In our postmodern and pluralistic world, the intersection of etiquette and religion can present challenges for the person who wants to be both polite and truthful.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul tells us to “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6 ESV).
But, when it comes down to it, truth must not be sacrificed on an altar of politically-correct etiquette principles.
That’s why I enjoyed reading a “Miss Manners” column last week, where Judith Martin deftly answered a question from a reader who took offense at a friend. It seems the “guilty” friend had given an honest answer to a question about hell — a question which was asked to her by the now-offended friend!
Here is the woman’s question:
I have a genuine fascination with cultures and religions that are not my own. I know it is incredibly rude to pester people about this, so I usually find answers to my questions online or in books.
However, a somewhat close friend of mine shared a mutual curiosity about religion, and we had an interesting conversation about our (very different) faiths. Curious about the concept of Hell, I asked her, “If I was a good person all my life, a kind, giving, completely unselfish person, yet someone who believes differently, would I go to Hell?”
She told me in no uncertain terms that I would. Was this rude of her? Logically, I know I asked for it. But it felt as though she was telling me I was going to Hell for having a different religion.
Should I be offended? Must I avoid the topic of religion at all times in the future? I know that it is a largely personal and inflammatory topic, but I am eager to have open and honest conversations about it. Is this impossible?
Given that our culture is intolerant of any worldview which does not promote complete tolerance for any idea, I expected Miss Manners to side with “Gentle Reader” and give a rebuke to the friend who believes she is headed for eternal judgment.
But she didn’t. She rebuked “Gentle Reader” instead — not for theological reasons, of course — but for setting up a question and then taking offense when answered honestly.
GENTLE READER: You should not expect salvation from Miss Manners.
You committed a social sin by pulling a conversational bait-and-switch on your friend. Having proposed a theological discussion, you appeared to be using yourself merely as stand-in for anyone of your views. Then you turned around and took her answer personally.
What was she supposed to say? “Well, yes, most people of your faith will go to Hell, but you’re so good that I’m sure God will make an exception for you.”
So yes, open and honest conversations are impossible if you expect to weigh information to make sure that it is flattering.
Her response does not make Miss Manners a modern-day John Calvin, but it does create the parameters for honest theological communication. One cannot expect to receive both flattery and truth. Choose you this day whom you want dispensing doctrine to your ears. Do you desire damning flattery or doctrinal fidelity from your friends, or your pastors?
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. (2 Timothy 4:3 ESV)