Disputatio

Last week’s Christian mini-blog war provided an interesting case study. First, it illustrates how language meant to serve your purpose can serve the opposite purpose just as well or better. In such cases where our words ‘get away from us’ how ought we to respond? We start engaging in a cost-benefit analysis: who is being helped or harmed/what truth is being defended. Of course, in being misunderstood the line blurs. Am I being misunderstood or my assertions? These are so intricately connected within the framework we recognize as part of ourselves that defensiveness is natural.

Second, it shows that power and language funnel into each other, even when we might not intend to be speaking of power-relations explicitly. Good luck speaking of anything worth arguing about without utilizing or defending some system of power and corresponding language game.

Connected with this, it is difficult to translate skills from one game seamlessly into another. Playing baseball messes up your throwing mechanics for American football and vice versa. In fact, for many only one game is legitimately worth spending the effort to engage in. This is true of language games as well – it is difficult to see worth in another’s game without observing it closely or participating in its culture. Some people only see human worth and some only see their truth in need of defending. Striking a meaningful balance is very difficult, but one does n’t have to perform significant contortions to do so. One learns that real football has its legitimate beauty as well.

As I watched, often in horror, things being said (and let ‘s be honest, things said on from one camp generally made me sicker than the other) heightened as they always do. The urge to respond waxed and waned. My threshold of response is pretty difficult to cross (my wife wishes I would respond more often), but it happens.

The thing that kept me from replying directly is simply that by doing so, I inevitably give credit to those thoughts I am opposing. To illustrate this point, I shall recall when I first joined Facebook.

I immediately commenced finding out ‘what can I do with this?’ and discovered a religious debate group (back when group discussions were popular). Soon I was defending my views, often from those who I felt were poorly articulating them, and enjoying myself. I tried to be humble, but that has its limits. My heart was never in winning, but I liked getting my point across and figuring out a way to answer tough questions, or at least make them easier.

Then one day I stumbled onto the wrong thread. She posed an OT quandary and I tried to use my pre-adolescent Hebrew skills to set the problem in a better context (how old are the ‘children’ who mock the prophet Elisha and are mauled by God? 10 or 15? I thought it made some difference). My argument from language was questioned because she could n’t easily find a translation that backed up my interpretation. And halt. I realized that I could n’t personally defend my skills to interpret and have her trust my interpretation. Maybe someone else could. The cost of defending myself was too high. To this day I have n’t responded to her challenge. If this dispute were to be held by members of the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature, they might ‘ve sided with me (at least in my dreams they always do) – but in our context, there was no way to establish authority except by pure force of argument.

Since then I have put less and less stock in winning the debate on the street, or in the pulpit, or in the chat room than before. I do n’t like that I end up defending myself more than whatever idea I think requires defending. And then I ought to be responsible, so I ‘ll have to represent my opponent’s views. But that ‘s not the ideal starting place. This could give you the idea that I avoid conflict in all situations. Far from it – I love disagreeing with people. But I realized that there is a social cost that must be paid to speak out if I ‘m to change anyone’s mind for more than five seconds.

The title of one of my favorite books is translated as ‘the Incoherence of the Philosophers’. In it the author demonstrates, using his opponents’ methods, the limits of their understanding. He then shows that they do n’t have legitimate grounds to argue for any position counter to what God has revealed. The pre-eternity of the world? Can’t prove it – might as well trust God. The mortality of the soul? Can’t prove it either – see previous answer. You know what ‘s funny? The author was accused of adopting his opponents’ view. In doing disputation well, you might unwittingly lend credence to a voice which does n’t deserve the help. That ‘s my general feeling about this past week’s events – but we ‘ll keep moving along.

Also, someone said that often we choose to affirm something as true based on who said it, rather than judge whether these words themselves were true (and applicable). I ‘d tell you who said it, but then you might judge the verity of what he or she said by who she or he is. Kinda missing the point; for now pretend it ‘s your favorite author…then that it ‘s your least favorite author. Author and authority – it ‘s crazy stuff.  This is one of the ways we close our discourse-communities: we pick people who say what we want, then we affirm anything they say without thinking deeply about the contents of any individual utterance (or even consider whether this is a false attribution).

The last point is also a Facebook story. When I first joined, I really liked the idea of trying to articulate who I was. Some of the answers changed over time, but basically I wanted people to know that I read a lot of stuff and that I liked to talk about religion and philosophy. One of my favorite profs described his religious views as ‘accurate’ on his account. He had a Ph.D. I still do n’t. He ‘s also brilliant in a way I still do n’t feel I match, so I amended my entry to say that I was ‘pursuing accuracy’. I liked it. It sounded cool.

But I ‘ve come to realize something. While I ‘m still pursuing accuracy, it ‘s so terribly much more difficult to be faithful. After a few more years of scratching my head and typing away, maybe I could convince the people I care about that I was pretty close to ‘accurate’. But ‘faithful’? No blog post is going to show that. Ever. No public debate will tell us how to fix poverty. That does n’t mean we should give up strong opinions or serious discourse. But disputations which are self-defensive, or give voice to those who won’t do anything worthwhile with it, or which lead away from applying right action – these are n’t worth our time.

So, while we ‘re busy trying to be accurate and cordial and wise, why do n’t we consider for a moment why this fight is worth winning.  I doubt such efforts are fruitful when framed as public disputes, but some of us overvalue being right (not me of course).  Being right without doing good is absurdly meaningless.  Let ‘s try to revaluate so that what matters is defended by our actions first and then, if you must, debate away.

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