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The Importance of Being Questioned

The Importance of Being Questioned

When I’m having a discussion of something about which I have some expertise, say biblical languages, it’s quite easy to get impressed with myself. After all, unlike the “average person” (actually, I don’t believe in average people, hence, the quotes, but that’s another subject*), If I am in doubt of a translation in scripture, or simply hear another person talk about a Greek or Hebrew word, I can actually go check. I may even know of various places that word is used.

*(I hate excessively long parenthetical remarks, don’t you?)

Fortunately for my swollen head, there is a remedy to this. I can go to a seminary campus, or join a group dedicated to biblical languages, where one often finds people who earn their living teaching or researching, and I’ll be put in my place fairly quickly. How? Because in that atmosphere people question my conclusions. I may not change them, but I have to think about them and about alternatives.

As salutary as reducing the size of my head might be, that is not the most important benefit. (Your mileage may vary.) The most important benefit is that it helps me not to get stuck on pet conclusions. I hear about potential difficulties with my conclusions from people who think differently, who know facts I may have missed, or who may just have ordered and prioritized data differently.

My think is challenged.

By responding positively to such a challenge, I may be able to improve my thinking, and (gasp) change my mind!

But here are some things to avoid:

  1. Getting offended. There is such a thing as offensive speech, but much of what is called offensive is simply something presented from a different perspective, which I’d rather not hear. Offense blocks learning.
  2. Doubling down. When presented with a contrary opinion, I need to examine the evidence and the logic and see if I need to change my mind. If not, no problem. Doubling down is a technique to emphasize my superior rightness over someone else.
  3. Dismissing. It doesn’t hurt to think about what someone else has said. It doesn’t hurt to tell the other person you’ll think about it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for every argument. What I can do is listen and then keep the ideas in mind over time.
  4. Equalizing. There are many things on which opinions are just fine, and it’s OK to say, “To each his or her own.” But on many topics, the different viewpoints are in no way equal.
  5. Despising. It’s easy to dismiss the other person because you already despised them. It’s also easy to despise them because of their opinion. Despising let’s you out of considering the opinions of such a worthless person. You are the only one to lose.
  6. Labeling. It’s easy to call someone a name, or group them with people you already reject. In politics we can call the other guy “just a Democrat” or “just a Republican” or whatever party labels apply in your country. We can also call someone a socialist or a capitalist (whichever is negative in our mind) in order to dismiss a particular idea. It’s not that labels are bad. Rather, all of language involves labeling in some way. The thing is that labeling needs to be accurate, and not dismissive.

I think the goal should be to be able to have strong opinions without despising the people who disagree. That’s not easy. The tendency is to either have strong opinions on something and dismiss your opponents, or to try to equalize all opinions. Either one can deprive you of valuable, constructive, necessary dialog.

As Everyone Trades Scripts – Again

As Everyone Trades Scripts – Again

Immediately after the last election I wrote this. Please read it before you read this.

I want to reiterate it today. I have meant it sincerely following every election in which I have been a voter, and I registered to vote at the first opportunity.

Speaking with respect is not agreement. It is a way to maximize the range of dialog. I believe deeply in the value of dialog, even with people who I may believe have not earned respect. Those in the military learn how to show respect to someone they may not respect because of that person’s rank and position. That could be a valuable lesson.

Especially with people who have not earned respect.

Courtesy Is not just for the Other Person

Courtesy Is not just for the Other Person


Probably as the result of the political correctness debate—well, perhaps not debate; more brouhaha—I hear or read frequent complaints about an expectation of courteous speech as though it’s an imposition. In order to cater to someone’s excessively fragile sensibilities, the argument goes, one is expected to deny the truth in favor of “political correctness.” In this case, political correctness is in quotes, because it tends to refer to even the mere suggestion that one might change one’s approach to presenting a viewpoint.

I do believe there is such a thing as political correctness. You identify it by taking note of the term political. It’s an officially imposed form of courtesy, carried out by policies such as speech codes. I’m vigorously opposed to speech codes in any sort of public institution. I think they are generally problematic in private institutions, though privately owned organizations should be able to make their own policies. As a publisher, I certainly maintain standards for what I will publish.

But the term “political correctness” has come to be applied to any expectation of courtesy, not just a code enforced by law or authority. Having hundreds or thousands of people disapprove of your speech does not censor you or deny you free speech. It merely means that those hundreds or thousands of people will disapprove of what you say. Which is their right.

Here’s an illustration of how to distinguish these ideas. Reasonably shortly after I turned 21 I realized that my driver’s license, by proving my birthday and thus my age, gave me the power to go see an X-rated movie. So, lacking good taste at the time, and apparently having money to waste, I found an “adult” cinema, showed my license, bought my ticket, and headed it to enjoy this privilege of age. Within five minutes I left again, never to return. I’m not totally prudish. I’ve watched some pretty hard “R” movies. I just insist on a story. One that the writers received more than pocket change to produce.

In that way I exercised an appropriate form of censorship on pornographic movies. I never again provided them with my hard-earned cash.

The alternative would be to go on a crusade to ban their product. I know many people who would do precisely that. I don’t plan to debate that issue in this post. What I want you to see is the difference.

An expectation of courtesy is not the same thing as a requirement that you be courteous. When a public university says that you must use certain terms in discussion, then that becomes a legal requirement. I call that political correctness. Why do I specify public? Because the university is taxpayer supported. I generally oppose speech codes in private schools as well, but in that case it is a matter of my support for genuine dialog, which requires genuine expression of a participant’s uncensored views, rather than an opposition to a public policy.

So what does this have to do with courtesy being for the other person?

Well, remember those hundreds, thousands, and I might add millions of people who may demand courtesy of you? The question for you is whether you prefer to just annoy them, or if you would like to get a hearing for your ideas. If you wish simply to annoy them, go ahead. Be my guest. You probably won’t be welcome as theirs. But if you have ideas that are important to you, ones you want to express truthfully and with vigor, you will need to consider your goal. If you want to get a hearing, you’ll need to combine “vigor” with “courtesy” or they will exercise their freedom and ignore you. Or, as often happens, abandon courtesy and treat you with the same contempt you show for them.

This applies to any discussion, including both religion and politics. Frequently I hear things that are claimed to be arguments for Christianity against atheism or some other viewpoint that are actually simply ways to make Christians feel better about themselves. Taunting atheists with “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1) is a good, simple example. To you it is “truth” and you are just exercising your human freedom and “telling it like it is.” You can then slap the back of laughing fellow-Christians or fist-bump, or whatever you want, congratulating yourself on the point you’ve made by telling the truth.

But you have likely simply made it harder for the next Christian who would like to engage that atheist in actual dialog about matters of faith.

“But I’m just quoting the Bible,” you say.

“Out of context,” I reply. Nowhere does the Bible tell you to taunt unbelievers by calling them fools.  In fact, it says something quite different (Matthew 5:22).

We taunt fellow-Christians in similar ways. I remember a class I led some years back. Some of the participants had been spoken of in a negative way by other members of their church. They went around the group talking about the unfairness and how inappropriate it was to treat them this way. I couldn’t resist asking this: “Have you treated any non-believers as you have been treated by fellow church members?” Many admitted that they had.

I hardly need to provide examples of how we taunt people who disagree with us politically. Then quite frequently we taunt them again if they don’t want to stay around and listen to us taunt them.

If you want to isolate your ideas and grow your contituency only by raising new members from infants (and beware of them leaving!), then by all means, treat courtesy as an imposition. Regard it as something that keeps you from letting people know how things really are.

But if you’d like your ideas to spread, learn how to express the truth in a courteous manner.

Oh, and a note to all. Disagreeing with you or thinking you’re wrong isn’t discourteous. It’s a matter of the way things are expressed.

On Roman Catholics and Scholarship

On Roman Catholics and Scholarship

One of the great benefits of owning a publishing company is that there are always a number of smart people who will answer my e-mails. Thus, when I saw the brouhaha about Michael Patton’s post calling ‘Roman Catholic scholarship’ an oxymoron, I remembered immediately that I have just contracted Dr. Robert LaRochelle to write a book on—guess what?—dialog between Catholics and Protestants. (The book is Crossing the Street, to be released in May, 2012).

So I asked Bob if he’d write a response, and he graciously agreed. This morning, I published that response over at I’m linking it from here for two reasons. First, is a site I’m developing, and I have more traffic here on my personal blog. Second, I want to call attention to one paragraph in particular, which relates to dialog in general.

One of the things I tell my authors is that Energion Publications is not interested in homogenized material. We want material that is in conversation with other viewpoints, but still expresses a strong and robust viewpoint of its own. Bob said it well:

So, in summary, as one whose movement into Protestantism and practice of my faith has been deeply enriched and enhanced by bold and exciting Catholic scholarship, I find Mr. Patton’s argument unconvincing. I do admire, however, his strong advocacy of the importance of theology within the Christian community of faith. It is my firm belief that true ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics really suffers when theological ‘indifferentism’ is seen as the norm. The idea that ‘it makes no difference’ and that all belief systems are ‘really the same’ is both inaccurate and does no justice to the cause of deeper understanding and shared contribution to both Christ’s church and to God’s world.

‘Indifferentism’! What an excellent name for a not-so-good thing!