Monday, January 31, 2011


I've got about six weeks to get my submissions written for this year's National Communication Association convention. Two of my papers will be quick and dirty, but one is a sustained scholarly effort. What's below is my attempt to sketch what I think the final product will look like, to give myself some guidance. If you have a thought, do feel free to share it.

Premise number one: Christians exist for the purpose of drawing near to God. We can only do so, we can only bridge the alienation brought about by our sin, because Christ took the punishment and reconciled us to God. Once we accept this, we are in right relationship with God, God's children, and from there we walk daily with Him, growing nearer to Him as the Holy Spirit works to conform us to the image of His son.

The important bit: the Christian life is relational.

Premise number two: this relational essence makes it the higher priority than message content in things we say to, about, and in service of, God. Paul Watzlawick wrote in Pragmatics of Human Communication that every message has a content dimension and a relational dimension. If a wife asks her husband to lift something heavy for her, and he, watching TV, says "I'll come do it at the next commercial," he may think she's just made a simple request and he's agreed to do it within a reasonable time, which is what the content conveys, but she may fume that he treats her as less important than the television, which is a relational message. Transferring that concept to this discussion, much of what we do, including Bible study, including worship, including prayer, including fellowship, including serving people in need, involves producing and consuming utterances, each of which has a content and relational dimension, but if premise number one is correct, then the relational dimension is always dominant over the content dimension.

The important bit: what we say is never as important as the way our sayings position us relative to God.

Premise number three: our relationship with God is primarily instantiated in a single dialectical tension, not the several that turn up in relationships between humans. Leslie Baxter's work argues that people experience the desire to be together and apart, to be open with one another and maintain privacy, to work up a repertoire of traditions and be spontaneous, and that the life of a relationship is the endless collaborative balancing of those tensions. But all three are meaningless in the relationship between human and God: we're never apart from God, we have no privacy from Him, and we cannot surprise Him. Instead, I tentatively assert that our dialectical tension in relating to God is wisdom vs. innocence. God calls on us to trust Him with a childlike faith, but also allows us to argue with Him, even occasionally letting us win the argument.

The important bit: our relational positioning with God drives us to find the right mix of trust and critical acuity.

Premise number four: Christian argumentation has to date been dominated by an apologetic tilt, which has much in common with multi-vitamins. Taking One-A-Day® can be a good idea if someone's diet actually lacks an important nutrient, but anyone who eats a balanced diet doesn't need such supplements. It's been said that Americans, who lead all other nations in consumption of vitamin pills, simply have the world's most expensive urine. Worse, in some cases high doses of vitamins can be toxic. The fit of this analogy comes from the largely unacknowledged dangers of apologetic argumentation; where someone's faith is crumbling because they can't get over a reasoned objection to Christianity, then apologetic work is a vitamin, correcting a deficiency. But where people pursue such arguments for their own sake, they risk damaging their faith. C. S. Lewis, widely regarded as the contemporary champion of apologetics, repeatedly warned people not to attempt to build up their faith by winning debates, insisting that his own apologetic work had weakened his faith, and the only correction was to experience God's presence directly. Again, the relationship was far more important than the content.

The important bit: Trying to win arguments that prove God's existence or other Christian teachings can address specific obstacles to faith, but is equally likely to weaken it if deployed unnecessarily.

Premise number five: The proper role for Christian argumentation can be understood along the lines of work done by Doug Ehninger in the late nineteen sixties: argument as mutual correction, as a way of granting personhood to another, making oneself vulnerable to another and thereby building a bond. God shows us by joining in argument with us that He is not distant, detached, uninvolved, and as we argue with Him, we are forced to accept correction where we are wrong. Similarly, the arguments we have between ourselves should be opportunities to build fellowship, to grant one another the dignity of making our reasons explicit and being open to persuasion by the other, to surrendering our positions when they are successfully refuted. In all these instances, the relationship is far more important than the content. Rabbinic scholars fell into the trap of adding layer upon layer of content over the Torah, drowning it in commentary and judgments, at the price of a dynamic and engaged relationship with God and one another, and if we pull back from unnecessary apologetic argument and instead use argument as exploration of difference and a procedure for building trust, then we arrive at a more robust and sturdy bond.

The important bit: Argument as procedure has the potential to strengthen relationships, and the Christian life is relational in its essence. ■

I know I'm using argument in incommensurable ways, between us and God and between person and person, but that's one of the things I'll get sorted out. This is just a start, and I've got six weeks to develop it.

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