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Richard MouwThis show with Richard Mouw was as hard as any in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.

I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4,000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.

A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncommon Decency, has recently been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes. I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies.

My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.

Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”

We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong?

This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian Pastors

Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.

And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for awhile in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. We’ve posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled “Sex, Death, and Secrets” — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.


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11 Comments

Finding a new space for conversation about differences is vital.  We cannot compete with one another to see who 'wins' the contest of ideas.  Instead, we live with one another respecting our own integrity as much as we respect the integrity of others.  This is the Christian vocation in a world of the world of ideas, exchange, and shaping our world.  I accept that another disagrees with me.  It is dangerous when the disagreement minimizes, scolds, or, discredits the other.  It is just as dangerous when the agreement places our point of view on a pedestal.  Both are bound to fall and crumble instead of creating something new for God's world. 

You presented an excellent analysis. You asked many pertinent questions and gathered together a number of unconnected dots. Now take 10 minutes and read the answer to all your questions presented in the view which connects all the dots. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poem/

Krista, as usual, highlights the best of what a "bridge person" today can be like, in this case, evangelically civil.  No fundamentalist dogma revealed by author and seminary academic, Richard Mouw, here.  It's fine to characterize civil conversations as dialogues proscribing ideology or moral imperatives, and despite what might be described as the legalistic word choice of Martin Marty's "convicted" citizenry social change can no longer be driven by biological needs --as is supposed in some arguments about human sexuality rooted in social contexts that predate the last century's modern era.  Rather than re-reading "Christian Civility in an Uncivil World", try reading "Ethics in a Christian Context" by the theologian, Paul Lehmann.  Though published at the hight of 1963's rarified debates over social change in America it allows Christians to contextualize their apologetics around presumptions of how society changes in our post-modern era, wherein long suffering souls suffer long in dialogue with one another.  Krista perceives, again, the need to start small in what could, by some, be called the "critical new conversations."

Mark Small, retired clergy

I can't help but believe that our inevitable growth as a people lies being able to gently hold both the micro and the macrocosm in our minds and hearts.  We CAN see the details in front of us and particular details/points of view with the great skills, passion and history of humanity, and still see that we are infinitesimally small in a large universe we know so little about.  The thought of "convicted civility" moves us in that direction as we approach life with our personal viewpoint but are still able to look for the best actions needed for the whole of humanity.  Mitakuye Oyasin, "all my relations" speaks to this.  

Being right and righteous is deadly to community.  We all "see through a glass darkly."  We're all connected.  Our call is to love and respect each other, and tell the truth as we understand it, with humility, knowing we may be wrong.

I'm certainly glad that Richard Mouw is calling for civility.  I'm also glad that he asks us to “start some of our conversations again from the beginning”.   So here are a few places we might start – Where does this incivility originate?  Who is more responsible for the uncivil tone?   How does being civil help if your message is bigoted at it's core?  Should we continue to respect someones convictions just because they are religious?  Is it a virtue to believe beyond the evidence?  Is “the bible tells me so” a good argument in the 21st century?  How can we be moral if we are dishonest with the evidence?  Is there anything more able to undermine our humanity and compassion than religious conviction?

The first fact, the fundamental truth, the starting point for any honest (and therefore moral) conversation about gay rights is that sexual orientation is not something we choose.  Once we acknowledge that fact, all arguments against gays being granted equal rights under the law ring hollow. Simply stating that “homosexuality is a sin” , no matter how civilly you do it, is not being honest, and therefore not moral.

For ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Have you not read? God's word will last beyond this world. God is love, he loves us too much to leave us as we are now. We all need to change from glory to glory. Our struggle is not against each other, it is against dark spiritual forces, principalities, and forces of evil in heavenly realms. Eph.,6:12. Your real enemy is a spiritual force that lies to us. You shall know the truth and it shall set you free.

While this article reads well, and I agree with parts of it, tolerance of bigotry for the sake of getting along with others, especially in a church environment, sets us back.  It does not move us forward.  No matter how much I respect others in my church who disagree with my position, civility has not been the answer to the wall of prejudice we cannot knock down, get past or overlook.  Compassion begins with Christ, and civility toward and acceptance of all God's people is a foundation of the church as I want to come to know it.  Adult love with another adult should be treasured by all.  Christ came to us and spoke of love for all men.  Human interpretation of His meaning should always be discussed, in a caring environment.  If this is restarting the conversation, we can try.  But to ever suggest that we should put our beliefs on hold so that we can "respect" another person's point of view is to take away yet another voice asking for the freedom to love equally.

Awesome show this morning (Speaking of Faith, 8/20/11). Caught it on my way to church where, interestingly enough, I would be delivering a sermon on Fear V. Compassion.  The Rev. Dr. Richard Mouw asks a simple question I pray will resonate across this once-great-land, and this beautiful but broken world.  "Can we talk?"  It's a simple but radical question when one considers the pool into which it is cast...a pool in which differing opinions are the least of our worries, and in which the difference of perceived realities reigns supreme.  Into this 'Alice Thru the Looking Glass' reality Dr. Mouw wants to know, "Can we talk?"  Personally, I am dying to hear the response...so much so, that I am willing to be a bearer of the question.

Krista; When you speak of how “WE seem to be losing our connective tissue”, I think you are talking about a very few people. I see strong connections locally and can sense them in other communities. There are a few people who actively work to break those connections. They may claim to be for family and community, but they benefit from chaos. To keep our connections, we only need to examine our own beliefs, be open about what they are, and not be thrown by irrational conversations.
 
On the issue of homosexuality, there are only a few mentions of it in scripture, they can be easily googled and understood. If you want to base your opinion on a list of rules written a long time ago, then you probably are not someone who wants to examine their own beliefs. The few people who do, don’t follow most of those rules, but are willing to put forth tremendous effort to get you to follow the ones they like. I am all for listening to and trying to understand other points of view, but listening must work two ways.

By the way, has anyone actually looked up the passage from Jeremiah? Immediately after God says to seek shalom (or peace or welfare), he says "don't listen to them because they are propheying lies". A few passages later God is talking about bringing the sword to those who exiled his people. This is a disigenuous use of the passage by Mouw. This happens a lot when I look up passages.

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