Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant

Chris Hallquist, one of the contestants in this year’s Ideological Turing Test (entry A in the atheist round, and B in the Christian round) has also written up his strategy chez lui. He explains that, in his faux Christian entry, he tried to capture the tone of a liberal Christian instead of making steelman arguments for that position. That way he would avoid giving himself away by using an atheist epistemology to construct a ‘strong’ Christian position. Instead:

Creating this fictitious persona involved doing some things that really felt like I was contorting my brain into funny shapes in order to do. For example, one thing that annoys me about liberal Christians is how rarely (it seems to me) they ever directly say that conservatives are wrong about anything. So I can be talking to a person who I suspect rejects Biblical inerrancy, but it can be difficult to get them to say so.

Thus, I made a rule that I would never directly say anyone was wrong about anything. Instead, I talked about the “limitations” of a certain approach, what’s “appropriate,” and suggested “a more helpful approach.” On the other hand, a big part of my image of liberal Christians is trying to insist fundamentalists aren’t “true” Christians, hence the reference to “Christians”-emphasis-scarequotes in the answer on euthanasia.

This approach reminds me of those youtube videos where someone sings in the cadences and phonemes of English, so it sounds like you can understand the language, even though there’s no semantic content. It’s interested to see what speakers of other languages consider most distinctive about your own.

In Chris’s case, the loudest thing he’s hearing from ‘liberal’ Christians seems to be a kind of faintheartedness. It sounds like a good match for the theological retreat that occurs throughout Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical The Flight of Peter Fromm.

But, in the defense of the soft-spoken, it’s hard to let the beating heart of your faith show when you speak about it primarily in the context of political or cultural controversy, or scholarly disputes where you’re summarizing the research you’ve seen written up by other people.

I get dinged a fair amount by other bloggers and in comments for being a bit bloodless and analytical. And I wouldn’t recommend my writing on church/state jurisprudence, even when I think it’s tolerably clear, as an introduction to my life as a Christian. The living parts tend to happen at a smaller scale for me, as when I was meditating on various Broadway showtunes in the run-up to my baptism. And, there, I was trusting you all to listen to the songs and hopefully have them catch you the same way they did me.

The more personal an experience, the harder it is to assume that your audience has all the necessary references to get a visceral experience of it. I remember one discussion with a coworker where, in order to talk about sin, I wanted to make reference to The Great Divorce, The Brothers Karamazov, ergonomic approaches to posture, Les Miserables, and a New Yorker article on phantom limb pain.

I can find myself in the position described by Douglas Hofstadter in his work on analogy Surfaces and Essences where you end up envying a language that has managed to end up with one word that encapsulates a concept that your own language has splintered into nuanced, separate words. Since I don’t know the name for that central idea in your private language of metaphor, I keep showing you ideas from my experience that nearly catch it, in the hopes that you’ll end up on the same page. (Think of pointing to a stop sign, a tomato, a candy cane, in the hopes of communicating the idea red).

I’m sure this isn’t all that’s driving the mincing apologetics that so irk Chris, but it is something I keep in mind whenever I get to know someone through politics or a fringier application of their philosophy. I liked including the question about matching your philosophy to a genre of literature in order to get a sense of what adherents of different views are moved by when they are in the heart of their ideology.

Chris’s subtly mocking entry is a warning about what can happen when we stay on common ground, preferring to be clear or circumspect instead of trying to make occasional sorties into the areas of our philosophy where we are passionate, and trusting an interlocutor to ask for clarification.

I am, of course, guilty of this most of the time. I’ve had the best luck when I have people over in person to watch a movie or read a play and then all argue together from a common reference. Any other good strategies to share?

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