Thoughts on argument and talking with “the enemy”

inspired in part by Penn Jillette—not that these are new thoughts for me, but just that his video that I posted the other day has me thinking about them.

The sort of encounter Penn describes in that video is one which is drearily familiar to a lot of us on the conservative side of the American church. It’s a type of spat I’ve seen many times (and in which I’ve participated) during my time serving within the Presbyterian Church (USA), as an ex- or soon-to-be-ex-member of the PC(USA) lambasts someone who is not leaving the denomination: “How can you stay in that denomination?! They deny the authority of the Bible, they are faithless to the teachings of Christ, they have denied their heritage, they have compromised the Christian faith beyond recognition! The Word of God is not rightly preached, the sacraments are not rightly administered, and church discipline is not only not rightly exercised, it’s mocked and rendered unenforceable—the marks of the true church are nowhere present! That denomination is apostate, your money is going to causes contrary to the Word of God, and you are aiding and abetting it! They are using you to do evil! Why haven’t you left yet?!”

Yeah, I’ve heard that sort of thing once or twice before. In my own case, it’s actually ironic, since I’m not Presbyterian by ordination; I am ordained in the Reformed Church in America, and all I’d have to do to leave the denomination is go serve a different congregation (though I have no intention of doing so). I am only Presbyterian in that God has called me—twice in a row, now—to serve in this denomination. Of course, from a theological perspective, I don’t believe God does anything by accident, and so I operate from the understanding that I serve as an evangelical within the PC(USA) because God wants me to, for reasons which serve his good purposes; and from that I draw what seems to me to be the reasonable inference that there are others, probably many others, whom he calls likewise.

I further point out that the PC(USA)’s liberal wing is far from all of the denomination, that to pronounce them apostate is to declare them to be in desperate need of the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ, and that to respond to that need by turning one’s back on them and cutting ties with them is a profoundly un-Christlike stance. Whatever anyone on the Right might say about the Presbyterian Left, Jesus could have said far worse about the Pharisees and Sadducees (and with far more right to do so, since unlike any of us, he was sinless)—and yet he didn’t break off all contact with them. Instead, he kept right on preaching to them just like he preached to all the other sinners he met.

I make these points, and I make others, but somehow, they never impress my interlocutors much. They point me to Paul’s command to the Corinthians to cast out the guy having the affair with his stepmother, and they hit me with lines like “Come out from among them and be separate”; I point out that these are all commands dealing with the local congregation, and that we have no Biblical warrant for what they’re talking about—we have no example of, let’s say, Paul commanding the churches in Sardis and Colossae to cut ties with the church in Ephesus because of the outbreak of heresy there—but they remain unmoved. It could be that my arguments are just that bad, but (biased though I may be) I don’t think they are. Rather, though I’m not going to label those firing on me from my right as heretics or pay them back in kind (I’ve been called a heretic once or twice by those folks, but I have no desire to return the favor), I do believe they’re wrong, on a fairly basic level. I don’t say they’re wrong in their own decision to leave—I would have no way of even beginning to know—but I do say they’re wrong in judging all those who do otherwise.

Now, of course, the term most frequently applied by folks on the Left when they want to smear Christians on the Right is “fundamentalist”; they love to use the same word for folks like the Taliban so as to imply that conservative Christians, too, believe in murdering their daughters for smiling at men. It’s really a pretty slippery term, due to the ways it’s been used; in its origins, fundamentalism was and remains a good thing, denoting a commitment to the fundamentals of Christian faith and the concomitant refusal to fudge or elide those fundamentals for the sake of compromise with the world. In that sense, though I might offer a slightly different list as properly fundamental or first-order, I too could be quite properly described as a fundamentalist.

There is another sense, however, in which I am not by any means a fundamentalist; that would be the sense that drives the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals in America, and has ever since the likes of Charles Fuller and Carl F. H. Henry led that separation a half-century ago. It’s less a matter of theological commitments (or at least, it once was) than of one’s attitude and approach to culture; to grossly oversimplify the case, the stream which continued to be known as fundamentalism believed in taking the command to come out and be separate very broadly, holding themselves apart from all unsaved culture (something of the Roger Williams approach), while the stream that would come to be called evangelical believed in taking the risk of exposure to culture for the sake of being able to reach and (one hopes) transform the culture.

As such, the argument I’m talking about could be described as a form of the evangelical/fundamentalist argument—and so could the argument Penn had with Tommy Smothers. The spirit and attitude that is commonly meant when most Americans talk about fundamentalism, after all, is one which exists within all movements, not merely within Christianity (or Islam, for that matter); it exists among liberals and atheists, too. Tommy Smothers, in attacking Penn on that occasion, was operating out of what can only be called the most closed-minded and arrogant sort of fundamentalist spirit and approach, while Penn was playing the evangelical role. (That, as I recognize even if he doesn’t, is the reason why this video, as well as the earlier one in which he tells of his encounter with a Christian fan who gave him a Bible, have struck such a chord with so many Christians.)

Now, standing up and advocating talking respectfully and honestly with “the enemy” is the sort of thing guaranteed to get one shot at by members of “one’s own side,” and usually by people who have no compunction about pulling out the heaviest artillery they can find (not always merely rhetorical, either) and blazing away indiscriminately. At the same time, if you talk with those with whom you legitimately disagree about major things, just because you are trying to be respectful and to listen to them honestly doesn’t mean they’re going to have any such commitment in response; oftentimes, they’ll unlimber the biggest cannon they have and fire at will, too. All of which is to say, this can be little more than a good way to put oneself at the center of a circular firing squad. Why bother? Why on Earth would one want to put up with that? Why not just shut up, give up, and go do something else?

There are a couple reasons for persevering in such an approach despite the difficulties it entails. One is that for our own sake, we need to get outside our comfortable little echo chambers and talk to people who have points of view with which we disagree, concerns and interests different from our own, and questions we haven’t already learned to answer in our sleep. We need this because if we only talk seriously with people who confirm us in our own opinions and priorities, that breeds arrogance and ignorance. It leaves us thinking we know and understand more than we actually do, which gives us a higher opinion of our judgment and the rightness of our ideas than either actually warrants; it leaves us ignorant of why people actually disagree with us, of what they actually think and believe and value, and why (think of Pauline Kael’s fabled reaction to Nixon’s victory—she was bewildered that he could have won, because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him); and it leaves us unable to properly perceive the flaws and faults in our reasoning and ideas (or, for that matter, in ourselves).

The truth is, there are always things we need to learn that we’re highly unlikely to learn from those who agree with us, because they’re likely to have the same blind spots—and even if they don’t, they’re not likely to be motivated and looking to see them in us. We’re only likely to learn them from those who disagree with us, who are looking for the chinks in our factual, logical and rhetorical armor, because only those who are looking for those chinks (usually to take advantage of them) are going to spot them and point them out to us. It’s only when we’re tried and tested that we truly discover our weaknesses, much less find the motivation to address them—and it’s only when challenged by someone who disagrees with us and is motivated to try to prove us wrong that our beliefs are truly tried and tested.

This is, of course, exactly the reason we so often tend to avoid such conversations; and at its root, it’s a perfectly natural discomfort with learning. Anytime we enter a serious conversation, we create the possibility that we might learn something. That sounds like an unalloyed positive, because we’ve been taught to think it is, but psychologically, it isn’t, at least for adults. After all, to learn something means to have it demonstrated that we were either wrong or ignorant on a given subject; this is uncomfortable at some level even when it comes from people who agree with us, who are likely to be teaching us something we find congenial and to be doing so in a gracious spirit. To learn something from someone who disagrees with us is frequently far more discomfiting, because it may very well be something we don’t want to hear, and will often be delivered in a triumphalist spirit—as their “victory” over us. Emotionally, this is something we would prefer to avoid.

Even so, we need to persevere. We need to do so for our own sake, and also because part of showing respect for other people is taking them seriously, which means we have to take their beliefs and arguments seriously. To do so in any meaningful way, we have to engage those beliefs and arguments as seriously as we are able. That seriousness is, of course, limited in part by their willingness to engage with us, which is something we can’t control; it’s also, often, limited by their emotional connection to their beliefs—some people, by temperament, are inclined to take any disagreement with their beliefs as a personal attack on them as individuals, and thus respond to disagreement poorly, improperly, and in ways which are not constructive. This was a lesson it took me a long time to learn, to recognize that there are such people and that they must be approached differently, and far more carefully, than simply through intellectual argument.

That said, if people are willing to have a serious, substantive, respectful discussion of their beliefs and ours, and if the circumstances permit, then we need to match their willingness. To refuse to engage with the beliefs of others is to treat them with disrespect, because it’s essentially to say that their beliefs aren’t worthy of being taken seriously—which implies that we don’t think they are worthy of being taken seriously. To take an idea seriously is to test it, to apply stresses to it to see if it holds up, factually, logically, and in other ways; we should always do so with an open mind, not assuming its failure before we ever begin the test. We do so, of course, by argument, deploying the facts and reason at our command in an effort to break it down, because that’s the only way we have to tell if an idea is in fact valid. The goal is not, or should not be, “winning,” being seen to be right and to prove another person wrong; the only proper goal of argument is to discern truth.

This, as far as I can tell, is the approach Penn is taking in talking with those who don’t share his positions; and this is what Tommy Smothers denounced as being wrong in itself. That fact suggests that Smothers’ real concern is not for truth—actually, it suggests that at some level, he’s afraid he might be wrong about some important things, and is strongly resistant to allowing himself (or anyone else within earshot) to consider that possibility. This is very human, and indeed a common psychological response to the awareness of dissent; but it’s far from noble, and stunts our intellectual and spiritual growth.

Now, there are those who would argue for the sort of defensive response Smothers showed on the grounds that it’s necessary to protect the truth; but I disagree. God tells us to stand firm in the truth, but I don’t recall him ever telling us to protect the truth. In a very real sense, I don’t believe truth needs to be protected—it can take care of itself, because God can take care of himself, and truth is of God; and while people’s adherence to the truth may be far more fragile, protecting believers from any sort of challenge is neither a helpful nor a productive way to address that fact. We must, rather, work to address it by deepening and strengthening their understanding of the truth, and their knowledge of and relationship with the God who is Truth; and we do so not by protecting them from questions and challenges, but rather by helping them face those questions and challenges.

Part of that is helping them to understand that just because they don’t have an answer to a given question does not mean that there is no answer to that question; oftentimes, there is, but we just don’t know it yet. That, too, is one of those things one learns by arguing out issues with people who disagree with us—including that it applies just as well to them as it does to us: just because we pose a question or a challenge that someone else can’t answer doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer for it. (If we fail to understand or remember that fact, sooner or later we’ll get blindsided for our arrogance.)

Posted in Politics, Presbyterian/Reformed, Religion and theology.


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