What I taught last night:
As I have been reading and reviewing books and blogs over the years, my approach has changed. This was not an overnight change, but something that just happened the more involved I became in engaging those who were serious about teaching and learning with intellectual honesty and integrity (something that, I am sad to say, does not often characterize Christian leaders and teachers). There are certain characteristics that I have found in people’s teaching that immediately alert me to the realization that I am wasting my time (which I don’t a whole lot of!).
Here are some key issues that tap me on the shoulder and demand my attention be redirected:
- Unqualified Superlatives
- Non-Contingent Propositions
Hang with me. I will explain it.
This is probably not the list you expected. Many of your lists would include clarity, systematic presentation, grammar and spelling, and reference support. Those things are important to me as well (although you may not have noticed from my writing!), but the above list is what I notice most, especially in presentations and arguments that are theological in nature.
Overstatement, unqualified superlatives, and non-contingent propositions, are related and can be thought of as different ways of saying the same thing. In fact, you might say that they all belong in the same semantic domain that we might call “imbalance.” Once I detect imbalance, I usually have a hard time going on. Think of phrases like these:
“I am absolutely certain that . . .”
“There is not a doubt in my mind . . .”
“The church has always believed . . .”
“Everyone knows that . . .”
“It is perfectly clear . . .”
“No educated person believes . . .”
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
And the like.
It is the tendency to represent your case without what many people call “epistemic humility”—a real understanding that you could be wrong. We all have a problem saying “I could be wrong” or “in my opinion” because we feel as if in doing so we are making concessions that undermine our case. We like to give our readers and listeners continued and perpetual confidence in the argument of our presentation. We feel that if we don’t gain this confidence at every point and turn, we have poked holes in our own vessel and that by the end of the voyage, our ship will be sunk. Therefore, everything must be air-tight. There is no room for a personal opinion since the subjectivity that it presents gives way to uncertainty. There is no room for contingency, no room for insufficient data, and no place for the legitimacy of the opposition, even to the slightest degree. If we believe what we are saying, we must justify this belief beyond any possibility of a doubt.
But, ironically, especially in a hyper-critical postmodern world, we give credit to our case when we do represent the transparency that accompanies real contingency and the revelation of epistemic humility. We show that we have a broader understanding of the issues. It evidences honest wrestling with the subject of the proposition. In the end, when we do come to a conclusion on the matter, even with all the contingencies that we have worn on our sleeve, readers become more confident in your ability to think with integrity and have greater confidence in your conclusions.
Notice what Strunk and White have to say in their popular book on writing style. Also, notice that this is not a book about how to write theology, but how to communicate through writing. The wise and timeless principles expressed here can be applied to any communication venue (even an argument with your spouse!)
“When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.” (Strunk and White. Elements of Style, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 7).
Do you understand what they are saying? Once you characterize yourself with this type of imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience. Well, let me say this another way: Once your arguments carry such imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience except with those who already agree with you. The object of your enthusiasm becomes diminished, finding relative balance in the strengths of your other overstatements.
Here is where it gets very important: If Jesus Christ is the object of your enthusiasm, does his death, burial and resurrection find equal qualification with your belief that your church is the one true church, that the world was created in six literal days, that the anti-Christ is Obama? Overstatement can destroy our testimony. With such a methodology the discharge of the Gospel becomes hamstrung.
Let me back up and say that if someone uses unqualified superlatives, overstatements, or non-contingent statements wisely and sparingly with intentionality, so long as their credibility has thus been established, I will not only tolerate them but listen to them with a greater degree of interest and consideration. Why? Because they show themselves to be balanced and worthy of consideration.
Please note, this is not a postmodern concession to relativism, for I am not advocating that people hide convictions or not take stand for what they believe. Neither am I saying that you cannot have great degrees of certainty and assurance about many of your convictions. I am simply telling people that if you overstate your case, no matter what it is, I will have a hard time listening to what you have to say. And I think I speak for many.
I would be careful and consider whether or not you are wasting your own time in writing and teaching if these overstatements characterize your approach. We honor God when we stand up for the truth, but we don’t honor him when we misrepresent the truth to accomplish our presupposed agenda that has not been critically thought through. God help us all to use our words wisely, especially those of us who are teachers.