A tired post-modern trope meets its match

We often hear it said that “nobody was ever converted by argument”. And while it’s true that the Holy Spirit is ultimately the one who opens minds and hearts to the truth of Christ, it’s simply rubbish to say that argument plays no role in that process. Arnold Lunn, a rather famous convert of the past century writes:

“Nobody is ever converted by argument” is a popular slogan with Christian appeasers, but unilateral disarmament is as foolish in theological as in international disputes. Communists and atheists do not act on the principle that no Christian can ever be perverted by argument.

Nobody, of course, is ever wholly converted by argument, but if we exclude supernatural factors, argument is the decisive factor in many cases. It certainly was so in mine. I did not pray for guidance because I had abandoned, with relief, the practice of prayer while at Harrow. The Empty Tomb was a fascinating problem but—to me at that time—less interesting than those problems of snow and avalanche craft which I was trying to solve. My writings on snowcraft have emerged with credit from the test of scientific research, conducted in the main by Gerald Seligman, because I tried to practice what Huxley preached in the famous maxim “an assertion which outstrips the evidence is not only a blunder but a crime”, and for the same reason I was slow to commit myself to any definite theory about the Resurrection. The problems of snowcraft were scientific, the problem of the Empty Tomb historical, and in the latter case as in the former I tried to reach a solution by means of rational deductions from the available evidence. The mental process in both cases seemed to me much the same.

Whatever may be the influence of rational argument on conversion, it is certain that lack of rational argument is an important factor in perversion. Had I known what I now know I should not, as a boy, have been perverted by the specious arguments of Leslie Stephen’s “An Agnostic’s Apology” (Faber and Faber). I have just reread a symposium, “Public School Religion,” which I edited and to which the Bishop of Bradford, and the head masters of Eton and Westminster contributed. Many of the points discussed would have been equally relevant in a wider setting than the public schools, as for instance the ingrained resistance of the average boy to anything which is taught as a school subject. But experience proves that where apologetics is intelligently taught, a surprisingly large number of boys are thereby inspired to propagate the faith.

  • http://irishpapist.blogspot.com/ Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

    In my experience, the beginnings of conversion are usually through some emotional or imaginative or spiritual moment of insight, or yearning. But afterwards argument and the assent of reason is crucial.

  • Anna B

    Well… I wouldn’t call it a “tired post-modern trope”. It was after all one of Bl J H Newman’s favorite contentions. I take him to have meant that where the will and the moral sense remain untouched, appeals to impartial reason are useless (“first shoot round corners, and you may not despair of converting by a syllogism”).

  • Dan C

    There is argument via apologetics, there is rage and ranting, and there is propaganda. Conservatives, while the political group with the most obvious presence of religion in the public square, have used and permitted religion since the late 1970′s to be perversely warped by politics. The backlash now is yin to the yang of that activity of Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson and the glorious victories of the culture war (try naming them). Religion has suffered at the hands of conservatives who used (for a generation) religion in the service of politics, spiling it so that most of us have PTSD of bad experiences with politicians and politics infused religion whenever such gets expressed in the public square, even if authentic and honest. Chaput argues well the role of liberalism in the bleaching of religion from the public square; fearful of upsetting his conservative constituency, he will fail to discuss the routine perversion religion had over the decades of conservative ascension in politics and how the current unacceptability of religion in the public square had a huge source in the activities of the Moral Majority and its enslavement of religion to the agenda of the pursuit of political power.

    Argument for religion, its role in the public square, and its acceptance by the majority of religious who lean liberal will require at least two things by members of the Church: 1) liberal presentations of their views in the religious public square with a concommittant acceptance and respect by conservatives that such views can be religiously informed; 2) a clear attempt by all practitioners of such religious argument to keep religion from becoming a servant of political movements.

    An example not to follow: the discussion of voting for the Presidency by the bishops of Colorado in 2004. 3 disparate directions to the faithful by three different bishops. Sherry Weddell has commented on that before.

  • Beadgirl

    It depends on the kind of argument, I suspect. I doubt that an argument that is suffused with name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and contempt for the person to be converted would ever work.

    • Spastic Hedgehog

      This. There’s a difference between attempted conversion by argument and attempted conversion by being a self-righteous d-bag. One seeks to build a bridge for a friend to cross over the other is as destructive as an overstimulated monkey piloting a wrecking ball.

  • http://www.hancaquam.blogspot.com PNP, OP

    No one converted by argument? I’d say that this is true 99.999% of the time. This is why we are called to witness to Christ’s love and mercy in our thoughts, words, and deeds and not to argue for the proposition that Christ is loving and merciful. Argument helps us to refine our witness so that the faith cannot be called irrational.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  • Marty Helgesen

    It’s good to see that Arnold Lunn’s The Third Day is on line. He was a brilliant controversialist and apologist. I’m sure he would say that his most successful published controversy was with Ronald Knox, who had already become a Catholic and a Catholic priest. It was published under the title Difficulties, Being a Correspondence About the Catholic Religion Between Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn. It led to Lunn’s conversion, although not until some time after the book was published. If you Google for Arnold Lunn the first item is the Wikipedia article about him, which is a good introduction.


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