Monday, August 21, 2006

Reformational Times Require Rational Debate

What passes for debate in these tragic times is a sorry business. Indeed, if my experience of the last months and years is anything to go by, there is almost nothing going on that could be called a meeting of minds as we wrestle with substantial ideas and their inevitable consequences. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this, among them the reality that we live in a polarized culture where screaming at one another without listening to what the other side of an argument (or a worldview) is saying is now normative. To a greater or lesser extent, it sometimes seems, Jerry Springer's approach to a meeting of minds has won.

Just listen to the puerile contentiousness that passes for political dialogue in the secular arena, for abundant evidence of this. We no longer are prepared to cut our minds on one another, testing ideas for their veracity and ultimate acceptance, instead we cling tenaciously to our position and seek a strategy and the resources to impose it on the whole. This means that debate of crucial notions is essentially stillborn, and surrenders to the task of gaining power and influence so that our notions, whether true, false, or somewhere in between, win the day.

The outcome of such a mentality is that groups within the culture or institutions that are part of that culture bristle at one another from behind their heavily defended positions, exchanging blows, insults, or soundbites, but never attempting to get inside the head of the other in order to discover whether any of their ideas are good, or the manner in which they are flawed. The fact is that we have all fallen in love with the prejucides and preconceptions that we have come to treasure, and woe betide if anyone comes up with solid evidence that questions or deflates our illusions. While I do not see the present generation able to reach beyond these polarizations, I sincerely hope and pray that the rising generations finds a creative way beyond this for if they do not, we are all in trouble.

Within this environment is not only an unwillingness and inability to hear and listen to the other, but more worrying still, an absence of the capacity to understand the basic principles of intellectual engagement. Whether these have been abandoned, forgotten, or never taught, is hard to tell, possibly a mixture of all three, but their absence intensifies our problems. In western culture down through the centuries, building upon the philosophical and rhetorical insights that have come down from antiquity, there has been an engagement of minds that has borne rich fruit. In our present climate this does not (and possibly cannot) happen.

I have noticed increasingly when I try to engage in debate with others over the issues that have divided the church, seldom do I receive a response that actually answers questions I have raised or points at issue that I have drawn attention to. Now I understand the game of diversion in discussion or argument because I have done it myself, but it appears that much of the responses I receive at the moment are more diversion than actually answering what I have put on the table for discussion. Sometimes I wonder if my opponent knows how to answer me.

In addition, as I have stated so many times before, the basic principles of reason and elementary logic are nowhere to be seen in the discussion that is rending the church, and while both sides of the divide are guilty of such abandonment, it does seem that reason and logical process are a total mystery to those on the reappraising side of the ethical and ecclesiastical equation.

The outcome is that conjecture is presented as fact, and objections to what then is perceived to be "fact" are brushed impatiently aside. When, as is sometimes the case, I press the issue the person with whom I am in discussion flies off at a tangent with a whole trail of red herrings that have little or nothing to do with the item in hand.

This is often where story is brought in to make the point the other person thinks they are pressing, believing that story is the trump card up their sleeve. In wider forums where the basic principles of discussion and argument seem lost forever story is the trump, but, for example, it never seems to cross anyone's mind that it is irrational and illogical to argue from the particular to the general. Special cases are neither now nor ever have been a good basis governing principles.

All of this frustrates because eventually it seems as if we are wrestling with an eel rather than attempting to explore together the realities and how the People of God should respond to those realities in a manner that is worthy of their calling. We are, I believe, at a reformational moment in the development of western Christianity, and it could well be that if we are determined to wallow in this intellectual and spiritual mudbath which lacks any hope of discovering clarity, the benefits of this moment will be lost.

The time is well past, I believe, for all engaged in the discussion first to know the facts, and this means attempting to master the viewpoint and mindset of those with whom we disagree. Woefully, neither side seems willing to do this. The second is to be prepared to grasp, understand, and use the basic principles of rational debate, which means learning a little fundamental logic. The third is to begin to find ways of respecting those with whom we disagree, because a genuine interchange of ideas cannot take place without decency, civility, and respect. The fourth is to be willing to listen to what is being said by our adversary and respond to what they are saying rather than resorting to personal inuendo, diversionary tactics, or story as trump card rather than illustration.

While there is more to careful conversation and debate than this, just to put these simple rules in place would make a tremendous difference.


Clint Williams said...

Rational debate? I remember a time not so very long ago when we on (our varying positions strewed about) the Right were still attempting to engage in discourse with our counterparts on the Left -- only to encounter extreme hostility in response.

Or maybe I should just chuck the generalization and note my own experiences. I've had, and continue to have, friends who are much further Left than I (consider myself to be) Right... but I cannot discuss anything political with them anymore. Long gone are the days (ca 1989) when one such friend and I sat down to talk and found that, for the two of us, the goal wasn't all that different, it was the route to get there that was significant.

I'm still willing to talk. I try to retain friends engaged in lifestyles I regard as harmful and worse (read: gay). I pay for this with my silence, because I know from experience that when I speak out I will be roundly condemned by my erstwhile "friends."

How much longer will I try to retain these ties for common interests? I don't know. I've long since been admonished for being "yoked with unbelievers," by some whom I think would have me yoked with none but them.

Rational debate? We're moving ever so far away from that, and the purveyors of hatred (whether it's illegal immigration felons, corporate giant officers, the religious right, sex offenders, islamofascists or what-have-you) rule the day.

In our current "confrontational times" we are a far cry from "reformational times."

I don't like what I see of the way forward. I miss the days long past.

But that's all history, a nice time maybe best forgotten for the duration of the battles ahead. My former friends have deliberately and with full knowledge chosen to wage war against me and mine -- how else shall I respond? How else may I ensure that my children grow up untainted by the evil into which my former friends have bought?

Craig Goodrich said...

It's not really that we're moving away from rational debate; it's that there never was any to start with (pace Clint).

There *are* no rational or scriptural arguments for blessing homosexual behavior. There never have been; what was presented as such have always been transparent tendentious distortions cobbled up *post hoc* to provide excuses and verbal fog.

If you doubt this, look at the 8-year-old page and observe that the exact same arguments it presents, all of which have been decisively refuted repeatedly, are still current in revisionist rhetoric, and they've come up with nothing new. The same arguments appear, surrounded by the usual soft wooly fog of Anglican god-talk, in _To Set Our Hope__, presumably the best apologia ECUSA could come up with.

To understand these people, you have to read Thomas Sowell's _The Vision of the Anointed_ -- it's the same solipsistic elite, and the same reality-free and logic-deprived perceptual patterns.

So calling for rational debate with these folks is fruitless; they don't know what it is, and they will react precisely the same way to whatever you say to them, with either whining or vituperation. More useful to try to teach your cat Greek; at least it would give you a review of the grammatical basics, and would probably amuse the cat.

For more evidence, go on over to and follow the links there to reviews of his books and articles, and note their tone.

Martin said...

A possible clue to why this is so is in Oliver O'Donovan's recent 'web sermon' at the Fulcrum site. He talks about 'moral intuitionism' - the viewpoint that the way we decide what is right or wrong is by intuition, rather than reasoning from basic moral principles. (I am simplifying a lot I'm sure).

If two moral intuitionists meet, then there can be no debate, because
there is no rational way of bridging their different intuitions. So the alternatives are:
(a) killing each other (think of the Middle East),
(b) outvoting each other, or fighting in the courts (TEC),
(c) telling stories.

The idea behind telling stories is that if I give you the imaginative and narrative background to my moral intuitions, this may lead you to make the same leap.


Hunt said...

Part of the difficulty is the lack of training. We have in our educational system so focused on technology and means that we have ignored many of the basic tools of discussion and formation. How many have learned formal logic in school? How many have taken rhetoric as a subject? Similarly the proper use of language, especially English, has fallen on hard times, and even school teachers speak improperly and in the grossest venacular, presumably to be "more relevant". As a young man, I used to scorn a math teacher I had who was forever declining Latin in his presentations of mathematics. Now I yearn for a teacher who COULD. Until a new appreciation is found for the language and thinking, our discourse is likely to continue at the level of grunts, shouts, and moans.

Mark McCall said...

Harry Blamires calls this phenomenon living in the Age of Aquarius. I'm glad my graduate studies in philosophy were in the (waning) days of logical positivism. It was no friend of faith, but at least it was rigorous. I wouldn't survive the first semester now.

Craig Goodrich said...

This general topic arose again in my comment at StandFirm on a particularly unhinged article from The Witness.

Richard+ is absolutely right about the lack of rationality, but I think he overlooks the point that one side in this controversy has regularly and continually produced analyses, lengthy learned discussions, closely-reasoned refutations, and so on and so on for a decade or so now, none of which have been rationally answered. The inescapable conclusion is that no rational answers exist.