One thing your mind needs more than anything else

Strutting peacock

James Barker, FreeDigitalPhotos

Scientist, philosopher, and atheist gadfly Daniel Dennett offers some helpful guidelines for those looking to better engage ideas.

His seven tools, excerpted from his new book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, should prove helpful to a large number of readers.

The advice ranges from “Answer rhetorical questions” and “Employ Occam’s Razor” to “Beware of deepities,” that is, statements that sound profound but are merely ambiguous. Those of us interested in Dennett’s least favorite pastime, theology, should be mindful of that one for certain.

What struck me, and I know others, was the second tool: “Respect your opponent.” Dennett admits that he has difficulty doing this. It, he says, “is always, for me, something of a struggle. . . .”

Serving up scorn

Just a guess here, but as one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,” Dennett may not be struggling enough. I point you to a pair of tweets from Alan Jacobs on the matter:

Christians (and the faithful of other religions) don’t feel much respect emanating from the great philosopher. Scorn is more like it.

But just as often, we hold atheists like Dennett up to the same sort of scorn, don’t we? And by we, I mean me. Yes, I have have a curious and largely inexplicable appreciation for the late Christopher Hitchens (I like Mencken too), but the rest of the bunch don’t get off so easily. Or at all.

I can’t think of the last time I prayed for Sam Harris. And that’s because I never have. Dawkins? Why bother with real cuss words when his name travels so easily to the tongue in moments of extremis?

Linking love and knowledge

There are several reasons that Christians might glare down the nose at our opponents, but surely (that’s a freebie, Dan) one reason is spiritual immaturity. At least that’s my problem. This point came home as I was reading Maximus the Confessor’s Four Hundred Chapters on Love the night before stumbling across Dennett’s tools.

I’m glad I read Maximus first. Here is the passage that hit me hardest. I’m sorry for the length, but it’s worth the read:

Since, “knowledge makes boastful but love edifies” [1 Cor 8.1], link up love with knowledge and you will not be puffed up but rather a spiritual architect building up yourself and those around you.

This is the reason why love edifies, because it neither envies nor grows angry with those who do envy, nor does it make a public display of why is the object of envy, nor think that it has already apprehended [Phil 3.12], but confess unabashedly its ignorance of what it does not know. In this way it renders the mind modest and constantly prepares it to advance in knowledge.

It is normal that presumption and envy follow upon knowledge, especially in the beginning, presumption interiorly and envy both interiorly and exteriorly: interiorly for those who have knowledge, exteriorly for those who do not. Thus love overcomes these three: presumption, because it is not puffed up; interior envy, because it is not jealous; exterior envy, because it is patient and kind [1 Cor 13.4]. It is thus necessary for the one who has knowledge to take hold of love in order to keep his mind from any kind of wound.

The one who has been gifted with the grace of knowledge but still has grief, resentment, and hate for his brother is like the person who stings his eyes badly with thorns and burrs. Knowledge is for that reason necessarily in need of love. (4.59-62)

Pride and love

So Dennett isn’t struggling enough. Like I said, that’s my guess. Neither am I. More than a guess, that’s a conviction. And the love that Maximus (and the Apostle) enjoins is a far greater feat than mere respect because it requires humility, self-emptying. Arrogance and respect can live in the same heart. Arrogance and love cannot.

Knowledge needs love. It’s the one thing our mind needs more than anything else. First, it opens up the way for greater knowledge; humility is always open to more and better.

Second, if Maximus is right, love is the only thing that will prevent our intellects from ultimately wounding us. If presumption, envy, and other undesirables manifest in our hearts because we’ve not added love, then what good is all the knowledge in the world? Not only will it close the mind, but it will corrupt the heart.

We may have all the arguments to rebut, refute, and reject the claims of our opponents. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Chances are good we don’t understand them as well as we should, even while we are mouthing them with great force and effect. Chances are also good we don’t believe them as thoroughly as we let on. Even if we do, without love it’s just noise (1 Cor 13.1).

We aren’t charged with winning arguments. We are charged with loving neighbors.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Great post. I am not familiar with Dennett so I appreciate the chance to learn about him. Also, a good spiritual reminder that we must not think we are better than a devout Atheist-just more blessed.


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