02 October 2009

Contextually Speaking

I've noticed, especially in myself and in various projects over the past decade or so, that anything less than lavish praise tends tends to be perceived as a lack of support, while attempts at constructive criticism are frequently received as hostile attacks and violent opposition. It's a shame, really, because a rigorous critique and vigorous discussion and debate are among the most helpful and healthy things for the life of the Church, and for the faith and life of individual Christians. Yet, such lively engagement and wrestling with one another over opinions and approaches, over words and actions, makes us uncomfortable. At any rate, sadly, it makes me uncomfortable; and, as a consequence, both I and my neighbor are impoverished by the avoidance of debate.

It's sort of like the way my lovely wife has summarized what passes for communication on Facebook: By and large, it must either be syrupy sweet or panderingly sympathetic. By all means, everything has to be pithy and lighthearted, or ostensibly funny. Passive aggression is tolerated, but only if it is carefully disguised as humor. Insults are likewise permitted, so long as they are aimed at the "others," as in "us vs. them." Disagreements between "friends" are a breach of Facebook etiquette; or, so it has felt and so it has seemed to me. I am the chief of sinners, let that be stated clearly; but I am not alone.

The perception that anything less than praise is akin to hostility is, I suspect, encouraged and exacerbated by the "all or nothing" approach to life, which appears to have become the norm. I'm a big believer in normative truth, and I like to have things "black and white," as much or more than anyone, but trying to insist on "all or nothing" doesn't work in a fallen world; not in Peoria, nor anywhere else. Until the sorting of the sheep and the goats, the weeds and the wheat grow intermingled, and the good and the bad fish are caught up together in the net. The only certainty we have is in the Word of Christ, who speaks both Law and Gospel to us; not the one without the other. He comes not to call the self-righteous, but sinners to repentance. He does not condone sin, but He does forgive it, again and again and again, and He welcomes the Prodigal home on no contingency but His own holy and precious blood. He speaks Peace to us by way of an alien righteousness, and so we find ourselves betwixt and between heaven and hell, simul iustus et peccator. Trying to insist on "all or nothing," is to place both ourselves and our neighbors under the Law; and that is simply to lose both ourselves and our neighbors to sin and death. Rightly dividing the Word of Truth means calling a thing what it is, in friend and foe alike.


Susan said...

One of the things I've found is that constructive criticism is not received well when there is not a solid relationship there in the first place. In other words, past criticism (that wasn't exactly constructive) causes a person to later perceive hostility when the discussion may have been intended as constructive criticism. I wonder if the flightiness of our relationships today (as on Facebook) -- or if we're still healing from past abuses in a relationship -- make us jumpy whenever there is disagreement or criticism, not knowing where it may be going.

Cheryl said...

Interesting thoughts. I remember reading an essay a number of years ago by a college professor who was talking about a change he had perceived in the students in his classes in recent years compared to the past. He said that more than anything he would describe his current students as nice--never wanting to confront or question one another, not wanting to disagree for fear of offending. Everyone just wanted to keep everything pleasant and get along. Not too conducive to the critical thinking and discussion he was hoping to encourage in his classroom. Rather than get into a debate his students just preferred to back off with a "well, that's your opinion and you're entitled to it" response and not engage with one another.

I think you are right that the trend these days is to not criticize for fear of people taking it personally. We are afraid to criticize our children for fear of hurting their self esteem. We are afraid to disagree with friends for fear of harming the relationship. So we avoid it. Interestingly enough, though, I think cyberspace has personally helped me to become more comfortable with expressing my opinion even when it puts me in the position of disagreeing with someone. I have a harder time doing it in person. I'm braver on email lists and blogs. :-)

As for Facebook, I see it not really as a place for exploring anything of depth but more as a playground. It's just for fun (at least for me). More than anything I think Facebook (and similar forums) are about connecting with and affirming people. So I would agree that the discourse there is pretty shallow. But I don't think FB lends itself very well to anything of greater depth. It's kind of like going to a party--you want to keep the conversation light and fun and not get into a theological or political debate that goes on for hours and spoils the festive mood. You want to be pleasant and have a nice evening and make people feel good that they spent time with you. You want to play party games and have a few laughs. At least that's how I look at it!

Christopher Esget said...

I think Cheryl is correct - Facebook is not the right arena for substantive discussions. I've quit on it several times, because of nasty comments, often by people who are quite ignorant. But I keep going back, because I miss knowing what friends and family are doing. A blog is a much better place for real discussion.

TruthQuestioner said...

I think you're picking at something I've sensed as well, but I haven't been able to name it yet.

While there's something in us humans that longs for praise, even more do we long for honesty and something deeper than surface communication and relationships. When all's said and done, I don't care about the game I play if I'm not playing it with a person. And a person is more than the mask that he wears on the surface, the casual remarks he makes. My own friendships are a continual exercise in systematically removing my own mask and coaxing my friends to do the same. It can be exhausting to really try to know a person, to know him or her well enough to be concerned about him and understand what concerns her. Only when one takes the time to comprehend another person can one expect that one can engage him in effective and mutually beneficial debate.

I think that may people today are both lazy and scared of being hurt. It's risky to take off one's mask and work to tease off another's. So we content ourselves with surface level relationships and make up for shallowness by sheer quantity. In such relationships, one cannot risk confrontation because mutual trust has not been established. Yet, sometimes differences of opinion DO come up in these relationships. Because a deeper-than-surface understanding has not been developed between individuals, voicing of differences often produces misunderstandings, quarrels, debates of apples and oranges, and hurt feelings.

At the root, is our sinful self-centeredness which doesn't care about our neighbor, and is more concerned about being right than about making right understood. For how, even if we were always right, could we explain "the right" to our neighbor unless we first understand him and how he thinks? And how shall we understand our neighbor unless we make an honest attempt, recognizing that our neighbor too is a rational human being - and more than that, is one for whom Christ died?

Anyway, at this point I'm not quite sure where I'm going...I hope that's somewhat coherent.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thank you all for your comments. I appreciate your thoughts and observations, and I'm sorry to be slow in replying. Keeping up with such things (both here and elsewhere) has been a challenge lately, and other priorities have simply had to come first.

Susan, I'm sure it is true that some people have become gun-shy on account of not-so-constructive criticisms in the past. I know what that feels like, too. Still, there is such a thing as constructive criticism, and it is usually possible to tell the difference. Anyway, in this post I am mainly noting a tendency and temptation that I find in myself, that is, to respond poorly to any critique. Really, on both sides of communication (in myself and in others), I sense that there is this "all or nothing" attitude, which isn't healthy or helpful.

I basically agree with the comments that have been made about Facebook. That forum has both its strengths and its weaknesses, and I don't have any particular grievance with it per se. My point was to suggest that the sort of "communication" that characterizes Facebook banter seems also to dominate in other contexts and conversations, too. That is my concern.

I honestly wonder how much real-life interaction there is between people, and how much genuine communication takes place outside of the internet realm. I concur that internet conversations, of various kinds, work best -- and they certainly can work very well, I believe -- when they are engaged by people who also interact in person and in spoken conversation. But I'm not sure how often that more personal communication is happening.

When I have gotten off Facebook, for example, mainly for the sake of my time (and because I do grow weary of some of the silliness), what I find is that I simply don't hear from people. Even people who are relatively close by, and with whom I have real-life connections, don't communicate with me much. Obviously, that goes both ways. I'm not pointing fingers at others without first of all examining myself in this regard.

Truth Questioner is correct, that genuine communication, which is the heart of a real relationship, involves a good deal of effort and risk. It is worth it, but it's hard, and it seems to be getting both harder and more elusive; for me, at any rate. I can function as a pastor, by virtue of my office, but trying to communicate well with my friends and to maintain friendships challenges me.

Pastor Grobien made a comment earlier this summer, which I've been mulling over ever since. It seems to summarize the heart of the problem. I won't remember his words exactly, but to paraphrase the point (as I understood it): There is a kind of violence to communication, because we present our mind and our will to others in and with our words, with some kind of intent to move, persuade, convince, or challenge another person. However, to avoid that verbal "violence" by avoiding communication would be inhuman, and thus another kind of violence inflicted against one's self.

Somehow, there needs to be the give and take of communication, which willingly suffers the "violence" of differing opinions, disagreement and debate, for the sake of love. Theologically speaking, this is also how we call one another to repentance, in order to live by grace through faith in Christ.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

This idea of communication as violence was most impressed upon me by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. See, e.g, his essay "Violence and Metaphysics," but the notion underlies much of his writing.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for the reference, Pastor Grobien, and also for sharing the underlying premise with me. It is one of those rare observations that really strikes home, and it has stuck with me ever since you mentioned it (at the CCA BBQ). I'll have to add Jacques Derrida to my always-growing list of things I need/want to read ;-)

Rebekah said...

I think another problem is that people are no longer formally trained in debate and are unable to distinguish between a fair argument and an ad hominem attack. Opposing viewpoints are taken personally, or personal attacks are substituted for real argumentation. It's just too risky to disagree with people any more. This is especially true on theological topics which always have implications for personal piety (or, more weirdly, orthodoxy, which is a status symbol in certain subgroups).

Susan said...

Rebekah's got a good point, Rick. I have engaged in mild-mannered honest debate and been surprised to find people get very agitated with the fact that I wasn't in full agreement with them. And as I said earlier, I have been bothered by comments which may have been constructive criticism or honest debate, but couldn't take it myself when it was coming from someone who had been downright ugly in the previous encounters. So, yeah, there is a significant risk today to disagreement.

Pastor talks sometimes about all the ways works-righteousness manifests itself in our lives. If I'm not going to love you unless we're in agreement, then you have to earn my love by agreeing, or at least by keeping your opinions to yourself so that the relationship isn't destroyed. Add to that skittishness the fact that many of us don't believe in absolutes anymore, and you never know whether debate is okay or whether you should just keep your head down and your mouth shut.

I expect that the attempts within synod at reconciliation between different viewpoints (such as the upcoming worship discussions) is handicapped from the start because we're afraid of debate and the tenuousness of the relationship. "Will it all explode in my face if I say what I really think? Will this relationship survive the debate? Can we love each other and forgive each other who are wrong? If it's about doctrine, can we let Wrong continue to exist? If not, how is there safety in honest debate?"

Pastor J Palm said...

I put Derrida in my category of people I must read because they are so bad, together with Freud, Marx, Darwin, Mill, etc.

Know them by their fruit.