Politics and religion. The two topics that can create the most intense polarization when it comes to conversation.
Most people advise just staying away entirely from either. When either topic is brought up in a social setting, change the subject quickly and as subtly as possible, they say.
Why is it that discussing religion in particular can stir up such passion? I think because religion is an extremely personal matter to so many, and because emotions are so easily bound to one’s religious beliefs.
Religion is a rather broad category, and the term resonates in either a negative or positive tone with people. The term theology, however, sounds more academic and is not quite as volatile. Theology simply means the study of God. Theology truly is a fascinating topic, and people of all religious backgrounds or no religious background have an appreciation for the topic. Many sometimes enfold a bit of philosophy (the love of wisdom), anthropology (the study of man), and history into their theological discussions. And that’s fine, because theology touches all of those disciplines as well.
But can you have a really productive and meaningful discussion about God without it devolving into a chest-beating contest of one-ups-manship that erupts into a back alley brawl? Sure! Your back and forth can be spirited and passionate, but at the same time an educational and friendship-building experience. So here are a few ideas to discussing theology in a positive way.
Show respect and consideration
People have different views concerning theology, even those within the same faith tradition. You may be talking about God with a person from an entirely different religious tradition, or you may identify as an agnostic or atheist. The key is to be respectful and show kind consideration to those you differ with in religious belief.
If you start out with even the hint of an antagonistic or dismissive attitude, it can be smelled a mile away like a skunk. If you come to the conversation with “both barrels loaded” you might as well not come. It’s not going to be helpful to anyone.
Ask honest questions
If you’re unfamiliar with the other individual’s belief system or view of God, ask questions about what you’d like to know or have explained. Don’t ask questions to bait or intentionally trip them up. We ask questions for the purpose of gaining information.
“Why” and “how” questions are the typical first words of our honest questions. Why does your tradition practice (a particular ritual)? How do you interpret this passage of the Bible? Why do you believe/not believe ____? How would you explain ____? Curiosity and the honest desire to learn can open all sorts of avenues into these relationships.
Give honest answers
If you’re going to ask questions, be prepared to field some questions yourself. And you need to answer honestly. If you don’t know how to answer a particular question posed to you, don’t fake it with some platitude or on-the-spot explanation. Just admit you’re not certain. Not knowing the answer is not weakness. It’s not a failure to represent your viewpoint well to say you don’t know something. Be honest with your answer. The other person will respect that.
Don’t be afraid to give an honest answer to a question on a hard or sensitive issue out of fear the other person will reject you. There are hard questions when it comes to theology, and you are convinced of your answer, but you perhaps feel you should pull your punch and water it down. You can still answer honestly but kindly. Keep in mind the principle of respect and consideration.
Good listening is key to a beneficial theological discussion. Practice active listening–good eye contact, leaning forward, asking for clarification, repeating back things the other person has said, etc. Listening is a demonstration of genuine interest in another person. It makes them feel valued, and that’s important to any of us.
Let your goal be to learn and share, not “win.”
Finally, the purpose of your conversation is personal growth and the deepening of a relationship, not to score points against an opponent. If you approach the discussion of theology with the attitude of seeking to learn something about someone else and their perspective, your discussion should produce great results.
Also, go into the talk with a generous spirit of being willing to share your beliefs and convictions so that the other person can be better informed on a different perspective on the things concerning God. Some will read this and say, What about truth? I believe truth will always prevail, my friend. Truth stands perfectly well on its own and doesn’t need any man to prop it up or make it more attractive.
Some of the benefits of discussing theology this way are 1) the door remains open for future discussions, 2) your credibility expands with the other person, and 3) you see the other person less in terms of the religious view they hold and more in terms of who they are as an individual. There’s no need for an argument or even a debate. The only thing you need to win is a friend.
When discussing theology, speak respectfully, considerately, honestly, and listen well.