Dialogue Without End?: The Prideful Doctrine of “Intellectual Humility”

Dialogue Without End?: The Prideful Doctrine of “Intellectual Humility” November 19, 2021

There is a tactic the devil uses to slowly infiltrate and change the people of God from within. It is a tactic, like all of Satan’s strategies, which appears harmless and even beneficial at first, but, in the end, is poison to the Church. The tactic is often presented in churches or Christian organizations as a call for “continued dialogue” or “more engagement” with those who hold to abjectly unbiblical teachings or who openly champion unbiblical moral orientations. It is different than the exchange of ideas which exists between believers and non-believers or even Christians and their co-religionists (Muslims, Jews, etc.). It is a dialogue that occurs “within” the boundaries of the visible church, and, occurring there, it eats away at the prophetic power and potency of the true Church. 

The Doctrine of Endless Dialogue

We could call this tactic the doctrine of “endless dialogue,” a perennial politicking over unpopular or abrasive Christian dogma. Better said, it is the constant rehashing of old complaints against Christian claims as if there is some new knowledge or some discovery of late that has made those historical claims dubious only just now, within this current generation. It often begins with the phrase “but, now we know that…,” when in fact we really do not know anything that our Christian forefathers and mothers didn’t already know and rightly judge. 

The doctrine of endless dialogue is a hallmark of churches ready to capitulate to the pressures of the culture and embrace the norms of the societal mood. It is an attitude that motivates people to think there must be perennial discussion with and a persistent invitation of spiritual gurus to their churches or campuses. These gurus are those that the uninformed and gullible believe are saying new things but who are only repackaging old heresies. 

The doctrine of endless dialogue further suggests that as good “Christ-loving” people, we must always be open to conversing about the same issue over and over, and over again. Dr. Geoffery Kirk explains the need to call this liberal bluff,

In the culture wars which have ravaged Europe since the seventeenth century, the principal tactic of the Left (to use the term broadly) has been entryism. This has been particularly so in the Churches. More recently WOKENESS in the guise of ‘inclusion’ has sought to replace the Christian virtues of tolerance, hospitality and forgiveness. This was never more true than in the cases of women’s ordination and the approval of gay marriage…What liberals want is endless conversation, dialogue without terminus. What they cannot stomach is a blunt recognition of their own apostasy.

Endless Dialogue in Christian Academics 

The doctrine of endless dialogue is especially tempting in the world of Christian scholarship, where philosophers and theologians are specifically trained to charitably engage with their interlocutors, to “steel man” their opponents views or otherwise remain open to alternative opinions. While all of these approaches can be examples of actual humility and good research methodology, there is a potential for the Christian academic to make the approaches themselves the ultimate ends, as if being right on something would be wrong. The idea is to never appear intellectually arrogant or epistemically confident, but to do that one might have to hide away what one knows to be the case. 

Endless dialogue is ultimately a false intellectual humility. It is best to take a lesson here from Irenaeus, who knew better than any what it meant to take on bad ideas in the early church. In Against Heresies, Book 4, Irenaeus is clear that he studies his gnostic adversaries’ arguments, so that he can defeat them in battle. He is not merely curious about Gnosticism, nor is he intellectually insecure in his own views:

The man, however, who would undertake their [the gnostics] conversion, must possess an accurate knowledge of their systems or schemes of doctrine. For it is impossible for any one to heal the sick, if he has no knowledge of the disease of the patients. This was the reason that my predecessors-much superior men to myself, too-were unable, notwithstanding, to refute the Valentinians satisfactorily, because they were ignorant of these men’s system; which I have with all care delivered to thee in the first book in which I have also shown that their doctrine is a recapitulation of all the heretics. For which reason also, in the second, we have had, as in a mirror, a sight of their entire discomfiture. For they who oppose these men (the Valentinians) by the right method, do [thereby] oppose all who are of an evil mind; and they who overthrow them, do in fact overthrow every kind of heresy.

Irenaeus’ reason for studying and steel-manning the gnostic arguments is to save the church from evil by overthrowing their heresy. Irenaeus already knows that his interlocutors are “of an evil mind,” and the only question is how they are articulating that evil and what one is to do about it. Paul says the same in his letter to Titus (Titus 1:9). One would hope this is still the goal for our contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians.

“Intellectual humility” is a big catchword in the arena of Christian academics. Its biblical roots as a virtue are questionable however. “Wisdom,” or sophia, is clearly biblical, and certainly humility and love are central biblical virtues. Obedience too is undoubtably biblical. If we pursue these, one can imagine we will be less arrogant in how we present our arguments for what we hold to be true. If we practice these virtues we will speak truth in love as opposed to speaking it in self-righteousness. But, if we practice the virtues of Jesus we will also speak with confidence and power. 

The Paradox of Intellectual Humility

However, if one does mistake “intellectual humility” as the need to always remain open to other viewpoints, especially ones that have consistently been adjudicated by the Church as unbiblical, false or immoral, then one must wonder if the Christian intellectual has lost his or her capacity to bear a conviction. One wonders if the very human fear of social ostracism or the contempt of one’s peers is indeed too great a burden for the Christian scholar to shoulder. 

In a recent lecture, acclaimed political philosopher Robert P. George articulated his own temptations in this direction while a young scholar at the elite Swarthmore college. Instead of bearing the burden of conviction, George was tempted toward the “enlightened opinions” of the elite that surrounded him:

Like my Swarthmore peers, I wanted to be sophisticated and enlightened—and to be regarded by others as sophisticated and enlightened. So a lot of what I believed simply as a matter of tribal loyalty was reinforced by a tendency to adopt views that conformed to the beliefs of what the late Irving Kristol dubbed “the knowledge class”—professors, elite journalists, and the like. With the exception of abortion, which I had thought about a lot, I hadn’treally thought myself into the positions I held.

Rather, I had taken the short cut: I was content to believe what I thought sophisticated and enlightened people believed, or at least were supposed to believe. I simply, and rather unselfconsciously, assumed that an approach of that sort would reliably place me on the correct side of the issues. And, of course, it would give me access to a world I wanted to enter more fully—the elite world of important people who really counted and made a difference. If I got the right credentials, beginning with a Swarthmore degree, and held the right views, I could be someone who mattered. It was then, as it is now, a common motivation for students at elite colleges and universities.

In today’s post-modern academic culture, where to assume anything as rock-solid truth is deemed intolerant and dogmatic (with the exception of Critical Race Theory), the tribal loyalty among the scholarly elite is often that of having no loyalty at all! As such, to “be someone who matters,” one must remain forever uncommitted. 

Paradoxical as it may sound, the Christian scholar professing the virtue of intellectual humility in this regard, is really not as intellectually humble as they present themselves. For it is one thing to act intellectually humble before one’s peers and colleagues and another thing to be intellectually humble before the Word of God. Intellectual humility before the Word of God is deference to the Truth of God. Intellectual humility toward one’s peers however is, at some point, deference to the falsehood of the philosophies and idle speculations of men.

Of course, none of this means that one cannot listen to their peers and colleagues and listen with good intent and genuine charity. But, it does mean that one need not seriously entertain everything they say as being possibly true. This again is central to discussions taking place within the confines of the “visible” church. Jesus certainly did not do this when he spoke to the children of Israel, so why should we? Might it not be that those engrossed in the life of the mind are surprisingly unwilling to submit their mental life to the authority of the Bible, even if they seem to want to use it all the while? 

The Fallout of False Humility

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a vivid image of the kind of person who remains ever open to endless dialogue about God, yet who cannot accept God for who He says He is. We discover this “Episcopalian theologian” as a passenger from hell visiting heaven. Heaven, we come to find out, is far too stilted a place for the theologian’s intellectual capacities to run free. His freedom, however, is a freedom of the damned. It is a freedom which requires one to never stand too firm on a biblical doctrine, especially a doctrine like hell, but to always keep his mind open to other possibilities,

“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

One can easily imagine on earth this theologian would have been seen as “intellectually humble,” always looking but never finding, always open to the opinions, arguments and research of his peers. How beloved he must have been by his colleagues!

However, Lewis’ insight is, as usual, penetrating. For the day will come when such dialogues end, and the monologue of the Word of God will be proven absolutely true. Paul tells us that knowledge itself will pass away as the Love of God is fully revealed to His saints (1 Cor 13:8). In the end, there will be no debate over God in the presence of God. Nor will there be any dialogue over the validity of His moral law and His divine decree. 

Humility Like Christ

Christians who find the need to engage in endless dialogue over immoral teachings like same-sex marriage, abortion, or transgenderism, or to submit endless research papers attempting to revise uncomfortable doctrines like the doctrine of Hell or espouse more culturally palatable views of the atonement,  should consider Lewis’ intuition seriously. While we must take every person espousing such falsehoods seriously, we need not feign a false humility to win over their affections. 

We should be careful, therefore, that when we speak of “intellectual humility,” we first mean humility before the authority of the Word of God, and only then humility before the conjectures of men. This, after all, was Christ’s humility. Richard Niebuhr speaks of Jesus’ humility as not openness to man’s thoughts or desires, but as humility before God,

The humility of Jesus is humility before God, and can only be understood as the humility of the Son. He neither exhibited nor commended and communicated the humility of inferiority-feeling before other men….Whatever may be true of his Messianic self-consciousness, he spoke with authority and acted with confident power.

Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 26

And this is the kind of humility that the true Christian should display. Not a humbling before the philosophies or heresies of men, but a confident (not strident) and aggressive (not offensive) stance in opposition to them. 

If we allow the devilish doctrine of endless dialogue to further integrate and infect our churches, we may find ourselves one day, in the very distant future, still thinking about God but never knowing Him. A dialogue without end may sound humble, as progressives will make it out to be, but unless we realize that the Word of God is the End, then it is only the height of arrogance.

When you enter any town, and they don’t welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We are wiping off [as a witness] against you even the dust of your town that clings to our feet. Know this for certain: the kingdom of God has come near. I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom that for that town.

Luke 10:10-12

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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