Conversations of Hope in a Culture of Crisis
A core tenet of the CCCU’s work is to assist institutions in addressing and engaging the current issues of the day. At the 2022 International Forum, Richard Langer, professor of theology and director of the Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Biola University, led a session on cultivating conversations of hope in a culture of crisis. He turned content from that session into an article that will be released in a forthcoming issue in the Journal of Christian Higher Education (the January-March 2024 special issue); it has been adapted as a shorter resource here.
Christian universities have had significant conflicts with the surrounding culture on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and transgenderism, and critical race theory. What is different in recent years is that the venues of these controversies have begun to change: The conflicts that were once external are now internal. Many fear that culture wars have now become civil wars within many Christian institutions.
These are not controversies between Christian beliefs and a secular worldview. These conflicts are happening between committed Christians who give biblical reasons for their convictions. These stories are not surprising just because Christians disagree — even a casual reading of the New Testament would make disagreements between believers expected. What is striking is the anger, animosity, and contempt expressed in many of these discussions. The trend toward affective polarization in the broader culture is clearly found in our Christian institutions as well.
In early 2020, Biola University launched the Winsome Conviction Project (WCP) to help improve the communication climate regarding contentious issues and to address the challenges of polarization on our campus and in culture more broadly. Our mission was to facilitate large and small group conversations in which deeply held convictions would engage honest disagreements in a virtuous communication climate. Our primary concern was not to generate agreement. It was to make room for mutual love and respect, even in the face of disagreement. We were particularly concerned to help participants care deeply, think clearly, speak graciously, and listen patiently.
This article gives a brief account of some of the efforts we have found helpful on our campus, as well as some of the lessons learned. The hope is that our experience will encourage other universities to engage differences within their respective communities and to experiment with techniques for developing deeply held convictions without dividing our communities.
Engaging Conflict Through Small Groups
To respond to challenging conversations and tensions on campus, the WCP initiated a series of interventions aimed at facilitating better discourse, decreasing polarization, increasing mutual understanding, and promoting both social and intellectual virtues. These programs and events included both small groups and large public events on campus, as well as trainings and workshops in schools, churches, and Christian organizations.
One of the most important ways to change a communication climate is by having lots of small group conversations. Large, public events have their place, but when dozens or hundreds of people gather — even those with a robust Q&A session — most people are passive. Small groups are different. In group of six to 10, everyone can contribute both by listening and by speaking. We have found these groups to be invaluable for creating healthy conversations. No matter the setting or focus, a clear structure and a moderator who enforced the structure were essential to a successful conversation. Below are some of the kinds of discussion group experiences that we offered to the Biola community.
“Can We Talk About This?” This group, meant to help faculty talk about important social and political issues, was launched in the fall of 2020 by way of an email to all faculty members from the provost’s office, which read in part:
“Do you long for a safe space to explore contentious issues facing our culture today? Many of us would love to talk to others with different viewpoints, but it just doesn’t seem safe. In fact, it often seems downright dangerous. So we gravitate to echo-chamber groups, even though we long for a safe space to do something more. But safe spaces are made, not born.”
We had over a dozen faculty respond to the invitation. Before the first meeting, we sent out a survey with seven issues. For each issue, two positions were given — one using statements from the Democratic party platform and the other from the Republican party platform. Participants were asked to identify the statements they most agreed with. We identified the four issues our participants most disagreed about and used them as discussion topics for each meeting. The meetings took place on Zoom, which we found to be surprisingly effective. Each session lasted 90 minutes, ensuring everyone had time to participate.
We also discovered that many of our faculty felt uninformed about some of the issues that we talked about, so we distributed short readings (blogs or brief articles) before each session so everyone could get up to speed on the issue. We asked faculty to tell us after the final session what they found to be particularly valuable. Answers included appreciation for hearing different perspectives; value in a discussion format that promoted seeking understanding (not persuasion); and appreciation for the safe space to engage in conversations with a small number of people. The main challenge for the moderator was keeping contributions to a relatively brief 2-3 minutes. The structure of the conversation exercises went a long way toward mitigating contentious interactions. (See “Conversation Chain” at the end of this piece for further discussion of what this looked like.)
Social Justice Reading Group. This group emerged from two colleagues who shared an interest in surfing but disagreed on matters related to social justice. They decided to team up together and start a group that read and discussed each other’s favorites texts or articles about social justice. Additional participants were recruited in such a way as to assure a balance of differing viewpoints, and most participants remained in the group for almost three years. The readings included material on Catholic social thought, critical race theory, biblical justice, and other related topics. They did not use structured conversation tools — the readings themselves provided the structure.
Departmental Discussion Groups. Individual academic departments have participated, organized, and moderated discussion groups to address important, controversial, or divisive issues related to the activities or teaching focus of the department. These groups are intended to address foundational issues that impact the department, but not specific academic programs or teaching loads. So, for example, one department structured a moderated conversation to discuss how race should be engaged both among faculty and students, and also to reflect on our institutional practices in this regard. One of our clear lessons from this experience is that the time of a normal departmental meeting is insufficient for a good conversation, since there always seems to be regular departmental business that demands attention. In the future, we are planning similar exercises built around dinner meetings.
Public forums and large group events
In addition to the small groups, we hosted several larger events. Some were “Duologues,” a term we coined to describe a public discussion between two people with differing views that is structured to be a conversation rather than a debate. These were evening events that were open to the public, but they were also introduced to the Biola community in a morning chapel service. The participants were drawn exclusively from our own faculty members. These events were well attended and generally well received. (In fact, it was through one of these events that two donors came forward; their generosity resulted in the formal creation of the Winsome Conviction Project.)
In addition to the Duologues, we hosted a variety of other public events with guest speakers to maintain a tangible emphasis on civil discourse about contentious issues. The WCP also launched the Winsome Conviction Podcast and is actively involved in writing and speaking both locally and nationally. Facilitating a wide variety of trainings, workshops and consultations with Christian schools, churches, and Christian organizations was valuable for refining many of the activities we used in our on-campus events. We discovered a remarkable consistency in the challenges facing the Christian community regardless of size, geographical location, or ministry focus, but the specifics of these events move beyond the focus of this article.
It is helpful to synthesize what we have learned by drawing some lessons from our experience, but it is also important to regard these lessons as provisional reports rather than the confirmed findings of a systematic research project. With this clarification in place, here are some lessons we have learned about helping people speak face-to-face without going toe-to-toe.
Achieving disagreement is a worthwhile goal. Achieving disagreement sounds deceptively easy, but achieving misunderstanding is much more common than achieving real disagreement. The easiest way to test if one has really achieved disagreement is to have a person to state the position of their opponent. Until you can state the opinion of your opponent in a way that makes them nod their head and say, “Yes — you’ve got it,” you have failed to achieve disagreement. Achieving real disagreement always involves both facts and feelings. We don’t achieve disagreement until the conflicting parties can clearly state what each other believes and why the matter is so important to them.
Exchanging stories, not just conclusions. Healthy conversations usually include a lot of backstories about conviction formation. Sharing only the final statement of one’s conviction masks the reasoning process that went into forming the conviction. In all cases, we want to bring our thinking in line with biblical teaching. If an issue is not directly addressed in Scripture, then getting to a specific, action-guiding conviction requires quite a bit of philosophical and theological reasoning, which is not always clear when we just state our final conclusion. We need to view this like a math test for which one not only gives an answer but also shows the work.
In short, convictions have a backstory. Leading workshops that require participants to unpack the black box of their convictions has proven helpful in at least two ways. First, hearing a story slows down the conversation and decreases quick and dismissive responses. Second, when people are pressed to tell the story of a conviction, they often discover that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. The complexities of real life often require nuanced thinking that is hard for all of us; admitting this can prod us toward intellectual humility.
Seeking to be curious instead of seeking to be victorious. Our small group events served as hotbeds of curiosity. It did not take long for people to get excited about asking someone to “tell me more.” It is such a simple phrase, but it opens the door to so many powerful stories and unexpected insights. However, a desire to win the argument or convert a person to another viewpoint is the enemy of curiosity. In a highly polarized environment, showing curiosity toward the other side is often misread as being unfaithful to our own side. Therefore, curiosity demands courage, especially if other members of your in-group are present.
Practicing a hermeneutic of charity instead of suspicion. Put simply, a hermeneutic of suspicion refuses to take another person’s words at face value and instead tries to find the hidden things that shape what they feel or believe. In contrast, a hermeneutic of charity gives an intentionally generous reading to the comments of others and gives them the benefit of the doubt. It need not assume that everything people say is right or that all their self-perceptions are accurate. It simply begins with the best and most reasonable understanding of what a person has said, rather than assuming the worst of every statement.
It is natural to think that a hermeneutic of charity is biblical and a hermeneutic of suspicion is unbiblical. In reality, however, we encounter both charity and suspicion in Scripture. The biblical corrective is not to eliminate a hermeneutic of suspicion, but rather to apply it to ourselves instead of others. This is difficult and counterintuitive for many of us, so we developed some preparatory exercises for participants in our workshops. In particular, we wrote a five-day personal devotional guide that began with helping people avoid thinking of themselves too highly and instead cultivating a sober introspection (Rom 12:3). The devotional also encouraged prayerfully asking God to search hearts and reveal any hidden, hurtful ways (Psalm 139:23-24). Toward others, it asked people to identify and meditate on positive qualities in those with whom they disagree and even express gratitude for ways in which they may have blessed a person or the community of which they were a part. This devotional has often been identified as a particularly valuable part of our conversation workshops.
Over the course of the last several years, we have put substantial effort into having healthy conversations about the conflicting convictions within our community. We have had many successful group experiences — both large and small. We have been encouraged by many individual stories. We have developed strategies and structures for having good conversations despite our differences, and many of these have proved effective.
But all of this has taken place against a cultural backdrop that is increasingly dark and contentious. We are experiencing consistent and ever-increasing pressure towards polarization. We explicitly state that our goal is not creating unanimity, but even when that has been acknowledged, it is hard to fully celebrate healthy and respectful disagreements. Our hearts seem to yearn for agreement, and anything less than that can feel like a disappointment that drains more out of our emotional tanks than it puts in. We believe that pursuing community that includes disagreement is the right thing to do, and over the course of time it pays off in a better life for the institutions of which we are a part, but progress feels slow and painful.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day, learning to listen to others and respect them as human beings made in the image of God is not something that is optional. It is an essential task of Christian discipleship. In a similar way, creating institutional structures that preserve Christian fidelity and at the same time allow for freedom of conscience and diversity of thought simply must be done, no matter how difficult it might prove.
This exercise was developed by the Winsome Conviction Project and has been used in a wide variety of workshops, events, and small groups. The structure allows participants to engage in a sustained conversation about a controversial topic, but in a controlled fashion.
The chain begins with one person saying, “Here’s what I think I think about _________.” The links of the conversation chain are formed by requiring participants to make an intentional positive link to the previous speaker before adding their own contribution using the following pattern:
- Here’s what I heard you saying…
- Here’s what I resonated with… (or “something I agreed with,” “something that impacted me,” “something that made me stop and think,” etc.)
- Here’s what I’d like to add to the conversation… (or, alternatively, a person might invite further comment from someone who has already spoken: “I wonder if you could tell me more about this…”)
The moderator is responsible for reminding people to follow the structure and to be sure to give meaningful responses. We have noticed that people become eager to share their opinion and tend to rush through the first two questions. Moderators need to help people resist this temptation. The sequence of steps is important. Following the structure maintains civility and mutual respect, but it also slows down the interaction and gives people time to process what they have heard.