Is Convicted Civility Still Possible?


Rev. John Home, one of the Scottish Calvinists who was friends with David Hume.

I’ve just begun reading Richard J. Mouw’s memoir, Adventures in Evangelical Civility. I suspect that some would believe that the last two words in this title are an oxymoron. What caught my attention was a discussion in the first chapter on his pursuit of “convicted civility,” a chapter entitled “Calvinists in an Edinburgh Pub.” He speaks of the efforts of a group of Calvinists including John Home to promote a more productive engagement with Scottish Enlightenment thought. One of his regular dialogue partners was the skeptic, David Hume, whose ideas gained ascendancy in most academic circles in Scotland. He asks himself:

“For all my good intentions and proper Calvinist motives, I have asked myself on occasion whether I am unwittingly giving aid and comfort to the increasing relativism of our own day, encouraging the widespread assumption that being clear about borders is not a matter of great importance.”

Mouw touches on one prong of a two-pronged dilemma for those who think convicted civility is possible. One prong is that conviction is muted by association with those who differ. Either the sense is one of “agreement by association” or that truth is relative–you have your truth, we have ours. And the point is missed that this is an engagement about questions of truth upon which we may disagree. Logic actually dictates that we both cannot be right, at least in the same way. We could both be wrong or one of us right and one wrong, or both of us partially right in differing ways, at best.

The other prong, which may be more prevalent of late, is that when we disagree about a question of truth, we cannot do so agreeably toward each other. If you disagree with me, you must hate me, and there is something morally defective with you that you would disagree with me. What we miss here is that to disagree about ideas we hold, even hold deeply, is not to disagree with us in the sense of our fundamental dignity.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to find people characterized by “convicted civility.” It is more common to find those who are convicted but uncivil, and perhaps even more common in our “tolerant” age to find those civil but unconvicted. It has been observed by a number of people, including O’Neill’s son, that Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were partisan foes who could fiercely disagree, then hammer out compromises, and enjoy drinks together at the White House. Convicted civility isn’t nice, but it provides the basis for a functioning civil society.

If ever there was a time for the practice of “convicted civility,” we are in one of those times. It feels to me sometimes like I live in two countries, each of which detests the other and wishes it could get rid of “them.” Sometimes, it seems that these two countries reside on my Facebook newsfeed which makes me wonder what would happen if I invited all my Facebook friends to the same party! (It also makes me wonder what it says that I somehow remain friends with these two countries!) I don’t know whether it is possible to practice “convicted civility” in this climate, but I also know that the future trajectory of the alternative seems fraught with even greater dangers.

Here’s what I think it takes to practice “convicted civility”:

It involves conviction:

  • It means that we have a clear sense of what we believe about the good, the true, and the beautiful and know what core beliefs we cannot compromise.
  • It means that we can articulate that sense in plain words.
  • It means that we can explain why we hold these convictions.
  • It means we are willing to accept the consequences of holding those convictions.
  • It means that we can distinguish between convictions on which we believe we cannot compromise and matters of application, or opinion, or even liberty where we might differ or where multiple good paths are possible.
  • It means a willingness to admit where we are wrong when persuaded because we are lovers of truth rather than lovers of being “right.”

It involves civility:

  • It means I respect the person with whom I disagree as an equal.
  • It means that I recognize that none of our disagreements undermine the bond of common humanity we share.
  • It means a willingness to find the places of common ground that arise from that common humanity, while being honest about our differences.
  • It means a willingness to grant the same level of attentiveness to and understanding of the words and ideas of the other that I would wish.
  • It means I refuse to attack the character of a person when I disagree with what they think.
  • It means that I might remain friends with someone with whom I deeply disagree, even sometimes affectionate friends.

Sadly, it appears we are in a day where those who would practice “convicted civility” face attack from both their convictional compatriots and from those with whom they differ, despite their civility. From the former, they are viewed as sellouts, even “relativists”, particularly if they acknowledge that the “others” have anything valid in their thought. From the latter, the danger is always one of being branded “intolerant” simply because they have the courage at points to disagree. Often the former attacks are far more vicious and disheartening.

Why bother then, you might ask? I guess it comes down to the fact that I’m convinced and convicted that it is the right thing to do. If we are going to have a civil society instead of civil war (without or with guns), then we have got to figure out how to do this. Short of tyranny, mass deportation, or genocide, we are not going to get rid of half the country, let alone that guy on Facebook who persists in disagreeing with us. I wonder if we have stopped to look at it that way, because if we do we might yet have a chance to back away from the precipice. What it seems that we can’t do is just think that our toxic rhetoric, and our inability to maintain any kind of civil dialogue across our deepest differences can persist indefinitely without consequences, none of them good. Alongside that, I would take “convicted civility” any day. How about you?

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