Closeted, Confronting, or Conversing?


By Dgurteen, Photo of a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe. CC BY-SA3.0,


Over the last year, I’ve had three occasions to hear a speaker by the name of Terry Halliday, who holds appointments with the American Bar Foundation and Northwestern University in the fields of globalization and law. Working in the university context, he has developed a valuable model of engagement, that I think is quite valuable for the Christian community within which I work, and may equally be useful for other religious communities as well as any communities formed around ideas and deep commitments. The basic idea is conversation.

What is striking to me is that we often employ very different approaches to this. One is what I would call the closeted approach. We have very vigorous conversations, to be sure, regarding the things we care about, but we do this only within our own community. We may be involved in conversations outside our community as well, but in those contexts, we give no hint of how our deeply held beliefs inform our views. Likely, the reason is fear that we will be excluded from the conversation if we let people know who we are and the sources that shape our views. Sometimes it is simply a matter that we have never connected our faith or worldview with the discussion at hand. There is a disconnect between our deeply held beliefs and the important conversations that go on in a university, or in other public settings. We are effectively closeted, with our faith or other deep commitments not only personal but private. The question for any of us who take this approach is whether we can for long take this schizophrenic approach to life, whether we can for long hold to commitments that have no relevance outside our community of belief.

The second approach is what I would call the confrontational approach. On the campus I work there are preachers who show up in warm weather who basically tell people they are going to hell, who denounce passing students for what they wear and for their presumed activities. That is an extreme version of confronting but it illustrates what is at the heart of this approach. It is essentially a monologue. There is no discussion where others are seriously listened to and understood. Presumptions are made without personal knowledge of the other. While it has the advantage of being able to say you have been faithful to the core of your message, it is rare that this approach is appreciated.

What Dr. Halliday has advocated (most recently at a conference I’ve just returned from), is the model of conversing. He notes that a conversation is:

  • An exchange
  • An expression of inquisitiveness
  • An expression of wonder—inquiry
  • A relationship building experience
  • A prelude to action

Many of us are finding that there are in fact important conversations to be had in the university on everything from the high incidence of depression among grad students to issues around race and gender, to discussions of the values and ethics that inform the development and applications of various technologies to societal issues like sustainability, various forms of inequality, and more. And we are finding that people deeply appreciate real conversations, where respect and mutual learning occur (do we think we can also learn from others?). We are finding that many are interested in knowing how our faith perspective informs our thought about an issue, when we are also open and interested in the perspectives of others.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is whether we have thought about our beliefs in more than personal terms. Have we considered their relevance to the work we do, to the headlines in today’s paper, to the important issues of the day? Have we deeply mined the resources of our faith, or simply repeated the things we learned in our youth?

I like the last two points Dr. Halliday mentions. Conversing can lead to warm relationships, even with those with whom we many differ, and they may sometimes lead to shared beliefs and ideas on which we act together. That seems to be something we can use more of.


Dialogue Within the University: A Reading List

Dialogue in the UniversityThis past Saturday, I was part of an online video-symposium hosted by the organization I work with on encouraging Christians who work in the university context to engage in “Dialogue Within the University”. The concept behind this title is that it is a tendency of Christians working in the university (not unlike other social groups) to talk only among ourselves on important issues, or to try to invite others to join our conversations. Meanwhile, there are often important conversations that occur in classrooms, campus lectures, student and faculty papers, student governments and faculty senates, and university centers on matters from sustainability, to issues of justice, to the ethical use of technological breakthroughs, to transparency about university finances. Often a Christian voice is absent from these conversations. Sometimes it may not be welcome, but more often, it is thought that Christians really have nothing to say about these things, being caught up in more “spiritual” matters. Sometimes we are, and sometimes, we are just fearful to take the first steps to engage with different points of views or do not know how to do so in a way that is both cogent and charitable.

Because I’m kind of known as “the book guy”, I was asked if I could compile a list of book recommendations. This is far from exhaustive but represent my thoughts of places to start in three key aspects that were talked about during the symposium: dialogue skills, the university world, and thinking Christianly. I’ve provided links to publishers as well to any reviews I’ve written.


Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative CallingDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Explores how cultures are made and shaped and explores ways Christians     can engage with and create culture with pursuing “culture wars”.

Felton, Peter, H-Dirsen L. Bauman, Aaron Kheriaty, and Edward Taylor. Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher EducationSan Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Discusses how faculty can develop “formational mentoring communities” exploring questions of meaning, calling and values. Great conversational model. Reviewed here.

Hunter, James Davison. To Change the WorldNew York, Oxford University Press, 2010. Hunter challenges the rhetoric of “culture change”, shows the importance of cultural     elites, and explores the role of “faithful presence”. Reviewed here.

Muehlhoff, Tim. I Beg to DifferDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Muehlhoff explores communication strategies for difficult conversations with those with whom we differ. Reviewed here.

Volf, Miroslav. A Public Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. He argues that Christians can choose a third way of seeking the public good while remaining faithful to the core values of their faith. Reviewed here.


Delbanco, Andrew. College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. He explores the history, current state, and his own future hopes for the university, with nods to the contribution of Christians to discussing important questions in the university. Reviewed here.

Kronman, Anthony. Education’s EndNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. A thought-provoking book by one who is dismissive of religious answers but wonders why colleges have given up on the big questions. Reviewed here.

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established NonbeliefNew York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Explores the history of Christian engagement in the American university and the forces behind the establishment of secularism as the university’s stance.

Newman, John Henry Cardinal. The Idea of a University. South Bend, University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. John Henry Newman’s classic work on the liberal Christian university–one of the first to articulate a vision of faith and scholarship together. Not easy going but a foundational book. Reviewed here.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Educating for ShalomGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. A collection of essays that chronicles Wolterstorff’s developing thinking about the integration of faith, learning and practice in the higher education world. Reviewed here.

I find keeping up with articles published in The Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Edand University World News (which gives me global coverage of university issues) helpful to staying aware of possible university conversations. I published a review post of higher education books here in June of 2014.

Thinking Christianly:

Milne, Bruce, Know the Truth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. An outline of basic systematic theology with scriptures and discussion questions to make one think about what one believes. A predecessor to this book was critical in my early years of ministry in helping me think through the faith deeply for myself.

Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public SquareGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. A foundational book reflecting a Christian perspective for how we engaged the public arena. A landmark book by the longtime editor of First Things.

Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. Noll demonstrates the importance of Christology to thinking Christianly about various academic disciplines. A fine example of a historian thinking theologically about doing history. Reviewed here.

Walsh, Brian, and J. Richard Middleton. The Transforming VisionDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984. The authors show how Christian worldview can be basic to thinking Christianly about various academic disciplines. The book includes a “bibliography you can’t live without.”

Wolters, Al. Creation RegainedGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. Traces the themes of creation, fall, and redemption, and how these may inform our efforts to think Christianly about anything else.

This is just a start. Some of you may have other resources you’d like to recommend. Please feel free to add them in the comments section of the blog!




Review: I Beg To Differ

I Beg to DifferI Beg to Differ, Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Building on an understanding of the dynamics of communication, this book develops a strategy for navigating difficult conversations through asking four key questions of those with whom we differ.

Difference is a given of life. Difference can make life delightful…or disturbing. What can be tough is when two people in some form of significant relationship differ and have to figure out how to make life with each other work. It happens between spouses, parents and children, business partners, and political leaders.

Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communications, knows all about this. He begins his book with a married couple who come to him with manila folders stuffed full of documentation of the grievances they had with each other. In various settings, he has worked on communication issues with families, men and women, college students, faculty and others in the public and private sectors.

He begins the book laying out some basic truths about communication. He explores how powerful words actually are. He outlines the various causes of conflict including poor communication climate, differing views of reality, lack of credibility, relational transgressions, lack of small talk, and latent conflict. He discusses the necessity of managing and expressing emotions in conflict. And he considers the role and importance of our spiritual disciplines in helping us with our self-control and self-talk.

All this lays the groundwork for four basic questions to ask in difficult conversations:

  1. What does this person believe?
  2. Why does this person hold this belief?
  3. Where do we agree?
  4. Based on all I’ve learned, how should I proceed.

He argues that these questions work to promote understanding in difficult situations because of the rule of reciprocity. When I make a sincere effort to understand another person on their own terms and look for the things we hold in common, it often creates a climate where the other sees themselves as obliged to do the same.

The final question is important. He elaborates it in the chapter as follows: “With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the next thing I should say?” It takes all we’ve learned about the person through the first three questions under consideration. It considers timing–is this a good time to have this conversation? It considers circumstances–are they conducive to a good conversation? And it focuses on a very specific goal, a manageable agenda–not everything I would ever want to discuss with this person.

The book concludes with three “case studies” of applying this strategy: a disagreement between spouses about finances, a disagreement between work colleagues about religion, and a difference between parent and teen about video games and grades. The dialogues are believable and illustrate a deliberate effort to walk through the four questions.

I found this one of the most helpful books on communication I’ve read because, while rooted in theory, it didn’t become lost in it, but provided very practical steps and illustrations that helped this reader think about how I could actually practice this in the next difficult conversation I face.

He concludes the book with a quote from The Miracle of Dialogue by Reuel Howe:

Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born. But dialogue can restore a dead relationship. Indeed this is the miracle of dialogue: it can bring relationship into being, and it can bring into being once again a relationship that had died.

Powerful words that seem so crucial for our time. What Muehlhoff does is point us away from the death-dealing discord of our culture to this life-giving dialogue.




St Francis in Meditation, Francisco de Zurbaran

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love; –From the “Prayer of St. Francis”

As I’ve continued to think about this idea of “the speech of freedom“, I am convinced that the pursuit of understanding is foundational to this practice. Often we think of free speech as being able to simply express openly and without restraint my ideas, convictions, grievances, preferences, whatever. But I wonder how free are we if no one is listening, no one is understanding what the other says? If that is the case, I am confined to the bubble of my own monologue.

In the prayer attributed to St. Francis, he prays “that I may not so much seek…To be understood as to understand.” As odd as it seems, we may most truly be understood when we have given ourselves to deeply understand the other. It think this works for two reasons.

One, it is often, but not always the case, that when we give another person the gift of really listening to understand them, they will want to return the favor. To have another person enter deeply into my life, to work and work to really understand me, and to convey in words that express back the content and tone of what I’ve said is a rare and beautiful thing, a form of deeply knowing a person.

This deep knowing of understanding the other also helps me to speak to be understood when the time comes for that. Then I am not just expressing what I want say but also trying to connect the things I care about with what the other cares about. I better understand the things they fear, the things they hope for and can be careful not to needlessly arouse their fears nor quench their hopes.

Understanding is not the same as agreeing. In fact, sometimes understanding helps us better understand the nature of our disagreement. Often when we do not listen to understand, we discuss what we think are the points where the other disagrees rather than with what is the actual substance of our disagreement. Sometimes we actually agree on things we thought we disagreed upon! When we’ve worked to understand one another, we are freed to work together from our places of common ground to the places where we disagree.

Tim Muelhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University proposes in his book I Beg To Differ several crucial elements of listening to understand:

  • Desire to understand. Do we really desire to engage and understand the other person, allowing time and space to share his or her perspective?
  • Questions. If a phrase, term, or idea is not clear, are we asking for clarification? When listening, how often do we achieve listening fidelity [understanding what the person means to convey]?
  • Summary statements. After asking for clarification, are we offering summary statements that paraphrase the words of the speaker, making sure to match content and tone?
  • Perspective taking. Are we putting ourselves into the perspective of another person to see how we would react if we held the views of the speaker?
  • Mindfulness. Are we fully present when listening to others? What internal or external distractions make us lose focus?
  • Poetic moments. Are we keeping our ears open for a phrase that surfaces a person’s passion or deep convictions? (p. 101)

It just may be that the most important element of “the speech of freedom” isn’t really speech at all but rather the effort to really listen to understand that conveys I want for the other what I want for myself: to be understood. It is then that monologue can become true dialogue and we are freed from the misunderstandings that prevent us from seeking the flourishing of even those we most deeply differ with.