Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Judgement, Understanding, and Arguments Among Friends

"Truth springs from argument among friends." - David Hume

Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam
Mr. Hume's aphorism may sound a little crazy to modern ears. These days when you hear the word "argument", it usually means something like "verbal combat." In that sense, arguments are as likely to drive friends apart as to uncover truth. But Hume was no fool, and that's not how he was using the word. He meant it in the philosophical sense: a verbal defense of an idea, in which reasons are given for that idea. An argument has a conclusion, as well as one or more reasons given to support it. A claim without reasons is not an argument. It is, as Ambrose Beirce put it, "a vagrant opinion without visible means of support." Many combat-type arguments are a jumble of insults, ridicule, and vagrant opinions; and they may contain no arguments at all in the philosophical sense. Hume was saying that truth springs not from verbal battle, but from civil discussions involving real, reasoned arguments.

I think he's probably right, although I doubt that even the kinds of argument Hume had in mind lead to truth or agreement very often. What's more common is that they lead to mutual understanding. The debaters may not end up agreeing with each other, but at least they learn more about the other person's reasons for thinking the way they do. And that's no small thing.

If you watch most online arguments, though, they seem to turn into the fighting kind more often than the friendly kind, and those don't lead to truth, agreement, understanding, or much of anything except hurt feelings. But it doesn't have to be that way. If people could be more diplomatic, more arguments would lead to understanding, and maybe even truth. I talk about that kind of diplomacy a lot, but I'm really not great at it. The other day, though, I got in a very civil argument with my friend Danny, who really is great at it. I tell him that if there's ever an election for National Political Referee, I'm nominating him. And sure enough, I ended up getting some real insight into how he, as a devout, moderate Christian, sees the world.

At issue was the idea of judgement. Even though I'm agnostic, I think Christianity has given the world some very worthwhile ideas. In particular, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the similar Sermon on the Plain in Luke strike me as being full of profound insights and wise advice: blessed are the peacemakers and the merciful, love your neighbor and even your enemies, turn the other cheek, don't be a hypocrite or make a big show of prayer and charity, watch for false prophets and wolves in sheep's clothing, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Sermon on the Mount also contains my favorite lines in the entire Bible: "Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not; neither do they spin. Yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

These are wise words, and the world would be a better place if more people (Christian and otherwise) followed them. But there are parts of both sermons I can't subscribe to. Turning the other cheek is a powerful idea, which people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King used to help change the world for the better. But I don't think you should turn the other cheek in every situation. What if someone is just going to take that as an invitation to beat you senseless? Then I can't see how there's anything wrong with fighting back, or at least leaving the scene. Turning the other cheek only works if it defuses violence, not if it encourages it. At least, that's how it seems to me.

Then there are the verses on judgement. Here are the ones from Matthew:
7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
The part about taking the log out of your own eye seems like the height of wisdom to me. It's so easy to be a hypocrite, and to see the faults of others more clearly than our own. But how can you truly not judge anybody, ever? I've never been able to make sense of that idea. A while back, I was on a plane, across the aisle from a very drunk pair of friends who seemed to be in the process of falling out forever. One was yelling obscenities at the other. First the other passengers asked him to stop, then the flight attendent, and then the pilot, who told him he was on the verge of getting put off the plane and arrested. That finally shut him up, but not before he looked around and said, "All of you people are JUDGING me!"

We all nodded, like, "Yes, yes we are. Everyone on this plane is judging you. Why shouldn't we?"

Why indeed? Some behaviors are clearly bad, and the people doing them need to stop. How can a society work if we never judged people who are being insufferably rude, not to mention murderers, rapists, and thieves? The only way the verses in Matthew have ever made sense to me is to keep in mind what comes after "Do not judge," which is "so that you may not be judged." That is, don't judge unless you are prepared to be judged yourself, because you aren't perfect either. In other words, "Do not judge" is bound up with the teaching about hypocrisy.

Fair enough. It's certainly wrong for me to judge others without paying attention to my own flaws, or holding myself to the same standard I'm holding them to. If I judge the behavior of the guy on the plane as unacceptable, I should agree that it would be unacceptable if I did it, too. And I do--if I ever act like that, I hope somebody tosses me off that plane. But to say "Do not judge. Period" can that ever work in practice? You can't just let people run around being horrible, can you?

That's what I was asking Danny. I had shared an article called Ten Things You Can't Say While Following Jesus, because I was interested in seeing what some of my Christian friends thought about it. I mostly agreed with the article, not necessarily with the Christian perspective, but with the idea that saying things like "Everything happens for a reason" and "God never gives us more than we can handle" might not make a lot of sense. But one of the things the author took issue with is people saying "It's OK to judge." As I said, I think it's not only OK to judge sometimes; it's downright unavoidable. Danny was with the author of the article, though, saying that it's OK to judge only if you are God, and none of us are God. He went on to say, "The very thought that the sinner who is in church is somehow qualified to judge the sinner who is outside of it is completely false and goes against Jesus' teachings."

When I explained why I think judgement is unavoidable, he said:
I believe that a Christian's responsibility is to work on their own sin issues and just extend love to others. I look at it as a big enough job to manage my own sins without trying to focus on other's sins...that's between them and God. Now, I don't always succeed in not judging but I try not to. 
I feel like there is a lot of judgement of others by the Christian community and not nearly enough focus internally. I guess it's a lot easier to focus on others' sin than to try to fix ours. I also think the "lest ye be judged" part means that we should remember that we will be judged one day so we might want to extend the same grace and forgiveness that we hope for from God. I guess I also just wonder what value is to be gained from judgement. I figure it's just a big waste of time and energy that pushes people away from God.
Well put, but that didn't really address my question about how you deal with those who are behaving unacceptably. I said, "I guess a lot of this depends on the definition of judgement. I'm just saying we all have to judge people in the sense of saying 'that behavior is bad, and you need to stop it.' It doesn't necessarily mean 'I judge them a bad and irredeemable person.' I mean, I certainly have my own failings to attend to, but if I see, for example, someone being cruel to an animal, then I'm going to attend to their failing, too. And you would too, I'm thinking. We surely have slightly different interpretations of judgement going on here.

His response:
Yes...two different judgements. I make judgements every day in the way you mean. I was thinking more along the lines of judging them to be irredeemable, and that their sin is somehow worse than others, and that God is less willing/able to forgive. Also the idea that somehow he leaves us (Christians) to the task of deciding who is and is not redeemable. You are correct in that evangelicals (including me) believe that everyone sins as none of us is perfect. Some evangelicals (not me) also chose to believe that their sin is somehow less serious and more likely to be forgiven than other people's sin. This contradicts my understanding of the Bible. These are the evangelicals who drive people away from God and church.
That cleared it up for me. I finally understood how he, and probably many other Christians, see Jesus' admonition not to judge. It does mean, "Do not judge at all," if by judgment you mean, "You are a sinner and I am not." It doesn't mean you can never say someone's behavior is unacceptable. Those are two different kinds of judgment. Christians believe we are all fallen beings, born with original sin and thus undeserving of salvation, and that only by God's grace can we be saved. Within the context of those beliefs, "Do not judge...period" makes sense, at least when it comes to judging who is a sinner. It had seemed nonsensical to me, but that's because I wasn't looking at it through a Christian lens. Now I understood where he was coming from, and the Christian view of judgement is a lot clearer to me.

I still don't agree with him completely. I can't, without believing in the Christian framework of original sin, heaven and hell, and salvation through grace. But that's not the point here. The point is that two people with very different worldviews were able to have a civil discussion that actually led to understanding and clarity. I left with a better understanding of how another intelligent person sees the world, and I like to think he did too. We're probably never going to agree completely, and that's fine. But it's nice to know we can at least understand each other a little better, and that some online arguments are worth having.