[this was an email I sent to someone who recently asked me for advice on “how to win an argument”. Seemed good to post on the feast of St Dominic, the Veritas saint!]
“Truth happens in the course of dialogue. There is always a temptation to allow our answers to bring to an end the process of searching, as if the topic of the conversation was a problem that has now been solved. But when a fresh question arrives, the unexhausted depths of mystery show through once more. Let it be said over and over again: faith is not a question of problems but of mystery, so we must never abandon the path of seeking and asking.” ― Tomáš Halík
I had a philosophy professor, when I first began my graduate work, who would never affirm anything a student said but would always immediately qualify, critique or expand on each answer. I remember being so frustrated by this! In fact, I remember one time when, in my emotional exasperation, I threw caution to the wind. Right after I’d given what I was certain was the right answer, he began with his, “Well, it’s important not to…” I just blurted out, “Come on, Dr. Heisenberg, can’t you ever just say ‘good answer’ and leave it at that?” He replied, “And what would you learn, then? That you have the whole truth and that settles it all? How boring! Then the dialogue would end. No one ever has it all. We’re always on the way.” Then he taught us a medieval scholastic axiom. “In any argument,” he said, “seldom affirm or deny and always make distinctions. In other words, rarely say, ‘That settles it!’ or ‘You’re wrong!’, but discover the portion of truth in what is said and set it on a journey toward greater things. That way, you keep the relationship alive with your dialogue partner, and you reaffirm your commitment to learning more. We’re always on the way.”
I wanted to explode.
Here I could see — after I calmed my pride — for the first time the deeper meaning of another medieval scholastic axiom he taught us, Amor ipse notitia est, “love itself is a form of knowing.” The quest for knowledge, if it is done well, should cultivate love between fellow seekers. When carried out thus, arguments should augment friendship. The goal of an argument should not be, “I won!” or “You won!” but “truth has appeared,” which for lovers of truth is a cause for common rejoicing and gratitude. What each sought all along has now been found and is the possession of both. Triumph! But if truth-seeking is undertaken merely as a pursuit of private property or becomes a manipulative vying for the upper hand, making of knowledge a commodity and not a common good, then dialogue will always devolve into a competition and “victory” will always mean the defeat of love.
Whether in philosophy or theology, this approach has taught me not to view apologetics as the hunt for a silver bullet or a slam-dunk argument meant to silence my opponent. Rather, apologetics is to be a method for cultivating and sustaining in every conversation a common quest for truth’s appearing. This is, in fact, how God deals with us. When He becomes flesh to invite us into all Truth, and we responded with the counter-argument of the cross, He rose again only to re-extend the invitation in merciful love to join Him in an eternal friendship, exploring the fullness of Truth that sets us free.
There was a woman I knew in Florida, an atheist who converted to Catholicism, who shared with me what her impetus was for converting. She said, “William [a work colleague] gave me my first real exposure to intelligent Christianity. But what was most convincing about him was that he took my own arguments against his positions very seriously. And you know, when you believe someone is willing to listen to you and learn from you, when you disagree, you’re much more likely to return the favor. That’s rare. And I did.” Pope Benedict’s words make this point well:
Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity
This approach to any and all arguments, I have found, holds out the highest hope of forging out of difference philo-sophia, a love of wisdom that fosters friendship. And Truth is very interested in friendship (John 15:15). The sweetest debates I have ever had are still ongoing, with men and women who share this commitment and have allowed friendship to emerge from disagreement. When what is sought is not conquest but Christ, who is Truth, the end-game is always the victory of charity. If we follow His example, every time we get in an argument we would do well to begin washing each other’s feet as we argue, so as to maintain the focus on truth’s service to love.
Amor vincit omnia, “Love conquers all.”