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Think More, Fear Less: Talking About Christian Public Engagement w/ Gabe Lyons (Part 1)

Gabe Lyons

Practicing Christian civility and conviction in a pluralistic society

Founder of Q / Author
February 17, 2015

Interview by Evan Rosa (Editor, The Table)

Gabe Lyons is in the business of good ideas.

Having co-founded Catalyst, a national conference/gathering of up-and-coming Christian leaders, Gabe and his wife Rebekah have been building Q Ideas for the past 12 years—a multimedia platform based on exploring “Ideas for the Common Good” with a vision to “Stay Curious. Think Well. Advance Good.”

Gabe’s vision for a Christian presence in culture hones in on something very important: that ideas, when they’re given voice in a faithful and personal Christian presence, can effect meaningful change in culture.

Clearly, the content of those ideas matters. We’ve seen the way the seeds of vicious, hateful ideas can take root in a community, growing like thorny weeds to choke out dignity, freedom, peace, and human flourishing. We’ve also seen how loving, inspiring, and transformational ideas—indeed, the truth—can lay hold of an individual or a community and bring about revolutions of justice, love, and gospel.

For all the importance we lay on the content of ideas, our character is also deeply significant in the public expression of Christian faith. Recently, Gabe and I spoke for just over an hour, talking about Christian intellectual character; how to foster good habits of mind, such as curiosity, open-mindedness, and humility; the ways we disagree (for better or worse); principled pluralism; and many other insightful topics.


The Table: Disagreement. There seems to be a big difference between really having an ideological disagreement with someone—understanding their position and entering into a meaningful dialogue—as opposed to shouting competing monologues. How do you recommend dealing with disagreement?

Gabe: I think for one, we’re many times afraid to disagree because it creates conflict and many of us just aren’t comfortable with conflict. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be polite. Actually being polite isn’t necessarily going to accomplish us learning to think better together. In many cases, we need to be more clear, and of course, sensitive into how we communicate ideas, but we need to be okay realizing that in a world with seven billion people, there’s going to be disagreement.

There are going to be different points of view. There are going to be different ways we’ve each been raised and the worldviews that we’ve developed and experiences that we’ve taken in or been a part of—these are going to shape the way we see the world. And to own that up front and say, “I realize I come into this conversation with a lot of bias because of all those experiences.”

If you can acknowledge that you also come to this conversation with a lot of bias, maybe we can have some progress together because we recognize that neither of us think purely about probably much of anything. It’s all informed by multiple experiences and ideas and things we’ve read and conversations we’ve had.

Let’s now bring our best thinking to the table and be okay that we might come out of this conversation disagreeing, but it doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable types of people.

There’s a particularity to approaching disagreement with another person, right? Acknowledging that everyone is different. Everyone comes at the world and everyone sees the world in a different way. How can we search for commonalities knowing that we all think differently?

I think for the Christian, we do have an objective truth that we believe in and that guides us. It’s not just left up to our thoughts and our thinking and our processes and our experiences to determine what’s true or how things ought to be.

We actually have this fixed point outside of ourselves—God. That has given directive to how we ought to think about things. Certainly, there are minor points to be debated about what we can know God’s clear about and what other things does it seem God just never speaks to.

For the most part, we can catch a pretty general rhythm and a sense of what is true. That objective truth guides the Christian into a conversation or into a discussion or into a way of life that’s based on something much more than just their experiences. I think that’s important to point out.

Then I would say as you try to have conversation with those who come from a different point of view or believe in a different kind of truth that they believe they’ve found or experienced to own the fact that where you’re finding your objective truth from is intellectually honest and many times important because it allows the person you’re having a conversation with to know really what’s driving your thinking versus them trying to guess at that.

I think that’s an important point that many Christians don’t recognize as they’re having conversations with people. They don’t ever acknowledge that part of the base of why they think the way they think is a commitment to this fixed‑point reality that exists outside of them. Outside of whether they ever lived or not. And that is this truth that exists objectively whether we like it or not, believe it or not, want to abide by what we think it’s telling us to do with our lives, it still is.

I think in our postmodern world, there’s a sense of wanting to avoid that type of authority in our life or to doubt whether that could be true. That’s one of the great crisis of new generations: growing up in a place where there’s a loss of confidence in being able to actually believe in this truth that could exist whether we know it or not.

Objective truth. Some Christians might be afraid to give away ground, afraid to budge on their positions. Sometimes that reference to the fixed standard outside of us can be mixed up or confused with not being willing to be open to new ideas, open to new arguments, open to another person’s perspective. Can you talk a little bit about your view of open‑mindedness and close‑mindedness in Christian discourse?

I think it could be easy to suggest and to assume that if a Christian has beliefs based on this objective truth, that somehow that gives the Christian the right to kind of browbeat everybody else or to assume that the way that they have understood that to be true is the way everybody else should understand it or to assume they’ve actually got it all right.

I think that’s where the virtues of the mind—the idea of humility in particular—becomes a critical piece of how any one of us should move forward in these kinds of conversations. To not assume we have it all figured out… that we are as God. I mean, that’s the mistake that Adam and Eve made early on: thinking they actually could be as wise as God.

I think as we’re coming to know God better, know his ways better, you’re always going to find a sense of humility and a sense of being able to still learn more, to discover more, to explore more, to be open to new ways of seeing things and different perspectives that maybe you hadn’t considered before.

Usually, with intellectual honesty you’ll find that those new ways of seeing things don’t always completely mitigate what you’ve come to that conversation with. Many times they just add more beauty to it and more color to it and more shape to it than you initially thought.

What are some of the personal habits that you try to implement when you’re in a conversation with someone with whom you vehemently disagreeing? What practices or principles come to mind?

I’ve found myself wanting to have a true curiosity, to really believe the best about another person. To recognize this truth—that they’re made in the image of God—so they have God’s breath in them and he has created them as a beautiful human being with a beautiful mind.

If I can come into that conversation to say, “I’m actually really curious about what you think,” and it’s genuine—not false flattery or false humility—but to truly say, “I want to understand how you’ve come to this place.” To be able to sit and listen without every sentence trying to confront what I might intellectually disagree with or emotionally want to respond to. That takes a great deal of discipline. It really puts into practice your curiosity.

I believe we can learn from every single person on this earth. I don’t think there’s anybody in this world that there’s not something that we could learn from hearing their story, from listening to their experiences, even if we disagree with their conclusions. I think to learn and to listen should be how we lead, especially as people of faith, because that’s how our Savior led. There was a lot of listening going on in the midst of his conversations with people.

And understanding. He had the divine ability to understand context better than most of us do, so if we could just take a little extra time as flawed human beings to try to understand people’s story and their context and where they’re coming from, we actually learn a lot.

Many times, that helps us find common ground, because we can discard some of the assumptions we came into the conversation with, realizing those weren’t true. We can actually deal with the substance of disagreement.

When we find these places where we can have that conversation, not out of a defensiveness, but truly out of a curiosity to learn more about the other, I think we both come away from that conversation feeling more human, feeling closer in relationship, and feeling like we’ve demonstrated a minor miracle: to find that common ground that many people in our world never get to experience, because it’s not what’s rewarded in our current media context.

I hear you talking about personalizing the other. Personalizing the interlocutor sitting across from you, and being open and willing to be surprised about what’s really there. There could be commonalities there, which weren’t apparent when you were so focused on your own ideas or preconceptions of them.


It’s restoring their humanity.

Right. And in a world where labeling has become second nature, with sound bites and trying to categorize people into certain positions—whether it’s political or conservative and liberal or theological—we so quickly as human beings want to control the other versus actually learn from the other that we tend to want to write people off. And that’s not humility. That’s not the way of Jesus. That’s not the way we’re called as followers to try to engage in this beautiful world of wonderful people made in His image.

What do you make of growing indifference? It seems like you really have to care to engage in a good disagreement. How have you resisted indifference and encouraged zeal for life-changing ideas?

We have to tie good thinking and big ideas together. In our age, a lot of people have big ideas, great ideas. I think of other organizations that bring people together, such as TED, a great organization which has done an incredible job of putting together a platform that celebrates the latest and greatest ideas.

As we thought about the platform we were building with Q, we didn’t want it to just be about the latest and greatest ideas. We wanted it to be a thread that ties together these ideas that were based on a principle of understanding of the common good, based on a definition of what it meant for ideas to serve the good (or maybe not serve the good) and to try to evaluate that.

We want to advance good thinking that leads to flourishing for all people. Not just for Christians, but for all people. It’s not just creating a neutral platform that says, “Hey, if you’ve got a good idea or the latest idea, you’re thinking about the future, here’s a platform for you to share that idea.”

That has forced us—me personally as well as our team—to have some sense of a lens by which we consider what ideas we should be putting forward. That’s meant that we’ve said “no” to many things and “yes” to others. Because to pretend to be neutral or to just give equal weight to every idea creates a sense of shallowness to how people think.

It also to me undercuts the idea of this objective truth that we are all as human beings meant to understand and to live by. This concept of truth has given us great conviction over the years, to evaluate what it is that we’re going to focus on.

I remember a couple of years ago having a major leader in the Muslim movement speak with me at Q. We had a public conversation, talking through our disagreements and explaining the history over the last hundreds of years, asking, “Where has this movement gone between Christians and Muslims?”

I wanted to present and honor him in that conversation to say, “We want to learn from you. This is a room full of Christian leaders who theologically don’t align with you. But we want to learn about the other. As Christians, we’re supposed to understand. Seek to understand and to listen. We want to better understand your perspective as an American Muslim who wants to see Islam as a part of this culture that we all live in.” And so that was challenging.

But I can tell you at the end of that 45-minute conversation between, the entire room almost lined up in a line to meet him, to buy his book, to have him sign their book, to thank him for being to willing to come into an environment that probably would have felt a bit intimidating and threatening at first glance.

He left saying, “I felt so welcomed. I felt like there are things we can agree on.” He and I ended up being neighbors in Tribeca, in New York.

It was the beginning of a new friendship, where the common ground that you build is first established with relationship and seeking to understand and see the best in what others are doing, not just read the headlines about what others have labeled them as doing.

I think that modeled both what it meant to be civil and what it meant to have a good conversation where we’re going to disagree, and yet find that it’s possible for any of us to find common ground to get along.

That doesn’t mean you’ve given in. It doesn’t mean you’ve undercut your belief system to acknowledge and honor somebody else in your midst.

I think we, as Christians, have a real role to play in such a divided culture, to try to lead and model what this is going to look like really for the sake our new public square in the years ahead that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

What are those issues that you think are most important for the church to be attending to right now? What should we be preparing our children for? I’ve got a four year old, a two year old and one on the way.I know I really worry about the world that they’ll grow up in. As so do many parents. What do we need to be paying attention to now, in order to be prepared for the future?

Yeah, great question. I think there are a couple big ideas that we need to be very thoughtful about. And they’re questions that everybody’s asking. These aren’t just internal church questions. These are external—how people are thinking in a new generation. And Christian faith provides a great informed perspective to engage these questions.

The first is this question of, “Who am I?” and “What does it mean to be human?”

In those questions, we deal with technology, with how we help serve people during the end of their lives. It frames how we view mental health and depression. There are so many questions answered when you start to understand the bigger picture of how we see human identity and human purpose.

The Christian story, historically, has always been able to speak to that. It’s always recognized that our identity is not found just by looking inside of oneself, but that it is found from looking outside yourself. You have to have a fixed point of reference to really know who you are.

I see our world continuing to get more confusing. I’ve seen it get more chaotic. I see more and more information flow. More and more access to different perspectives. This is pluralism, which can in many ways be a good thing because it allows for everybody to feel valued and to say, “Hey, your conscience matters. Your ideas matter.” I think it’s a uniquely American idea and an important experiment that we’re playing out.

But in light of pluralism growing, what you find is that the plausibility of your own Christian faith actually shrinks to most people, because they have so much access to other other ideas. Again, entering that conversation humbly, but realizing that we have some pretty interesting history of thinking on the matter of what it is to be human. That’s one way forward.

The second big idea and question that I think we must be working on as Christian leaders is, “What does it mean to really find ways to get along despite disagreement?”

People like Gideon Strauss and Miroslav Volf talk about the idea of a principled pluralism in the new public square. For me, I think forward a decade or two and I imagine, “What is our public dialogue and discourse going to be like?” What should it look like? I mean, you look back just 30 years ago, CNN didn’t exist. Fox News didn’t exist. Several outlets that have now become the space where our public square shows up to talk, they weren’t even around.

So 30 years from now, they might not be around either. There will be a moment to create those new forums, those new places where we come together to learn and listen. I can tell you: Americans are hungry for this. This isn’t just a Christian idea. There’s a huge swath of the American populace that wants to understand how do we get along and stop this extremism of poles and polar opposites?

There’s an opportunity for Christians to understand and value the other, to be in a public square where we all have to get along, where there has to be civility. That can only happen with a virtuous people.

So we have to recover virtue. We have to do the hard work of instilling in our children virtues that are going to stand the test of time, that have been written about for hundreds and hundreds of years. By reestablishing a sense of virtue in our education and the way we teach our children, I think we’ll find we’re preparing a generation to engage that new conversation.

When you think of your two sons and your daughter, what are those virtues? What are you trying to teach them at night when you put them to bed? When you’re helping them with their homework? Helping them through a conflict with their peers?

In each situation as a parent (as you know), you don’t have a lot of time to think about it. You’re just found in that moment. You either have an answer or you don’t. And children are so wonderful, because they just keep things really simple. And they force people like me to not over‑intellectualize the conversation and to really break it down to the basics.

One of my sons recently had a conversation at school that created a bit of conflict because it involved his beliefs. And he shared his beliefs. That meant that somebody in the school disagreed with him. We had a great conversation that night where I was able to help him understand that, “There are two things that I love about what you did today.”

“Number one, there are two commandments that are said to be the most important commandments for the Christian. The first is to love God with all your heart.” And I said, “On that one, you scored 100 percent. You loved God with all your heart today, because you actually responded to a conversation in your classroom where you said what it meant to love God with all your heart—what you believe God thinks about this.”

“So you were honest and bold and had courage. I love that courage and conviction that you established.”

“However, on the second commandment, loving your neighbor as yourself, I give you, like, a 75 percent. You kind of got a C—C minus—because the way you said it actually was not very respectful to somebody you disagreed with.”

“So it’s very important that you not be disrespectful to somebody who has a different opinion. Otherwise, son, they’re not going to listen to what you have to say. If you really believe what you have to say to be true, the other person’s never going to hear that if it’s caught up in a hateful way of responding to them.”

That would be one way I’ve handled this conversation. But it’s like that every night in our home. We’re trying to teach things like forgiveness and kindness and humility. Those aren’t easy things to teach to children these days, because much of what’s modeled for them and the air that they breathe is the exact opposite.

They watch sports figures who score a touchdown or a slam dunk and do these enormous celebrations is a really simple example. Everything’s about me—and celebrating me.

So it’s been helpful for me to help my children understand that we live in an upside down world. That’s kind of made sense to them, this idea that the things that are often celebrated are the wrong things and the things that go unrepresented are the right things.

That’s given us a bit of a metaphor to refer to in many, many situations. Culturally, for example, the last four years we’ve lived in New York City, where they would see a lot of different things that many people celebrated, agreed with, and supported, that we as a family would say, “Actually, no, we don’t celebrate that. Here’s another example of the upside down world that we live in on earth.”