Many years ago, when I was still doing graduate studies in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, I became involved in a snail-mail back-and-forth discussion with a zealous Evangelical lady in southern California, a representative of some Protestant ministry or other, who insisted that Mormons aren’t Christian. (I suppose that this conversation was the starting point for the book Offenders for a Word.) At one stage of the conversation, I tried to help her understand what genuine non-Christianity looked like (e.g., in the case of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims). When her reply came, it was clear that she was absolutely exhilarated by my comments. She had, she plainly thought, caught me in a hypocritical, brazenly obvious self-contradiction. ”You insist that you’re a Christian,” she triumphantly wrote, “while you deny Muslims their right to be Christians!”
More and more, I try to avoid debates with people who aren’t equipped (whether by education or training, by temperament, or by sheer capacity) to engage in serious discussion, to construct sound arguments or to properly understand a sound argument when when they see it. Such encounters remind me too much of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – which is, of course, one of the greatest films ever made:
BLACK KNIGHT: None shall pass. ARTHUR: What? BLACK KNIGHT: None shall pass. ARTHUR: I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight, but I must cross this bridge. BLACK KNIGHT: Then you shall die. ARTHUR: I command you, as King of the Britons, to stand aside! BLACK KNIGHT: I move for no man. ARTHUR: So be it! ARTHUR and BLACK KNIGHT: Aaah!, hiyaah!, etc. [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's left arm off] ARTHUR: Now stand aside, worthy adversary. BLACK KNIGHT: 'Tis but a scratch. ARTHUR: A scratch? Your arm's off! BLACK KNIGHT: No, it isn't. ARTHUR: Well, what's that then? BLACK KNIGHT: I've had worse. ARTHUR: You liar! BLACK KNIGHT: Come on, you pansy! [clang] Huyah! [clang] Hiyaah! [clang] Aaaaaaaah! [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's right arm off] ARTHUR: Victory is mine! [kneeling] We thank Thee Lord, that in Thy mer-- BLACK KNIGHT: Hah! [clunk] Come on then. ARTHUR: What? BLACK KNIGHT: Have at you! [kick] ARTHUR: Eh. You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is mine. BLACK KNIGHT: Oh, had enough, eh? ARTHUR: Look, you stupid bastard. You've got no arms left. BLACK KNIGHT: Yes I have. ARTHUR: Look! BLACK KNIGHT: Just a flesh wound. [kick] ARTHUR: Look, stop that. BLACK KNIGHT: Chicken! [kick] Chickennn! ARTHUR: Look, I'll have your leg. [kick] Right! [whop] [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's right leg off] BLACK KNIGHT: Right. I'll do you for that! ARTHUR: You'll what? BLACK KNIGHT: Come here! ARTHUR: What are you going to do, bleed on me? BLACK KNIGHT: I'm invincible! ARTHUR: You're a looney. BLACK KNIGHT: The Black Knight always triumphs! Have at you! Come on then. [whop] [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's last leg off] BLACK KNIGHT: Ooh. All right, we'll call it a draw. ARTHUR: Come, Patsy. BLACK KNIGHT: Oh. Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!
Unfortunately, I still get sucked into such discussions from time to time. It’s difficult to extricate oneself from them gracefully, without seeming to be elitist or arrogant, without hurting feelings. Sometimes, though, it’s best simply to withdraw from these encounters and to wish the best for your would-be opponent. I don’t believe that salvation depends upon scholarly acumen or intellectual ability or education. There are much more important things, and I expect the Lord to be gracious and merciful. But not everybody was a top student in school, and people don’t become better scholars or more rigorous thinkers merely by virtue of growing older. There are, in other words, still plenty of B, C, D, and F students out there. Their souls are of infinite worth, and they may well be — and, in many cases (I’m very serious here), certainly are — far better people than the A students. But that still doesn’t mean that they’re good at the particular more-or-less academic work of framing and evaluating arguments.