The Value of Arguing Without Changing Our Minds

Derek Rishmawy just posted a great Oliver O’Donovan quotation over on his blog (from the superb Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1, which I have also been enjoying lately), within which O’Donovan observes the benefits of arguing even when neither side changes their minds. The rest of Derek’s remarks are worth reading, but I will shamelessly swipe the O’Donovan quotation and repost it here:

Let us suppose that I disapprove of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it. As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear. One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial. If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask if those conditions could ever recur. I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too. None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me. What it amounts to is that if at the end of the argument I still say, “ I disapprove of the death penalty!” I know much better than before what I mean by it.

–Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1, pg. 46

Another superb quotation of O’Donovan’s on this subject comes from A Conversation Waiting to Begin, in which he observes:

Disagreements are no more unnegotiable natural forces than deliveries of the mistaken conscience are. They are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.

This kind of proposal is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

–Oliver O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin, 32-33

To all of which I give a hearty Amen!

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, My Reading, Quotations, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Value of Arguing Without Changing Our Minds

  1. If one takes this position/perspective but then runs into an issue of long standing disagreement, how should one understand such a situation?

    • O’Donovan writes:

      Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart. God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time.

      • So, in such a situation, at least one of the parties is failing to maintain the proper search for unity and truth? In that case, how does one distinguish who is at fault? Normally such a situation simply devolves into charge and counter charges.

        Here is a blog post along my line of thinking –

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        This is why I said earlier that tracing out presuppositions in such a conflict may not persuade anyone, but it will force them either to be persuaded or to reject the more basic presuppositions.

        This is generally true, but there as I mentioned below there are people who have a vested interest in blurring distinctions. They want the enthusiasm and tight knit community (and money) that tend to come along with more conservative beliefs, without having to actually subscribe to those beliefs. They aren’t going to welcome clarification of differences. Can’t we all just get along? I mean we all like and/or believe in Jesus, right?

      • There may be people who have interests as you spell out however, with discussion they will be exposed for what they are, and those with the money will not be deceived.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        There may be people who have interests as you spell out however, with discussion they will be exposed for what they are, and those with the money will not be deceived.

        These people are very good at worming their way into established institutions. It is cold comfort to many conservative Anglicans in the West that people are giving their money and enthusiasm to other institutions.

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    A major problem is that there are a lot of vaguely spiritual people of both sexes who like to be den mothers. They were never Christian in the first place and do not care about Christianity now. How can you expect to convince people of any theological position when they were never really interested in theology in the first place?

    • First, I don’t that we will generally persuade people. However, we can get a better sense of the scale of our differences and the degree to which they necessarily violate the norms of our communities. It is through such conversation that we discover exactly where we stand relative to each other.

      Second, in the Church our conversations proceed by making reference to key authorities. Challenging discourse will often reveal that one party’s stance relative to one or more of these authorities is deeply compromised, something that may not be immediately clear on the surface. These conversations force people to do business with these authorities, rather than giving them the luxury of pretending that they do not exist.

      Third, the people that you describe will tend to have a deep aversion to the sort of conversations that I am describing. If the Church truly is committed to having such conversations and also expects all parties to commit themselves to participating in them, such persons tend to reveal their true colours relatively quickly. Such persons seldom are prepared truly to be questioned, for instance.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I spoke carelessly. I guess I’m questioning whether there is any point in having theological discussions with people who aren’t really interested in theology.

  3. Andrew says:

    Self, World, and Time is a brilliant book. A joy to read, aswell.

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