Discernment / The Skill

Discernment 101b: What’s obvious might not be

Some people act as if pluralism isn’t simply a fact of life. Instead, they are offended when movies do not depict the values they approve, or shocked when friends support a candidate or a program they find unacceptable. I know that regional differences make a difference—some areas are more diverse, some are less diverse—but all the conditions of our postmodern world tend towards greater pluralism, not less. And greater pluralism means more difference of opinion not less.

One practical result of cultural, religious and lifestyle pluralism is this: In a pluralistic world, what seems obvious to me may not be at all obvious to you. And vice versa, of course. What you find obvious may be so implausible to someone else as to seem almost silly, to seem almost impossible to take seriously. You think what?

The reason is simple. My assumptions about what is true or untrue, beautiful or ugly, acceptable or unacceptable are rooted in my experience of life and in what I believe. I may assume something because I have considered the evidence and the alternatives and come to a careful conclusion about it. Or I assume something because I happen to understand it or simply because it appeals to me. Or I may assume something because the people around me assume it, or because it seems to work, or because it feels right, or because, well, I don’t know, but I’m surprised you don’t find it obvious too.

And this suggests a few things that discerning Christians should keep in mind as we seek to live faithfully in an increasingly pluralistic world.

The first is, well, obvious: Expect it. Expect to discover that some of what is obvious to you may not be obvious to your friends—and vice versa. The primary reason we should expect it is not because this is what pluralism produces, but because this is what the Scriptures teach us to expect in a fallen world. “Fools think their own way is right,” an ancient Hebrew saying warns, but that doesn’t make it right (Proverbs 12:15). Being surprised or shocked is not merely a waste of emotional energy, it says nothing about the plausibility of our friend’s assumptions, and it gives them grounds to doubt our commitment to the view of life and reality revealed in the Bible.

Second: Treating people with dignity as image-bearers of God means we will take their assumptions seriously. And before we disagree we need to be certain we understand what’s being assumed, and why our friend finds it attractive and believable.

The next suggestion arises from the fact that we too share in the brokenness of the world: Welcome challenges to our own assumptions. It’s a chance to think things through, and that is a gift. “Fools think their own way is right,” the proverb says, “but the wise listen to advice.”

Fourth: A person’s assumptions reveal what they are prepared to hear about Jesus—or about anything else, for that matter. If you’ve ever been stuck with some idiot who doesn’t listen but just pontificates about their perspective, you know how deadly such an encounter can be.

One final thing: Expect it of fellow believers, too. Just because I happen to be talking to a Christian is no guarantee that what we find obvious will be identical—or even necessarily similar on a whole host of topics. That’s why the New Testament includes so many epistles, apostolic letters written, among other reasons, to correct the mistaken assumptions of fellow Christians.

Now that I am finished writing this I wonder if it’s all so obvious that I needn’t have bothered. Like when Steve Martin said, “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”