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Difficult Dialogue

January Coffee Talk/Emily Geddes - SpokaneFAVS

Difficult Dialogue


By Deb Conklin

SpokaneFāV’s Coffee Talk Saturday dealt with dialogue across differences. It was an interesting conversation. During the discussion, there were a number of important statements made (several of which I shared on my Facebook page).

As I listened, and as I continued to think about the conversation over the day, it struck me that there was a key part of this topic that we never got to. And that is the challenge created by people having different basic principles or underlying assumptions. These underlying assumptions  have been named by various terms over the centuries. Aristotle calls them ‘primary premises’ (depending on the translation).  Descartes calls them first causes or principles. A fairly common modern term would be axiom. “An axiom or postulate is a premise or starting point of reasoning. As classically conceived, an axiom is a premise so evident as to be accepted without controversy.” It is the nature of these axioms that they are assumed to be true — and not in need of justification and that they mostly function subconsciously.

The challenge is that we each come to any conversation with our own unique set of axioms, and we are often not consciously aware of that set of axioms. When two people have axioms that are relatively similar, they can have meaningful conversation. But when two people have axioms that are radically different, they often just talk past one another, and both end up frustrated. Sometimes it is possible to clarify the different axioms that each brings to the conversation, and reach some sort of accommodation. Sometimes people can just agree to disagree respectfully, even without understanding why they are unable to agree. But when two people have radically different axioms and one or both participants to the conversation are unwilling or unable to examine their own axioms, or unwilling to acknowledge that someone else’s axioms could be different and still legitimate, conversation becomes impossible.

One example from my own experience might be helpful. I used to spend time on a fairly regular basis with a group of atheists. The purpose of the group was to offer support to people who found it difficult to openly hold atheist views in Spokane. What fascinated me about this group of interesting, intelligent, well intentioned people was that they were focused on coming up with arguments that would be effective in convincing people of faith that they were wrong. They were quite sure that, if they worked on it, they could come up with logical, scientific arguments that would convince believers that there is no god.

What they failed to understand is that their very axioms were not accepted by most people of faith. People do not believe in God because of logical arguments. People believe in God because they’ve had an experience of God in some fashion. And people who do think they can prove that God exists have such a radically different set of axioms (Examples: The Bible is the literally true, inspired word of God. Values are objective and universal.) that there is no actual communication in an attempted conversation between such a believer and an atheist.

So, someone like me, who knows that my belief in God is not rational, can enjoy a conversation with an atheist about our beliefs and their bases. But someone who is convinced that they have logical arguments that God exists is going to have trouble having a conversation with someone who is equally convinced that logic proves that God does not exist.

I think it would be a helpful exercise for some of us who write for FāVS to explore the axioms that we bring to our writings — and see where we overlap, and where we diverge. It might help us to be more gracious in our dialogue.

Some of my axioms:

  1. Truth is not immutable and absolute. Truth emerges out of community through experience and dialogue.
  2. There is something that corresponds to the concept evil. It is likely not a separate being (Satan for example) but a quality in all of us that can be expressed, or suppressed.
  3. Humans are spiritual beings of sacred worth and entitled to respect. But not all ideas are entitled to respect.

Those are just a couple of my current axioms — they evolve over time. I’d be interested in knowing some of yours!

P.S. I am not wedded to the term axiom, and I’m not looking for a debate about whether it’s the correct term. I’m interested in exploring the concept I’ve tried to describe. 


Deb Conklin

About Deb Conklin

Rev. Deb Conklin’s wheels are always turning. How can the church make the world a better place? How can it make Spokane better? Her passions are many, including social justice in the mainline tradition, emergence and the post-modern and missional church.

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  • Great thoughts and observations thanks for laying this out so clearly. I would add that I think it was Joe that did say he doesn’t engage much in FAVS because of the exact observations you make here. In the Coffee talk he referenced me and how I hold to a view of biblical scripture that he doesn’t but that doesn’t prevent him from being welcoming and relational and as he put it “loving me”. So I guess there’s a wide spectrum of how people interact with others axioms. My point though is to just reference that he did bring up the point as well. Nonetheless, great post, look forward to how people tease it out.

    • Pastor Deb Conklin

      Yes he did – which is part of what got me thinking in this direction – apologies to Joe for not giving him credit

      • Sorry that your thoughts got smothered in debate that didn’t really speak to the issues you were trying to open up. I still appreciate your attempt, bummed it went dead.

  • W Thomas Soeldner

    Folks who are serious about continuing this conversation might want to look at one or two excellent books on dialogue. My suggestions would be the classic by David Bohm, ON DIALOGUE, and one by William Isaacs, DIALOGUE AND THE ART OF THINKING TOGETHER.

  • Out of curiosity, how can you hold the belief that truth is “not immutable and absolute” if you seem to believe in a god which demands belief in the immutable and absolute truth of his(?) existence? Surely there have to be immutable and absolute truths somewhere.

    Also: “People believe in God because they’ve had an experience of God in some fashion.” The exact same argument can be made for Shiva, The Dover Demon, alien life forms, and the ghost of Christmas past. Are all of those beliefs equally valid, then, if rationality and logic cannot be applied to them?

    • Pastor Deb Conklin

      I don’t believe in “a god which demands belief in the immutable and absolute truth of his(?) existence”. I’m not even sure whether this question is about 1. ‘belief in a god who demands x’ or 2. ‘belief in a god, which belief demands x’.

      Regarding 1: I happen to believe in God, but do not understand God to include
      the quality of demanding that I believe in the “immutable and absolute truth of his(?) existence”. The God that I experience is significantly less anthropomorphic than that.

      Regarding 2: My choice to believe in a thing does not demand (or necessarily
      require) that I believe in the absolute immutable truth of that thing’s existence. I happen to believe in a phenomenon that I call God. I may be wrong. I do not insist that anyone else have the same understanding of God that I have, or that anyone else believes in this God, or any god at all.

      Regarding the validity of belief in “Shiva, The Dover Demon, alien life forms, and the ghost of Christmas past”:
      A belief in Shiva, God and probably the ghost of Christmas past are equally valid. They are all belief in something that can never be proven, or disproven, by modern scientific methods. (It’s theoretically possible that science may someday be able to detect ghosts, so I’m not totally committed to that one.) The Dover Demon and Alien Life Forms are in a different category, because we can propose a scientific process for determining whether they exist or are a figment of human imagination. If one of these entities is eventually observed by a sufficient number of reliable witnesses, most people will accept that they exist.

      In contrast, gods, whether Greek, Norse, Eastern, Judeo-Christian, or some other tradition, have a totally different logical nature. By definition they exist, if at all, in different manner than our physical world. They do not lend themselves to scientific analysis. A logical positivist would say that those words are simply meaningless. So, logically, a belief in one god is equally as ‘valid’ (or invalid) as a belief in another.

      • If you are willing to extend that the scientific process can determine the existence of anything, you’ve made your first axiom moot. There clearly is some immutable or absolute truth, as that is what we use to determine scientific truth. A is always A, and A is never Not A. Our understanding of the universe, from rocks to quantum physics, rely on and prove this to be true. Immutably, and absolutely.

        If there is some immutable or absolute truth, and that is testable by scientific process, then why bother believing in something that cannot be determined to exist – such as anything beyond the physical world. If all stories of gods contain some manner of their interaction with humans (they do, at least all the ones I’ve run across), then they absolutely are subject to scientific analysis (which includes historical analysis). If that analysis shows nothing more than physical reality – and the studies that have been done on supernatural claims always return evidence of purely natural circumstance, up to and including fraud – then I ask again, why consider anything beyond the physical world?

  • bruce

    For 1), I would claim that there exists an absolute truth, but as human beings we have no access to it. It is far beyond our reach. For me also, the Bible is not God’s inspired word, but man trying to find God, as are the holy books of other religions.
    I can agree with 2) and 3).