Candidates’ Conference Reflections – Presuppositions

Sometimes the biggest thing that gets us into trouble, I would suggest, is presupposing a person’s position on something. Despite having been gently reminded of the dangers early in my field assessment, it’s still something which catches me out now and again (and again, and again). These pre-judgements are based on all sorts of factors – a passing comment, another person’s opinion, an assumption based on insubstantial rumour or gossip, an overheard discussion. These things often become the sum of what we think we know about someone before we’ve even had a chance to speak to them directly. And, of course, it then colours how we hear whatever they have to say to us. (I suspect there’s a legitimate lesson for Biblical interpretation in there as well.)

One of the pleasures of a Christian community and, especially, a reflective community, is that you can throw ideas around and test them against different understandings. There is a danger though that when we participate in that, our opinions are not seen as being put out to be tested, but being up for challenge, vehemently. And thus our presuppositions come into play. We hear with bias and we respond gracelessly. We attach labels, all too often with superglue.

I had a conversation with a person one evening during the conference which was heading towards a bit of a fankle until we stopped and cleared away the presuppositions. That’s not to say we suddenly saw eye-to-eye on everything, but what we did discover was that we had very much more in common that perhaps we had previously realised. Perhaps the significant thing was that we were both prepared to step to the side of ourselves for a while and listen to the other. Not just the ‘I hear what you’re saying’ listening, but the genuine ‘I want to understand you’ listening.

But there was more to be had from the conversation than just the satisfaction of knowing a bit more about someone. What I (we?) got was a bit more of the excitement that can be found when we hear of how God works in others. Whether it’s sharing experiences or sharing ‘academic’ insights, there’s always the sense that God is so much bigger than anything we can think of.

Our presuppositions not only put inaccurate labels on people, they also put God in a box. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do during Candidates’ conferences is take time to really know others and through them, learn a lot more about God.

But it’s also fun to play ‘the game’ – the one, that seems all too prevalent, of pigeonholing people. The ‘fun’ part is to play the game by confounding expectations and refusing to accept the label or fitting neatly into the pigeonhole. I’m looking forward to the next 4 conferences and continuing to play the game with spoilers. Maybe we’ll stop playing the game and just start talking.

2 responses to “Candidates’ Conference Reflections – Presuppositions”

  1. This is a thought provoking post which made me think and examine myself – thank you!

    You have touched on something, I think, which is quite important, and causes so much upset in the church. For some people, testing others’ positions is a game which is relished – debating and throwing out proof-texts etc to undermine a particular understanding of God and Jesus seems to be their raison d’etre. That is fine as long as all parties are “in” on the game. But all too often, there are others who appear almost to be on a “witch-hunt”, trying to root out heresy from the church. The underlying prejudice is always that “they (whoever they are) are not true Christians”.

    This can be extremely hurtful, even to the point of destruction. I am uncomfortable with the idea of judging anyone although I too have prejudices. Perhaps having conversations like you had can help to make us more open to our own failings and pre-suppositions and realise that we don’t have all the answers. This could counter the “challenge” and “gracelessness” which you mentioned and is part of the root of any upset caused.

    I am totally with you when you say “Maybe we’ll stop playing the game and just start talking”. None of us has all the answers about God, and certainly not about the Bible  – for how long have theologians tried to construct coherent and systematic theologies? At best, all we can do is claim a provisional understanding – for like St Paul we see only through a glass darkly.

    One thing which did strike me was the narrowness of Biblical interpretation I encountered on some occasions. The “plain reading” of the text seemed to be all that mattered. Texts were ripped from immediate context, with no setting in historical context and applied directly to the 21st century. This is not how I was taught to use the Bible – even as a teenager in Bible class – and is not what I have encountered in my home church. I was taught to use the Bible in a much more holistic way, and naturally this is how I approach it now. Perhaps this says a lot about me and my theology!

    I do so heartily agree when you say “Our presuppositions not only put inaccurate labels on people, they also put God in a box. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do during Candidates’ conferences is take time to really know others and through them, learn a lot more about God” and it is something I should do more often.

    Too often, Christians (including me) seem to talk past each other. Let’s listen to each other with respect, and disagree with dignity. Above all, we should love God and one another.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

  2. There is no doubt that we all have our prejudices. It’s being able to have the courage to set these aside to try to understand differing views.
    It’s true that we have a ‘provisional understanding’, but that is difficult to deliver from the pulpit when the gathered congregation is looking for a bit more than that. Some would see such provisionality as weakness rather than the strength that it is. It also sets up a tension in the preacher. A tension between personal spiritual integrity and the demands of congregational expectation.
    I have to confess that the kinds of ‘games’ I see played out in congregational life are much more of the ‘graceless’ variety, where clergy are often caught in the middle, or are even directly in the firing line.
    As for the reading of Scripture, it should always be understood in context. The Spirit’s task then is to inspire us to make the connections for the 21st Century. Not always an easy task ! 

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