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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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