The Blandness of Theological Small Talk – reflections on the Borg/Blomberg interaction at NW ETS

I hate small talk. Prattling inanely with someone you barely know about things you find only marginally interesting, just doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good conversation. On the contrary, give me a meaningful conversation, some significant dialog, or even a lively debate anytime. But, stick me in a room thick with the stench of small-talkiness, and I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Unfortunately, there’s a theological equivalent of small talk, and I think I saw it on full display just yesterday.

Let me explain. A really meaningful conversation requires at least four things.

  1. Unique identities. For a meaningful conversation to take place, you and I need to be different enough to create a “space” for the conversation. I don’t really need to dialog with someone who agrees with me. I already know what I think. At the same time, those involved in the conversation need to recognize the uniqueness of everyone else. In a good conversation, I’m not simply try to replicate myself by turning you into a (less adequate) clone of me. Instead, in a good conversation, everyone sees the other as valuable and as contributing something meaningful to the process.
  2. Owned perspectives. At the same time, everyone needs to have a perspective on the issue(s) and to “own” that perspective sufficiently to want to retain it. Have you ever tried to have a good conversation with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re discussing? It doesn’t work.
  3. Respectful pushback. The first two combine to form the third. If I respect you as a unique and valuable individual and if I respect the importance of the issue were discussing, then I need to push back if I think you’re wrong or misdirected on some point. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have to be rude. But, it does mean that I’m not just going to let differences slide. I might do that with someone I have no interest in – the person in line behind me at the coffee shop, for example – but not someone whose unique value I claim to respect.
  4. Teachability. Finally, in a real conversation, all parties are looking to learn something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to jettison our own perspectives – we “own” those, remember – but it does mean that we see everyone else in the conversation as having something beneficial to contribute, to which we should all pay close attention.

If you think about the most dynamic and engaged conversations you’ve ever had, I’m guessing that you’ll see most (hopefully all) of these elements represented. At least, I hope you’ve had conversations like this. They’re fabulous experiences that should be repeated as often as possible.

Unfortunately, when Craig Blomgerg and Marcus Borg met at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was hoping for some real dialog. Instead, I think all we got was small talk.

Borg and Blomberg clearly have their own perspectives. No problem there. Indeed, they went out of their way to affirm the “other” in the conversation, and they were remarkably polite throughout. Unsurprisingly, they each “own” their perspective. They’re professional scholars who have written and debated these issues extensively. So, they clearly know what they think and hold to it with conviction.

The problem came with the lack of respectful pushback. Indeed, the problem is that there really wasn’t any. With two high-powered scholars like this, you’d expect to see a pretty dynamic give-and-take, as each takes a stand on issues that they feel strongly about. Instead, it felt more like the kind of get-to-know-you small talk that typically happens in the lobby before the session starts. They both explained what they think on a wide range of issues, and sought to clarify the positions of the other person. Indeed, Borg even said at one point that “understanding” was their real objective. Neither really stepped out and said what we all know they were both thinking, “You’re wrong.” Apparently we’re not allowed to say that anymore. And, sadly, without it, you can’t have real dialog. Understanding the “other” is fine, but by itself it is insufficient and unsatisfying.

The closest that we got to this was Blomberg making it clear that he thinks a future physical resurrection is fundamental to adequate Christian theology. Amen! For a moment I had a glimmer of hope that we’d see a real dialog take shape. Instead, he let it stand as a clarification of his own perspective. And, we lapsed back into “understanding.”

Let me be clear. I think good conversations need to be polite, but they also need to be respectful. And, those are not the same thing. Politeness says that I will not be rude and offensive in our conversation. (Yes, I realize that many historical theologians broke this rule regularly. I think they were wrong. See, I said it.) And, Brian LePort is right that everyone at the meeting was remarkably polite.

Respect is different. Respect says that I value you and this issue enough to take a stand and wrestle toward greater truth and clarity. Respect demands more than just understanding. Respect requires us to take a stand and say “no” when necessary, while still seeking to grow and learn through the interaction. If I truly see you as “other,” I respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong.

I’d have liked to see more respect yesterday.

Indeed, I’d like to see more respect in theological dialog as a whole. What I think we often see today is politeness without respect, which is the perfect recipe for theological small talk.

At which point, I’m looking for the nearest exit.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on February 27, 2011, in Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. @Marc: It was a tad bit anti-climactic during their interchange. I enjoyed Blomberg’s lecture, but I had already heard Borg’s talk in another setting so that was so-so. The closest we came to glimpsing any sort of push back was when Blomberg hinted that believe in a physical resurrection may be essential to being a Christian, but he left it at that and I think Borg, in foreign territory, may have been happy to oblige.

    While I like the idea of bringing in a outsider like Borg it may be a lesson learned that this prevents the dynamic dialog we’d like to see. If it was two evangelicals beginning with similar premises the differences could be more tightly contested. I can only imagine that Blomberg feared if he pushed Borg too hard he may send the crowd into a fury and it may just feel like we ambushed Borg. At least that is how I interpreted Blomberg’s passivity.

    • I think you’re right about how great the divide was between Borg and Blomberg. As I was writing the post, I actually started to wonder if they even “respect” each other in the sense that I’m using the term. I’m not sure that they do. They’re willing to be polite for the sake of a conference, but were they really looking for a meaningful engagement in which they could both learn, grow, and change? I don’t think so.

      • I don’t think either expected to learn from the other. There was not going to be a coming together of any sort. At best it was merely temporary peace talks with the aim to ignore each other’s claims for all intents and purposes.

  2. Indeed, give me a good old Barth & Brunner bash! lol Even a Wesley and Whitefield battle! At least they fought in the church trenches. Note in our time the Federal Vision verses Federal Calvinists. The church needs fire & conviction!

    • Amen on the need for good, strong conviction. But, I would want to be clear that I am still arguing for the need for politeness and respect. I’m not sure that I’ve always seen those at work in the Federal Vision debate. Granted, I’m a bit of an outsider on that one, so I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.

      • Marc,

        You might be right about the overall Federal Calvinists verses Federal Vision battle. The Federal Calvinists see the issue as “the Gospel”! Btw, I would stand closer to the FV. But, when we look too at the battles between the Methodists and English Calvinists, the hate toward John Wesley was profound! And when we look at Calvin & company, he/they did not like the Anabaptists, nor the Libertarians…period! > Though true, it was the 16th century.

        But as you note with Borg and Blomberg, there is no “fire” there for certain. It is one thing to be polite, quite another to think that light and darkness can find some ground of Christian acceptance! And though I don’t really like the theology of either, Blomberg should bring the fire!

      • “To be “without bias” is only to have a particular “kind” of bias. The idea of “neutrality” is simply a colorless suit that covers a negative attitude toward God. At least it ought to be plain that he who is not “for” the God of Christianity is “against” Him.” (Cornelius Van Til)

  3. You have clarified for me what I was feeling but did not really know why. Blomberg seemed disengaged from the discussion entirely, and Borg was disinterested in interacting with Blomberg, preferring to field questions from the audience. I think the respect issue is what was central to what was happening. It seems that both men may have viewed the other as a lost cause, not worth the effort required to push back, knowing neither would ever be able to influence the thinking of they other. That phenomenon made the individual presentations informative, but the interactive session was less than engaging.

  4. Really interesting insights… perhaps this move from “respectful pushback” to “polite understanding” in dialogue has accompanied the cultural movement from “absolute” to “relative” truth. That is, it doesn’t actually matter so much who’s right; it matters more that we each have our say.

    • Matt: Nice! I am well old enough to remember those days of even Anglican “dogma”! Christ, and Him Incarnate, an absolute! Note, the Ecumenical Councils, especially Nicaea to Chalcedon.

    • What’s interesting is to see how much of an impact that’s had even on those who still hold to the idea of “truth” (at least in some form). Even affirming that truth is something that should be sought after, we’ve still fallen for a concept of “dialog” that involves not more than giving “voice” to different perspectives. That’s the beginning of good dialog, but there’s much more to it than that.

  5. Well, sounds like you need to get Pete Enns and Greg Beale for next year’s NW ETS. Plenty of “respect” there. 🙂

  6. As long as we fire trucks ready outside for all the sparks that would result from such a clash.

  7. Yeah, I’m not sure that we’re ready for quite that much respect!

  8. This is rather sad. I believe that one needs to know what they believe and why it is they believe it. My own position has been shaped through challenge, critique and engagement with others who hold to a different thought.

    Therefore a level of intellectual honesty is required to allow ones own position to be challenged and if a greater argument shows it up for what it is; then that personal belief / position should change.

    @Marc; I wasn’t there. What was the boundaries and the dynamics that were given to the speakers regarding their task. Was it on the basis of a debate with a chance to respond; or was it just two guys giving a talk regarding their own positions; while knowing that each other would also be speaking?

    • I don’t know what instructions they received beforehand, but the shape of the interaction was that they each presented their papers, then had a time for question/answer between them, followed by questions from the audience.

  9. Politeness and academic meetings for a 2nd invite – “Resistance is futile!”

  10. I was pretty surprised by Borg, he did not fit my expectations at all. He was way too nice! I expected Borg to reflect the perceived attitude that I’ve always sensed coming from the “Jesus Seminar” (don’t they call their translation of “The Five Gospels” the “Scholarly Version” SV?). They were rather vindictive back in the day.

    Anyway, Marc, agreed; I was actually hoping for quite a bit more respect! I remember at one of the regional ETS meetings held at Western when I was in undergrad; it was Grudem and Mark Taylor, and they had a very respectful 😉 debate about all the “gender” stuff (I believe it was oriented around the TNIV).

    I think Blomberg should’ve pressed Borg more. Did Blomberg seem kind’ve nervous to you? He did to me a bit (but that might just be his demeanor).

    • Don’t you hate it when the “bad guy” turns out to be nice? That just takes all the fun out things!

      And, I think that’s probably just more Blomberg’s demeanor than anything. But I don’t know him well, so I could be wrong.

      • Marc,

        Funny the few times I encountered Blomberg face to face, or man to man on the blog, he seemed to shoot straight at me! But then I have this way sometimes of getting even nice guys or people, to weigh-in toward my theological belief, etc. lol In reality, there is often little middle ground, as our brother Matthew has I think reflected.

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