Yes, It’s possible to stand for something and not be a jerk about it.
At the memorial service for beloved author and teacher Dallas Willard, J.P. Moreland told a remarkable story. Once Willard’s student, and later his friend and colleague, Moreland spoke of Willard’s commitment to truth.
Moreland recalled a discussion Willard had with a student in front of a crowded seminar. Willard made the statement that “when we look at an object or think about it, we don’t construct it or make it up,” rather it exists as it is with observable qualities and characteristics.
One student “didn’t buy it,” and countered that, “when you look at something, you give it its color. It’s not colored unless you look at it.”
So Willard tested the idea: He grabbed a cup, placed it on a table in front of the student and asked him “why don’t you turn around and stop looking at the cup, and the rest of us will see if it stays colored?” Of course, the cup kept its color even when the color-imbuing student turned his back.
Moreland felt the tension in the room. Later in the day, he asked Willard, “What just happened in there?”
“J.P.,” Willard said. “We have to stop being bullied.”
Moreland reflected on this scene, and what it showed him about Willard:
“Now Dallas was a gracious, compassionate man. But he wasn’t bully-able. And when he knew something was true, he stood there. I want to be like that.”
What Does This Mean for Us?
I am no philosopher, and odds are, neither are you. Philosophers like Willard and Moreland advance and defend ideas as a vocation. But each and every one of us carries truths that apply not just to us as individuals, but to our friends and communities.
Earlier in my life, I tended to rush toward consensus even at the expense of my own convictions. It was easier to end the argument through acquiescence, and honestly, I felt holier that way. I was proud of how “humble” I could be.
This mindset was a response to the bitter fights of the previous generation, when so often, claimed truths were used as a weapon to cause harm, rather than a tool to promote good. We know too well the dangers of valuing doctrine—religious or otherwise—over people.
But these dangers should not bully us into quiet, passive lives. It is inconsistent to hold something as truth in our lives, but dismiss its relevance in the lives of others. To keep truth to oneself is not equivalent to humility.
The ability to think, to hold convictions, is human. The truth is revealed in our study, our relationships and our experiences. Yet, sometimes we can be quick to back off when we are challenged. We can even doubt whether our story means anything at all. But the truth in your story, the truth you carry in you, really does matter.
The Mistake of Dismissing the Public Value of Ideas
We have too easily conflated the defense of ideas with the polarized culture of cable news debates and social media feeds. Those who debate ideas seem to always be judgmental, bitter and cranky. But we forget how central the advancement of ideas has been to the history of the Church. Indeed, much of Jesus’ ministry was about overturning false ideas that had become conventional wisdom.
Yes, becoming a disciple of Jesus is about much more than acquiescence to a list of doctrinal truths, but discipleship does include the transforming of our minds.
Just think of all of the great art, literature and activism that would not exist without Christians committed to the advocacy of Christian truths. There would be no William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King Jr. to fight slavery and inequality. No C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton to inspire and educate us about orthodoxy and the foundations of faith. As Christians, we must take the life of the mind—our mind and that of others—seriously.
Lessons for Pursuing and Advancing Truth
As we seek to take seriously our own ideas and those of others, we can keep a few things in mind.
First of all, the goal is not victory, but faithfulness. Even Jesus gave people the opportunity to reject His teachings. When Jesus told a rich man that following Him would require giving up his allegiance to his possessions (Matthew 19:21), the rich man “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matthew19:22).
The man’s unwillingness to follow the teaching did not lead Jesus to compromise. Instead, He reaffirmed and expanded on the teaching to the disciples (Matthew 19:23-24). Like Jesus, we can defend ideas without getting defensive.
Secondly, we can be wrong. We do not have to have the perfect argument, particularly in informal settings, in order to state our position. Indeed, it is often more compelling to acknowledge aspects of our argument we are uncertain about, even as we confidently state what we believe to be true.
Humility does not require a lack of conviction. One of the most wonderful, humbling experiences is to be convinced of error and to turn from it. Christians call this repentance. But it is only possible if we acknowledge what we currently believe and test that belief in the light of the evidence and the truth of Scripture.
Finally, we must always operate in love. There is a great temptation to take pride in our ideas for their own sake, but whatever true knowledge we have does not come from us.
As Christians, we are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind. We may take a false step, but that is always a risk of pursuing faithfulness. We can find truth together, learning from one another, but only if we love our neighbour enough to share the convictions we hold dear.
by Michael Wear