All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.
“I’m also curious about more of your beliefs, though, too (not so much the history as current perspectives).” -Damon, in response to my question about his background.
Following the discussion of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, I was curious about why Damon wasn’t familiar with those terms, and about his spiritual journey in general. This is a common consideration in talking with people that when you’re having a conversation about beliefs, you should try to get to know one another a little bit. Knowing a person’s background can help out immensely in trying to understand them. It’s also a good way to demonstrate that you care about them; I don’t take the time to ask about the background of people I argue with anonymously on forums (given the medium, I suspect few would be willing to give many details about themselves anyway). With Damon, because our conversation had been protracted at this point, I felt it was a necessary thing to do; I wanted to better understand where he was coming from, so I flat out asked him where he came from.
I have no criticisms of Damon’s background as he presented it, though in reading over the whole conversation again, it occurs to me that I wish I had done more to point out that his beliefs about the Bible were received from the people with whom he studied it. I didn’t fall into evangelicalism independently after I decided to become a Christian; heck, I doubt anyone even decides to become a Christian without some communal influence. I only bring this up because in the subsequent exchanges, I think it becomes more and more apparent that Damon is clinging to the belief that he’s reading the Bible the right way because that’s how the Bible says it should be read.
Setting the tautological problem aside for the moment, I find this line of reasoning concerning because it fails to give credit to all the people who have had a part in a person’s spiritual education. For my part, I can go back and say that I was heavily influenced in my understanding of Christianity first by my pastor in college, then my in-laws after I got married, then my non-Christian friends when I moved to where I live now. Along the way I read a lot of different people’s work discussing issues related to Christianity, and that had an impact as well. Never in my nearly nine years as a Christian have I been learning about God in a vacuum. I feel like when Damon says “I immediately got to [reading the Bible] and read through it cover to cover (while also attending church and going to a Bible study). […] Over time, I came to understand how several of such beliefs conflicted with my belief in the Bible, and I changed my understandings,” he’s glossing over that very important factor of who his spiritual mentors were.
That’s kind of a big oversight.
It’s especially bad when you consider that within evangelical circles, one of the most common ways that Christians are taught to perform evangelism is to prepare personal testimonies that they can deliver to people. These testimonies are typically not designed to appeal to objective evidence in trying to persuade others about the value of Christianity; they’re about telling stories to others. Those stories are almost invariably very personal in nature, because they revolve around telling someone where you’ve been in life, what kind of things you’ve struggled with, and how becoming a Christian has affected you. It’s a lot to lay out for a stranger.
It’s also a lot to lay out to a stranger, which is why typically you have to earn the right to tell someone else about yourself; the fastest way to do that is to ask after them. Try to get their story.
And for God’s sake, don’t do it with your fingers in your ears; actually listen to what the other person’s telling you instead of just waiting until it’s your turn to speak.
Besides ignoring the fact of nondivine influences on his own development, I feel like Damon made a much more offensive error in telling me that he wasn’t concerned about learning my history. Yes, he asked about my current beliefs, but it feels dishonest to explain all of those without the context of where I’ve been as a Christian. I can give an explanation of why I don’t believe in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but without the context of all the years where I struggled with that doctrine as it forced me to come to conclusions that weighed against my conscience and the reading and thinking I had to do to finally reject it, my explanation is likely to fall flat.
Also, and this doesn’t factor much in debate (but it matters a whole heck of a lot when it comes to evangelism), but not asking about me hurts. It shows a lack of concern for the other person, which is totally damning if your goal is to share your own opinions in a manner that will be well received.
But I’ll get more into that later.