Convictions and Conversation

February 7th, 2012

Watch your convictions. They shape your thoughts.

Watch your thoughts: They shape your words.

Watch your words: They shape your actions.

Watch your actions: They shape your habits.

Watch your habits: They shape your character.

Watch your character: It shapes your destiny.

I added the first line to this famous old poem because I want to explore the connection between convictions and communication. The first piece in the series looks at the power of convictions. The next question is- how do you communicate it in a way that is true to who you are, AND keeps conversations alive?

Some beliefs, convictions or worldviews tend to close down conversation rather than opening it up. Seeing as Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday, a little football story might be in order-

Three players, Eli Manning, Tim Tebow, and Tom Brady, stand before the throne of God. They are all vying for the MVS, most valuable saint award which will decide who sits next to God.

God asks Eli Manning first: “What do you believe?” Eli thinks long and hard, looks God in the eye, and says, “I believe in God, family and country, I believe in hard work, and I like to give back where I can.”

God likes his answer, and offers Eli a seat to the left.

Then God turns to Tim Tebow and says, “What do you believe?”

Tim says, “I believe in Jesus as my Lord and savior. Jesus is the reason I play football. I play for Jesus. I win for Jesus. I live for Jesus.” Then he kneels with his fist on his forehead, the trademark Tebow mark of respect.

God is moved by his sincerity. God tebows back and offers him a seat to the right.

Finally, God turns to Tom Brady: “And you, Tom, what do you believe?”

Tom fixes his hair and replies, “God, I believe you’re in my seat.”

God must really like sports, based on the number of times God’s name is mentioned. But which team is God supporting? God seems to keep a foot in each camp, depending on who wins. Just once, I would like to hear a losing player give a post match speech and blame God. “So, can you tell us what went wrong out there?”

“Well, actually, I blame God for this one. Every time I threw the ball, God kept pushing my guys out of the way. God was making them fumble all over the field. It was God’s fault. And Jesus too. I blame God and Jesus; the pair of them.”

I don’t expect to hear that any time soon. It’s an interesting worldview. When things go well, it’s all credit to God. When things don’t go well, God is off the hook. And it’s not just sports. Whether it’s after a Super bowl triumph, an American Idol performance, the end of a President’s speech or while receiving an Academy Award, it’s not surprising to hear God mentioned in some form. (read on for more about convictions and communication)

It seems harmless enough from one perspective. We all know vaguely what people mean, and I suspect people are trying to be humble, which is an admirable quality. But God is also used to justify more significant things, such as divisive political opinions, personal prejudices and even violence and hatred towards “the enemy”.  As Anne Lamott said, “You know you’ve created God in your image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”

Have you ever had people try and manipulate you with phrases like “God told me…..God wants this…..God expects that.” As the prominent atheist Sam Harris said, “Faith is a conversation stopper.” He may have borrowed the phrase from American philosopher Richard Rorty who wrote a paper called “Religion As a Conversation Stopper.”

“God said it. I believe it. That settles it” is the classic conversation stopper. As a communication technique, it’s akin to a parent saying “Because I said so.” Unfortunately we hear this style of communication on both sides of the liberal/ conservative divide. Conservatives use this line of reasoning to argue that things such as abortion and same sex marriage are against God’s will. Some leaders even go so far as to justify war, or genocide, on the basis that God told them to do it. It’s a conversation stopper, not because it’s convincing, but rather because it removes human responsibility from the equation. This is like the game changing order that came down the pipeline from corporate, only corporate took their orders from an unnamed and silent authority above and there is no paper trail other than questionable religious texts. “Just do what you are told” is the basic message.

Religious liberals have their own counter conversation stoppers. President Obama did it this past week. In a speech, Obama claimed that Jesus would support his desire to raise taxes on the rich. He quoted from the Bible, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded.” It’s a bit of a stretch to apply this ancient text to modern day economic policy but as a general principle I can see the connection. Don’t get me wrong. I support the ending of the Bush tax cuts. And if I had to guess at what Jesus would think if he was around today, my hunch is that he would support the end of tax cuts for the wealthy too. But that’s just a guess, and as a communication devise it’s another conversation stopper. How do you have a rational conversation about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do or think? Is it really fair to claim to have the son of God in your corner?

I don’t think it is. I think it’s the other side of a coin that should be taken out of circulation. Decisions and opinions should be formed with all the best tools available to us, our minds and our democratic processes. The point is that you don’t NEED to back your opinion up with divine evidence. Be boldly yourself, and hold opinions that sit well with your own common sense. Be authentic to who you are, and be prepared to take a stand for what you value because it’s important to you.

There is an old story about four Rabbis who had a series of theological arguments, and three were always in agreement against the fourth.

One day, the odd Rabbi out, decides to appeal to a higher authority. “Oh, G-d!” he cries. “I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!”

Keep in mind that it’s a beautiful, sunny day. As soon as the Rabbi finishes his prayer, a storm cloud moves across the sky above the four. It rumbles once and dissolves. “A sign from G-d! See, I’m right, I knew it!” But the other three disagree, pointing out that it’s possible for storm clouds to form on hot days.

So the Rabbi prays again: “Oh, G-d, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, G-d, give them a bigger sign!”

This time four storm clouds suddenly roll in and sit right above them, and a bolt of lightning slams into a tree on a nearby hill.

“I told you I was right!” cries the Rabbi, but his friends insist that nothing has happened that could not be explained by natural causes.

The Rabbi is getting ready to ask for a “very big” sign, but just as he says “Oh G-d…” the sky turns pitch black, the earth shakes, and a deep, booming voice intones, “HEEEEEEEE’S RIIIIIIIGHT!”

The Rabbi puts his hands on his hips, turns to the other three, and says, “Well?”

 “So,” shrugs one of the other Rabbis, “now it’s 3 to 2!”

That sounds like what you might hear in many church, and political, meetings. It’s a manipulative form of communication. It’s far healthier to have the conviction of your own opinions without any need to add divine reinforcements to your argument.

By the way, in case I need to say it, feel free to disagree with me. Just don’t tell me you disagree because of something you think God said and don’t gang up on me by putting God in your corner. That should be added to Robert’s Rules of healthy dialogue; God has no vote at the table and no voice in the conversation. If you really feel convicted about something, you don’t need to add any divine authority to your opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating the end of faith in the way that Sam Harris does. I’m advocating the end of faith as a conversation stopper. If your faith is part of your convictions, then believe it boldly and don’t be afraid to express it. Just express it in a way that is true for you, without belittling or manipulating others and without closing down conversation. If it makes sense to you, God may even be another name for convictions; the still, small voice within that guides your life, motivates your actions, carves your character and shapes your destiny.

Bob Dylan wrote a song about using God to justify war. Seems fitting to end with some lyrics-

Oh the First World War, boys

It closed out its fate

The reason for fighting

I never got straight

But I learned to accept it

Accept it with pride

For you don’t count the dead

When God’s on your side.

When the Second World War

Came to an end

We forgave the Germans

And we were friends

Though they murdered six million

In the ovens they fried

The Germans now too

Have God on their side.

But now we got weapons

Of the chemical dust

If fire them we’re forced to

Then fire them we must

One push of the button

And a shot the world wide

And you never ask questions

When God’s on your side.

In a many dark hour

I’ve been thinkin’ about this

That Jesus Christ

Was betrayed by a kiss

But I can’t think for you

You’ll have to decide

Whether Judas Iscariot

Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’

I’m weary as Hell

The confusion I’m feelin’

Ain’t no tongue can tell

The words fill my head

And fall to the floor

If God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war.

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  1. […] worldview is, why it’s important, letting it expand your life, and living it with passion. The second piece looks at the convictions and communication, how to hold your convictions AND communicate in open […]

  2. Carol Shimp says:

    Thank you Ian for this thoughtful post. I want to say, God does not take sides or responsibility for our actions right or wrong. He gave us free will and God will not interfere with it. Ou free will comes to learn our lessons so we can raise our spiritual level of consciousness to a higher level.

  3. naomi says:

    I believe g_d is on my side whether something good or bad happens to me. It is happening for a reason no matter how tough it may be. However what was he thinking when he let wars happen and mass people die in a tragedy. I am totally split too.

  4. I have always wondered how God figures out who wins or who makes the winning touchdown, etc. Your comment about Pres. Obama is an example of what is know as proof texting. That is taking a position and then searching for a verse (usually taken out of context) to say “See There!”

    I love the quote from Anne Lamont — I have long said that often we humans create God in our own image.

    I do take issue about your comments on “Religious Liberals.” I am a United Methodist minister and a liberal and I get concerned when people quote the bible out of it’s historal context and literary context (how the author fashioned the story for what purpose and what it would have sounded to the people of the time written).   

    I do aggree with your assessment of what Jesus might think. I don’t get why so many who claim the name “Christian” can refuse to believe his main concern about the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused.


  5. Everything in this life is good, we have choice to do good (that what is in harmony with the universe laws) or bad ( that is whats out of harmony with universal laws)

    Funny how religion externalised God.. God is a he, well nowdays that is debateable if you lesbian or non sexist, he, God is somebody in the sky. Yet who looks at themselves and finds that the good of who God is, within us.

    Funny how eve blamed a snake (external) and not herself, funny how Adam blamed God (external) for giving him eve to make him sin.. Funny how a schizophrenic always seems to blame somebody else (external) that no-one else sees when things go wrong!

    When will humkind learn to take responsibilty for themselves?

  6. Dave says:

    God as a separate sentient consciousness is a conundrum. God seems more a state of consciousness that happens in a zone of universal interdependence.  I can feel it in moments of self-abandonment, when I somehow manage to forget that I’m the most important thing in the universe.:-)
     My life and who I am is in debt to the sun, earth, moon and stars, trees, people past and present (parents, teachers, employers, farmers, factory workers, soldiers, peace makers).  I don’t know where I would stop the list of entities that allow or have allowed for my existence for all our existences. 
     Evidence of a single omnipotent influencer is sorely lacking and it seems that such an entity would be quite bored with the tripe that occupies most of our activities and the beauty all around seems to flow quite nicely despite all attempts to control it.  Joseph Campbell spoke of getting stuck by the metaphor of God and missing the God that is within us all.
     Thinking about the infinite makes one realize simultaneously how microscopically insignificant and amazingly important we all are.  It is beyond reason, but god is on everyones side as there really are no sides.

  7. Ray says:

    To me God is not a person type of entity. He or it is more of a verb than a noun. Godliness is more appropo.

    An energy field which we are all connected with. 

  8. Renee says:

    God is in our image…..however, whatever conclusions we come to whether right, wrong, good or bad all have to do with our source.  I do believe that we have to take responsibility for our own actions and behavior and what we value or don’t value but none of us live in a vacuum.  We have derived at this information, set of beliefs or values from something or somewhere.  My problem would be a person deliberately not taking responsibility for what they believe and think whether they believe God said it or not but I also believe that we all derive our beliefs from some source other than ourselves.  How we look at the world is determined more by what we put into our spirits, what we understand and what we actually have experienced.  My perspective, although different should still be respected.

  9. Renee says:

    Great article that challenges you to think…..I love things that make me think outside of my normal thought process….keep it going… it!!

  10. Xaka says:

    I’d love to agree with you that God shouldn’t be brought up as if He’s rooting for you, but…that’s really kind of the point of God.  He’s rooting for you.  He’s got your back, no matter what. 
    So, it’s ridiculous, I think, to expect people who believe in God to keep Him out of the conversation.  Especially if you have someone who builds her or his entire life around faith in God, because God is just as present as you or me to people like that.
    And, actually, lots of people blame God for when things go wrong.  Many of them are in the Bible.  And, many of them are walking the Earth right now.

  11. I think this is a great post. So many times I have debated the use of faith in any argument but it seems like it is not going anywhere anytime soon. I don’t care if people have faith, I care when it gets in the way ofcommunication, like you so eloquently put in this post. I hope people listen. 

  12. Virginia Urbach says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate,  Obama’s speech on raising taxes to the wealthy doesn’t sound unfair given the nature of today’s climate. But I also believe that the less fortunate will have reasons to complain. As sad as it may seem, centuries old bible  stories seems to support this. I’d like to question, what would Buddha, Allah, and other great religious figures support or communicate?  A lively topic.  Thanks Ian for this post.

  13. Reba says:

    Great article! It took my battle with PTSD to get me to go beneath answers that were contextualized by my rigorous Catholic upbringing. To be honest it’s scary as he!! to ask yourself what you believe or value & why WITHOUT using any religious construct as a metaphor or crutch. In some ways it was as painful as the original trauma that brought my PTSD riddled mind in for help in the first place. You are quite correct Ian, it’s a conversation stopper; and sadly it is that desperately needed conversation with your own soul that it stops most often in my humble opinion.

  14. ian says:

    Very well said Reba, especially the bit about the conversation with your own soul.Thank you

  15. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    It’s only a conversation stopper with people who have not yet experienced Him in their lives. Who have not had their lives saved..more than once, by Him. in other words “You instinctively know when a thing is right”, you ‘know’ too in little happenings when you lose something..and something draws you to where the lost item is at. But unless you allow him to come into your daily life, you will never come to know him, and the ‘wonder’ of living with him.
    Please don’t underestimate the power of God, or belittle the people who actually believe ‘in’ him, and ‘on’ him. His power is beyond all that I ever imagined, and deserves the glory and respect of each and everyone of us.

  16. Kristen says:

    God is good Ian.  You should get to know him.  You’re missing out….

  17. maisha says:

    I think what you are referencing here is more an issue with religious rhetoric where people who lack understanding or discernment of the context of the bible misinterpret or misconstrue the Word of God to benefit their opinion. As someone who believes in God I love to debate with some of my friends who are non-believers/believers about God and the bible. I try not to come from a place of superiority or be condescending as I know I do not have all the answers nor will I ever. Its funny that this is your experience because this has been my experience as well with non-believers.  I believe we all can be close minded when it comes to our opinions (religious or not) and what we use to validate them. I would say that the Word of God is my basis for my beliefs and (some of) my beliefs have been reinforced through my own personal experiences. Also, somethings I may never experience and that requires faith for me to hold that belief. Because I live by the Word of God I would not expect an non-believer to agree or understand my opinion or decisions fully because will live by a different policy. I do believe God gives us free will. Whatever we choose to do with that we will be held accountable whether we interpret it correctly or not. But God even tells us “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” Proverbs 3:5. Like I said I dont have all the answers but the difference is I am open to hear another side of the story and I try to not make my word law. One could argue that if something is mentioned in the bible many times then it goes past “opinion” and is God’s statue. But no one will care about God’s statues if they dont believe in God so I try to meet (talk to) the person where they are in their walk. “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” James 1:19

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