Persuading Isn’t Just about Argumentation

This week First Things ran an excellent article entitled “Pope Francis and the Clash of Revelations.” Its basic argument was that all humans look at the world through the lens of certain basic “revelations” or foundational beliefs. While it may be “technically possible” for us to step outside these beliefs, almost nobody will. The result is that theists and atheists, Thomists and Utilitarians, communitarians and classical liberals all hold certain basic beliefs that make dialogue with the other difficult or impossible after a certain point. Once a conversation about truth runs up against these foundational beliefs, it’s usually going to break down:

Eventually, we reach the limits of dialogue. No matter how many sound reasons I propose for believing in a creator, there will always be someone who deems my position indefensible. There will always be someone who won’t even get to my reasons, presuming the whole project to be rotten. For every John Polkinghorne, there will always be a Lawrence Krauss. For every Francis Collins, there will always be a Richard Dawkins.

If true, this could leave you discouraged about the possibility of persuading others to adopt your position. But as the article notes, argumentation isn’t the only form of persuasion:

We do not, in the meantime, stand idle. Without renouncing our intellectual tradition, we remember that discipleship is not measured in the success of our arguments. The world is not a jury. The measure of our response to the empty tomb is perhaps best indicated by a picture that circulated throughout the internet after Pope Francis’s election. It is a picture of him, then a cardinal, washing the feet of a patient with AIDS. It brought me to silence: that photo alone was a new kind of introduction to Christianity, a reminder that all our reading and writing amount to nothing if we don’t go and do likewise.

This post reminds me both of the debate over natural law ethics that swept through the Christian blogosphere a few weeks back and a post I wrote for this site called “The New Apologetic.” Both of these concerned, among other things,  the question of the persuasiveness of rational argument in our age. We have to distinguish two questions. First, is it technically possible to argue for God’s existence or to construct a moral system using only neutral, secular premises? The second, are such arguments in practice effective?

A lot of the debate tends to get focused around the first question, or tends to conflate the two, but the second on its own is an important question. The First Things article makes the point that even if neutral reasoning is technically possible, in an actual real dialogic situation, you’re usually going to reach the limits of that. The media reaction to Pope Francis was a well-chosen case-in-point. If I’m honest, I would say that the love affair over the new Pope’s bus rides is a little superficial and comical. But it’s never the less the case that gestures of solidarity like that have done more in the past week to generate a flurry of positive press for the Catholic Church than most anything else in recent memory.

The church doesn’t have to choose between different forms of persuasion. But I think it’s fair to say that, especially in conservative Christian circles, traditional apologetics has been over-emphasized. Apologetics camps and academies have sprung up across the country in recent decades. Recovering a holistic sense of persuasion is a central task before the church.

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