I happen to believe we’re losing the art of conversation in the 21st century. I won’t try to defend that sweeping generalization; it’s only an opinion, though I think there’s observable data to lend it credibility. I think a lot about conversation as a pastor, because I witness and/or participate in many exchanges that pass for conversation in today’s world. It’s especially disheartening to see the state of conversation among those who profess to follow Jesus. Our “conversations” as God’s people tell a lot about our view of Him, our understanding of relationship, and the state of our hearts. The evidence, sad to say, is not always encouraging.
What I have in mind here isn’t primarily our mechanisms of conversing (it’s commonly agreed, for example, that digital technology has fundamentally changed the way we talk with/to/at each other, and not always for the better). What I have in mind is the attitude of our conversations, the basic relational posture we display toward each other, or what our parents called “manners.” It seems to me our society is losing its manners, and judgment must begin at the house of God.
One would expect serious adherence to Christianity to invest a believer with qualities that make for excellent conversation. To the contrary, it often seems that the more rigorous one’s Christian commitments (especially in youth), the more curmudgeonly one becomes. I meet and interact with sincere Christians who, for whatever reason, seem to need a fight, some mighty cause that involves bashing in helmets. They’re ready to fight with live opponents; they’re equally ready to fight with caricatures of their own inventing. If you’ve ever “conversed” with someone like this, you know it’s basically impossible, because s/he doesn’t listen long or well enough to understand you (understanding isn’t the point of the “conversation”). Eventually you realize s/he’s fighting someone who isn’t actually you. It’s best then simply to bow out politely and go find something fruitful to do. Dealing with the sort who badly needs an argument isn’t fun, but at least you can see the silliness for what it is.
There’s another way serious-minded Christians kill conversation, however, and it’s harder to see because it wears more grownup clothes. If the attitude just described is fire, this one is ice. What strikes you when you start to converse isn’t necessarily external bluster, but an iron fist under the glove. The tone of “conversation” is quickly set by the posture: “I’m the resident expert on . . .” (expressed in ways ranging from obnoxious to impressive). There’s none of the comfortable, inviting, “I’m a fellow learner with you” sense that you get with a real friend. You can’t tell this person what you really think, especially if you’re still working it through; it would only invite a lecture, derision, blacklisting, or some other unpleasantness. You may be listened to with varying degrees of patience; you may be patronized, even pitied; but at the end of the day, really, you just need to listen. That’s the only tranquil way forward. The expert’s conclusions are settled; if you are wise, you’ll join him. The idea that truth might lie other than where he is, or be broad enough to encompass at least part of where you both stand, isn’t one that gets any primetime in his head.
Should you meet this sort of “expert,” I suggest you excuse yourself as soon as possible. The alternative is to sit at his feet and believe whatsoever he sayeth. Be his views never so orthodox, you’re wasting your time if it’s conversation you seek; conversation is possible only between fellow learners. You can go a long way with someone whose posture is that of a fellow learner; even if you disagree vigorously and in principle, you will still learn a lot from each other. What will make it work is not agreement, but humility. Respect. Love.
For all the talk of tolerance in the 21st century, we’re not a society characterized by humility, respect, love, courtesy, or any of the other virtues once described as “manners.” And little wonder, considering the contents of so many saltshakers.