Yesterday, I came across this tweet by Christian apologist Max Andrews courtesy of a retweet by Chad at Truthbomb Apologetics:
The goal, presumably, is to focus on conversations that are likely to be “productive”. In this article, I’d like to state briefly why I disagree with Andrews.
Apologetics and Evangelism
Before I get to disagreement, I’d like to set the stage by stating something of my views on apologetics and evangelism. Andrews frames his topic as “dialoguing with your interlocutor.” Since he is an apologist, I assume he is focused primarily here on apologetic reasoning with non-Christians.
With that in mind, let’s be clear that apologetics to non-Christians is a form of evangelism (or, if you prefer, pre-evangelism). While “evangelism” might seem like a fancy word, it refers simply to the practice of sharing your convictions with others in a clear and winsome manner to the end that they too may come to hold those convictions.
Based on that definition, it should be clear that whenever you value a truth claim and you value people who don’t hold that truth claim, you should want to persuade those people to hold that belief. In other words, you should be committed to apologetics/evangelism. This is even more important when the truth claim is on a matter of monumental importance, such as with the truth of Christianity.
Critiquing the Tweet
Now back to the tweet. Andrews claims that if people fail to provide conditions under which they would change their mind, you should abort (or as he says, “discard”) the conversation as nothing more than casting “pearls before swine.”
Does have an open mind require you to know when it would change?
First up, Andrews, assumes that having an open mind entails having an ability to state the conditions under which one would reject one’s belief. But I see no reason to think that is true. Consider the example of Calvinism. I was a Calvinist for two years (1999-2001), but I have been an Arminian ever since. (However, my post-2001 Arminianism is post-critical whereas my Arminianism of 1998 and earlier was pre-critical.) I certainly think I’m open-minded on this topic and I know many Calvinists who would agree with me. However, I can’t say what exactly would persuade me to change my mind. Exegesis of Romans 9? A powerful argument in favor of soft determinism? An argument for the incompatibility of libertarian free will with divine foreknowledge? I’m not sure.
In fact, if I were to change my mind again on this topic, what likely would happen is that various factors including some or all of the above could serve to erode my commitment to Arminianism leading to the moment when I suddenly come to realize, “Hey, I’m a Calvinist again!” You see, that’s typically how major belief conversions occur: slowly, over time, by way of multiple small steps culminating finally in one big change. But the ability to say precisely the moment when that would occur on a particular topic is typically something we don’t know. So to make the ability to identify that moment as an essential hallmark of openmindedness is simply misguided.
Is a conversation only worthwhile if your interlocutor has an open mind?
Now, let’s grant for the sake of argument that a particular individual is not, in fact, openminded. Surely we should move on then, right?
Maybe, but then again, maybe not: and this brings me to my second point of disagreement. Andrews assumes that this conversation is only worthwhile if your interlocutor is, in principle, open to changing her mind as a result of this conversation. But I disagree on that point as well.
It may be that your interlocutor isn’t openminded now. It hardly follows that they won’t be openminded tomorrow. But if you cut off the interactions now, you’ll never get to tomorrow. And how can you know that even now you aren’t slowly eroding her convictions and opening up her mind? The fact is that changes in belief can be occurring well before we recognize they are occurring. So the surface closedmindedness could be concealing a slow evolution in thinking that isn’t yet evident. And if you burn a bridge now, you may undermine that process.
Is a conversation only worthwhile if your interlocutor eventually changes her mind?
Finally, Andrews appears to assume that apologetic/evangelistic conversations are only worthwhile if they move your interlocutor toward changing her mind. But these kinds of exchanges can have all sorts of additional goods.
For example, maybe you need to change your mind. After all, nobody is right all the time. So whatever the mindset of your interlocutor, this conversation could be a powerful catalyst for your own intellectual development.
Here’s another possibility: your interlocutor may not change your mind, but maybe your exchanges with her lead you to become more effective at sharing your views and fielding criticisms. This too is a boon that could make a conversation well worthwhile.
And here’s one more possibility. This one is radical, but please keep, ahem, an open mind. What if you had conversations with people not simply to change their mind but because you wanted to cultivate a friendship with them and the amiable and spirited sharing of disagreement is part of friendship? In short, could friendship be a sufficient reason to have a conversation? Surely the question answers itself.
For all these reasons, I disagree with Andrews’ tweet. And in closing, let me note just one more point. While I recognize that Jesus uses the vivid metaphor of casting pearls before swine (Mt. 7:6) it doesn’t follow that we too should use that same metaphor in our contexts.
Put it this way. Consider how you’d feel if your interlocutor characterized your recent exchange with her in these terms: she cast her pearls of wisdom before your cloven porcine hooves. I suspect that you probably wouldn’t appreciate the metaphor. So if we’re going to quote from Matthew 7 to inspire and guide our apologetic and evangelistic conversations, let’s stick with verse 12:
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…”