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Dialogs and Debates

Buckminster FullerThanks to Tom Gilson’s critique, I have already pulled back somewhat on things I said in my article this week at Religion Dispatches. And since it is a dogma of mine that there is truth in even falsehoods, I’d like to try teasing out what put me on a seemingly unwarranted attack. It all reminds me how little appetite or aptitude I have for polemics.

To review: my article was a critique of William Lane Craig’s cover article in Christianity Today. I alleged that, with regard to nontheists and his claims about a Christian “revolution” in academic philosophy: “Whispering to his coreligionists in Christianity Today, to his subculture, Craig does not do justice to what the revolution is up against.” Gilson responded, “It seems to me in view of this that Schneider is being singularly uncharitable with respect to Craig’s treatment of the arguments.”

I think Gilson, here, is right. In a Christian magazine particularly, Craig is perfectly justified in celebrating positive developments for Christian apologetics among Christian philosophers in academia. He doesn’t need to do equal justice to other positions, because that is not the point. You’d see the same thing in some humanist mag, and the same brimming excitement over the possibility that more of one’s intellectual foes might be vanquished.

If I might deign to some self-analysis (what else is a blog for?), let me speculate: my somewhat combative reaction comes from a frustration with this whole state of affairs. For goodness sake, I even rolled out a futile one-sentence refutation to hallowed teleological arguments! Though I understand it is necessary for the salvation of eternal souls, etc., it saddens me to see Christians so eager to dismiss the “intellectual muscle” of atheists, a community that is nothing if not steeped in intellectualism.

This doesn’t necessarily mean “let’s all get along” and so forth. Differences matter and are worth recognizing. It means, rather, remaining open to each other and trying to understand the worlds that others live in. Thanks to Gilson, I feel like I am making some progress in understanding William Lane Craig’s. Not to sound sappy, but it might be more interesting than the battle cries: not debate but dialog.

An email exchange with another blogger about my article reminded me about the wild miracle of human nature that intelligent people are able to go all sorts of ways on major questions; the harder people think, the more they disagree, which might come as a surprise. Indeed, forces like grace and hardness of heart would seem necessary to explain this fact, were it not that, statistically, people’s religious beliefs are so well explainable by historical, accidental context. Augustine pegs his conversion to grace, but who can help not seeing Monica, his Christian mother, ever at work in the background? Intellect is only part of the story.

In search of a mercifully different subject, I’ve been leafing through Utopia or Oblivion by Buckminster Fuller, a closeted-theologian if I ever saw one. There he makes the claim that Star Trek illustrated for me so well when I was a child: “Politics is, inherently, only an accessory after the fact of the design-science revolution” (p. 6). The idea is, no argument between people really gets solved by argument. It gets solved by a total transition in states of affairs, to a new plane of existence (so to speak), and with it, a new set of questions. For Fuller, of course, the answer is always clever technology. But it could be other things.

And of course, too, Fuller is a hopeless utopian. But he’s less wrong than hard to believe. Greek philosophers once argued to death about whether all matter was made from water or from air. On the new plane of existence we’ve been on since chemistry, that question has been totally out of bounds. Nor in those old days were people arguing about whether God existed; it was more a matter of which god, how many, and what kind. I find it a humbling exercise to think, which deathless questions (as the poet Robert Creeley used to put it to us in class) of ours will not die, not live forever in heaven or hell, but simply disappear into nothing, into unthinkability, and into nonsense? I wonder if this matter of the existence or nonexistence of the God to whom we owe all things will return to the nonsense from which it came.

5 comments on “Dialogs and Debates

  1. …The idea is, no argument between people really gets solved by argument. It gets solved by a total transition in states of affairs, to a new plane of existence (so to speak), and with it, a new set of questions.

    I agree — If both atheists and theists are each claiming “rationality” proves their respective cases, then there really is no room for productive debate or dialog anyway. This is easy for me to say, of course, but the only starting point for an open-ended or productive dialog would be to accept that rationality *per se* is agnostic when it comes to a theistic God, and then all sides could work on a base of respecting a pluralistic variety of supplements to rationalism *per se*. Yet this is precisely what ideologues will never do, as they all want to claim reason substantiates their side; neither “militant” atheists nor theists making too-strong claims for rationality will accept the more humble terms required for a potentially productive dialogue. I don’t think the God-question is nonsense, though, just that the answer is supra-rational.

  2. “…The idea is, no argument between people really gets solved by argument. It gets solved by a total transition in states of affairs, to a new plane of existence (so to speak), and with it, a new set of questions.”

    This is of course part of the problem that Alasdair MacIntyre has been addressing for some time; his classic statement occurs in chapter one of After Virtue. You may already be aware of this, but I thought it worth a mention.

  3. Thanks for the MacIntyre tip; I hadn’t made the connection! Maybe a more exalted reference than the one I made to Star Trek🙂

  4. Thank you for your comment!

    Yes, certainly he does—and as a result he practically deifies her, and the church made her a saint. I suppose I am suggesting that a mother’s participation need not be treated as so odd as to be miraculous, requiring the separate category of grace, but what one should expect.

    Not to say that mothers aren’t miraculous. And perhaps this category of grace is what we need to do justice to their work.

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