Some Thoughts on Reformed Caricatures and Self-Criticism

Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have exclaimed during a dispute, “I beseech thee, in Christ’s bowels, think it possible you may be mistaken!” ‘Bowels’ is a great word.

Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have exclaimed during a dispute, “I beseech thee, in Christ’s bowels, think it possible you may be mistaken!” ‘Bowels’ is a great word.

I took away a lot of insights from my undergrad in philosophy, but one of the most important for the intellectual life was a distaste for caricature. Professor after professor beat into our heads that in critiquing another viewpoint, you must first present their argument fairly, and in a form they would recognize, before proceeding criticize it.

In fact, you should go about trying to find the best, strongest version of that viewpoint in order to argue against it, otherwise you run the risk of an uncharitable caricature that is unjust and only weakens your own, possibly valid criticism.

Since my time in college, caricature has become a pet peeve of mine, as well as a particular area of struggle. I hate caricatures when I see them, even to the point where I’ve been found arguing with a friend on behalf of a view I don’t hold, simply because I don’t think is being fairly represented.

While I was constantly defending my faith to my non-Christian friends in college, I’d find myself re-articulating their arguments to my Christian friends who might sneer when I was recounting the story. I might be Reformed right now simply because I attended a seminary with a Wesleyan-Holiness background and felt the need to defend the tradition.

At the same time, I must confess I have a love for strong polemics. I’ve mentioned this before. Kierkegaard, Pascal, Calvin, Athanasius, are among my favorite authors precisely because of their forthright polemical engagement. Biblical writers such as Paul himself engaged quite forthrightly in polemics, and like the prophets, he wasn’t always the most careful in his sensitivities towards hurt feelings or the niceties of academic dialogue. I struggle with this because when I’m about to engage in critique, I remember this strain of thought. The critique is just “honest.” But what about my own tradition and positions I hold dear? Do I see similar criticisms as simply “honest?” Am I quick to cry foul and “caricature?” Maybe.

I’m wrestling through this because I recently got involved in a little imbroglio over a post that I felt was linking a caricatured version of Calvinism with abuse or spiritual abuse. Now, newly-excited about the Reformed tradition as I am, I wasn’t particularly pleased with it and called it out as such. The initial post was quite forceful, and since I was sans coffee when I read it, I replied in kind. In the ensuing conversation I started to think about the way I approach criticism of my own tradition.

See, while it’s entirely right to expect a fair, charitable, nuanced criticism that cites the best sources and arguments when engaging in an academic debate about a position, real life presents us with people and situations that aren’t the ideal.

For instance, not every Calvinistic or Reformed pastor reads Kevin Vanhoozer, or preaches like Tim Keller, or articulates doctrine with the care and sensitivity of a Herman Bavinck or Francis Turretin. My own experience of the Reformed world has taken place in the context of a gently conservative Presbyterian church with caring, faithful, and sensitive pastors, but much as I hate to admit it, the reality is that some Reformed bodies are real-life, walking caricatures of the tradition I hold dear. Just as Wesleyan or Baptistic theologies can go off the rails in serious ways, so can churches and theologies with putatively Reformed roots. When that is the only expression of Reformed faith someone encounters, distaste for the whole stream is quite understandable. Sometimes the caricatures have human faces.

A few thoughts, then:

When someone within your fold goes off the rails, they need to get criticized and corrected by those within first. If not, it will probably be done by those with no sympathies for your tradition as a whole, likely imputing their failures to the broader structure of thought. It’s no harm to gently (or less-gently) call out failures or unhelpful distortions within the tradition. In fact, that’s what traditions are: ongoing conversations centered around various shared convictions as well as disagreements.

When criticizing those outside of your own tradition, especially one for which you feel less intellectual sympathy, it’s important to acknowledge distinctions and add caveats. For instance, I’m not a dispensationalist and I’ve seen the pop-dispensationalism I’ve grown up with go into some pretty unhelpful places when it comes to biases against Arabs. That said, not all dispensationalism is guilty, and the best advocates would avoid this problem.

While Paul didn’t dance around issues, and I don’t think we should either, it’s important for those of us who aren’t authors of Scripture to be careful with our words about traditions with which we disagree. I fail at this all the time, but my conversations with faithful friends, with whom I have some real disagreements, drive me to strive to temper my critical words. In which case, even when you’re going after a real problem, it’s not always simply a matter of “being honest” or “being prophetic”, but also being charitable and just.

For the Reformed, we should be particularly quick to be Reformed and always Reforming under the Word of God. We should know we’re not justified simply by being right, but by being righteous in Christ, so that should give us some space to be quick to admit our faults in the freedom of the Gospel.

I’ll admit, there is some irony in asking the Reformed to engage in self-criticism; it easily one of the most argumentative traditions in Western theology in terms of inter-tradition dispute. I’m not calling for more arguments about infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism, though. Instead, it’s the willingness to acknowledge the way certain strains and tendencies, even when not necessarily a corollary of Reformed theology, have been present and harmful in our churches at times. In other words, just as people have besetting sins, so do traditions.

This isn’t a call to stop engaging real caricatures or defending the faith, etc. By no means! Instead, it’s more of a, “Slow down. Think about it.” This side of the Second Coming it is possible for us to get things wrong or have cause for internal self-correction.

Soli Deo Gloria

Playful, Passionate, Principled, but never Putrid Polemics (Or, Don’t Forget Jesus in an Argument)

If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in person, a facebook comment, a blog, etc. the odds are that you’ve engaged in polemics. The Webster definition of polemics is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another” or “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” Basically it’s a form of reasoned argumentation against a position with which you disagree.

Having spent a couple of years in a philosophy program, then seminary, as well as far too much time on the blogosphere, I’ve observed and participated in quite of bit of polemics myself. I have what you might call a “polemical bent”,  which is probably why I like thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Plantinga. Brothers can argue.

In that time, I’ve had some time to think about  some of the basic attitudes and approaches to polemics, some of which are consistent with Christian life and some of which are not. I’d like to offer up some reflections three qualities or attitudes that should define your approach to whatever discussion you engage in, and one that shouldn’t. These aren’t comprehensive, exhaustive, or entirely correct, but, for what it’s worth, here they are.

Playful– The first quality that I think should be cultivated within our discussions with others  is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton seems to embody in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to say that they aren’t “serious”, or aren’t dealing with serious issues, but that they are clearly not driven by fear or pride but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them. This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful, or condescending. When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son. One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless, and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for. The Gospel should lead to a confident, good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time allows you to take yourself less seriously.

Passionate– The second quality that ought to characterize our polemics is passion.  Like the first, it is deeply rooted in the truth of the Gospel and a deep love for people. You can see this is all over Paul’s letters. Paul is nothing but passionate in his polemics for the sake of the Gospel. Galatians, anybody? Paul goes aggro in that letter because of his great gospel-fear that they might be abandoning Christ, and so he forcefully makes his points at times, giving voice to his real concern in order to communicate just how important the issue was. Sometimes people might know you disagree, but really have no idea how important an issue is until they hear the concern or passion in your voice. Paul’s letter not only communicated truth, but the way he communicated it gave it an emotional tenor, an urgency, that was just as vital as the content. A lot of us may be scared of passionate engagement with our neighbors and friends over the truth. We’re scared of offending, or coming off as pushy or unloving. In a world like ours where our radios, TVs, and blogs are full of people just yelling and trying to brow-beat people into submission, that’s a real danger. I don’t want to minimize that. We should never argue just to argue. So often that’s what we find ourselves caught up in: meaningless arguments about things that really, nobody should get that agitated over. Still, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging passionately with our friends about things that really matter. Love engages over truth. Apathy or an unwillingness to trouble yourself with have a difficult conversation out of fear is not the loving thing to do. The truth is something to be passionate about because truth is about life.

Principled- The third quality that it ought to possess is that of being principled. (Honestly, I could have used other words like “integrity”, “honesty”, etc, but I’m a sucker for cheap alliteration.) We must always strive in our engagements with others to be principled in our dealings, speaking honestly, actively avoiding unfair caricatures, and cheap shots. Whenever arguing against a position we must strive to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that.  That’s just dishonest. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a place for irony, sarcasm, and the reductio ad absurdum in arguments. There is a place for humorously following someone’s premises out to their surprising conclusions, or creating humorous, sarcastic analogies to bring out a point. Still, there is absolutely no place for a lack of integrity in our communication with others, even those with whom we deeply disagree. This is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us to. Being people who confess the lordship of Jesus, the one who is the Truth, we should never play fast and loose with the truth in order to score a cheap, rhetorical point.

Never Putrid– If we strive for and keep these three qualities in mind as we engage others, they will keep us from descending into the putrid polemics that seems to define our culture’s approach to “rational”discourse. So much of what we hear and read today pours out of corrupted hearts darkened by arrogance, rage, pride, fear, and the rot of our decomposing sin nature. So much of what is popular out there is just straight-up lies, fear-mongering, cynical mockery, caricature, manipulation, gracelessness, straw-manning, cheap shots, and rhetorical bullying. It is simply putrid. For those of us who have been raised in Christ and indwelled by the resurrection Spirit of God, there should be nothing rotten or foul about what we say. Even those words we utter that cut should only cut in the way a doctor’s scalpel does–in order to heal. They should be words of life, not death, because we are made, and are being remade, in the image of the God who, by his Word, speaks life into existence.

Once again, I write all of these things, not as someone who has achieved or arrived. Lord knows I have not even come close in this area. Instead, I write them as one still struggling alongside; still fumbling about trying to become the kind of person who speaks rightly and righteously.