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Why We Practice Theological Hospitality (Part 1)

Jan 1, 2020

Written by David Williams, President, Taylor Seminary and Greg Henson, President, Sioux Falls Seminary

Let’s explore why theological hospitality is so important to us. After all, theological hospitality is difficult. Why would we make it a core practice in the Kairos Project? There are probably many reasons we find difference hard. Part of the answer is that difference almost always brings to mind conflict and most of us prefer to avoid conflict if we can.

In our April 2019 Kairos Gathering we focused much of the Gathering on thinking about conflict, the different ways we experience it, and what we do with it. In my opening plenary session I invited participants to view conflict through three different lenses. These lenses provide us with three ways to think about the practice of theological hospitality.

The first lens is the lens most familiar to us and pretty much our default when we think about conflict or difference. It is the lens by which we see difference as a direct challenge. We experience this challenge as being about right and wrong, as good and others bad, or about truth and error. It is shaped by the metaphor of the battle where we take “sides,” “attack positions”, and “defend” our position. This lens situates difference as essentially a power struggle. It is reflected in James 4:1-2:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.

I suggested that we view this kind of difference through the Christological lens. This is in part because Jesus teaches us about power. Followers of Jesus know that it is all too easy, when we see ourselves in the right to use our power to defend ourselves, to build ourselves up, or to protect “our side” against all challengers. The canvas of human history is a mural of great evil done in the name of defending good. Jesus teaches us to reject this approach to power.

Paul draws on Jesus’ revelation of this truth in Phil 2:4-8 where Paul admonishes the Philippians:

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (NRSV)

The way of Jesus is not to use one’s power for oneself, but rather for the sake of others. Submission, rather than domination, is the appropriate use of power. Of course, this is hardest the more convinced one is of being right, but that’s exactly why Paul points out that proclaiming “a crucified messiah” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). It simply doesn’t make sense to approach these kinds of conflicts submitting to the other, even giving one’s life for the other. It is perceived as either weakness or foolishness.

It is when we face difference perceived as error that we most need a good dose of “epistemic humility.” Epistemic humility is the recognition that as sure as I am that I am right about something, I could be wrong. I don’t think I am (obviously!) and I have good reasons to think the way I do (or I wouldn’t be so convinced of them), but nevertheless I could be wrong. Such a posture provides us opportunity for mutual submission as we invite others to help us see where we might be getting it wrong.

We realize that this posture toward our deeply held truths to which we have committed our lives and our futures is not a posture shared by everyone. In fact, some say that epistemic humility is a vice if you really believe God’s truth. That’s one reason we put theological hospitality front and center as an essential practice in the Kairos Project.

We are all too aware that as compelling as our reasoning is, or as clear, evident, or even obvious is the truth of the way we see things, we recognize that there may be things of which we are unaware. There may be flaws that we cannot see. There may be errors to which we are blind. If we are honest, we know it’s the case because we know that there have been times that we didn’t want to see the truth even though it was right before our eyes. This reality is reflected in the prophet Jeremiah who reminds us that “the heart is deceitfully wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). It is reflected in philosophers from Demosthenes to Wittgenstein who remind us that there is nothing as easy as self deceit. This humility is embraced with the hope that in taking such a posture toward things we believe to be true it is more likely that God may actually break through our self-deceit to correct our own errors and through humility and mutual submission to make us more like Jesus.

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