Károly Ferenczy: The Sermon on the Mount

The Art of Serious Discussion

Christian Cardall


I recently heard a thought expressed by Bishop Robert Barron that resonated with me: noting our tendency to slide into either indifferent tolerance or coercive domination, he lamented that we seem to have lost the ability to have genuine arguments — not in the colloquial contentious sense, but in the classic sense of making a strong case to one another. (I was pointed to Bishop Barron by a friend in response to questions about a faith tradition other than my own.)

Therefore I #GiveThanks for those willing to engage in serious discussion about things that matter. By this I mean bubble-piercing, echo-chamber-transcending, two-way exchanges with ambitions that range from mutual understanding, to gentle persuasion to new perspectives, to loving invitations to change. Thus, depending on context and the nature of the relationship, the mode of discourse can range from exploration to explanation to exhortation.

Despite these different modes, note that all three of these nouns share the prefix “ex-“. What then do they ask of us when it is our turn to speak? They each call us to get outside ourselves, to reach across the divide offering something important and dear to us — something that actually makes a difference in our lives. It is a call for us to witness from our experience and argue with evidence and reason. Then, having made the offering, it becomes us to step back and respect the listener’s agency, sincerely honoring the choice of the listener to agree or disagree, to act upon it or not. There is no legitimate place for insincerity, badgering, or coercion on the part of the speaker.

There are corresponding obligations when it is our turn to listen. Rather than respond reflexively with suspicion or resentment, we are interested and curious enough about the speaker as a person to welcome their witness or argument and try to see it through their eyes. We take their sincerity and good intentions for granted. We consider the strongest possible version of their case, perhaps making it even better than they do, if we can. We are sincerely open to the possibility of change and responsive action in the face of new information. As listeners we “hear them out”: there is no legitimate place for shouting down, “canceling,” or mob violence.

Agree or disagree, there are significant upsides to such exchanges. When we agree, both are edified and rejoice together. When we disagree initially, there is potential to learn something genuinely new and come to a different or expanded understanding. If we continue to disagree, we will emerge with a deeper appreciation of the issues and renewed confidence in positions that have weathered debate. In all cases, as friends we can see and be seen.