Inspiring Dialogue: Moving beyond ‘agree to disagree’

By Calum Samuelson 09 Nov 2017

This article reflects upon some central themes of our Reformation2017 project and how they can be carried forward in the future…

Despite our unprecedented access to knowledge, the world today seems more confused than ever before. Christians are called to speak into this cacophony with hopeful, distinctive voices and offer coherent contributions to help make things right. During our recent effort to collect ‘95 new theses’ we encouraged participants to act along these lines by practising a three-part method: Affirmation, Analysis and Action. This is based upon the categories of Creation, Fall and Redemption professed in a Biblical Worldview.

Affirmation: Protesting is in our blood,[1] and the Reformation gave it extra institutional backing in the West. But while bad news has always sold best, it has only been in the last decade that ordinary people have been able to post instantly their reactions in a global space. Interestingly, negative stories in the media produce a type of ‘lose-lose’ scenario: some may disagree with interpretation or delivery, but most will tacitly side with the headlines by adding their voice of condemnation to whatever has been reported (murder, theft, corruption, etc.). Either way, most of the noise is made up of disapproving voices.

The first ‘A’ challenges us to step back from the immediate clamour and consider what fundamental values undergird a story or situation (for good or ill). Because these values are seldom spelled out in detail, they often remain fuzzy in the minds of both speakers and audiences. Consider the growing number of sexual harassment cases: these elicit a general malaise among the public, but on what basis? For some, the basis is an affirmation of sex as a sacred act for committed relationships. For others, it is an affirmation of honest work without coercion, and respect regardless of gender. For most, it is the affirmation of consent as the highest social ethic governing sexual encounters.

Many ‘affirmations’ have become fused with particular political and/or social agendas so that they actually cause more divisiveness than solidarity. Other ‘affirmations’ can be so vague that they end up functioning as some ‘nice thing’ someone says before heaping on vitriol. Accordingly, Christians should make a habit of affirming in ways that establish common ground without compromising beliefs or simply serving as tactical ploys.

An inspiring, paradigmatic example is set by Paul: ‘Athenians, I can see how extremely religious you are in every way’. What might the equivalent be for today? The case of sexual scandals is difficult to address because it involves multiple factors, but it seems that two of the foremost are sex and power. Consequently, a Christian affirmation might look something like this: ‘Sex is powerful, but should never be used to exercise or manipulate power.’

An affirmation sets the trajectory for dialogue and helps others see what we are ‘for’ rather than what we are simply ‘against’. More importantly, a prudent affirmation acts as an opportunity for Christians to urge our fellow humans forward to greater things.[2]

Analysis: It seems that we have largely lost the ability to ‘agree to disagree’. Perhaps one important reason for this is our diminishing ability to listen well. In a world of noise, the loudest speaker ‘wins’ the argument; because the noise is incessant, silence disqualifies us from conversation. But as Proverbs 10:19 so aptly observes, ‘When words are many, transgression is not lacking.’

The second ‘A’ helps us remember that words do not necessarily demonstrate knowledge and that opinions are distinct from wisdom. The Bible discusses ‘hearing’ (shama’) as more than mere audible reception; it conveys understanding and obedience. This type of hearing (what has been called ‘double listening’) has at least two dimensions, both of which are vital for a proper analysis. 1) Building on the first ‘A’ (affirmation), we must draw on the theology of Creation and understand that every problem is a corruption of an original good. 2) We must then seek to understand actually and genuinely what our neighbours are saying. Only then will our analysis be both truthful and meaningful to our culture.

Unfortunately, ‘disagree’ is being used increasingly to describe an emotional dislike of an idea. It is not coincidental that James exhorts readers to be ‘slow to anger’ in the same breath as ‘quick to listen’ and ‘slow to speak’.[3]

Ultimately, real listening must move beyond reading texts, hearing words, or even absorbing information. It must also move beyond the simple ‘lack of speech’ which characterizes a world of ‘intersecting monologues’.[4] Rather, it necessitates both a genuine understanding of an argument as well as an awareness of the person who is speaking—only then can we legitimately ‘disagree’. Once again, Paul is a helpful example. After affirming the religiousness of the Athenians, he carries out his ‘analysis’ with an understanding of their beliefs and 

Raphael,'St Paul Preaching in Athens' (1515)

situation by quoting their own poets![5] Our analyses should strive likewise to describe the problem clearly in light of an affirmation and display regard for the various people involved.

Action: It should go without saying that actions should follow genuine belief. We wear seatbelts and helmets because we understand that they can save our lives in an accident, and special glasses before we stare at a solar eclipse. Indeed, James’ famous plea for us to ‘be doers of the word’ comes just after he urges us to be ‘quick to listen’.[6] Returning to the biblical concept of hearing, lack of action often demonstrates a lack of understanding.[7]

But beyond simply demonstrating a consistency between our ‘walk’ and our ‘talk’, the third ‘A’ has the powerful ability to testify to the value and need of seeking the ‘welfare of the city’ in which we find ourselves. The problems of our world are urgent and important, but Christians are both equipped to face them head-on and obligated to testify to the hope that is within them. The real challenge of making a call to action is that it requires us to go beyond pointing the finger of blame or responsibility at someone else. It forces us to think about realistic and feasible steps that can be taken to address the problem that we have analysed. Hopefully these steps will have some reasonable chances of success.


In the end, it is possible that some may dismiss this threefold method as a helpful but redundant renaming of well-known logical categories: premise, argument and conclusion. But Christians are not called to argue for argument’s sake. Instead, we engage others because we know the Gospel to be true; it is the ultimate Affirmation, the premier Premise. The three ‘A’s force us to avoid one-size-fits-all answers and throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the most difficult and worthwhile mission we can know—loving the world as Salt and Light.

[1] ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’; Genesis 3:9.

[2] John 14:12; 1 Corinthians 2:9.

[3] James 1:19-20.

[4] This phrase has been attributed to Rebecca West.

[5] Acts 17:24-31.

[6]  James 1:22-27.

[7] See the ‘foolish man’ in Matt. 7:26.

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