Like it or not, we are all surrounded by people who believe something different about the world we live in. In modern terms we call this ‘pluralism’. Rather than hiding away from conversations about our pluralistic differences, how do we find a way to have them, and still maintain positive relationships with those who think differently from us?

This is a question that has rocked my thought process for the last couple of years. As a Christian, I come from a legacy of those who think of the faith in a purely cognitive sense, and consider debate to be one of the highest calls of Christianity. When you think of believe as simply a cognitive exercise, you begin to spend all of your time analyzing, researching, and comparing beliefs, arguments, and tenants. While there is certainly a place for the study of religions (I have done quite a bit myself), when we consider the comparison of belief systems without considering the histories and experiences of those who believe those beliefs, we miss a great deal, and remain thoroughly unprepared to have a pleasant conversation about anything on which we don’t agree. So here is some advice on what it might take for you to really get to know your neighbor.

Remember Beliefs are Believed by People

One of the greatest mistakes we can make when are having discussions with others with whom we disagree, is to come with a list of arguments ready to tear them down. This is a defensive posture, and when you walk into a conversation with this posture, you have already set yourself up for an unpleasant conversation. Something I realized about 4 months ago is that whenever I am about to walk into a room with someone I know I disagree with, I tend to spend hours and days running over possible conversations in my head. I like to think about things I will say that will sweep them off of their feet and cause them to change their whole system of belief. Almost without exception, people don’t change this way. If someone believes something deeply, it is highly likely that the change you want to see in them will not happen overnight. Remember also that people are more important than the change you want to see in them. Spend time with you friends, ask them questions, share yourself and your story, but never assume that one or two well reasoned arguments will transform them into everything you dream about for their life.

Experience is one of the Greatest Shapers of Worldview

When we think about “Worldviews” or perspectives, we tend to think that the greatest shaper of someone’s worldview is their belief system. I think their belief system is the second most important factor. The first is experience. It’s in their rolodex of experiences that you will find why they espouse to a particular religion or belief, and its in their experiences where you will find the core factors that determine why they do what they do. I’ve seen young people ready with arguments to convert someone to Christianity and belief in God, only to find out that the reason someone hates God has nothing to do a set of belief systems or arguments, but instead, is formed by an experience or two that they might have had with Christians in the past. Each of us are more than the set of beliefs we choose to hold, and we do ourselves and one another a great disservice when we simplify complicated issues and miss out on deeper relationships.

Your Story is your most Powerful Argument

The other great mistake we make when having conversations about religion is that we tend to argue against the other rather than for ourselves. Sharing our own experiences is our most powerful argument, no matter the background from which you come. Even when you think about the postures of attacking vs. sharing you can predict what to expect from another person when you have these types of conversations. If you attack you push forward and your friend will pull back. If you share you have an ‘invitational’ posture, you welcome your friend to understand and know you deeper, thereby allowing for the two of you to understand one another on a level not otherwise possible.

Conversations about religion are not all perfectly formed arguments and emotional pleas for attention. These types of conversations, whether they are about religion, politics, ethics, or the like, need to include a deep relational component or we might all be in danger of missing the point. We are human beings, on earth, sharing this world, and when we seek to prove first rather than understand first, we might all be in danger of making the biggest mistake of all: ostracizing ourselves into communities of like minded individuals, instigating tribal wars with one another over increasingly petty arguments. Let’s not go there; let’s have pleasant conversations about religion.


Image used under the creative commons license courtesy of Sergey Sus: