The Timeless Truths series was inspired by a passage from C. S. Lewis’s 1954 inaugural lecture from the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. “One thing I know,” he reflects, “I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian . . . talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain.” As Lewis observed, we all stand between two social worlds: our own, and those of our intellectual predecessors who can offer a perspective on culture, art, literature, and philosophy that can help us sharpen and refine our own cultural consciousness.
In this series, respected intellectuals across disciplines will share an observation from their lives and careers that can and should inform us as we seek to flourish in our own.
In explaining why I decided several decades ago to help organize an ongoing dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons, I have told a story about something I experienced as a teenager. I will repeat the story here to explain why that experience also had something to do with my becoming a philosopher.
In my large public high school in New Jersey, there was a small group of us who met regularly to encourage each other’s faith commitments. Several of the group belonged to the nearby Riverdale Baptist Church. At one point, that congregation sponsored a series of Sunday evening lectures on “the cults.” My friends encouraged me to attend, and I did.
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The speaker was Walter Martin, who would become a major evangelical star with the 1965 publication of his bestselling book, Kingdom of the Cults. At Riverdale, he focused in each of his four successive Sunday night talks on a specific “cult.”
The sessions were widely advertised, and the small church was packed for each of the evenings. Martin was a dynamic speaker who could stir up an evangelical audience with his engaging, sharp-witted critiques of Mormonism, Christian Science, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. (This last group he would later remove from his list of dangerous cults when he decided they were just confused evangelicals.) Martin was an effective rhetorician, and I was captivated by the way he made his case against non-Christian groups. He had a fine one-liner, for example, about Christian Science: just as Grape-Nuts are neither grapes nor nuts, he said, Mary Baker Eddy’s system of thought is neither Christian nor science.
On the evening of his talk about Mormonism, the atmosphere was electric. A dozen or so Mormons were in attendance and they sat as a group near the front of the auditorium. We had seen them walking in, carrying their copies of The Book of Mormon. It was clear that they had come armed for debate, and Martin was eager to mix it up with them. He was in top form for his lecture.
A young Mormon man was especially articulate as he argued in the Q and A part of the evening that Martin misunderstood the Mormon teachings on atonement and salvation. Martin was not willing to yield an inch, though, and what began as a reasoned exchange ended in a shouting match. The young Mormon finally blurted out with deep emotion: “You can come up with all of the clever arguments you want, Dr. Martin. But I know in the depths of my heart that Jesus is my Savior, and it is only through his blood that I can go to heaven!” Martin dismissed him with a knowing smile as he turned to his evangelical audience: “See how they love to distort the meanings of words?” I am paraphrasing from a memory reaching back over about six decades, but I can still hear in my mind what the young Mormon said next, with an anguished tone: “You are not even trying to understand!”
I came away from that encounter convinced by Martin’s theological critique of Mormonism. But I also left the church that night with a nagging sense that there was more to be said; and the way to let it be said was captured in the young Mormon’s complaint: both sides had to try to understand each other. I hoped that the day would come when I could do something to make that possible.
I have often thought of my witnessing the exchange between Walter Martin and the young Mormon as influencing my later decision to study philosophy. The Mormon’s poignant complaint to Walter Martin—“You are not even trying to understand!”—had a lasting influence on the way I have approached disagreements about the basic issues of life. I have tried hard to understand people with whom I disagree about important issues, listening carefully and not resorting to cheap rhetorical tricks. I have not always lived up to that commitment, but it has regularly guided me in my philosophical and theological endeavors.
In my Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago, a Jewish friend and I met regularly to discuss what we hoped to accomplish teaching philosophy courses to undergraduates. While he and I shared the goal of clarifying the nature of deep human disagreements, we speculated about different understandings among our fellow students. Some, who were especially inclined toward formal logic, seemed to take a kind of aesthetic delight in contemplating refined processes of reasoning. Others had moral motivations: they looked to philosophy for ways to advocate for justice concerns. Still others—one of our peers, a Catholic priest, stood out in this regard—had apologetic motivations; philosophy was for them an important tool in religious apologetics. Then there were those who were fascinated by the historical development of ideas.
Those are not exclusive options. The discussion can be about which is most basic in one’s attraction to philosophy. But my own choice has had much to do with how philosophical interests have frequently taken me beyond what I have taught in my classrooms.
In addition to specifically scholarly topics that I have pursued—social contract theory, divine command ethics, Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of “common grace”—I have devoted much attention in my writing and speeches to making the case for civility in public life. My interest in this topic began in my scholarly studies in Rousseau and the Federalist Papers, but it took on a broader scope when I read John Murray Cuddihy’s two books: No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (1978) and The Ordeal of Civility (1987). I also took inspiration from a wonderful comment by Martin Marty: that many people these days who are civil do not have very strong convictions, and many who have strong convictions are not very civil. What the world needs, Marty said, is people with convicted civility.
In exploring the challenges of civility, I have made use of Cuddihy’s “ordeal” image. Cuddihy, a Catholic thinker, proposes a Christian strategy for coping with this ordeal that requires what he calls an “ethic for the interim,” cultivating patience as we await God’s future victory over the forces of unrighteousness. Christian discipleship, Cuddihy suggests, “puts a ban on all ostentation and triumphalism for the time being, before the Parousiatic return, at which time alone triumphalism becomes appropriate and fitting.” Cuddihy endorses Glenn Tinder’s recommendation in a 1976 Yale Review article entitled “Community: The Tragic Idea” that Christians look at the present age with a sense of “resignation.” This is a posture that, Tinder notes, is outwardly indistinguishable from a “Machiavellian” attitude, but is, for Christians, “provisional,” for it is subordinated to a limitless hope.
While in the past I have given a straightforward endorsement of Cuddihy’s “ethic for the interim” proposal, I have since come to have serious misgivings about that approach. While I have learned much from what Cuddihy has written about civility, I don’t see “resignation” as the right way to sustain our present efforts at being civil. For one thing, I don’t want to give the impression that civility is something we cloak ourselves in because we have nothing better to do while we are waiting for the future consummation, when we can declare ourselves to have been on the side of Truth all along. Engaging in civil discourse should not be seen as confined to an “interim” period. Rather, actively cultivating civility in our relationships with those with whom we disagree is itself a crucial way of anticipating the kind of people we want to be when the end time appears.
In 1983, Leonard Swidler, a Catholic theologian who had been engaged extensively in interfaith dialogues, published “The Dialogue Decalogue,” a set of guiding principles for effective interfaith engagement. While Swidler’s “Decalogue” has become a classic text for people engaged in interreligious exchanges, I find his principles applicable to the public arena as well.
Fundamental to Swidler’s approach is his insistence on engaging other perspectives with a desire to learn, as well as on the need to cultivate the humility that allows one to engage in self-critique. Swidler stresses, for example, the need for each group to define its own perspective. In order for a dialogue partner to grasp properly the other person’s belief, it is necessary to formulate that belief in a way that the person himself would endorse. Swidler rightly urges that people enter dialogues willing to set aside preconceived notions about what the other party believes.
The learning posture that Swidler commends is connected to character development. Learning from those with whom we disagree requires humility, empathy, and patience. In talking to pastors and educators about this, I regularly quote the late Harvard theologian Ronald Thiemann, who proposed that local congregations should function as “‘schools of public virtue,’ communities that seek to form the kind of character necessary for public life.” The same can be said for our campuses.
While all of that is good, it is not easy to implement. What does this mean for our present polarization? It is not obvious how to apply Swidler’s insights to our current practical realities. His guidelines can be seen as providing a kind of phenomenology of actual dialogues that have gone well. He learned from structured interfaith conversations where the participants were committed to being guided in exchanges where they wanted to promote mutual understanding.
It isn’t obvious how to apply these directives to a conversation on a flight with a seatmate, or in dealing with a loudmouth at a bar, or when the proverbial Uncle Harry makes a political speech at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But it is not that Swidler’s insights are simply irrelevant to those situations. Even there, we can hope to introduce something of a learning posture with the supporting traits of humility, empathy, and patience.
My concern is that many of us who could be working on more effective strategies for dealing with polarization are not inclined to be charitable toward those with whom we disagree. I address myself here in this regard. I not only disagree with many of my fellow evangelicals on political matters, but I consider many of their views to be dangerous. I have to work hard—and not always with success—to look beyond surfaces. I need to remind myself that the fellow Christian who espouses views bordering on “white nationalism” is a human being who nurtures hopes and fears in his or her deep places, and I should try to learn about them.
A conversation with a writer for The Economist helped me with this. He called me for some background on a topic he was researching: LDS political views. He wanted to be clear about the relevant theological factors. Specifically, he was interested in comparing Mormon and evangelical political attitudes. He posed a blunt question: “Am I right in thinking that Mormons are typically nicer than evangelicals in the political arena?”
I had not thought about the subject but I agreed that his impression made sense. In our conversation, we talked about the respective histories of the two movements. I mentioned that the historian George Marsden once remarked that for American evangelicals, moving from the nineteenth century to the twentieth was like an immigrant experience. The 1800s had been a time when evangelicals felt at home in the country, but the new century seemed to be a hostile, strange land. For example, the rise of Darwinian thought brought about a serious threat to evangelicals’ understanding of their place in the culture.
The Mormon community, on the other hand, went through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a marginalized religious group. As an American sect that had entered the twenty-first century as a global religious movement, the LDS had gained a significant political role in the nation with Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for president in 2008.
To put it simply, while evangelicals felt that they had been removed from their position of cultural influence, Mormons were sensing that they had arrived. Evangelical political anger these days has to be understood in the light of a deeper background of grieving over loss: “They have taken away our country and we do not know where they have laid it!” Not so for Mormons. To put it even more simply: Mormons are finally finding a place at the table, while evangelicals grieve the loss of a table that they are convinced they once “owned.”
None of that, of course, gives us a course of action for dealing directly with Uncle Harry at family gatherings. But it does point to deeper dynamics that have shaped him as an evangelical. That awareness does not tell me much of what specifically to do with Uncle Harry. But it may help for us to chart out courses of action for the character formation of his nieces and nephews.
I have spent considerable time with many of those offspring in recent decades, both on the seminary campus where I have taught and at evangelical colleges and universities where I have served as a visiting lecturer. I have been impressed by young Christians who care deeply about justice and who think globally about the issues of life. It is important for them to know the history of the political pain and confusion experienced by their evangelical forebears. But that history does not have to determine their engagement with present challenges. They can enter the public arena with a new vision that inspires them to approach controversies with humility and empathy. And they are doing just that. I was encouraged in this regard by the story of a student at Calvin University who was recently elected to a polarized local library board so that she could work for reconciliation. Such encounters give me hope that in a faith community that has been contributing much to our present civic crisis the cause of convicted civility is still alive and well.