The Art of Disagreement

The recent debates on the appropriate response to the women’s ordination controversy threw into sharper relief a set of issues that have regularly cropped up on this blog and others with which I find myself in conversation, and particularly so during the hullaballoo about the US election: how are we to disagree?  How can we resolutely oppose error where we are convinced it is error, while making charitable allowances for others who hold these errors in good faith?  How are we to resort to the forceful polemic that defense of the truth often requires without indulging in mere verbal brawling and power-plays?  In my historical research, I have become convinced that our inability to satisfactorily reconcile the needs of polemics and irenics in contemporary discourse undermines our ability to intelligently read and interpret the controversies of earlier ages, in which interlocutors rarely shared our commitments to “fair play” and objective detachment.  

Accordingly, although the recent discussions highlighted the importance of a more systematic inquiry into the women’s ordination question, from the standpoint of historic Protestantism, I have postponed my promised provision of such for a spell (though in the meantime, one can find some helpful hints, along with, obviously, some points I would disagree with, here), to first address more carefully the question of how to disagree—how to be simultaneously polemical irenicists and irenical polemicists.  As this is a question that has cropped up quite frequently in posts and comments here, this might be the obvious place to post it.  But Matthew Anderson has suggested that, as a natural follow-up to my earlier post at Mere Orthodoxy, and an elaboration of his notion of “intellectual empathy,” its proper home is there.  So, with little attempt at modesty, I invite you to go check it out.  Or, for those of you indisposed to wade through the great sea of words there disgorged, here’s a quick precís:

We must not conceive our task as one of determining when polemics (understood as resort to rhetorical violence) are necessary, versus when irenics (understood as commitment to peaceful dialogue) is necessary, but must recognize that our task, as one of justice oriented toward both truth and effectiveness, is one in which the end is always irenic, and the means will usually involve some degree of polemic.

As a potential child of God, we must perceive every opponent as someone not to be triumphed over, but to be won over; to be persuaded, not subjugated.  The end of all our discourse should be reconciliation and peace.  The Christian, accordingly, must reject any idea of polemics that is self-justifying, that has been unmoored from the objective of seeking peace.  Equally, however, the Christian must reject any irenicism that has been unmoored from the objective of truth, for any reconciliation that terminates in anything but truth will be illusory and destructive.”

In discerning what will be effective in winning over the opponent, the principles of charity, as described in 1 Cor. 13, are always relevant, and none more so than patience, which is where “intellectual empathy” comes in.  This empathy does not necessarily mean sympathy, but rather an imaginative act of seeing the world through the opponent’s eyes.  The result may be sympathy, or may be greater awareness of the nature of his error, and better insight into how to detach him from it.  

If committed to irenically-oriented polemics, and a disciplined practice of intellectual empathy, what rules may guide us in the appropriate way to respond to particular errors.  Rather than providing rules, I suggest a list of questions we might ask ourselves, questions that will include: How serious is the error in question?  What is at stake?  How much harm will this error do to my opponent, and to others whom she is persuading or influencing?  Does this argument deserve respectful consideration?  Does the person I am critiquing deserve respect?  Where is this person coming from?  Why is this argument being advanced? and How will my critique be perceived/received?

Of course, the answers to any of these questions may be far from clear; this does not mean we should be afraid to even attempt the task of irenical polemics, but that we must recognize that our attempts to do so must always be subject to judgment at the bar of truth as well as love.

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