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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Arguments, Truth, and the Church

At some point we all need to learn how to evaluate that which we believe and ascertain whether or not our beliefs are worth holding. In talking with a friend a while back, we decided that many within the Church have a general distrust of reflection and critical evaluation and so never examine their own beliefs. This is quite an unfortunate phenomenon and has especially troubled me the last few months. More recently, I’ve come to believe that one of the major causes for this sad state of affairs is fear. Many people are afraid that they are wrong and that the positions they hold will be exposed as fallacious. Exacerbating the problem is the place of importance these positions typically hold. However, all is not lost. This fear of being wrong (or of argumentation in general) can be removed once people begin to understand that it is a good thing to discover the ways in falsehood has crept into our belief system.

First, we need to have a better understanding of what an argument is. When I talk of arguments or argumentation, I most certainly don’t mean the screaming and yelling matches that you had with your siblings (hopefully just when you were younger!). What I do mean is the methodical laying out and examination of one’s positions. This alone can resolve tensions between two apparently different positions. If you tell me, “God is omnipotent and so can create square circles” and I say “God is omnipotent and yet cannot create square circles” you are likely to accuse me of not really believing in God’s omnipotence. But, once I present my argument in a more structured way, you will likely see why I affirm God’s omnipotence and yet deny his ability to create square circles.

Now that we’ve seen what I’m not referring to, we can talk about some tips for considering other people’s arguments. First, it is imperative that you listen to the person state his position and remain open to the idea that you are wrong and not him. This humility is likely to create an environment where you are actually trying to understand his position and not just look for a way to squeeze in your thoughts about why he is wrong. Second, learn how to state the other position in a way that is acceptable to the other person. This forces you to ‘get’ their position. Once I understood why someone would be a Calvinist, I stopped thinking they’re just crazy. If you can only restate the position in a ridiculous or question-begging way, then you’re not actually dealing with that position but instead a caricature of something someone holds dear. I think these are simple practices that we should always try to keep in mind no matter who we are dealing with, but I think they are mandatory when discussing issues within the Church. Christ prayed for his Church to be one, and today we are far from that. As we obtain truth about God and his relationship with us, we will see denominational differences begin to fade.

You’ve no doubt noticed a lot of talk about ‘truth’. At this point you might even ask why should we bother with this outdated notion of truth. Why not just keep on marching along in what we already know? Well, because if we deny that there is truth that we can obtain, it seems we also deny that we have the ability to know God and about him. John Polkinghorne has said, “If God is the god of truth, then the more truth we have, the greater understanding we have; the more we are learning about God.” Understanding that knowing truth is knowing God will do wonders to alleviate the fear of being wrong. Why is that? Because being ‘right’ is just simply overrated. Once you know that you’re right (or think you know), you no longer need to learn any more about your own positions or about those of others. If you are humble enough to recognize that you might be wrong, then you’ll continue to seek the deeper understanding that ultimately results in a deeper knowledge of God.

Not only should we be open to the idea of being wrong, if we come to learn that we indeed are wrong, we should rejoice. False beliefs ultimately lead us astray from the God of truth, and so we should be glad when we are able to remove them from our lives. So, if in reading this you find that I’m mistaken about certain things, great! Please, take the time to point out my errors to me so I may seek to remove them and find that which may appropriately take their place. Blessings.


Josh said...

Paul, great post! I hope we see more and more of such attitude. Thank you for embodying your content in the way you've written this post. A couple of questions that relate: [a] Do you think, in some sense, we have an obligation to seek truth?, and [b] If we do have an obligation, does only a theistic worldview support this? In other words, I'm wondering if the pursuit of truth as something obligatory can only be made sense of if theism is true. Or, moving from the realm of obligation, it, at minimum, seems to me that we recognize something inherently good and valuable in the pursuit of truth. While I think a metaphysical naturalist can speak of the pursuit of truth as good and valuable in some minimalist sense, I wonder if it can only be good and valuable in some robust sense within the parameters of theism. This is a variety of the question that is often asked in the meaning of life . . . Can life be meaningful on metaphysical naturalism? The naturalist says yes, but most want to say that it can be so only minimally. Just some thoughts . . . I'm not even sure what I think of them.

Paul said...

Thanks for the feedback! I think as Christians we do have an obligation to seek truth. I think that seeking truth is how we renew our minds and in doing that we are glorifying God and drawing closer to him.

I'm not real sure if the non-theist has the same obligation (within only that non-theistic framework). I guess if you say they do you'd have to spell it out prudentially. Something like "your ignorance hurts us all so don't be dumb." I'm just not sure how convincing any serious argument would be (assuming of course that an argument can be given that's much better than my silly example). One of the reasons I hesitate is that some really smart non-theists seemed to treat the pursuit of truth as obligatory. I'm mostly thinking of Socrates, maybe Plato, and from my 'comic book' knowledge of Aristotle, him too. We should get Hugh or Rusty in on this discussion the next time they're around.