How Do We Interact With Dogmatic Loved Ones?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  Here is what she wrote:  “I have loved ones whose faith denominations are different from mine, though we are all Christians. I found out the hard way recently that the only way I can keep a civil relationship with them is to never discuss our faith. This bothers me. It seems if the subject of religion comes up, I either: feel patronized, or am met with scripture that is recited to prove that their way of worship is the only way and mine is wrong. I know you deal with people with all kinds of beliefs, Craig. How do you find common ground? I seem to always feel disrespected or seem to irritate the other person, so I just avoid the subject.”

There are so many ideas that come racing into my head, in response to your question.  I’ll try to slow down a bit and be semi-coherent in addressing your concerns.

Let me begin by saying I know exactly how you feel.  There are a group of Christians out there who believe that there is truly only ONE way of embracing one’s faith.  Often, they define that ONE way using a literal interpretation of the Bible.  I could note that if I wanted to be more accurate I would say “a selectively literal interpretation of the Bible” – for I’ve never met a biblical literalist who truly followed every jot and title of Scripture: only they parts they deemed important enough to interpret literally – but I digress.

Besides the arrogance of their position, the thing that drives me most crazy is that these individuals think they know the Bible simply because they can quote chapter and verse on many topics.  Anyone who can’t quote chapter and verse right along with them, then, is – by definition – either not “a good Christian” or not a Christian at all.

What they fail to realize is that while they may know the written words on a page, and the location of those words within a book of the Bible, they often have VERY little knowledge ABOUT those words.

They don’t know, for instance, about the different theological streams (J,E,D, and P) that were woven together to tell the formative stories of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).  They don’t understand that what we know today as the Book of Isaiah was not likely written by one individual: it is actually a collection of three works which were each written at different times.  They don’t understand that most credible biblical scholars believe that the documents we know today as the Gospels were not “written” by one author (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), but were the product of oral traditions handed down by communities.  Nor do they understand that half of the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, were – most likely – not written by Paul himself, but by some of his followers.

Instead of engaging these pieces of information that can inform one’s reading of Scripture, they often dismiss such scholarship by saying it is “unfaithful” – and then walk away saying something along the lines of: “God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it!”

Needless to say, encounters with folks who believe they “know it all” can be incredibly frustrating!  And when faced with someone who won’t listen or give an inch, I do not think it is productive to engage them – for they will resist almost any attempt to forge common ground.

What’s helped me lessen my frustration when encountering such folks is something I’ve come to realize about them.  That “something” is the reason such folks are that way.

In my limited life experience, I’ve discovered there are two primary reasons why some folks are so dogmatic.  The first is because of their personal background; the second is because they are wired that way.  Let me say a word about each of these.

There are some folks out there who are rigid because – early in their faith journey – they encountered a form of Christianity that taught ONE expression of the faith was right, and every other expression of faith was wrong.

If they believed that one expression of faith, they were taught, they would be rewarded (i.e. they would go to heaven).  If they didn’t believe that one expression of faith, they were taught, they would be punished (i.e. they would go to hell).  This black-and-white approach toward faith caused them to hold on tightly to the first expression of the faith to which they were exposed.  Asking the difficult questions was often considered a form of unfaithfulness.  Consequently, they learned to bury their tough questions so they could hold tightly to the beliefs they were first taught.

Another way in which a person’s background can produce theological rigidity has to do with a person’s set of circumstances.  Some folks’ early years were filled with chaos and violence.  Nothing in their world made sense, and they had no control over anything.  As they grew, they craved order and meaning.  So when some came along and offered them a belief system that gave them absolute certainty and some degree of control over things, they jumped at the opportunity and held on for all they were worth.

When I realized these things, it helped me be more understanding in my encounters with these individuals.  Instead of trying to change their beliefs right away, I learned to give them some space and let them “be” in ways that allowed them to hold their world together.  Over time, as I built relationships with these folks, I would occasionally offer an observation or insight here and there that would invite them to think in broader ways.  After doing so, I step back and give them space to begin processing things.  I do that because change with such individuals takes a great deal of time and patience.

The last thing I’ve realized through my encounters with incredibly dogmatic folks is that it is possible that some people are just wired that way.  I’ve seen a number of articles on the web over the past few years that speak to this issue.  Here is just one article.  (Before clicking on the link, you should know the article is set in a political – not theological – context.  Nevertheless, it raises interesting points for us to consider about the link between our biological make up and our beliefs:

So what can you take away from all of my ramblings?

Hopefully at least two things.

First, when you encounter someone who emotionally overwhelms you and/or pushes all of your buttons because of their rigidity, it’s not a bad thing to either change the topic or walk away.  As Jesus told the disciples, not all audiences would be receptive to their expression of faith.  In some cases, you’ve simply got to shake the dust from your sandals and walk away (Mark 6:11; Matthew 10:14 & Luke 9:5).

Second, if you ARE able to maintain a relationship with a dogmatic person and find yourself regularly frustrated by their attitude/arrogance; remind yourself their approach toward you is NOT personal.  It’s likely the product of either their background and/or the way they are wired.

Once you quit personalizing it and understand what’s going on in the bigger picture, it MIGHT be a little easier to spend time with the individual.

Those are a couple of thoughts I had.  So what about you?  What insights do you have into this matter?

And please, please, please – keep the questions coming!

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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2 Responses to How Do We Interact With Dogmatic Loved Ones?

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Craig is absolutely right that often walking away from topics of conflict is the best option. Certainly if your goal is to get them to respect your beliefs or acknowledge your faith as a valid form of Christianity, that’s probably never going to happen.

    But if your goal truly is to find common ground and get along better, and you can be very, very patient, sometimes that can work. In my experience the best way to find out is to lay your cards on the table: “It makes me sad that we always disagree on this because I care about you, and I know your faith is as important to you as mine is to me. Do you think we can work together to find some common ground and focus on the things our faiths agree on?” Their answer to that will let you know if it’s worth trying to proceed.

    If finding common ground on faith proves impossibly difficult, you might also try engaging them on questions of politeness: How can people who believe different things get along? Is there a way to talk about differing faith without making anyone feel disrespected or irritated? Again, their answer will tell you whether it’s worth bothering to engage or whether walking away from the topic is all you can do.

  2. Stevie says:

    Boy, Craig….you hit it on the head. Both my loved ones had chaos, and one had a serious drug addiction.( That makes the arrogance even harder to take.) I am thankful that they found what works for them. Your words brought this reality home.
    I think you are right that I need to not take the double standard personally. They don’t hesitate to expound on their beliefs at every turn, yet I can say nothing. It’s the way it is, and I can’t imagine that ever changing. It’s that or having a tumultuous relationship, and that isn’t an option for me.
    I still need to find a way of handling the issue when I seem to offend them so easily, as happened this weekend. I am seeing her tomorrow, so I need to ponder this . Thank you for you always wise and helpful words.

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