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Speaking the Truth in Love: Rules of Engagement for the Polemically-Inclined

December 20th, 2012 | 21 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

During the little kerfluffle that followed my post on N.T. Wright and the debate over women bishops, several folks suggested that while I may have been right about the general principle of "intellectual empathy," it was wrong to apply such empathy in this case.  There were times to treat one's opponents with empathy, and then there were times to take off the gloves, or just to indulge in a big belly laugh.  But this, I suggest, is to misunderstand just what we are talking about when we cal for "intellectual empathy," which in fact need not lack sharp edges and a fighting punch.

The misunderstanding is a common one, similar to the widespread conceit that "polemics" are somehow the opposite of "irenics."  A particularly egregious example of this latter misunderstanding occurs in A.J. Joyce's recent Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, in which he devotes his entire third chapter to arguing that, since Hooker is clearly polemical, he cannot possibly be engaged in the fundamentally irenic enterprise that some Hooker scholars have recently attributed to him; since Hooker has no hesitation in resorting to rhetorical sleight-of-hand to undermine and overwhelm his opponents, he clearly cannot be interested in friendly dialogue.  But of course, this is to misunderstand both the nature of polemics and of irenics.  Being polemical isn't about being mean, hard-hitting, and trying to bludgeon your opponent into submission. And being irenic isn't about a commitment to gentlemanly rules of fair play.  If this is what the terms meant, then to take up polemics is to leave irenicism, perhaps because the matter in question is urgent enough to warrant drastic measures.  The only question, then, is when such measures are warranted.

This leads to a situation in which one side is always demanding that we exercise charity and mutual respect, refraining from anything that might cause offense, whereas the other side is committed to the dictum, to take inspiration from Barry Goldwater, that "extremism in the defense of truth is no vice," telling us that certain ideas and certain people do not deserve our respect, and thus call for bruising critique or ridicule.

What we have before us then, perhaps, is the old "love vs. justice" dilemma in another guise.  We are asked to exercise mercy and compassion toward our opponent, or we are asked to treat him like the evil liar he really is, and the two goals seem mutually exclusive.

But in fact, it is perfectly possible to be irenically polemic, or polemically irenic, as should be quite obvious when we consult a

η πάλη : fight (πολεμικός / polemic) η πάλη : fight (πολεμικός / polemic) (Photo credit: dullhunk)

dictionary.  The adjective "irenic" means "tending to promote peace or reconciliation" whereas the noun "polemic" means "a controversial argument, as one against some opinion, doctrine, etc."  Irenicism is thus a description of ends, polemics a description of means.  It should be equally obvious, upon looking at this definition, that all Christian discourse should be in a sense irenic in respect of its ends: it should have as its goal peace and reconciliation.  To say even this will immediately invite suspicion from many of our more trigger-happy culture warriors.  We will be reminded that light has no fellowship with darkness, that there is a great gulf fixed between heaven and hell, between the elect and the reprobate, between truth and falsehood.  But this is an unwarranted inversion of protology and eschatology, an insidious intrusion of supralapsarian reasoning which veers toward Manichaeanism.  Peace, not conflict, is the primordial reality, the structure of God's being and the starting-point of creation.  Good alone, not evil, has a positive existence, a telos.  Evil, then, for all its apparent power, can only ever be a contingent aberration within a fundamentally good creation whose starting point and final end is harmony.  If we look at unbelievers and see only vessels created for destruction, then clearly, there is no reconciliation to be sought with them, only victory to be gained over them.  God Himself, we are told, does not see them only as vessels created for destruction, for we are told that he "desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4), and our desire is to be nothing less.  In the end, not all will be; but, as Richard Hooker so pithily and eloquently puts it:

"concerning the state of all men with whom we live . . . we may till the world's end, for the present, always presume, that as far as in us there is power to discern what others are, and as far as any duty of ours dependeth upon the notice of their condition in respect of God, the safest axioms for charity to rest itself upon are these: 'He which believeth already is' and 'he which believeth not as yet may be the child of God'."  

As a potential child of God, we must perceive every opponent as someone not to be triumphed over, but to be won over; to be persuaded, not subjugated.  The end of all our discourse should be reconciliation and peace.  The Christian, accordingly, must reject any idea of polemics that is self-justifying, that has been unmoored from the objective of seeking peace.

Equally, however, the Christian must reject any irenicism that has been unmoored from the objective of truth, for any reconciliation that terminates in anything but truth will be illusory and destructive.  While directed to reconciliation with the opponent, then, Christian irenics seeks no peace with her flawed commitments.  It is these that may justly be the object of polemic, polemic that aims to render these errors evident to the opponent, so that she may abandon them and be reconciled.  Christian irenics thus bears little resemblance to the policy of gentlemanly fair play and "objectivity" that the academy demands.  This policy, a sort of Rawlsian procedural justice applied to the plane of intellectual inquiry, is largely indifferent to the question of truth, as A.J. Joyce's odd deconstruction of Hooker's rhetoric reveals.  Quoting extended passages that illustrate that "Hooker's pen was clearly capable of the most waspish, irreverent, and acerbic assaults," he concludes that it is impossible to regard his argument as an "irenical appeal to the hearts and minds of his opponents" (51-52).  But of course, when confronted with a damning accusation, such as Hooker frequently makes of his Puritan adversaries, we first ask whether it is true.  If it is false, and the speaker knows it to be false, then clearly his aim is not a genuinely irenic one, but one which seeks supremacy over the opponent by fair means or foul.  If it is false, but the speaker believes it to be true, then we may judge his purpose an irenic one, although he fails to achieve that purpose.  If the speaker believes it to be true, and it is, then we may be looking at an example of irenicism, however harsh the indictment or sharp the rhetoric, for it is only by the destruction of error that peace can be achieved.

So are we back at the conclusion that "extremism in the defense of truth is no vice," that serious error necessarily warrants a suspension of gentlemanly discourse, a resort to "waspish, irreverent, and acerbic assaults," all of which may be justified by reference to an irenic intent?  Not quite.  For just like the administration of political justice (as described by Oliver O'Donovan in The Ways of Judgment), the practice of just speech is subject to the criterion not only of truth, but of effectiveness.  Falsehood alone, then, does not justify pulling out the rhetorical big guns; rather, the probability that the rhetoric employed will succeed in unmasking falsehood and winning the opponent.  When effectiveness is oriented towards winning over, justice turns out to coincide with love:

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

We could camp out here at length, using the criteria of love to illuminate what faithful Christian irenics, including polemical irenics, should look like.  Loving critique takes time to understand its opponent, and has regard for his feelings; it is not motivated by a desire for one-ups-manship, to prove that one is just as smart as the opponent; it does not proceed from a conviction of one's personal superiority, or offend for the mere sake of being offensive.  It does not insist that "it's my way or the highway," that everyone has to think exactly like oneself; it does not proceed from rankled personal feelings, a desire to get revenge for bruised pride; it does not take pleasure in discovering an error, so that one can look smart in comparison to the opponent's folly, or have fun debunking it, but looks for truth wherever it is found, and is excited to reach agreement in the truth.  It bears every insult, it takes the opponent at his word, it puts the best possible construction on his intentions and holds out hope in the possibility of persuading him, it is willing to sacrifice time, credibility, perhaps even friendships in the task of winning the opponent over from error to truth.  All of these characteristics of love could warrant close attention—for how often even the most conscientious of us fails to conform our discourse to this standard.  But I want to focus primarily on the virtue of patience, for this returns us to the question of intellectual empathy, with which we began.

Peace! Peace! (Photo credit: aldrin_muya)

The polemically-inclined are inclined to be suspicious of this principle, because they confuse "empathy" with "sympathy"; they see a call for intellectual empathy as a call for us to view error in a kindly light, or as perhaps not error at all, a call to learn to get along, to live and let live.  But just as sympathy does not necessarily imply empathy, so empathy does not necessarily imply sympathy.  Once again, the dictionary can come to our aid.  Sympathy it defines as "harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another" or "the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions."  Clearly, there is a limit to how much harmony or agreement the faithful Christian can reach with the unfaithful—with the compromiser, the backslider, or the unbeliever.  "For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?" (2 Cor. 6:14-15)  Empathy, on the other hand, means "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another."  Empathy is putting oneself in place of another, not necessarily to camp out there by adopting her viewpoints, but to see the world, for a moment or two, through her eyes.  It is an act of imagination, a temporary suspension of disbelief so as to understand how the opponent's argument fits together (or, as the case may be, fails to fit together).  As Matt Anderson put it in his excellent post, it is a matter of "seeing how. As in, 'Oh, I see how you could think that.  It’s wrong, but I can see how it might make sense.'  It is an act that is aimed, first and foremost, toward the good of understanding, a good that persuasion may flow from but can never precede."  Or, we might say also it is a matter of seeing why, of understanding the other's motives.  Faithful irenics is thus not accountable only to the criterion of a true grasp of propositions, but of a true grasp of persons.  If you do not truly understand what your opponent is up to, your arguments may succeed in deconstructing an error, but not his error, and thus you will never win him.

Now, obviously enough, just as ideas can be false and wicked, so can people.  This is why it is not the case that intellectual empathy necessarily means being soft and woolly, or that it sometimes needs to be discarded in favor of godly ridicule or sharp rebuke.  Ridicule or rebuke may occasionally be called for, but they will be the result of, not the alternative to, an exercise of intellectual empathy.  The example of Jesus should be instructive for us here.  No call to empathy or charity and debate is complete without the inevitable rejoinder, "But look at the nasty names Jesus called the Pharisees!  If we're to be Christ-like, we're to imitate him in mocking people or calling down woe upon them if circumstances warrant."  (That "if circumstances warrant" merits further attention, and will receive some below.)  But if intellectual empathy means understanding another's motives before critiquing them, then clearly Jesus was its greatest practitioner.  "He needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man" (Jn. 2:24).  Jesus was the ultimate reader of hearts.  Very often, this leads him to an outpouring of compassion and sympathy (Mk. 10:21), but frequently, it leads instead to indignation and rebuke.  Why?  Because Jesus looks into the hearts of his opponents to understand how and why they have come to say the false and wicked things they say, and discovers rotten hearts, with nothing but false and wicked reasons.  There are times when we shall discover the same thing, and when we shall accordingly have just cause to denounce, rebuke, or even mock (though even just cause does not necessarily mean we are the best person for the job, or it is the best time and place).  But if so, we'd better be pretty confident of our powers of discernment.  If we have erred either in our assessment of the truth of the matter, or of the motives and reasoning of our opponent, our polemic may go dangerously astray.

But all of this is to say that a call to intellectual empathy in no way prevents us from engaging in vigorous debate; on the contrary, it is a crucial tool in making us effective critics of error, for no refutation is so effective as the one that can tell you not only that someone is wrong, but why they are wrong; that not merely their conclusion, but their premises and their mindset are wrong.  Not that we are to engage in this imaginative act of empathy eager to learn the worst of our opponent—for "love hopes all things"—but whether the exercise of empathy leads us to greater sympathy or not, this commitment to patience will make us more successful in the true end of irenics: exposing error, and winning others from it.

So, having said all this, that the irenic enterprise is fundamentally one of ends, not means, that it is the practice of justice as a virtue directed toward a telos, not as rules of procedural fairness, are there any rules that can guide us in the task?  Not rules, perhaps, but there are some questions we can ask ourselves.

In asking these questions, we shall have concerns of both justice and love in mind (if we may again distinguish these two, having just argued for their convergence), of that which is due to our interlocutor, and of mercy and kindness which we should show them beyond this.  Of course, even if there were only two people in the world—myself and my interlocutor—love would hardly mean always deferring, for in most circumstances it is no kindness to a person to allow them to persist in gross error, if they may be by any means safely extricated from it.  But as it is, there are other people in the world, upon whom error may have serious consequences, and my love for them may require my taking a rather hard line with my interlocutor, just as love for the defenseless compels us sometimes to exercise deadly force against the violent.  (A corollary of this analogy is that there will be times when love for others requires us to intellectually engage an opponent with the sole purpose of vanquishing him, when winning him over does not seem at all a possibility; but these will be very rare, and the objective of reconciliation is never renounced, however unlikely it may be to transpire.)

So the first question to be asked is, how serious is the error in question?  What is at stake?  This question should not really be answered in the abstract, as it so frequently is.  It is not really a question of whether the argument to be refuted commits some serious logical error, or proceeds from false premises, or even transgresses, directly or by necessary consequence, some rule of orthodoxy.  Of course, it may be charity toward the interlocutor to appraise her of her error, but it may cause more trouble than it's worth in a particular situation.  The question, then, needs to be: how much harm will this error do to my opponent, and to others whom she is persuading or influencing?  Sometimes lives will be at stake; sometimes, still worse, souls will be at stake.  But rather less often than many of us like to think.  The polemically-minded are always happy to whip out the example of Galatians 2, when Paul rebuked Peter to his face, but we must ask ourselves whether the Gospel is at stake, and souls are being endangered, quite so immediately as all that.  For while ideas have consequences, most of us are too busy, and too distracted, to think or work those consequences through to their bitter end.  So much theological and political polemics are carried out on the basis of, "If you follow this to its logical conclusion, look at the heresy (if theological) or tyranny (if political) that results."  Sometimes this slippery-slope argument is warranted, to be sure, especially if the error in question is widely pervasive.  But we must beware using long chains of deduction to elevate relatively trivial adiaphora to articles of the standing or falling of the gospel.  Most often, common sense, other orthodox convictions, or godly character will prevent people from following to its bitter end the road to perdition upon which they may have seemed to embark, by denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, or by advocating gun control, or whatever the case may be.  In such cases, our time might be better spent inoculating folks with extra doses of common sense and godly character than with crusading against the pernicious error.  That does not mean the error is never to be addressed in any context, but perhaps one need not actively seek out opportunities to purge it from the earth.

Then we must ask, does this argument deserve respectful consideration?  Sometimes a serious error is held for quite plausible reasons.  Or sometimes a minor error is held on the basis of a ridiculous argument.  Of course, the answer to this question does not automatically tell us how much polemic is warranted.  For perhaps a silly argument in favor of a serious error is so clearly silly that it doesn't warrant our polemical attention, whereas a much more thoughtful argument does.  But if the argument is thoughtful, it deserves a thoughtful response, rather than mere dismissal, that much is clear.  Of course, presupposed here is that we can claim to be a qualified judge of the argument.  A healthy dose of humility and self-examination is thus called for, as, even if we do happen to be right, charging into the fray when we are out of our depth may do more harm for my cause than good.

We must also ask, does the person I am critiquing deserve respect?  Even if we think they have made a particularly bad argument, we must ask whether this failure in reasoning is the sort of thing we would expect from them, or if they have accustomed us to expect better things.  If they have in fact earned a title to our respect in the past, then the fact that they seem to have botched it so badly now should give us pause.  Have we understood them rightly?  Is there something more to this issue that they see that we don't?  Again, are we out of our depth?  Perhaps, after due self-examination, and a patient exercise of intellectual empathy, we will still conclude that they have really and truly botched it this time.  If so, however, our rhetorical posture in engaging them should reflect the respect that they have earned, tactfully pointing out that even the best of us have our blind spots, instead of gleefully tossing them overboard now that they've once veered off course.

Similarly, we must ask, where is this person coming from?  Faithfulness looks quite different in different contexts, and it may be that what looks to us like a seriously flawed emphasis, sure to do loads of harm, is in fact a faithful and courageous proclamation of the Gospel in its original context.  I have been struck, for instance, by the different reactions to Mark Driscoll that I've heard from folks in the UK and in the Pacific Northwest.  To Christians in the UK, his utterances seems completely unhelpful, abrasive, and misguided.  To many in the Pacific Northwest, they are clearly those of an effective evangelist, who is winning people to Christ by the boatload.  Of course it may be that, contextualized or not, the apparent error is still an error, but it is a far more forgivable one.  St. Augustine might have had an overly high view of virginity and an overly low view of sexuality, but compared to most of his contemporaries, he was clearly on the right track, and it would be singularly ungrateful for us to give him a dressing-down for his folly.

Related to the previous, we must also ask, following from the exercise of intellectual empathy, why is this argument being advanced?  Sometimes, of course, the answer to this question will compel us to reconsider whether the supposed error is erroneous after all.  Once we see what someone's up to, it may become clear that they never intended what we had too hastily imputed to them.  Perhaps then they still need to be chided for lack of clarity, or perhaps we just need to make a mental note to be more careful readers. Perhaps the answer to the question will reveal that the intentions are right, but they have been pursued in a less-than-ideal way.  If so, our response should be geared toward coming alongside our opponent, showing him that we share his goals, and suggesting to him a more effective way of achieving those same goals.  Or perhaps we will find that although the intentions are perhaps praiseworthy in themselves (e.g., "making people feel included"), they have been pursued to the detriment of much more important objectives.  In this case, we may need to be rather more vigorous in our critique, while still giving credit where credit is due.  Or perhaps we will find that the rotten conclusion stemmed from rotten intentions.  If so, persuasion is still the goal, but we will frequently need to tear down before we can build up.

Finally, we must ask, how will my critique be perceived/received?  It matters not if your argument is perfectly valid, if the opponent is in serious error and needs to be confronted, if you have understood their argument backwards and forwards and attacked it to the extent warranted, if your intervention is sure to alienate rather than persuade.  There are, as mentioned above, rare occasions when the opponent cannot be persuaded, but the audience can.  But if your argument will be poorly received by both interlocutors and many hearers, perhaps you had best leave it to another to make.  Judging this of course requires consideration of one's own ethos and authority: will anyone else respect your judgment?  But it also requires consideration of the character of one's interlocutors and

English: Four hands holding. English: Four hands holding. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

hearers, and of their own rhetorical expectations.  Perhaps a tone of satire that would be completely acceptable within one's own small circle would completely violate the expectations of many other hearers, leading them to discount your view entirely, or worse, harden themselves against it.  To accurately judge the appropriate mode of engagement, then, one must try to learn more about one's opponent, and also be aware of one's audience.  And of course, one cannot speak of "audience" in the singular, especially when it comes to online discourse, which may be linked and shared and tweeted to new audiences that one never imagined.  Of course, one cannot necessarily be blamed for the perceptions of unintended audiences, but it is good to give some thought to potential readers, and especially the danger of copy-cats.  For every discerning and intelligent polemicist or satirist, there are a couple dozen wannabes, who neither understand what they are arguing against, nor the modes of rhetoric, well enough to execute the task safely.  These, reading a particularly witty and scathing piece of polemic, will be emboldened to try the same from their own little pedestal, with frequently deplorable results.

No doubt a great deal more could be said, but that is no doubt more than enough for now.  Of course, it may seem from this that one can never safely speak up in the attempt to persuade or critique, for how can one ever be sure to have rightly judged what the situation requires.  Obviously, that cannot be the right conclusion, for charity demands that error be opposed, even if clumsily.  But what this does mean is that one must always be prepared, when subjecting others arguments to critical scrutiny, for that critique to come under critical scrutiny itself.  Clearly, speaking the truth in love cannot be adjudicated by neutral procedural criteria, but depends on whether one has rightly judged the situation.  In any given situation, nearly all of the above questions may prove quite divisive, even amongst wise and right-minded individuals.  Just how serious is the error in question?  Perhaps, on your assessment of its seriousness, your response is entirely warranted, and when I object to your lack of charity, what I am really saying is that I think you over-emphasise the importance of the principle in question.  Or perhaps, when I excoriate you for being too much of a softie or a compromiser on a certain issue, it turns out that you have simply taken into account the motives of your opponent, and determined that a polemical posture was inappropriate.

In short, one thing that all this means is that we will need to learn to exercise intellectual empathy in critiquing others' polemics or irenics as well, discovering why it is that some of our Christian brothers and sisters feel the need to speak out so ferociously where we prefer to tread softly, or to pull their punches when we feel that forceful polemic is most warranted.

Speaking the truth in love is a delicate and dangerous business, but the difficulty of the enterprise should not dissuade us from an earnest, humble, yet courageous attempt.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.