Arguing for the sake of heaven: Why we need curious conversations…

Posted by on May 15, 2021 in Blog | 11 comments

I wonder if you, like me, are finding the polarising conversations taking place in the public square shrill, tiresome and destructive. We have lost the art of disagreeing with one another politely or constructively, and have forgotten than ad hominem attacks (attacks directed against a person rather than the position they hold) have traditionally been seen to weaken an argument, not strengthen it.

It genuinely is a pity, because there are so many important discussions that need to take place, and take place well. No matter how angrily we screech against our opponents, the truth is that there is so much we do not yet know about gender, sexuality, our changing climate, overcoming poverty, the impact of technology on our humanity and indeed, on what it means to be human. The quickest way to gain knowledge is to have the humility to realise that we don’t know it all, to be genuinely curious and to listen deeply and well. These three ingredients – humility, curiosity and deep listening – are in short supply, but there is no fundamental reason why they should be, so hope remains.

What does a curious conversation look like?

A curious conversation, surprisingly enough, starts with curiosity! It is a conversation where we intentionally explore and ask questions about views we are not immediately drawn towards and might even feel negative about. It requires us to ask the question “why” and to ask it repeatedly, and always in a thoughtful, respectful manner. Curiosity opens discussion up, disrespect shuts it down. It is not a hostile conversation. It defers judgement. It listens and tries to understand before evaluating, and even when it does evaluate, it then asks the other party if they agree with the assessment, and if not, why.

In his 2020 book Morality, Jonathan Sacks explores the idea of arguing for the sake of heaven. Sacks explores two ways of disputing – arguing for the sake of victory versus arguing for the sake of truth. He suggests that when we argue for victory, we get caught up in an endless cycle of cheap compromises so that we can win. We hide facts, overlook important evidence that discredits our view, and do whatever it takes to be considered the victor. In such exchanges, truth is often the victim.

By contrast, Sacks notes the long standing biblical tradition of “arguing for the sake of heaven” – and records a principle from the Jewish Midrash that there are 70 “faces” or interpretations of every text – and that we should therefore “argue” over them to ensure we have explored them in sufficient depth. One interpretation does not threaten another, but simply invites further exploration. The goal of the argument is not to win – but to gain deeper understanding and insight. Sacks makes the fascinating point that when we adopt this attitude, we gladly “lose” arguments, because it is when we lose that we have incorrect understandings rectified and gain new knowledge. By contrast, when we win, we simply have our old views reinforced, which is not nearly as enriching. 

This is a refreshing take, and one worth exploring in our own day where we are often inclined to shut discussion down rather than to welcome questions. 

It can be a little like introducing a bit of chaos into an otherwise settled work environment. We can get so used to doing things one way that we stop being curious and don’t explore if there is a richer way of doing it – and then a new staff member might come along and question everything. They aren’t convinced when we say things must be the way they are. They see the situation with different eyes, and perhaps dare to introduce the “change” word. The best workplaces have a creative dance between long standing orderly practices and innovative new approaches. We could call this the order- chaos dance. Too much order and we stagnate, too much chaos and we explode.

Like introducing a little chaos into situations that have become too complacent, hosting curious conversations – where nothing is off limits, but all matters can be carefully explored – can be deeply enriching. 

Perhaps you are part of a workplace or a home or a church that has at its heart a void – a deep sense of a missing conversation that has not been allowed to occur, or which has not been hosted well. Hosting curious conversations can reignite hope and genuinely lessen conflict for if ideas are honestly explored, it stops them having a subversive life underground, where they get confused and sometimes do great harm. 

At a time when we simultaneously know so much and know so little, it could help us all if we started to argue for the sake of heaven, carefully exploring the 70 faces of every argument, and doing so because the issues we face are serious, and hiding behind caricatures is not good enough.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks Brian for this post. Thoughtful, timely and thought provoking.

    • Thanks Karen. Very good to hear from you.

  2. Thanks again Brian for sharing your thoughts with us. I really enjoyed reading this. I have heard it said, or I read somewhere, that the 70 faces are like when one holds a fine cut gem stone up to the light. As you turn the stone, the light enters into it from multiple directions, allowing us to see into the heart of the gem. I have been trying to practice this way of learning in regards to reading the bible, but after reflection on what you are suggesting, I am challenged to explore how I might be more intentional in having curious conversation. So thank you.

    • Thanks Matt. The image of the gem is really helpful.

  3. I enjoyed your post and reflecting on the.chaos of today. Too often opposing views are not well tolerated – and attacking the person becomes easier.

    • Good to hear from you Deidra. What you say is true but hopefully we can help change it over time.

  4. Thanks Brian but I wonder where the balance is between an openness to explore other perspectives and a rejection of a perspective because we believe it is not in line with Biblical teaching (as we can humbly understand it). I support your contention that the conversations must be polite but surely we are interested in working out which one/s of the ’70 faces’ might reflect the truth.

    • I agree that sometimes it is a case of either/or, and if a is true, b cannot be true. But when it comes to most biblical passages, there are many different emphases or nuances waiting to be discovered. I guess this is what I have found so enriching over the years – how much more is in the text waiting to be discovered. Sometimes it is that 45 of the 70 faces of the text are relevant… But I agree that it is a mistake to assume that everything is equally true or equally important. Some of the “70 faces” are at the best on the fringe.

      • Thanks. I am increasingly reluctant to be too dogmatic on things in an effort to listen carefully to other views but at the same time I am wanting to hold onto some sort of steady foundation of belief and perhaps even more so when belief in anything is viewed with increasing suspicion today.

        • It is a real tension – which I guess makes “arguing for the sake of heaven” all the more important. We need to be able push back, and to ask people to qualify what they are saying, or expand on it. And at times we have to agree to disagree – though hopefully that doesn’t happen too quickly. I guess the stress comes when we hear an unexpected view that comes as a real challenge to us. Holding that well can be difficult. The older I get the less sure I am about the finer details of Christianity but the more certain I am of the big truths.

  5. Thanks – I like your closing comment. I guess much of what we disagree on is often the finer details and it is a shame we can’t always be civil about even those.


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