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Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Christian Civility Possible in an Uncivil World?

Evangelical Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, the largest theological school in the world, recently released a new edition of his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I haven't picked up a copy, but a recent interview of Mouw by Krista Tippett on her show, "On Being" (it used to be called "Speaking of Faith"), highlighted some of the issues he touches on in his book.

One notion that Mouw picks up on is the historian Martin Marty's idea of "convicted civility." Marty once argued that there seems to be a lot of folks with plenty of conviction but with little or no civility, and a lot of folks with plenty of civility but with little or no conviction, but what we don't have (and really need) are people who have plenty of conviction and plenty of civility. In other words, we need people who are serious about what they believe in but are able to live "civilly" with those with whom they disagree on fundamental issues (it is relatively easy to be civil to those with whom we don't have fundamental differences).  As Tippett notes in her journal about her conversation with Mouw:
"Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and "honor" of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of 'convicted civility.'"
Convicted civility is, of course, easier to talk about than do, but Mouw believes that the way we treat people is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions we take.  One thing he stresses is the importance of honoring the other rather than merely tolerating them, which is why he has problems with those who stress the need for tolerance.

On this matter Mouw is on to something.  Barring the second coming of Jesus, if we are going to live in a civilized world, all (or at least most) of us will need to learn how to live with difference, to welcome the "stranger" in our midst, to deal civilly with people with whom we have fundamental disagreements (e.g., on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, war, etc.).  We won't be able to bring everyone around to our way of thinking (which, of course, is always the right way to think about such issues). Instead, we will need to honor them for who they are: children of God.  Perhaps, to pick up on a theme I touched on in a post from earlier this week, "Advent and the Rapture," this is an opportunity for us to live in the present as if God's future has already arrived.

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