Had you been walking down West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio in the late 1800s, the shouts and curses spilling from the upper floor of a bicycle shop may have stopped you in your tracks. Two brothers worked in the space, and, as you may know, there are siblings who have learned to engage in a good fraternal scrap as if it were an Olympic sport for which they’d been in training since they learned to speak.
You’ve actually heard of these two brothers. Their names were Wilbur and Orville Wright, and it’s not far from the truth that they’d been trained from birth to argue. After dinner each evening, their father, Milton, would introduce a topic and instruct the boys to debate it as vigorously as they could without being disrespectful. And then he’d insist that each argue the other side just as forcefully.
The Wright brothers hadn’t any notable accomplishments before they invented the airplane. In fact, they weren’t scientists or trained engineers. They hadn’t been to college and were not backed by a large organization or corporation. But they had been trained in the art of argument, with which they not only enlivened a dinnertime or two. They argued their way to a solution to the ancient engineering riddle of flight.
It seems like we’ve lost our collective chops when it comes to an argument. We’re plenty argumentative. But there’s so much posturing and defensiveness and grasping for power in most public debate, it’s hard to imagine the process as taking us reliably closer to the truth. It’s as if we’ve forgotten, not only how to properly engage in spirited debate, but what argument is even for.
Wilbur Wright once said, “No truth is without some mixture of error, and no error so false but that it possesses no element of truth. If a man is in too big a hurry to give up an error, he is liable to give up some truth with it, and in accepting the arguments of the other man he is sure to get some errors with it. Honest argument is merely a process of mutually picking the beams and motes out of each other’s eyes so both can see clearly…”
That last line, as you may know, comes from the Bible. In the dear old King James Version, Jesus asks, “How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?” It’s interesting how inclined I am to use this familiar passage to disqualify someone else from offering any corrective to me. This is identical to a familiar strategy in all public debates. If I can discredit my opponent on anything, I don’t have to accept her judgment on this particular thing. But the truth is that a scoundrel isn’t wrong about everything, and Mother Teresa wasn’t right all the time. The purpose of Jesus’s teaching, I think, was to get my own agenda and assumptions and judgments out of the way long enough to create a space for honest engagement with another person with, quite literally, another point of view.
I wonder what it might mean for the Church to be a place where people learn to argue well? I know that to be such a place there will need to be a great deal of care and preemptive forgiveness. We’ll need to know that our half-baked views will be heard and that when they’re challenged, my dignity and belovedness are not at stake. We’d actually have to ramp up the active loving and affirmation considerably so that we’ll each feel safe enough to say what we honestly mean or wish or wonder out loud.
But this is the inverted genius of the Gospel, isn’t it? That God would be foolish enough to cancel the human project of living up to an impossible moral standard and make forgiveness a gratuitous, unmerited gift. It’s what makes abundant life possible, not its reward. It’s as if God knew very well that when grace and forgiveness are extended into the future, they make a space within which we can risk being truthful because we’re not so afraid of being rejected for being wrong. And when humans feel free enough to bring their honest longings, hunches, and hopes fully into contact with those of others… well, occasionally we find that we’ve been lifted literally right up off the ground.
See “A Good Scrap” at aeon.co for the article that inspired this post.