Some time back I posted a piece called “The Slow Death of Intellectual Virtue.” In this piece, I argued that the way in which we argue is as important as what we argue. I still believe that. Intellectual virtue is one of my core commitments as an educator and as one who engages in public discourse. My friend Steve Rankin from SMU has made similar arguments, as have other bloggers whom I know and respect.
Since then, a few pieces have come out in the blogosphere claiming that my way of thinking about these issues simply doesn’t hold water. What matters is not our manner of argument, but the variety of perspectives represented in the blogosphere and in the UMC. After all, one blogger argued, Dr. Rankin and I have only made these arguments because we don’t know how bad it really is out there on the internet. On that matter, I’m simply not ready to concede that the worst of what’s out there should be the standard for Christian public discourse.
I do agree that it is crucial that a broad variety of perspectives be represented, but it also matters how those perspectives are represented. If a perspective is not presented in a way that models Christian and intellectual virtue, that doesn’t mean that the perspective is invalid, but that it not presented in the way that is most helpful for facilitating wisdom, insight, and mutual understanding.
The bottom line is this: I cannot control the way anyone else argues. I cannot control the way in which others talk and write about me or people whom I respect. I can only behave in the way that I believe most honors Christ and edifies the Church. Regardless of the ways in which others argue, the practices of respectful Christian dialogue still matter. In and of themselves, they matter.
Christ instructed us: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27). That’s hard to do. That’s not my strong suit. But with God’s help I’m going to try to do that, and I am going to encourage others to do the same.
I was reading this evening through the new volume of Wesley’s sermons edited by Ken Collins and Jason Vickers. In this volume, there is a sermon called “The Cure of Evil-Speaking.” In the introduction to this sermon, the authors write,
Concerned about avoiding unnecessary conflict and division among their preachers, John and Charles Wesley drafted a letter on January 29, 1752, that became widely known. Its contents formed the heart of the counsels offered in this present sermon against the disruptive practice of evil-speaking as revealed in the following:
1. That we will not listen, or willing inquire after any ill concerning each other.
2. That if we do hear any ill of each other, we will not be forward to believe it.
3. That as soon as possible we will communicate what we hear, by speaking or writing to the person concerned.
4. That till we have done this we will not write or speak a syllable of it to any other person whatsoever.
5. That neither will we mention it after we have done this to any other person.
6. That we will not make any exception to any of these rules, unless we think ourselves absolutely obliged in conscience to do so (p. 431).
As Wesley notes in the sermon, “the very commonness of this sin makes it difficult to be avoided. As we are encompassed with it on every side, so if we are not deeply sensible of the danger, and continually guarding against it, we are liable to be carried away by the torrent” (3). This is wise counsel, and I’m going to try to heed it.
Have I spoken evil against my fellow Christians? Perhaps I have. I’ve tried to avoid doing this, but of course I don’t always succeed at the things that I try to do. Have I always argued in a Christlike way or a way that models intellectual virtue? I’m certain I have not. But rather than back off of these efforts, I’m going to double down on them.
Yes, at some point, we have to stop talking about how we talk to one another and get to the real meat of our conversation. And, no, we will not all agree on how we should engage in discourse with one another. As for me, I can only try to model what I think is the best way to engage others. And if they have different ways of engaging me, then so be it.