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The Optimism of Careful Conversation

Tomorrow’s sociological theory class is about Jurgen Habermas.

How’s that for a conversation starter? Actually, reading up on Habermas helped me make some connections with practices we need in the church, our colleges, and our politics. It came at a good time when I was dealing with high degrees of frustration about communication.

Yesterday former ambassador, presidential candidate, and conservative pundit Alan Keyes spoke on Spring Arbor’s campus. I didn’t go to the lunch (it cost money) but I did attend the open discussion in the afternoon. We had a couple of interactions that I’ve written about on Facebook. I want to be clear — I have no objection to having conservative speakers on our campus. Both Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo did chapel this spring and were well received.

What troubled me about Ambassador Keyes was the way he made his arguments. Not just loud and ideologically driven, they actually made it hard to follow the argument due to the sheer number of loosely connected ideas. On many occasions, I felt that it would be good to hit the “pause and rewind” button to review the logical connection that was being made. Because many in the crowd liked his conclusions, it seemed the way he got there was less important.

The same thing happens to some liberal pundits. They are so intent on making their derisive points about conservatives that they don’t make good argument.

It happens in churches. Thanks to a tweet from Rachel Held Evans today, I learned of this story of Tim Keller’s speech at the Gospel Coalition. According to the author (and commenters who were there), Keller suggested that one of the major obstacles to true revival was related to young people having premarital sex. I’m not advocating for premarital sex, but the issues of today’s culture cannot be handled in such a reductionistic fashion. There are a host of issues related to the authentic questions young evangelicals are asking. Sex is a minor one. As Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote, sex is a big deal but not the biggest deal. I’m reminded of the argument Putnam and Campbell made in American Grace: that the rise of evangelicalism was in part a push back against sexual freedom of the 1960s. It proved not to be enough of an argument over the long run.

Politicians’ “discourse” seems intent on stating their preferred positions (especially those favored by the gerrymandered constituency). Politicians and pundits caricature the other side, distort their positions, and make speeches in front of empty house chambers in order to cut YouTube videos.

Which brings me back to Habermas. His project in the latter part of the last century involved the connections between quality communication and civil society. He makes some remarkable claims. First, he suggests that there is a form of Objective Truth and that we can attend to a reality not dependent upon our personal opinions. Second, he affirms the possibility of intersubjectivity — that we can understand another’s position even if we disagree with it. Third, our conversation must avoid both coercion and ideology. Finally, by practicing careful conversation that attends to the other and respects the value of their position, we begin to weave together a civil society.

I’m reminded of a book I read long ago by defense attorney Jerry Spence. It was called How to Argue and Win Every Time. It was a little slight of hand: he really suggested that if you made your argument so carefully that the other fully understood, that constituted a win. I still find it helpful.

I don’t know if Spence read Habermas, but I like the continuity. We must learn to speak in ways that carefully engage the other’s legitimate position, examine complexity in place of shibboleths, and think about how our argument will be heard. These are important liberal arts skills directly related to critical thinking.

Our colleges do best when we figure out how to handle diverse positions. Our politics do best when they are addressing the complexity required to pursue the common welfare. Our churches do best when we can affirm God’s Story without minimizing the complexity of His work in the contemporary world.

I needed to hear Habermas today. He will keep my optimism alive for at least another week.


2 Comments

  1. How exactly is saying that “one of the major obstacles” reductionistic? It is not saying that sex is the most important thing. And Keller would surely agree that there are a host of reasons why young people doubt their faith. Aren’t you really just saying that you disagree that sex plays as big a role as Keller claims?

    • Alan: One of the challenges of keeping the blog short and writing a series is that I can’t elaborate everything (or I’m referencing some earlier post). If you went to the link regarding Keller, you saw the broader interpretation. Several of my posts have reflected on the issues young evangelicals are reacting to with regard to the institutional church. That’s the Putnam and Campbell reference but Kinnaman’s work for Barna says much of the same thing. My point is that the issues of premarital sex a) are not really that new and b) are at best symptomatic and not causal. So my real point is not about sex at all but the issues we aren’t speaking about.

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