Thursday, May 08, 2008

Meekness and Polemics

I recently finished reading There Is a God, by Anthony Flew. For those of you who may not know the story, Mr. Flew was one of the most well-known and respected atheists of the twentieth century. He has contributed significantly to various arenas of modern philosophy, and, ironically enough, his critiques of theism (the philosophical position that there is a God) were strong enough and original enough to help spark a renaissance of thought and argument from theistic philosophers. But in 2004, he publicly announced that he had been convinced that there actually is a God. To use an exaggerated example, this would be similar to the revelation that the pope had decided to become a Buddhist. There Is a God is the story of his philosophical journey and an outline of some of the arguments that finally brought him to agree with theism. I would recommend it highly—it’s not a difficult read, and while it does deal with some philosophical issues, it’s easily accessible to a general readership.

The reasons for his philosophical switch were numerous, from a renewed interest in the classical philosophy of Aristotle to intractable difficulties with the current atheistic/scientific models of origin-of-life theories. However, while Mr. Flew is now a theist, he has not become a Christian. Intriguingly, it was the strength of the arguments themselves, rather than any emotive religious experience, that drew him to embrace theism. And that leads me to the greatest lesson that I drew from Mr. Flew’s example—that in the world of dialogue and thought, truth should be our one pursuit, and it should be undertaken with both firmness and humility.

This is one of the things that troubles me about much of the Christian/non-Christian polemics that abound today. (Polemics refers to controversy or debate. Here I’m using the term to speak of the other side of apologetics. Apologetics is the defense of a certain position; polemics refers to the arguments used to attack an opposing position). Too often the argumentation gets caught up in emotive outbursts. Too often we assault someone else’s beliefs without a real understanding of those beliefs or the reasons why that person holds such beliefs.

Both sides are to blame here. The “New Atheism,” represented by such figures as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, rail against Christianity and Islam with venomous critiques. But often their arguments miss the mark. From what I have seen, they are at least partly written in willful ignorance of the robust traditions of Christian apologetics, and their audience, I presume, consists mostly of people who are likewise content to accept a caricature without investigating the actual beliefs under question. I read the first few chapters of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and came away amazed by how often he misrepresents Christianity. He sets up a straw man and then tears it apart, never stopping to think that the caricature he has made doesn’t actually represent what most Christians believe.

Christians are also to blame for using emotive, ignorant polemics. How often have we heard Islam characterized as an evil religion, when the people who make such claims wouldn’t even be able to articulate the basic doctrines of Islam or to recount the ‘five pillars’ of that faith? How often have Protestants railed against the abuses of Catholicism, while never taking the time to explore the immensely rich spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church? How often have Catholics written off evangelical Christians as a dangerous sect, without examining the fruit that God has brought about through that movement?

One of the things that Mr. Flew reminded me of was that such criticisms must be well-informed before they are made. His steadfast commitment “to follow the argument wherever it leads” allowed him the humility to entirely reverse his position. I think that we, as Christians, should likewise be open to following the argument wherever it leads. I’m not saying that we ought to make an idol out of reason, to make that our only guiding principle. But I’m saying that reason is the highest ability of mankind, a gift of God and a reflection of his wisdom, and that we ought not to be afraid to use it. The Christian religion is one that answers brilliantly to the probings of rational argument, and I for one am convinced that it is true—metaphysically and exclusively true. A hesitancy to use reason to follow the arguments of faith and logic reflects not a deeper faith (as if faith was somehow admirably linked to ignorance), but rather a lack of faith. Those who scorn the use of reason are often wary that reason may end up disproving the faith they hold so dear. But as I said, that actually reflects a lack of faith—a suspicion that somehow our beliefs won’t hold up under critical examination. And as Christians, we have not only reason, but prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth. So on the one hand, I would exhort us to be open to following the argument wherever it leads. If Christianity can be proven—legitimately and authoritatively proven—to be false, then we ought not to be following it. St. Paul said that if Christ was not raised from the dead, then we are to be pitied above all men. On the other hand, I am convinced that a genuine search for truth will lead not to the disproving of Christian belief, but rather to its reinforcement.

But again, I would exhort us to be open to follow the argument. If we as evangelical Christians challenge those of other faiths to consider our position with an open mind, will we show enough humility to return the favor? And other exclusive claims ought to be examined. The Roman Catholic Church has often claimed, in one manner or another, that it is the one true church. Rather than being offended by this claim, we should take it as it is. We make the same claim about Christianity in general, and we don’t expect it to be offensive to non-Christians. So we need to take our own medicine. If our Catholic brothers and sisters hold that their church is the true one, then let’s examine that claim with an open mind. Let’s consider whether there is a proper place for the primacy of St. Peter’s role. Let’s examine the shared history of our faith and see if present Catholic arguments will hold up there. We may not be completely convinced (as in my case), but I think we will come away impressed that Catholicism has a lot more to say for itself than we gave it credit for.

And let’s approach Islam in the same way. Rather than castigating Muslims as uniformly evil, let’s consider their arguments. Again, I doubt we as Christians will be convinced of the truth of their religion. But I think we’ll come to appreciate the dual nature of Islamic tradition—exhortations not only to violence, but also to peace. We’ll be able to see more clearly many of the good things about Islam—its care for beggars, its radically disciplined devotion (which puts most of us Christians to shame), and its powerful preaching against paganism. Through such a process, we’ll be able to better understand where the violent and repressive aspects of Islam come from. We’ll be able to understand why they hate American Christians so much.

And the same process should be applied to Democrats and Republicans, to pro-life and pro-choice, to homosexual advocates and “family values” advocates. We probably won’t come to agree with the other positions, but we will come to understand them better. We’ll be less prone to denounce our opponents as stupid and evil, and more ready to engage them in honest and humble debate. And if we do that, we’ll be less often cast as ignorant and hateful by the watching world. We will have won a listening ear.

Let me be clear that this is not a recommendation toward the “tolerance” that’s so much in fashion today. We do not accept that all beliefs are equally true or that no beliefs should ever be criticized. Rather, this is a recommendation that our pursuit of truth, and our criticism of beliefs that fall short of that truth, must be undertaken with meekness and a genuine attempt at understanding the reasoning and motives behind our opponents’ position.

Let me give a few guidelines for what our polemical process should look like, using Islam as an example. First, read the best of Islam’s own thought. Read the Quran. Read their most treasured theologians. Examine their doctrines and the practical aspects of their devotion. Examine their history. Acquaint yourself with the wide variety of views within Islam (for instance, make note of the fact that Wahhabism and such ‘radical’ forms are only one group among many others). Do not go first to reading books of Christian polemics against Islam. That wouldn’t be genuine investigation; that would simply show a stubborn intention to reinforce your own previously-held beliefs. Second, get to know a few Muslims and hear about their faith from their own mouths. Get to know Islam in its human incarnation, not merely in the realm of thought and doctrine. Third, seek to examine and highlight any positive elements of Islam. Gain an appreciation for the culture and values that it espouses (for instance, most Muslim cultures reveal a lifestyle of hospitality that would be breathtaking to most Americans). Fourth, consider the negative aspects of Islam (or what we would consider negative). Engage an honest exploration of where those negative aspects come from and what the motives are behind them. Muslims aren’t stupid or evil; they have good reasons (though sometimes misinformed) for acting as they do. Put yourself in their shoes--consider how they've been brought up, what they've been taught, and what they've heard about America and Christianity. This is the most important lesson I learned from my degree in Intercultural Studies, and it applies to all of Christian ministry: the necessity of learning to see through someone else's eyes. Fifth, show enough humility to change some of your previous prejudices about Islam if the argument leads you to do so. Humility is a virtue; obstinacy is not.

Have this attitude always in mind: remember that there are many facets of your own beliefs that others might find offensive if not understood properly, and extend the grace that you would like to receive to those who disagree with you. And if you don’t have the time or logical prowess to make this sort of investigation, then it is probably not your place to be making uninformed criticisms. Paul’s polemics against the Judaizers carry weight because he was once a radical Jew. Jesus’ polemics against the Pharisees carry weight because he was intimately familiar with their beliefs and lifestyle. So when we present criticisms of other positions without being able to investigate them thoroughly, we should do it with the humility of admitting that there is a great deal that we don’t know. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, "A man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgment on another man's acts."

In short, we would do well to remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 7: “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” If we follow this kind of “meek polemics,” we will be able to make insightful criticisms of other philosophical and religious positions. We will be able to interact knowledgeably and gracefully with our opponents. We will be able to show honor and concern for them as fellow human beings. We will truly be able to love our enemies, as Christ commanded us to do. And from that place of meekness, we will be able to present a stronger and more winsome argument for the truth.