How can Christians maintain their convictions and yet do so with civility in public discourse? Richard Mouw (President Emeritus, Fuller Seminary) has been a leading voice for “Christian civility.” In this conversation, he and three other Biola University scholars (Tim Muehlhoff, Tom Crisp, and Todd Pickett) discuss Christian civility in the context of interfaith dialogue, sexual morality, disagreement, biblical theology, and local church life.
The Historian, Martin Marty, once said that, “People who have strong convictions “are often not very civil, and people who are civil “often do not have strong convictions.” Now Richard, I know enough about you to know that you don’t see things quite that way. Say a little bit about what it looks like to have strong convictions and to be someone committed to civility.
Well, I think Martin Marty was right empirically. I mean, I think it is the case that a lot of people who have strong convictions just aren’t very civil, and I think a lot of people who are civil are civil precisely because they don’t have very strong convictions.
But I don’t think it has to be that way. And I think especially in the Christian world, very often the kinds of Christians that many of us would identify with in the Evangelical world are pretty far removed from convicted civility, as Martin Marty would describe it. But I do think that there’s a biblical mandate.
I was raised in a Evangelical world where we were constantly being told the 1st Peter 3, “Always be ready to give to anyone who asks of you “a reason for the hope that lies within you. “Stand up for the truth, know what you believe.” but seldom did they go on to the next part of the verse, which says, “But do so with gentleness and reverence.”
Now what does it mean to disagree with someone and in that disagreement, treat them with gentleness and with reverence? And to me, that’s the challenge. And so, it isn’t so much that we have our biblical convictions, and then we gotta try to be civil.
But the Bible itself mandates a conviction about civility, and that is the honoring of other human beings, which I think is very important.
Yes, yes. So the things we are committed to, at the very core of our convictions, the idea of love, treating the neighbor with love draws us into civility. It’s a natural connection.
Yeah. Go ahead.
Well, I think you can go through even in Peter’s first Epistle, where at another point he says that, “We ought to fear the Lord, “we ought to love the brothers and sisters in the faith, “agape love, and we ought to honor the Emperor.”
But then he says, “But honor all human beings,” and that honoring of all human beings. And the important thing for thinking about the spiritual dimensions of that is that how do we bring ourselves to a point where we actually engage in that kind of honoring, that kind of reverence and gentleness toward other human beings?
And I think that’s a big challenge for us today, because a lot of our spirituality has been a spirituality of confrontation and combat, warfare. And it’s important to think in very different terms, because I think the Bible tells us to.
Yeah. I like your sense that conviction and civility is not necessarily a balance that we ping pong between two. I like what you just said, that we really have to become the kind of people who hold convictions with great civility and honor. So I guess I wanna ask you how do we become those people?
I mean, how do we surrender the impulse to dominate our interlocutor, to maybe even shame them, to always win? I mean, what needs to change maybe even in our deep beliefs about God, his providence, his purposes?
I mean, what needs to be happening in this deeper place so that we become the kind of people who are not almost neurotically trying to dominate discourse and shut out perspectives? What do we need to believe more deeply that we may only hold loosely now?
Well, to me a wonderful model there in the Bible is Psalm 139, where the Psalmist says at a certain point, “Lord, I hate your enemies with a perfect hatred. “God, you can count on me. “I’m on your side, you and me.”
And then he immediately… It’s like he stops and says, “Uh-oh.” And then he says, “Search me and know my thoughts, “and see if there be any wicked way in me, “and lead me in the way everlasting.”
And I think that sense that before God, we need to be saying see if there’s any wicked way in me. And then that can transfer to our neighbors, people with whom we disagree. See if there’s any… What do you think of the kind of view.
One of my desires in talking about some of the most controversial issues of sexuality is to lower the rhetoric and just say to my friends in the gay, lesbian movement, what is it about me that scares you so much and really to listen to that. And I hope they would listen to me when I say what is it about what you stand for that troubles me.
But I think it’s that level of wanting to learn from the other person, because we’ve been humbled before God. And we realize that we have no business telling God, well, we’re on your side. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got it all straightened out. And so, a lot of it goes right back to that fundamental relationship with God. And once we’ve said that to God, I think we’re free to say it to other people.
You point out in your book on common decency, you talk about inner politeness, which I thought was very interesting. Because if my self-talk is always negative towards you, my opponent, that is just simply going to bleed out into the relationship.
And so, I love the idea that you bring up, that we have to check our self-talk even towards other people. And if that inner politeness isn’t there, then sure enough that’s gonna bleed into uncivil communication with the people that we oppose. But how do we cultivate that inner politeness?
Well, I think that, again, I think those of us who believe in God and believe that we live our lives before the face of God, and that God knows us better than we know ourselves, it’s precisely that openness that I think if one spends time in the presence of God, asking God to show us our sin. John Kelvin said that, “The law is a kind of mirror “that we look into, and we see how far we are “from the righteousness of God.” once we’ve done that, it seems to me that it would be very hard to go to another human being and say, “I have it all right, and I have nothing to learn from you “about how you see me.”
I mean, it’s one thing to talk about that person’s deepest convictions, but it’s another thing to… If we look at some of the big controversies, we’ve often in the past talk about Evangelistic crusades and not realize what that word crusade means to our Muslim neighbors and just to ask them that question.
And to see that what seemed to us a very innocent kind of thing about a bunch of meetings carries a lot of historical baggage with it. And I think to be honest people before God is also to be honest before other people.
And I think what you’re advocating, Richard, is what we call perspective taking, is to step out of my perspective long enough to see the world how you’ve constructed it and how you created it.
And one thing that you did that I found fascinating when it comes to the whole sexuality issue is that you went to an Episcopal mass for gay parishioners, and you actually sat in that mass along with them.
Richard: Yeah. Now can I ask you what do you think was the value of that? And was there any pushback from people saying, “But aren’t you condoning what they’re doing?” So what was the value, and what was the pushback?
Well first of all, I talked a lot about that subject, so I thought I ought to experience first hand people who disagree with me but nonetheless find it necessary to come together and worship God. And so, I thought I could sit in the back. But when I got there, all the back seats were taken, and I could do nothing but sit in the midst of what was largely a gay, lesbian audience congregation.
The two things that just overwhelmed me was, one, we prayed Psalm 139. “When I was in my mother’s womb, “you knit my parts together.” To hear people around me saying, “It’s God who knit me together as a human person.” But then at a certain point we had the prayers for the dead, which I’m not used to, and the Priest said, “A lot of you have lost people to HIV AIDS, “and just speak out the name of a person whom you have loved who died of HIV AIDS.” It began with just a simple Marlene or Harry.
And pretty soon, it became thunderous, and people were sobbing. And I thought these are grieving people. These are people who have experienced tremendous loss. And I felt a solidarity with them, a bonding with them in their sobbing that if I had been arguing with them about their views or how do you interpret Romans 1, or something like that, it would’ve been a very different experience. But there was something wonderful about that, and I experienced that. I didn’t change my theology or my ethics. But to see their humanness I think is a very important thing.
One way to think about what happened there is you were drawn further, deeper into empathy.
And you’ve written about the importance of empathy, along with other civil attitudes, as you call them. Talk some about the other attitudes you think that we ought to be seeking to cultivate so that we can do better at civil discourse.
Yeah. Well first of all, I do think empathy is fundamental, because the incarnation is all about empathy. The Epistle to the Hebrew says that he knows what it’s like to be us, because he suffered in the ways that we’ve suffered, he tempted in the ways that we’ve been tempted. And so if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, I think we have to cultivate that kind of empathy with people. While we were yet sinners, he came with empathy for us.
Secondly, I do think that a sense of humility, and you can go right back to just the Old Testament, rigid command morality. I mean, we’re not supposed to bear false witness against our neighbors. I’ve been involved for 15 years now in dialog with Mormon scholars. A lot of the things that I thought they believed they don’t really believe.
A lot of things I didn’t know they believe, they do, and I’m not happy with all of that, either. I realize that a lot of us have born false witness. And I went to hear a speaker one night who was gonna tell us all about Mormonism, and he had some good points that he made. But he said some things about what Mormons believe that I know that my Mormon friends would just say, “That’s kind of a folk Mormonism that’s never been endorsed, “and we fight that kind of stuff.” Some of my Mormon friends talk about some Mormons are going planetary on us and those kinds of things, so I know their jokes.
And so I went up to this guy afterward, and I introduced myself, which was probably a mistake. But I said, “You had some good points, “but there are a couple things there “that you really ought to study more, “because you don’t have it right.” And he said, “Oh, you intellectuals. “You’ve always gotta make these distinctions. “We don’t have time for that. “We’re in the battle for the truth, and we gotta win.”
And then I thought, isn’t it ironic that you would be in a battle for the truth and not want to tell the truth? And so just that simple desire to be speakers of the truth, to me, is a crucial thing in civility and cultivating good relations with people with whom we disagree.
You mentioned that word “battle,” and it makes me, again, think of this inner politeness or these habits of mind we’ve developed around argumentative discourse. And indeed, it seems like the metaphor for argument is largely taken from battle, right? We defend our theories, or we attack the opponents, or we marshal our arguments.
Tom: Defeat an objection.
Yeah, we defeat an objection. Perhaps that is implicit to argument, but are there ways of thinking about this kind of dialog with difference that can round out that battle metaphor? How do you think about what is actually taking place when I am reasoning with another person who differs from me? What metaphors do we need to carry within us, which ones are biblical, what is the inner way of viewing what’s taking place, here?
Well, I think a lot of it has to do with family relations. Aristotle pointed out that the earliest ways in which we learned to be polite is with kinship, and then we extend it to friendship, and then, ultimately, to the public square, where we take another person as human, simply because they’re human and not because they’re our kinfolk or because we know them well, but we recognize their humanity. But that first stage of kinship I think is so important.
When I’m arguing with my wife, we disagree about things, but that’s not battle. It’s a conversation, and it’s a desire to better understand each other, a desire to come to some kind of peaceful accord where there may be things that are causing tension or friction. Or when you’re arguing with your kid, it’s not warfare, although they can be very deep disagreements about things.
And so in kinship, in familial relationships and in close friendships, we do encounter those disagreements. And I think one of the big problems today is that we’ve so weakened family relations and friendship relations that we haven’t been to school for civility, yet. And that to me is a real problem.
Can I go back to I loved what you said about empathy? And Todd, I think that’s some way to break through this battle metaphor that we tend to get locked in, is not to see them as combatants but people that we do life together. I love that theme in your writing, that we do life together. So go back to the mass that you attended, where you heard those names being said and you heard the weeping. We call that embodied perspective taking.
My body is in there, and I’m hearing it, and I’m seeing it. That deeply resonates with me, but I can hear the objections. And the objections would be something like, “Yeah but Richard, your presence there condoned it.” Acknowledgement is synonymous with condoning it. And so, I think there’s some people who would be deeply disappointed that you legitimized that congregation. And that’s the kind of objections I tend to run into. What would be your response to that?
A presence isn’t necessarily condoning. I mean, we sent out missionaries into cultures that do some pretty bad things. And yet, their presence there, in order to find ways in which we can open up conversations about the deepest needs of the human condition. And I think that’s the thing. I don’t wanna say I went as a missionary. That sounds a little too much.
But on the other hand, the missionary model is not a bad one to think about. I’m part of a denomination now, where people are getting out, because they disagree with decisions that have been made in that denomination. And I respect their sense that God is calling people to do various things.
If you were sent as a missionary to a Hindu village and you discover that they were doing things there that really, really bothered you, you wouldn’t leave because of that. And if for no other reason, we can think of ourselves as staying in certain denominations something like missionaries representing a certain perspective that goes counter to.
Now again, that can sound very imperialistic and one-upmanship and all the rest. But the heart of it is that presence of being among. When we think of Jesus’ willingness to sit at a meal with people with whom he disagreed.
He didn’t say to Zacchaeus, “Unless you repair your ways, “I’m not gonna come to your house.” The first thing he said to him was, “I’m coming to your house.” He tell us to go into villages and to seek out possibilities. So I think, yeah, presence does not constitute condoning, and I guess I’d wanna talk to people who say that it does. What is it exactly that you fear about that? What is it that… If there were 1,000 gays and lesbians at that mass, how would you have reached them? Or do you think it wasn’t important? How would you have tried to understand what was going on there? One way of doing it is show up.
Barbara Myerhoff, who’s a communication theorist has a great quote. She says, “Unless we exist in the eyes of others, we come to doubt our own existence.” And I think, Richard, what happened was those people existed in front of you, and you acknowledged their pain, their sorrow. And I think we could get a lot more of that, today, in our civil discourse of reaching out to people outside the Christian community.
You did mention several times, of course, scripture, refer to scripture. Even just now, Jesus. To what degree are Jesus and Paul, you mentioned Peter, other prominent biblical figures who had to live with difference, communicate with those who disagreed, to what degree do they model for us? What passages, scenes, what other ones come to mind that are really a guide for us?
And let me just add to that. Maybe you could say a little bit about how to understand those passages where we see something other than civil discourse, Jesus referring to the Pharisees as snakes and the like.
Yeah, the whited sepulcher stuff, yeah.
And Paul and the Judaizers.
And again, that’s there. And I wanna say civility isn’t the whole story. I mean, there are certain times that you have to draw the line, and there are certain times that you have to oppose. I mean, if I had somehow had an opportunity in 1941 to have a conference with Hitler, I wouldn’t have wanted to go in there with a lot of empathy for him. I mean, the time for that was long over, and you’d go in there, and I probably would’ve been willing to participate in a plot to use that as a way of putting an end to what he was doing.
So civility isn’t the whole story, but it sure is a big part of it. And yeah, Jesus condemned hypocrites and Paul condemned Judaizers, but it was always on behalf of people with whom he had empathy. I mean, it was their failure to allow that kind of civility, that empathy, those bonds that God has ordained to flourish. So if I were to go into a viciously racist situation, I would have to condemn. There might be times, and I think there are times for conversation. But there are times that you simply do need to condemn. But typically, Paul and Jesus used their harshest, critical language about people who lacked the civility that they were trying to promote.
To make this personal, I teach rhetoric as one of the things that I teach. So let’s talk about the Westboro Church, which many of us are deeply grieved by their tactics, showing up at military funerals and praising God, that because the military has allowed gay soldiers to exist that now God is judging these soldiers and using terrorist bombs to do so, which we just find deplorable. So what I hear you saying is how we would deal with a Westboro Church might be radically different than we deal with other people. I mean, it might be a time for anger, even, towards the Westboro Church.
Yeah. Although it’s very interesting now that you mention that, because two of our students at Fuller Seminary actually went and lived among the Westboro Church, two woman students who went and said, “Look, we disagree with you, “but we’d like to understand you better.” And they actually formed friendships with the women in their community and found that some of those women were deeply hurting and were even experiencing abuse. And they stayed there for I think six or seven weeks.
And they found a couple of the male leaders hopeless in terms of trying to dialog, but they found that some of the others were deeply wounded and deeply concerned about what was going on, did not have a voice to speak out. So I mean, to me, I’m glad, and I think it took some women who were committed to this project of convicted civility and who really had an empathic approach to that community. We wanna know more about you. And they actually had some good results from it. Some people actually left and stayed in touch with them. That was a really bad family system that was going on there.
Richard, I’m an avid reader and admirer of Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist, and perhaps one day to be Catholic Saint. And she at various points recommended certain works of fiction at spiritually formative as a kind of spiritual practice. She would read and re-read various works of Dickens and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy because she thought they had a deep grip on the heart of the gospel, and that it formed one’s heart in the direction of the gospel. And I wonder if you think there is reading we could be doing or thinking about that forms us in the direction of the kind of civil inner life, the kind of inner life that naturally bleeds out into kindness and civility towards those with whom we disagree.
I think fiction is a wonderful tool or instrument of spiritual formation. To me, I had kind of a typical attitude, not necessarily anti-Semitic, but these Jewish people and the like. And then when I read some of the great novels of the Jewish tradition, and just those novels that helped me understand what it’s like to grow up in a Jewish ghetto. And I read the Rabbi Small mystery novels, what it’s like to be a Rabbi. There’s wonderful stuff.
And for those of us who tend to linger in closed quarters spiritually and theologically, it’s great to read Catholic writers. But also, obviously, the Dickens example is a good one. And what does it mean today to understand the longs of the poor? So I find African American literature often extremely helpful. I think we need more access to Hispanic, Latino, Latina literature. It would be good to read some good novels about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl or a Muslim boy.
So Richard, all of us around this table actually have the luxury of working in Christian institutions. And I think probably where the rubber meets the road more often when it comes to conflict and the need for civil dialog is for all of our friends in our local churches who rub shoulders with colleagues at work who believe very differently or have very different lifestyles or even, of course, within the church there could be uncivil discourse.
If a church were to come to you and say, “Professor Mouw, what is the one “or two or three prescriptions you would give us “as a local church to foster “this kind of convicted civility?” And these are people who are looking for just a way to begin to grow in this area. What would your response be?
Well, I think one is I think there need to be pastoral models of empathy. Even just the way we pray and who we pray for, wouldn’t it be great to pray for the gay and lesbian sons and daughters of this congregation? A lot of parents out there are really hurting. And just to say this is a congregation that wants to support people who are struggling with that and parents of people who are struggling with that. So the way we pray and who we pray for, pray for your Muslim neighbors. I mean, boy, they must be scared.
Right after 9/11, that morning, our communications person called me as president of the institution and said, “What should we do?” I said, well, first thing, call the Muslim center in Los Angeles and tell them we’re praying for them, because this must be a frightening time for the local Muslims. Little Muslim kids got beat up walking home from school in Orange County.
There were some nuns that went and walked them home from school just to be safe. What a wonderful thing to do. And to think about those kinds of gestures and to lift those up as models. Imagine what it’s like to be a seven-year-old Muslim girl on a day when her nation is at war with Muslim terrorists and how people look at her and how frightened she must be. And wouldn’t it be great for a Christian just to go and say, “I’m gonna walk along. “You don’t have to hold my hand or anything. “I’m just gonna walk alongside, “because I wanna be sure that you get home safe.”
What a wonderful thing to do. And then I think to model dialog, not necessarily in the pulpit but maybe after the sermon to have people disagree about some things, whether it’s the net election or healthcare or whatever, just to talk together and to try to do it in ways that honor each other, that gentleness and reverence toward each other. I think the church can be a workshop in civility, and it’s a good thing to think of ways in which we can do that.
Well Richard, it’s been a delight to be able to sit here with you and have this conversation. Thinking about models of civility, you and your leadership of the Evangelical movement and your presidency at Fuller Theological Seminary have been a model of this kind of kindness, humility, civility in conversation about difficult topics. And the way you’ve respected folks on the other side of these issues and sought solidarity and been a voice of compassion has been tremendously inspirational for us. And so, thank you for your leadership in this area. And thanks for having this conversation with us.
Tim: Thank you.