Public discourse today is becoming more and more of a challenge. Pundits, for a long time, have contended that politics and religion are out-of-bounds for polite dinner parties, while there are few subjects more interesting than either.

 

I’ve learned this from experience: My wife often comments on how, at a social gathering, after everyone has revealed what they “do for a living,” the conversation invariably revolves around religion, because a minister is present.

 

“Why don’t they talk about plumbing because a plumber is there?” she asks.

 

I suppose it’s because, while we all have household plumbing in common, we are more curious about the questions of ultimacy that are the stuff of religious faith. Most people, no matter what their religious preference, find these questions fascinating.

 

          Having said this, I am increasingly concerned about how difficult it has become to talk about religion. For one thing, many of us have become super-sensitive to people who “impose” their religious views on the rest of us. Much has been said, especially over the holidays, about the terms we use. Is it okay to say, “Merry Christmas,” or is that greeting an imposition of one’s personal theology on those who do not share it? So we substitute the rather bland but unthreatening “Happy Holidays.” While that may have avoided problems, we have ended up sounding, well, uninteresting.

 

How have we become so sensitive?

 

          Perhaps it is because some folks have turned religious conversation into a weapon. In her column in a recent Dallas Morning News article, Mary Jacobs suggested — rather insightfully, I thought — that the commandment regarding “taking the Lord’s name in vain” was really dealing with our tendency to enlist the name of God in support of our own personal opinions, and that such enlistment of the deity was a misuse of the divine name. It also ignores the possibility that the One behind that divine name has an opinion quite the opposite of ours. She was onto something, and she drew quite a few opposing letters, which is often evidence of having actually said something helpful.

 

          So let me offer my own modest proposal. Let’s keep our conversation interesting. Let’s enjoy the rich and wonderful experience of mutually exploring what is most important, what is essential to our lives. Let’s not banish talk of faith from the public square. 

 

          But let’s also take a good dose of that thing called humility, best defined as that attitude that leaves room for the fact that we might be wrong. Then maybe we can not only speak, but listen. We can share, we can explore at the deep level of human experience, leaving room for the views of others. After all, it may make your next dinner party so much more interesting.

 


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