Secret military ops. The Bermuda Triangle. Time travel. UFOs. Heaven and Valhalla (eternal paradise for Vikings). These are just a few of conversational topics my seatmate and I touched on during a short 90-minute flight last week.
Nothing opens the floodgates of conversation like being on an airplane.
Because airplane conversations are usually with people you will never see again, it can be easier to share opinions you hold back from those closest to you. There is no cost for sharing when you speak with a stranger. There is no expectation that you should think similarly to someone you’ve just met. And because the expectations are low, you can take the stranger as is, at face value.
Talking with strangers is a Venn diagram of sorts—you converse to find the space where your circles overlap. In that shared space, you can enjoy each other’s company, learn from each other, and work your way toward what’s true.
This is exactly the model discussed in our “Church Talk” episode with C. Christopher Smith. Chris visited with Hannah and me to share his vision for helping Christians engage in good conversation. In his experience, Christians can struggle to share openly because there are expectations that everyone within the Church should think alike. It’s the erroneous assumption that the Venn diagram for Christians should have little if any variance; our circles should overlap almost entirely.
Such assumptions are not only unrealistic, but they also kill off conversation, which is the very means by which we can find commonality. When differences of opinion are discovered, the dissonance stirs up anxiety, frustration, fear, and more. Emotions like these can kill off conversation rather than stimulate it.
So much of the friction I see among Christians starts here, with the assumption that unity equals groupthink. We draw our circles around particular theological stances, lifestyle choices, and political views, and others are either with us or not. Zero variance among our circles may feel emotionally safe, but such a view discounts the wondrous complexity of God’s creatures—ones He created purposefully different.
Does God intend for our growth into Christlikeness to erase every distinction between us? In The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner offers insight:
While some Christian visions of the spiritual life imply that as we become more like Christ we look more and more like each other, such a cultic expression of loss of individuality has nothing in common with genuine Christian spirituality. Paradoxically, as we become more and more like Christ we become more uniquely our own true self. (17)
I’ve found that the more rooted I am in Christ, I have greater freedom to be myself. I can share my experiences, opinions, and beliefs freely because I know I am loved by my Savior even though I am a work in progress. And this freedom to be who I am also allows me to let others be who they are—works in progress and greatly loved by the Savior. Resting in God’s love means that I do not need zero variance in my conversational circles; I am free to seek and find and truly enjoy the shared space where our lives overlap. And together, we can work our way toward what is true.