The Purpose of Discussion

Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World and Time, pp. 45-47:

Discussion is a shared struggle to reach truth and overcome error.  It may often unfold in an eristic form, as an exchange of arguments and rebuttals.  (We see this especially in the phenomenon of the combative personality, the individual who has difficulty thinking through anything at all without picking a quarrel, thrusting discussion-partners into the role of opponents.)  The eristic form has its own right.  Differences at the outset provide the stimulus for thought to progress dialectically.  As we know from politics, the discussion cannot get off the ground if either party denies the other the right to its independent starting point; when the condition for entering discussion is that a key point is surrendered in advance, no discussion can occur.  Paradoxically, then, discussion depends at once on conflicting assertions and on mutual concessions.  But what is asserted and what is conceded are not the same.  We may enter a discussion in perfect confidence that we are in the right against our opponent.  We may be sure that once we have explained ourselves fully, no shred of an answer can be made.  Yet we may still sense the need to prove our impregnability in a clash of steel, to gain real knowledge of what the opponent actually says when confronted with our case and to discern, if we can, what alternative reasoning can be brought to bear against our own.  Even the most confident discussant can expect to learn something from the exercise.

Let us suppose that I disapprove strongly of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it.  As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear.  One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial.  If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask whether those conditions could ever recur.  I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too.  None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me.  What it amounts to is that if at the end of the day I still say, ‘I disapprove of the death penalty!’ I know much better than before what I mean by it.

. . . Individual moral thinking is social not only in its beginnings but in its ends.  Our most secret deliberations, our most independent conclusions, are directed towards a community of understanding.  We think as though trying to win the approval of a judicious audience hidden in the darkness of the stalls, ready to applaud our point of view when the lights go up.  It is not simply that without a community of inquiry our thought cannot begin.  If we cannot envisage a community of agreement our thought cannot have any end in view, either.

When parties to a discussion punctuate it with decisive stands expressed in the first-person singular (‘I passionately oppose . . . !’) that is neither the beginning nor the end of moral thought.  It is a moment in-between, a moment at which the common inquiry has broken down and the common agreement at which thought is aimed has disappeared from view.  The affirmation of the ‘I’-position is a strategy for regrouping and relaunching the discussion, as when a standard is thrust into the ground and the scattered soldiers gather to it.  Rhetorical inebriation may make the standard-bearer forget that he is part of an army, but that is the logic of it.  In the moment of affirmation the ‘I’ takes responsibility for the whole, making a decision on what must be held in common by all.  And so together with the right of a distinctive point of approach must be granted also an anticipation of persuasion.  Serious discussion is entered expectantly, with a view to finding a common perspective which makes sense of an object of hope, still to be looked for; yet it is something to be discovered, not devised.  It is not a negotiated add-on to the prior private convictions of the discussants; it is the realization of those convictions, which, though they may have been held privately, were intended socially.

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 1—Introduction


PrintAbout three months ago, Cascade Books published a book with the provocative title, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross. I had the opportunity to read a pre-publication PDF of the book, and had determined to write a careful review and critique as soon as it came out, but what with the whirlwind of completing a PhD thesis and moving internationally, I am only now sitting down to undertake this task—a Herculean labor, in twelve parts, as I envision it.

Never have I begun a book review with such mixed feelings. It is hard to imagine being more personally entangled with a book than I am with this one. Its author, Douglas Jones, was my teacher and mentor during two of the most crucial and theologically formative years of my life, and I have been blessed to count him as a friend since. Its foreword comes from the pen of Peter Leithart, my pastor, teacher, and closest mentor for many years. Some of my closest friends helped see this book to publication, and there is scarcely a name that appears in the Acknowledgments that I do not know personally, if not intimately. Worse, this book grows out of a series of debates and controversies a few years ago, in which I was personally involved. Though not always agreeing with Jones, I was one of his most forceful advocates during those controversies, and during the years since, in which he has written little (before this book), I have publicly carried forward many of the lines of critique and provocation that he begun.

With this book, Jones seeks to do on a larger scale what he did with many of us students a few years ago—to shake conservative evangelicals out of their dogmatic slumber, to reveal the extent to which we seek to defang and domesticate Jesus, blithely blunting the sharp edges of His very uncomfortable summons to discipleship. At the same time, he aims to unmask the idols of the Christian Right (this book, it should be said up front, may be confusing to Christians outside America, since it is tailored to address our peculiarly American vices), the comforting ideological fictions we tell ourselves in order to quietly set aside the ethical demands of our Scriptures and many of our Christian forebears. Finally, he seeks to stimulate our imaginations with ideas for how we might, as Christian individuals and communities, seek to live out the way of the cross more intentionally, missionally, and radically (to use three over-used buzzwords). These three aims correspond to the three main parts of the book: (1) What is the Way of the Cross?, (2) Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross, and (3) Constructing the Way of the Cross.

All that being the case, I would like nothing more than to be able to welcome this book with trumpets and fanfare onto the evangelical theological scene, to sing its praises, argue its cause, and bask in its reflected glory. Instead, however, I find myself dismayed by it as often as I am encouraged, confused as often as inspired. Have my own views changed that much, or do the differences just loom larger now that the positive effects of Jones’s teaching have sunk in to my thinking? Certainly, although I learned a very great deal from Doug Jones, his contribution was primarily deconstructive: he unmasked idols, shook me out of dogmatic slumbers, and raised a myriad of questions. In the intervening years, I have set to work answering these questions, attempting to discern the shape of Christian discipleship, and see now that I would like to put things quite differently at many points. I write this review in part to clarify such things for myself, and, to the extent that Jones’s views more closely match things I used to say, to offer something of a retraction to anyone who has been reading me for years. Read More

Hooker the Humanist?

Richard Hooker is often thought of as a scholastic, because of his obvious appreciation for Thomism, Aristotelianism, and late medieval philosophy, and his very orderly and precise argumentation; and scholasticism, of course, as we all know, is antithetical to humanism.  Right?  Well, no, not really—more recently, scholars have recognized that scholasticism and humanism were not necessarily at all mutually exclusive, and William Bouwsma has described Hooker as every bit as much a humanist as he was a scholastic.  These intriguing passages from Susan Schreiner’s book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era, describing the distinctives of 15th-century humanism, lend considerable weight to Bouwsma’s argument, and suggest much more fruitful work to be done on this connection:
“Like Valla, he [Agricola] was interested in argumentation that persuaded and influenced the hearer, thereby commanding assent. In his challenge to Aristotelian logic, he emphasized the case for “likelihood” or “probability” over certainty. According to Agricola, dialectic was concerned with speaking convincingly (probabiliter), in a way suitable for creating belief in the given situation or context. Thus both Valla and Agricola challenged the supremacy of the syllogistic form of reasoning and its sole claim to validity and certitude. Both men were interested in forms of reasoning or argumentation that convinced or persuaded rather than proved. 
. . . 
More so than the Nominalists, the humanists explored the implications of living and belonging to history. They focused on the study and writing of history and the assumptions of living within history. They began to recognize the historicity of truth. In particular, they understood the ramifications of human knowledge as appropriate to the ever-changing historical realm: “The historical aspects of the realization of the mind are never eternally valid, never absolutely “true,” because they always emerge within limited situations bound in space and time; i.e. they are probable and seem to be true [verisimile], probably only within the confines of “here” and “now,” in which the needs and problems that confront human beings are met.” 
In this worldview, the objects of contemplation were not eternal and unchangeable first principles. Rather, the object of thought was the changing, contextual, and societal world. Throwing human concerns into the realm of the historical had important consequences for the issue of certainty. Downgrading the claim of certitude based on rational syllogistic demonstration and the elevation of the mind through abstraction, humanists developed a significant consciousness of what it meant to live within the partial and incomplete realm of history.  Ethical, political, and historical issues became the primary subjects of debate and discussion. . . .
By the late Renaissance, the growth of historical knowledge sometimes functioned to accentuate the sense of perspectivism, and “custom” came to be recognized as a dominant force. The study of philology and law also exerted enormous impact on the development of a historicist and relativist consciousness.”