Thursday, August 09, 2012

In Defense of Theological Blogging and Belligerence, with Christopher Hitchens

And now, for something a little odd…

I mean, of course, the very idea that one might defend the practice of theology blogging by recourse to a self-avowed atheist like Hitch. But perhaps DET readers are not surprised that I, in particular, might do so. After all, I posted about Hitchens previously, even defending his position (to a limited extent) in the comments thread, and I made some suggestive comments about “practical atheism” or “functional secularism” in a post on Dan Migliore and fideism.

To take up another angle: there are theologians, and there are theological belligerents. The former go about their work in a peaceful manner, the latter go about it with, let us say, a polemical horizon. Where I come from, the latter tend to be looked down upon. One hears all sorts of things about how Christians shouldn’t “fight” amongst themselves, etc. I have even heard variations on these sentiments to the effect that blogging about theology is inherently destructive because it so easily takes on a polemical tone. In response, here is Hitchens. I’ll have more to say at post’s end…

Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 20-1.
As a species, we may by all means think ruefully about the waste and horror produced by war and other forms of rivalry and jealousy. However, this can’t alter the fact that in life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation. The concept of the dialectic may well have been partly discredited by its advocates, but that does not permit us to disown it. There must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled. You have probably heard, from one complacent pundit or another, the view that argument produces “more heat than light.” You have certainly been instructed that the truth lies not at one pole or another but “somewhere in between.” And I think I can be sure that you have heard the old standby, to the effect that matters are not black or white, but differing shades of gray.

May I offer you some observations of my own in response? We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light. Reducing the sun to room temperature would decrease light to nothing at all, as well as generating a definite chill. The truth cannot lie, but if it could, it would lie somewhere in between. On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split; one does not look for a synthesis between verity and falsehood; the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next. As for the chiaroscuro, or the light and shade, the platitude is at least a little more artistic. (Watching a Civil War reenactment at Gettysburg a few years ago, I wrote in my notebook that those who wore the Gray had been conditioned to think in terms of black and white.) Neither black nor white are true colors, but then neither is gray.

Tautology lurks, and waits to enclose you. The Greek oracle proclaimed “Nothing Too Much” as the supreme wisdom; the lazy modern translation is “Moderation in All Things,” which is not quite the same. One admires the Greek style for its quiet emphasis on symmetry and balance, but then what if the balance is tipped and the time disjointed? Of what use is the “moderate” then? The Gray uniforms at Gettysburg might not have been deployed, or not have been defeated, if it were not for fanatics and absolutists like John Brown, who regarded compromise as disgrace. No doubt you can think of your own examples.

If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the “center” will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and where it is.
It seems to me that Hitch’s point is twofold:
  1. Intellectual disagreement, debate, struggle, contest, etc., is vital for the development of ideas. I take this to be rather uncontroversial. One need only look at the development of trinitarian and christological doctrine in the early Christian centuries to see that this is fundamentally true (and, consequently, that it can be a good thing). Theological blogging and belligerence is, therefore, helpful for developing theological vision.
  2. Intellectual disagreement, debate, struggle, contest, etc., is vital for the shaping of contemporary theological (and ecclesiastical) culture. Such culture is influenced not primarily by the spectrum of conceivably possible theological positions, but by the spectrum of positions actually offered to it. To take an analogy from politics…

    Even as recently as ~75 years ago, democratic socialism was a live option in the United States. Today, discussing such things positively is an act of almost certain political suicide for a candidate. Why? Because the nation’s political conversation was dominated by other views. As a consequence, the spectrum of “liberal” to “conservative” in this country is skewed: even the so-called liberals are rather conservative when compared to other possibilities. Does one attempt to counter the incredibly damaging effects of such a situation by going about one’s life peacefully and never making noise to challenge the status quo, or is being belligerent and making a nuisance of oneself perhaps more conducive to bringing the issue to broader consciousness?

    The same principle obtains in theological spheres.

    Hitchens gets at this well in another quotation from elsewhere in the same text: “Remember that saying nothing is also a decision, and that the relativists and the “nonjudgmental” have made up their minds just as much, if not as firmly” (83).
All this in support of theological blogging and belligerence. Of course, as Christian theologians, we have to distinguish between the fundamental necessity (I believe) of taking a belligerent stance, and the rules of engagement for waging the battle. At the level of particulars, crass ad hominem is not a suitable option. At the more general level, I have three rules for such combat:
  1. It must be intellectual only. Sure, it’s kind of funny to think back to St Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea, but I expect most people would agree with me in saying that physical altercation over a theological point is not proper.
  2. It cannot be total war. This builds on the previous. One should not attempt to undermine the livelihood, relationships, and other such aspects of your opponent’s life. The goal is not to destroy one’s opponent, but to improve the intellectual and cultural situation in view.
  3. It must be Christian. This is the positive point that undergirds the two previous negative points. Theological belligerents ought not forget that their opponents are those for whom Jesus Christ was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. As such, their basic human dignity must be upheld at all costs, even while vigorously contesting their position.
Well, this has gone on for longer than I expected and certainly for long enough. Just a concluding thought: one of the primary reasons I mourn the decline in theology blogging that has occurred over the past few years is because it in many respects represents a decline in theological belligerence. What was conducted through pamphlet wars in the past can also be conducted through theology blogging, but the practice is greatly diminished – at least among the folks who might uphold the sort of positions for which I am a belligerent. So, if any of you are reading (perhaps you stopped somewhere in the midst of the long Hitchens quotation, or before…), consider this a call to arms.

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6 comments:

J. Scott Jackson said...

Some theological belligerants for your readers' consideration:

Athanasius
Augustine
Luther
Calvin
Kierkegaard
Barth

But these guys didn't always follow your three rules for combat. Augustine and Luther would have preferred Twitter to blogging, I think.

W. Travis McMaken said...

No, they didn't always follow my rules. Sometimes they acted in self-defense, sometimes they were co-opted by the powers that were, and sometimes they alone are to blame. No matter: abusus non tollit usum.

There's no way that Augustine could have submitted to the 140 character limit. Calvin's lucid brevity could have. Luther, however, would have relished in the sheer concentration of abuse that it would wring from him.

Bobby Grow said...

Nice, Travis.

I feel the same way as you about the decline of theological blogging---it is real!

I am, no doubt, a belligerent, but not just to be belligerent. I know that theological blogging is in decline, partly because my online blogging theological belligerence (esp. in regard to Calvinism) is no longer engaged as it used to be. And yet I know that this issue, for many, continues to maintain a belligerent and controversial status (that is the Calv/Arm debate etc.).

Anyway, I am totally with you on belligerence; it done from "love" belligerence is a wonderful thing! Jesus was quite belligerent as I recall.

Bobby Grow said...

*"if it is done from "love" ...

blair said...

Another part of Hitch's quote that you might have highlighted is that there are some things worth being belligerent about. Abolition is worth it although for some only in hindsight. The Truth is worth being belligerent about.

There are other things not worth fighting over. The stakes are too low to get really serious about it. The decline in blogging might also relate to that. Theology for the list of belligerents above was not an academic exercise; the stakes were high and worth fighting about. Is it the same for the theological blogging world?

W. Travis McMaken said...

@Blair - Whether a particular issue is worth fighting about on a blog must be determined in each particular case (cost / benefit analysis). I admit that there are innumerable issues that I don't think are worth fighting about, and there have been many times when I initially wanted to fight over something but then decided not to. But I also think that there are times when it is worth-while, and what I lament is the disintegration of a theology blogging infrastructure (as it were) capable of taking up the challenge when necessary.