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Fostering Conversations that Count: The Discussion Worldview

April 30th, 2007 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In order for educators to promote great discussions, it is crucial for them to understand the beliefs necessary for great discussions to occur. In other words, there are certain commitments that educators and participants need to have in place for important and meaningful discussions to occur. These presuppositions are like the foundation holding up the house: no progress is going to be made building the house if there is no solid foundation. While this worldview is not exempt from the process of discussion—indeed, it is a prime candidate!—the wrong answers here will erode one’s ability to grow and learn and change.

I should say at the outset that as this is not a piece on apologetics. I have no intention of arguing for these ideas here. If reader’s wish, we can take them up in the comments or in subsequent posts. While I expect these ideas to be some of the most controversial of the series, my aim is to simply explicate them and make it clear how not believing each particular idea would inhibit conversations. Without further ado, then, the foundation for great conversations.

The Existence of Truth. In C.S. Lewis’s masterful dream-like novel, The Great Divorce, he records a conversation with an Anglican priest who rejects heaven for hell. At the core of the priest’s resistance to heaven is the idea that heaven is a place of facts. He is far more interested in his opinion, and consequently refuses to enter heaven. “To travel hopefully is better to arrive,” he claims. Questions are more important than answers. Answers bring finality and stagnation—they are the way to dogmatism, which in our contemporary climate can only be said with a sneer.

But inquiry—discussion, questions, conversation—is about finding answers, not about endlessly questioning. It is about finding a deeper understanding of both the questions and the answers, whether those answers are revealed to us in Scripture or are simply products of experience. As the Priest’s friend from heaven puts it, “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers…Thirst was made for water, inquiry for truth.”[1] The irony, of course, is that the Priest leaves heaven to return to an eternity of isolation and solitude. In fact, he laments the fact that his normal group of friends have lost their intellectual abilities. The conversation in heaven—a conversation of inquiry and understanding—is only possible in light of the fact that there are facts in the world. Outside the existence of answers, no genuine conversation is possible.

The point is a simple one: if no final answers exist, then ultimately the best that we can do is opinion. This has three potential effects, though, on conversation. One, it destroys the notion of progress. Because there are no facts to measure opinions or interpretations by, there is no standard to which opinions must be measured. And consequently, there is no possibility of progress in the discussion. The whole notion of progress depends upon a fixed goal, and in learning, that fixed goal is facts. It is easy to see how a rejection of facts is an invitation to despair.

The second effect of this worldview, though, is more pernicious. If only opinions count, then “persuasion” changes from persuading someone to see the way things are to persuading someone to see things how I see them. In other words, the discussion moves away from a spirit of inquiry to a spirit of power. May the most rhetorically persuasive person win. Besides being antithetical to the Christian gospel, that sort of environment will stifle any real conversation.

Thirdly, if a conversation is not focused on knowing the truth, then what often happens is “opinion-lobbing.” In other words, people simply say their opinions without opening themselves to hard questions or criticisms. This happens a lot, I think, in Church small groups. Because we are afraid of making others feel bad, we sometimes allow opinions to be stated without rebuttal or question. This sort of opinion-lobbing, though therapeutic and sometimes necessary, will eventually stifle conversation. The only thing that keeps a great conversation alive is the pursuit of a truth that is independent of anyone’s minds.

The existence of truth—whether about the world, about texts, about beauty, about anything—is absolutely essential if discussion is going to be something more than opinion-lobbing or power struggles. When societies and cultures reject it, screaming matches ensue. Much of contemporary political debate, to pick an easy target, operates in this way. People do not talk with others outside their political ideology: rather, they read and listen to opinions that reaffirm their own beliefs, and then yell at the other side (yes, I am far too guilty of this as well, but I try to be civil in my yelling!). But such discourse is only a branch on the tree–at the root, is a subtle replacement of power for truth.

The Goodness of Truth. Charles Williams, a friend of C.S. Lewis, member of “The Inklings,” and a prolific author in his own right once stated that, “All facts are facts of joy.” In other words, the truth—no matter how painful or difficult—is always good for us. We were made to live in reality, and will only be happy to the extent that we do live there.

This commitment to the goodness of truth is absolutely essential for great conversations. The reasoning is simple: if people are skeptical about whether facts—the ultimate answers of the universe—will actually be good for them, then desire for the truth will diminish. Why would we want the truth if lies are just as good? While itself a topic of conversation, over a long period of time, a rejection of the goodness of truth will result in the end of discussion and learning.

The Knowability of Truth.Aristotle, the greek philosopher, began his Metaphysics with the simple claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (“understand” is probably a better translation). As Lewis pointed out in the section above, thirst is for water. And thirst indicates the existence of water—because we desire to know, it seems plausible that we can know. The goodness and existence of truth are of little value to us if we cannot. The third foundational idea, then, is the knowability of truth.

This does not mean, of course that we have absolute certainty, especially about difficult truths such as the existence of God. As cliched as it is, we may actually be in The Matrix, completely deceived about the nature of our reality. But certainty seems like an unreasonable standard for knowledge. It seems possible to be reasonably confident in the things we know, including the truths of Christianity. We “see in a glass darkly,” of course, which means we must be appropriately humble about our claims. But humility does not entail denying knowledge or understanding.

If the truth is unknowable, then it is easy to see how motivation to think hard and come to understanding might be lost. Perpetual agnosticism breeds bitter skepticism—questioning everything for the sake of destroying people’s confidence in what they know—or an apathy about finding the truth. Conversation—at least healthy conversation—can last only so long in that sort of environment.

Learning, Not Winning. When people think of discussion classes, they tend to think of them in terms of debates. In other words, they are battle grounds where students duke it out with words. Discussion is about winning arguments, not coming to a more profound understanding of truths. But by setting up a standard of winning, individuals must compete with each other, rather than work together. Fundamentally, great discussions are about inquiry, not about conquest. And inquiry can only exist where understanding matters more than winning. (Yup, I made this point earlier, but it bears repeating!)

The Incarnation. It is no surprise that the bottom of the foundation for great discussions is one of the central truths of the Christian faith. The stunning and powerful message of the gospel is that Jesus—the eternally begotten Son of God—laid aside his own interests for the sake of redeeming mankind. As Phillipians 2:5-11 indicates, He gave up his claim to equality with God and submitted himself to the hands of men. The rest, as they say, is history.

A firm belief in the Incarnation and a willingness to follow in Jesus’s path are essential for great discussions. Often, when people gather to talk everyone comes with their own agenda. It is crucial, though, to know how to set that agenda aside and submit to the best interest of the group, even as the leader of the discussion. Some people feel better by talking: it is crucial to know when to stay silent. Others feel good if they can hide in a corner and not speak, but that too must be let go of when the good of the group demands it. In order to work together effectively, to make progress, groups must embrace an incarnational and sacrificial approach to learning. While such benevolent altruism is certainly fitting for all of human activity, and hence may be available to natural reason (rather than revelation), it is the life of Christ who most perfectly exemplifies it, and hence it is Him that discussion leaders (and participants!) must imitate.

A Sense of Mission. Communities—groups of people—are formed when they have common objects of interest and love, and when they have common experiences based upon those objects of interest. For instance, the Church is formed when individuals who have the same object of interest—namely, pursuing Jesus Christ and His Kingdom—gather together for that purpose. As conflicts arise, this basic commitment to the same goal and the shared experience of pursuing it keeps people together. The mission of worshipping Jesus and living out the Kingdom draws people together.

In many ways, great discussions are similarly mission oriented. They are focused on a purpose that brings everyone together. In many cases, that purpose can be simply understanding the text or issue under consideration. But the more invested the members of the group are in the mission, the more invested they will be in the fulfillment of it and in the fulfillment of it as a group. This suggests, though, that learning is a communal process, with communal aims. The point is worth making, but not surprising. Learning is a human activity, and humans are communal beings with communal aims. The stronger the bonds that bring the community together–namely, an object of inquiry or love that is outside the community–the stronger the bonds within the community. The cheeky, but true, way of putting this is, “Seek first the text, and all else shall be added unto it.”

Though Dr. Sanders has made me scared to say it, I think the the incarnation and mission point to the Trinitarian basis for discussion. Jesus’ mission is to lay aside his own interests for the sake of others. He is co-missioned by the Father to reveal the Father’s love to the world. And at the core of His mission is bringing glory to God. His perfect communion with the Father enables Him to complete and fulfill the task he had been given—he takes individual responsibility and sacrifices his own interests in order to promote the interests of the community who is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is the model for great discussions: a sense of mission and purpose that empowers individuals to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the community.Conclusion. Such a worldview, as I said, is certainly open for discussion. Indeed, it is crucial to question the foundations of discussion as much as anything else. While it is possible to have discussions without having this sort of worldview, my interest is not in what’s possible, but what makes for great discussions–for discussions that bring people together into community, discussions that transform lives, discussions that allow us to conform our opinions to the truth in healthy fashion, and discussions that contribute to our human flourishing. And it is my claim that the above beliefs are crucial for understanding and experiencing those sorts of discussions.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, page 41.>Update:  The tags for some reason were screwing up the rest of the site.  They have hopefully been corrected.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.