Beyond Convicted Civility

John Backman is a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, who has written extensively on topics in Christian spirituality, including contemplative practice and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, progressive and conservative. John currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.

Is convicted civility the best we can do?

Even asking the question seems petulant — like scolding a friend who traded in her gas guzzler for a Prius. After all, she could have bought an electric car, right? Many of us have no patience for such quibbling over degrees of self-improvement, and with good reason.

Convicted civility is our Prius. Its champions include two celebrated intellects in U.S. seminaries: Lutheran scholar Martin Marty and evangelical thinker Richard Mouw. Indeed, Marty’s quote in the 1990s both described the landscape for convicted civility and hinted at its definition: “People who have strong convictions these days aren’t very civil, and people who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is ‘convicted civility.'”

On one side, convicted civility asks those of us with strong convictions to honor all others, seek their well-being, and hear their deepest convictions, particularly when we disagree. On the other side, convicted civility calls on “nice people,” those who “go along to get along,” to give voice to what they hold dear. In this way, any dialogue reaps the benefit of their voices when their voices have not been heard before.

Clearly, convicted civility addresses a crying need in our public square. Just as important, it answers the criticism of civility as too polite to correct injustice, or not adversarial enough to contribute the conflicting ideas that lead to better decisions. That’s where the convictions come in: they are not silenced or glossed over, but rather injected — sometimes boldly — into the general conversation, allowing them to make their full impact without excessive rancor or rudeness.

So convicted civility is the answer then, right? Not entirely. Even while touting it, we can make a case for moving beyond it — for jumping from the Prius to the electric car, if you will. The reason is simple: The limitation of convicted civility is that it leaves us in our convictions.

Yes, convictions can be good in themselves. They come to us from a lifetime’s worth of difficult lessons, intellectual challenge, and painstaking observation. In many cases, those hard-won convictions are precisely the most valuable thing we have to contribute to the betterment of the world. By ignoring them entirely, we hold back something essential to civil dialogue. In the process, we limit the power of dialogue to do what it does so well: bridge divides, build relationships, help us grow in wisdom, forge solutions to difficult issues.

We also limit the power of dialogue when we hold our convictions with unshakable certainty.

Here’s why. Each of us, in the grand scheme of things, can know next to nothing with any certainty whatever. What we “knew” about, for instance, the nutritional value of eggs is not what we know today. Two centuries ago, many religionists “knew” all about the blessings of slavery; no conscientious believer ascribes to that “knowledge” today.

Herein lies the supreme value of civil dialogue. When I realize how much I don’t know, it shows me that I need what you know. That drives me into dialogue with you to get closer to understanding the reality behind the issue at hand — and to understanding one another.

But when part of me is certain about my convictions, unwilling to relax my grip, I am detracting from my ability to listen openheartedly. Just as important, I am denying myself access to the deeper understanding of my convictions that may come in light of what you are saying. I even limit where the conversation might go, because my convictions may require me to silence you with “I can’t go there.”

A better solution, I think, is to hold our convictions, but hold them lightly — even suspending them for the brief time we’re listening to the other. This enables two things. First, with our convictions temporarily not in the picture, we can devote our whole hearts and our full attention to our dialogue partner. Second, it allows our partner’s convictions to interact with our own. Adding this openhearted exposure to convictions outside ourselves can add depth and nuance to our own convictions.

Many years ago, when I ascribed to a fundamentalist version of Christianity, I happened to drive two hours to a business appointment with a certified astrologer. My faith was clear on the evils of astrology. So when she started talking about her practice, I had a choice: I could leave the filter of my convictions in place, searching for holes in her argument, or I could lay the filter aside.

By choosing the second course, I learned so much more than I would have otherwise. She told me about the vast gulf between serious astrology and the tabloid version, the practical aims and goals of the profession, and other things that, together, painted a portrait of an alternative worldview that reasonable people could hold.

Did I throw my convictions to the four winds? No. Did laying them aside temporarily add nuance to my beliefs? Oh yes: as a result, the conversation not only dispelled my fear of astrology, but more broadly prepared me to approach other belief systems — and embrace their practitioners — with curiosity and welcome. For the development of my faith at that time, this was a watershed.

Convicted civility holds so much potential for improving the plight of our public square. It does not have to be the last word, however. Holding our convictions lightly, recognizing how much we don’t know, can open our hearts to a deeper practice of civility: the kind that welcomes all with open arms.

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