Disagreeing to agree: On theological dialogue

A commenter recently asked me to clarify the stakes of a comment-thread debate, and ultimately all I could say was that I was advancing a consistent position, but it seemed to me that my interlocutors were constantly moving the goalposts so that my critique would not fully apply. This was emblematic of my interactions with confessional theologians at that time, particularly Barthians. They would agree that traditional articulations of (for instance) transcendence were problematic, but that only meant that we had to find the good transcendence! Often Karl Barth was held to be the source of the “good version,” which was so radically distinct from the pre-Barthian version as to be invulnerable to any conventional line of attack. It was almost a parody of Dan Barber’s critique of the quest for “good versions” — but with no attempt to articulate the concrete difference between the good and bad versions. If I did not concede that they indeed had a better version of what I was critiquing, the conversation would veer toward a consideration of how we could never truly have a conversation in the first place due to our incompatible axiomatic commitments. The whole thing became tiring, presumably from both ends — most of that traditional theology crowd does not show up in comment threads anymore (though comments are very inactive generally speaking).

Prior to the resort to incommensurable values, the exchange reminded me of a conversation I had with a Nazarene youth pastor. This was a “cool” youth pastor, someone I had gone to college with, someone who listened to Radiohead. I had just read Blue Like Jazz at my mom’s recommendation, and I shared that it made me viscerally angry, because it seemed to be nothing but an attempt to rationalize remaining affiliated with something that was hurting the author and other people around him. When pressed, I suggested that the youth pastor was doing the same thing. His objective function was to make young people feel just comfortable enough being affiliated with the church that they would maintain that affiliation through young adulthood and ultimately raise their children in the church — an institution that, I consistently argued, would hurt them as it had hurt me (and honestly, had hurt everyone in that room).

I was arguing, in short, that he had an ethical obligation to quit his job and abandon the institution he had chosen to serve, but he kept insisting that we were not in fundamental disagreement and could hash the issue out over a couple beers (because, yes, he was that kind of hipster Christian). At that point, simple disagreement would have been a relief — in fact, anger and outrage would have been a relief. After all, I was telling him his life’s calling was destructive and dangerous. In this situation, if he had veered toward a meta-conversation about how we come from such different starting points that we can’t even really have a conversation, it would have felt dishonest and even passive-aggressive. It would have been a coded way of saying that because I’m not a Christian, because I’m not saved, because I’m lost and mired down in the false wisdom of this world, I can’t understand the goodness they experience, or why it’s important to maintain the connection to the church even with all its faults.

The Radically Orthodox are more honest in their presentation, when they talk of secular philosophy as representing “fallen reason,” as a form of malign nihilism. Of course, their God is able to turn evil to good, and the same holds for the conceptual ingenuity of the nihilists. You can have all that is best in those philosophers you love, all that is compatible with Christ — and the theologian is offering you that opportunity. You can have your social critique, to the exact extent that it does not threaten the foundations of Christian dogma. You can have your quest for justice, which turns out to point toward a revamped version of Christendom.

You really can have it all! All the wisdom of this world, all the kingdoms of the world they will give you, if you will bow down and worship…. And if you won’t? Then you must have misunderstood, or be beyond saving. The resort to incommensurable axioms is a euphemism, a fake — because they can’t admit that you genuinely have a principled position of your own. They can’t do you the courtesy of directly disagreeing. At this point, one wishes for the straightforwardness of Satan, who responded to Jesus’ rejection of his offer by arranging to have him killed. The prince of this world did not realize that it can often be worse to kill them with kindness.

3 thoughts on “Disagreeing to agree: On theological dialogue

  1. As something of a ‘second generation’ AUFSer, watching you have those conversations so that I didn’t ‘have to’ was actually really helpful and important to me, especially as I was dealing with a similar structure of weaponized ‘good versions’ arguments in the context of the Christian communities I was embedded in at the time–a hipster Christian ‘basement church’ that lauded itself for the strangeness of it fit in the Nazarene denomination, a network of community houses, and a post-evangelical friend circles that had recently graduated from the same evangelical university. The feeling that accompanied those interactions as they wore on over years was just such an interminable *exhaustion.* It just really wore me out to find myself constantly treated as if I couldn’t be saying what I was really saying.

  2. It is odd. In theological discussions but also in many philosophical discussions with people that I assume just as rigorous as I could be so far is having a discussion in the attempt to get somewhere beyond the, “OK we each have our own opinions”. If that would be the result then let’s take it to its end and find out if indeed that is the result!

    Yet I find in conversations that I feel that there are certain assumed rules one of which that as we settle certain points in whichever direction that we take that as a marker and move toward the great unknown that we are both involved with by the discussion.

    But I find often enough that as we proceed in the discussion and I feel that we are making progress, narrowing, as it were, the field of possibilities involved in the endeavor, inevitably my co-conspirator, it appears, will forget some of the points that we already made and deflect what point might be a rising that would narrow the point of our discussion even further, and re-route the discussion back into an earlier point but under the guise of it being a different point, which is to say are you going the same point under different terms as if it is a new point.

    This is exceedingly odd to me, and it’s happened so many times that I have to figure that these people do not see themselves as committing such an infraction. That indeed they are not re-routing or deflecting anything but are indeed moving forward in their point. Of this I must also assume then that we were not involved in a calm discussion whereby the two or three of us are going together to see what might be known in the unknown, but indeed that they had a point to the conversation which was really to convert me to their opinion that they had already decided upon.

  3. … I feel that at least a partial explanation of the strange phenomenon of supposedly open minded thinkers, is that the playing field of such discussion, at least in many peoples eyes, is loaded in a particular direction, such that what many people consider to be an open playing field is actually code or is coded to mean “beware of people trying to manipulate you”. The method of the open playing field being a code for you better have your game together. It seems people are so ready to be manipulated by other people that they come into a conversation with a quoteopen mind” that is already loaded as to particular points which amount to the truth or the goal of any conversation, depending on where the conversation starts.

    Such people are unable to see that if we are indeed involved in a cooperative endeavor of finding the truth of the situation, or at least uncovering things that might be hidden amongst ourselves, such that the other person might see when I am not able to see, then what they feel or might see as a covert manipulation on my part is actually the tension involved in the conversation of discourse, something that is a rising outside of our discourse but yet is intimately involved with the two of us in conversation.

    I think it is possible that there is a certain method that discounts any tension that arises outside of the people involved. Perhaps a certain kind of open mindedness is taught to people which actually means to them: come prepared with an idea that you already know is true, and beware that when you start feeling something it means that the other person is trying to manipulate you.

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