Fail to find common ground. There is almost ALWAYS a “starting place” when engaging in dialogue with others…a place where you can agree.  There is nothing ruder or more frustrating than to have someone refuse to acknowledge agreements where they do exist.  It’s also insulting to engage in a dialogue with someone who doesn’t respect, acknowledge, or appreciate that they at least UNDERSTAND where you’re coming from, even if they disagree.

DON’T 5)–Use inflammatory language. Sure, you might think your Catholic cousin is part of the “whore of the all the earth”…or you might have come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was an “adulterating sorcerer,” but for goodness sake, don’t SAY it to people you’re trying to engage in productive discussion!  NOTHING will turn them off faster.

DOs

DO 1)–Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. For the most part, people are doing their best with the understanding they have.  Even if their points seem irrational or completely off-base, give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re serving and following God to the best of their abilities.

DO 2)–Understand, Acknowledge and Empathize. Before you disagree, try to make sure you really get where the other person is coming from.  I like to say things like, “You said X.  I understand it to mean that you believe Y.  Am I correct?”  And then LISTEN.  Give the other person an opportunity to clarify or correct what they said.  When you get it right, say, “Okay.  I think I see where you’re coming from, and I can definitely understand how you got there.”  (And if you can’t understand how they got there, work at it until you can see it from their point of view.  Even people who seem to be hugely flawed in their understanding or logic got there SOMEHOW.)  People NEED to feel understood.  When you make them feel understood–and better, when you show them you’re okay with wherever they are–it will open doors.

DO 3)–Find common ground. Once you really understand what they believe and why, try to find the threads that correlate with your beliefs before you start attacking the differences.  Something like, “We really agree on this point.  I’m glad you brought that up.”

DO 4)–Disagree with kindness. You can disagree, but express your love and concern as you do so.  “You know, I think you’re dead on with this point, but I’m concerned when you say X.  Have you considered this implication of that belief?”  Or, “But what about this idea or scripture?”

When you are respectful, encouraging, supportive, and kind with others–even when you disagree with them–you’ll be able to engage people on a deeper level, come to understand them better, perhaps convince them more effectively…and, hey, you might even learn something new from them that you hadn’t considered yourself.