Where Do I Find Common Ground with Non-believers?
John A. Studebaker, Ph.D.
“Common ground” can be defined as those areas of like needs, concerns and beliefs between believers and non-believers through which meaningful dialogue can develop and the communication of the gospel can proceed. Like an engineer who builds bridges in order to connect roads and landmasses, so Christians construct relational “bridges” between themselves and non-believers in order to pave the way for a hearing of the gospel. The goal in establishing common ground is to ascertain specific “truths” embedded in the non-believer’s worldview (such as the postmodernist concern for tolerance or the attorney’s interest in law) that can be employed in constructing a positive argument for the Christian faith. Common ground often helps non-believers begin to trust Christianity—or at least certain aspects of its message—so that a transition from a non-Christian worldview to a Christian worldview might be made.
The Problem of Common Ground
The Bible refers to Christians as Christ’s “ambassadors” (2 Cor.5:20). This assumes that there is a theological gap between believers and non-believers and that believers have the responsibility to attempt to “bridge” this gap in various ways. There are at least two potential pitfalls, however, in the development of common ground. First, some circles within Christendom have traditionally advocated a “pietistic” view of the Christianity. Pietism began in the 1800s but had a certain deficiency. According to Francis Schaeffer, “It was ‘platonic’ in that Pietism made a sharp division between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’ world—giving little, or no, importance to the ‘material’ world. The totality of human experience was not afforded a proper place. In particular it neglected the intellectual dimension of Christianity. Christianity and spirituality were shut up to a small, isolated part of life. The totality of reality was ignored by the pietistic thinking.” Since pietism often results in a ‘separatist” stance in relation to the world of human ideas and culture, it can effectively remove the possibility of establishing common ground with non-believers.
Another problem is that of fideism, or faith-based belief, and particularly the sort posed by presuppositional apologetics. Cornelius Van Til, for example, presents a no common ground thesis, which holds that believers and non-believers have no common cognitive commitments or understandings. According to presuppositionalists, the noetic effects of sin have so blinded the mind to all spiritual truth that God’s grace must confront a non-believer and convict the heart of Christian truth. Since the Bible provides the only framework by which non-believers can begin to correctly interpret the evidence of general revelation, a presupposition of biblical revelation is the only “common ground” that can lead to fruitful discussion. Presuppositionalism, therefore, provides the apologist with no raw materials (i.e. common beliefs, logical principles, human experience) for engaging non-believers with positive arguments or for even criticizing another person’s worldview (since such criticism itself requires agreement on certain principles of evaluation).
The Possibility of Common Ground
Thomas Aquinas’ “classical” apologetic, on the other hand, attempted to establish the validity of common ground between religion and philosophy by insisting that God’s existence could be demonstrated by reason. According to Aquinas, reason was weakened by the fall but not completely crippled. As a result, non-believers can entertain such rational thought processes as those laid out by the cosmological or teleological arguments (which attempt to establish God’s existence upon the basis of creation or intelligent design, respectively).
Recent apologetic models attempt to establish an “audience-sensitive” approach that utilizes several avenues of common ground in the communication of the gospel. David Clark’s “dialogical apologetics,” for example, emphasize that different people rightly come to know Christ in different ways, and thus seek to allow the unique qualities of individuals to guides apologetic practice, rather than an abstract theory about how all human beings know. Common ground can therefore be drawn from various sources—rationality and logic, human experience, various kinds of evidence, etc.—without forgetting the noetic effects of sin that often make the apologetic task much more challenging. In addition, common ground can be drawn from those “truths” embedded in various world religions.
The possibility of genuine common ground between Christians and non-believers is established on the presupposition that “all truth is God’s truth.” This means that the truth embedded in a non-believer’s culture, religion, or worldview finds its ultimate locus in God, who as creator of the universe is also the source of all truth. Arthur Holmes, author of All Truth is God’s Truth, proposes, “If [God] is the eternal and all-wise creator of all things, as Christians affirm, then his creative wisdom is the source and norm of all truth about everything.”
Practical Examples of Common Ground in Scripture
Jesus Christ himself clearly sought common ground with his audience. In John 3, Jesus confronts Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, with some deep theological insights. In John 4, however, he casually converses with the woman at the well about her immoral past and uses the well itself as a simple illustration of the “living water” he could provide. In each case Jesus showed genuine respect for that person’s background and mindset by tailoring the gospel presentation appropriately.
Likewise, the early church sought to establish common ground when communicating the gospel by acknowledging the various experiences of their audiences. In Acts 17, for example, Paul presented the gospel using words and rhetoric customized to the polytheistic, philosophy-oriented Greeks (while he employed different ones with monotheistic, tradition-oriented Jews). At times in the NT we find certain individuals utilizing common cultural heritage to build a natural bridge. Timothy, for example, could easily minister to Greeks in his hometown because of his Greek heritage. However, common ground is not always so easily attainable and sometimes must be developed creatively. Paul had Timothy circumcised before they embarked on their missionary trip (Acts 16:1-3), knowing they would come into contact with Jews who saw circumcision as very important.
Particular Avenues for Establishing Common Ground
In general, common ground is established on the basis of the “humanity” experienced by both believers and non-believers. Such a basis allows us to categorize common ground into at least four major areas that are often typical of human experience:
(1) Rationality. Postmodernism challenges common ground by adopting a certain form of “relativism,” proposing that “truth” is related to or grounded in specific cultural or community perspectives, which in turn provide alternative ways of interpreting “reality.” For postmodernists, Christianity usually becomes just another “religious preference.” In response to relativism, Christians can often establish common ground regarding the notion of “truth” by calling on the “law of non-contradiction.” This law of logic essentially states that no statement can be both true and not true at the same time (for example, the statements “he is fifty years old” or “no one comes to the Father but through me” cannot be true for some but not true for others). Postmodernists commonly employ this law in the practical affairs of life—in language (simply by using the word “is”), when asking directions (when you tell someone to turn left they usually know which way to go), etc. Such principles of thought are consistently employed by all cultures, thus demonstrating that our minds were created by God to function rationally and that such rationality is rooted in God’s perfect reason and comprehensive knowledge.
(2) Moral Conscience. Closely related to rationality is conscience, which is essentially moral sensibility. J. Budziszewski asserts in What We Can’t Not Know that “moral common ground” is established on the idea that “foundational moral principles are not only right for all, but at some level known to all.” Sometimes called the “natural law,” moral conscience is a critical aspect of the image of God, and is revealed in Paul’s statement that “the law is written on the heart” (Rom.2:14-15). Aquinas proclaimed that foundational moral principles are “the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge.” C. S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity that the reality of moral law goes beyond mere social convention: “We know that men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.” Lewis sees a “law of human nature” in those cries for fairness and justice heard n everyday conversation: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?” or “That’s my seat, I was there first.” Indeed all cultures can be shown to hold to certain standards of moral conduct (i.e.” torturing babies for fun is wrong”), or at least most people agree that they should hold to such standards. Christians should point out that cultural relativism actually makes a claim about morality rather than a moral statement per seethe fact that different cultures hold to differing beliefs does not necessarily mean that moral absolutes do not exist or cannot be known. Once common ground has been established with respect to some basic moral principles and virtues, the relativist’s position can be challenged and Christianity can be presented as a superior basis for morality. Not only does Christianity provide a supreme moral lawgiver as a basis for the evidence of universal morality and conscience; it also affirms the grace of God in Christ as a path of reconciliation for law-breakers.
(3) Religion. Though the Bible clearly states that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ (John 14:6), there are certainly moral and ethical truths in non-Christian religions that can serve as valid stepping-stones toward the Christian faith. Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, for example, appeals to followers to pursue honesty, charity, and service, and to abstain from murder and lust. There are also theological truths in other religions that Christians can affirm. Orthodox Judaism and Islam share the Christian belief in one God who created all things. Christians and Muslims even share certain beliefs in common concerning the person of Jesus—they both hold that he was a prophet of God and worked many miracles. Islam, however, denies that Jesus is the Son of God or provides salvation. Christians must acknowledge that, while certain truths can be found in non-Christian religions, they provide no sufficient means for the atonement of sin. The fact that a religious person looks to a “higher power,” holds to ethical principles, and has some conception of ‘sin” may at the same time expose their need for the message of Christ’s atonement.
(4) Human Longing. The fact that all humans experience definitive limitations in life (regarding knowledge, strength, abilities, etc.) and face the reality of physical death is known as “the human condition.” Accompanying this is often a longing for some sort of higher purpose and meaning. Ecclesiastes speaks of people having a sense of “eternity in their hearts,” but without full knowledge of it (Eccles.3:11). Believers may find common ground with non-believers by appealing to their sense of “higher purpose,” longing for transcendence, or desire for inner peace not found in the material world. While modern thinkers like Marx and Freud have proclaimed that such desires are nothing but a product of wishful thinking, Christians must show that the spiritual basis for such longings lies in the existence of the God who created them. St. Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Lewis reasons, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Procedures for Developing Common Ground
The process of finding and using common ground follows a model of “contextualization” based upon the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Contextualization involves becoming identified with others and breaking through cultural barriers in order to establish communication. Through the incarnation, God crossed a rather large “cultural gap” to seek lost human beings, and did this by actually becoming human himself. In Christ, God broke through two barriers that stood between himself and humankind. First, Christ broke through the “human barrier”—which stood between an infinite God and finite human beings—by taking on the flesh, language, cultural patterns, and frailty associated with humanity. Second, Christ broke through the ‘sin barrier” by going to the cross and bearing our sin, thus allowing us to be forgiven of our sins and come to know God personally.
Christ’s “contextualization” does not end with his death and resurrection but continues through His “ambassadors,” who now contextualize the gospel by creating or finding common ground with non-believers. First, they must cross “human barriers” of culture and ideology by entering the world of non-believers, seeking to understand their context, and getting involved with their needs, struggles, and intellectual doubts. According to Schaeffer, “[A foreign missionary] must learn the language of the thought-forms of the people to whom one speaks. So it is with the Christian Church. Its responsibility is not only to hold to the basic, scriptural principles of the Christian faith, but also to communicate these unchanging truths “into” the generation in which one is living.” Christians must also help non-believers overcome the ‘sin barrier” by sharing the gospel. This is in fact their greatest “common ground” with non-believers, in that both parties stand as sinners in need of the God’s grace offered in Jesus Christ. As it is often said, sharing the gospel with non-believers is as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
In establishing “common ground” it is also critical that Christians investigate the worldviews of our culture. According to David Hesselgrave, “understanding another person’s world view [or belief system] is the starting point for communicating the gospel.” Whether a non-believer seems to hold to the basic tenets of existentialism, naturalism, postmodernism, pantheism, or a combination of several worldviews, Christians will naturally gain credibility and integrity by exploring these beliefs in search of areas of common agreement. An “existentialist,” for example, is concerned with the development of an authentic existence, which involves making one’s own choices and creating one’s own destiny. Christians can certainly affirm one aspect of this worldview—the reality of authentic human volition—and can demonstrate that this special capacity is best understood in light of the dignity bestowed to human beings when created in the image of God (Gen.1:26-28).
Worldview dialogue not only establishes particular areas of intellectual agreement; it also exposes specific points of antithesis between Christianity and other worldviews. Paul, for example, points out the antithesis between the gospel and the “different gospel” that some have received (Gal.1:6-9). The Holy Spirit will often orchestrate well-timed antithesis to open the door for further dialogue. Common ground provides a positive challenge for believers to use their God-given creativity rather than relying on a “canned” approach to witnessing. As Christ’s ambassadors, Christians can utilize their gifts, talents, burdens, and abilities as channels for delivering Christ’s message within specific contexts. A farmer might teach gardening and incorporate Jesus” parable of the four soils (Mark 4). A panel of Christian doctors might teach a sex education course for high school students and parents, incorporating physiological, psychological, and biblical/moral perspectives. As homemakers, dentists, students, lawyers, etc., believers must investigate the prevailing worldviews within their respective fields of influence, listen for the specific “language” employed, and be able to demonstrate how biblical truth provides a credible “foundation” for their particular field. On-believers often need to see that biblical truth is relevant in their specific field of interest before they will adopt this foundation for their entire life.
J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know (Dallas: Spence Publ. Co., 2003).
D. K. Clarke, Dialogical Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993).
D. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).
A. F. Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1977).
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Nashville: Tenn.: Touchstone, 1996).
F. A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, 5 vols.(Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1982).