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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.