Friday, March 31, 2017

Of Pearls, Swine, & Strawmen

The Elder watched, eyebrows raised, as his young friend aggressively stirred the usual “fixings” into his americano.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen the Younger so agitated. His own hands were cupped around his mug of coffee — “black, the way God drinks it” — and he waited in silence.

The Younger replaced his spoon on the table with an exasperated sigh, the sound of the metal utensil evoking a sharp protest on the wooden surface. The Younger paused for a moment, suddenly self-aware of his agitation.

“Sorry about that,” he admitted to his life-long friend. “I’m just… really frustrated with how things went the other night.”

“I’m all ears,” the Elder replied, nodding to acknowledge the other’s apology. “How did the topic come up, if you don’t mind my asking? And what was it about your friends’ comments that impacted you so negatively?”

The Younger picked up his spoon once more, tapping it on the table, spinning it around in his fingers, and tapping the table again with the opposite end. The Elder chose not to point out the unconscious action of his friend.

“Well, you know me and my friends — we love talking about our faith, life, and how the two interact. It’s usually a lot like the conversations that you and I have, at least most of the time. But last night…”

He flattened the spoon under his hand, and looked up to meet the Elder’s concerned gaze. “You’ve heard of the notorious ‘straw man argument’, I’m sure. It’s become its own meme, almost to the point of being a caricature of itself.”

The Elder nodded in sympathy, a rueful smile quirking at one corner of his mouth. “I’ve had a few run-ins with it, yes. I take it that a straw man was introduced into your conversation with your friends last night?”

The Younger shook his head, taking a hearty swig of his americano. “We were talking about substitutionary atonement…”

The Elder whistled, his eyebrows arching higher. “The Atonement? You and your friends could never be accused of having shallow theological discussions,” he observed.

The Younger shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, we like the heavy topics, I guess. But as soon as I started talking about my understanding of the Atonement, I got shut down instantly. They said that anyone who believes in substitutionary atonement believes that God is a ‘cosmic child-abuser’, and nobody with any intelligence would worship a ‘monster’ like that..."

The Elder sighed, leaning forward as he, too, swallowed some of his coffee before it cooled off too much. “Let me guess — the vengeful Old Testament God taking out His wrath on His unsuspecting and defenseless Son?”

The Elder continued as his young friend nodded wordlessly. “Well, it wouldn’t be any exaggeration at all to call that kind of terminology the most glaring and manipulative straw man fallacy that I’ve come across.”

He took a longer gulp of his coffee, and set his mug down firmly. “To be blunt…” The Elder leaned forward to emphasize his next words.
”Using the phrase ‘cosmic child abuse’ is, at best, infantile. And at worst, it reveals an arrogant refusal to engage in the honest, intelligent exchange of ideas.”
The Younger finished his drink quietly, listening to his mentor/friend with rapt attention.

“Think about it this way,” suggested the Elder, keeping his voice down despite the obvious passion he had for the subject at hand. “The most fruitful discussions — or dialogues, or debate — are characterized by both respectful dialogue and listening to each other’s viewpoints, and thoughtful interaction with the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing views. Iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).”

The Elder paused for a moment, adjusting his spectacles. “Such an obvious and calculated straw man as ‘cosmic child abuse’ circumvents any meaningful conversation. It’s actually a very anti-intellectual approach, which has but one goal in mind: to shut down discussion. To prevent thinking.”

“And here I just thought it was a bullying tactic,” joked the Younger, his lop-sided grin not very heart-felt.

The Elder leaned back, finishing off his coffee with one prolonged swallow. “It certainly is that, no doubt. But even more so: it shows a profound level of hubris — arrogance — to ignore the theological giants of the faith who have wrestled long and hard to put language to our beliefs, by using such a simplistic and offensive caricature.”

He sighed, returning his friend’s grin with one of his own. “I could make a comment about ‘pearls before swine’ (Matthew 5:6), but I think there’s a more redemptive approach that we should take.”
”Ask your friends: what Scriptures led them to their current position on the Atonement? We all understand that there is a certain level of… oh, I guess I would call it wrestling that every theologian has to embrace. See if your friends would be willing to put aside their caricatures and invest some time in wrestling through the Scriptures together, as a group, and re-learn the lost art of respectful dialogue.”
The Younger held his empty mug aloft in a salute. “Having a respectful conversation? Wrestling through the Scriptures together? I’m all for it. I don’t even care if we all agree on everything, once we’re done. I’d just like to have a real, honest, strawman-free discussion about it!”

The Elder laughed quietly, looking somewhat sheepish. “Just don’t tell them I called them ‘infantile’, okay? I really must learn to be more cautious in my choice of words…”

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