Discernment 102: How to Disagree Agreeably
BY: Denis Haack
I don’t know very much,” James Agate is recorded as saying, “but what I do know I know better than anybody, and I don’t want to argue about it... My mind is not a bed to be made and re-made.” Agate died in 1947, but there will always be some for whom closed-mindedness is imagined to be a virtue. A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, the book of Proverbs notes, but delights in airing his own opinions (18:2).
A refusal to listen, to reflect, to discuss with both intellectual rigor and civility is the mark not of the wise and godly, but of the fearful and unkind. It is one thing to disagree; it is quite another to disagree disagreeably.
And we must disagree sometimes; it’s part of the process of discernment. Christ is Lord, and that means the truth matters. It also means that Christ is Lord over how we go about disagreeing with those who proclaim false ideas and promote false values. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders, Paul writes to the Colossians, make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (4:5-6). A gracious, tasteful, thoughtful answer, even when expressing profound disagreement, is far more compelling than the unkind response which reeks of defensiveness or arrogance.
The process of Christian discernment involves asking a set of four simple yet probing questions:
What’s being said? What’s attractive here?
What’s the Christian response? Where do we agree? Where do we disagree?
Why do we believe the Christian position?
How can we live and speak the truth in an understandable way in our modern pluralistic culture?
We must learn how to disagree Christianly, how to sharpen our skill in discerning truth from error and in drawing distinctions that are both uncompromising and charitable. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren provide some direction in How to Read a Book. They list four rules of thoughtful reading which parallel the discernment questions listed above:
What is the book about as a whole?
What is being said in detail, and how?
Is it true?
What of it?
Adler and Van Doren then explain how to go about disagreeing with an author. Their ideas are not difficult, but few people seem to follow them. Most of us will need a bit of practice before they become habitual, especially in the midst of an intense discussion. Adler and Van Doren apply their ideas specifically to reading books, but the ideas can—and should—be applied more widely than that. The same rules apply whether we are reading a book, listening to a sermon, watching a movie, or simply talking with someone.
General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette
Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment until you can say “I understand.” This should be self-evident, but it isn’t, and because it is seldom stressed, it is easily ignored. Often we are so concerned to argue for the truth that we disagree before we truly understand. It takes time to listen, ask questions, read, research, think, and seek clarification. Careful and thorough observation is never as much fun as chopping a straw-man to bits. He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame (Proverbs 18:13).
We should seek to understand because we care about truth. The first discernment question—What’s being said?—must be answered accurately and thoughtfully before we can expect to be able to address the remaining questions. We should seek to understand before we agree, disagree, or suspend judgment also because to do otherwise is uncharitable. If I treat someone’s ideas or convictions shabbily, will they listen to what I have to say? Do we not dislike it when someone misrepresents our ideas and values only to score easy points in a debate? Christian discernment never pits truth against love for the simple reason that truth and love both find their fulfillment in Christ.
“Christianity demands that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation,” Francis Schaeffer wrote. “The trouble with too many of us is that we want to be able to answer these questions instantly, as though we could take a funnel, put it in one ear and pour in the facts and then go out and regurgitate them and win all the discussions. It cannot be. Answering questions is hard work. Can you answer all the questions? No, but you must try. Begin to listen with compassion. Ask what this man’s questions really are and try to answer. And if you don’t know the answer, try to go some place or read and study to find some answers.”
Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. The first maxim addresses intellectual honesty; this second one addresses our attitude and approach.
To dispute is to argue, debate, or quarrel angrily. The driving force is not a love for truth or for people, but anger and the determination to be right. A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel (Proverbs 15:18). To contend is to strive to win in heated debate. The goal is simply victory, and the heat of passion guarantees the win will be accomplished by any means necessary. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
Why do we get so angry, so heated, so passionate in such settings? Is it because, as we claim, we are righteously angry when the truth is denied? Or is it because we are afraid, fearful that we may not be able to make the truth prevail? Is it because failing to win is a blow to our ego? Is it because we are willing to sacrifice people for victory? And could it be that the passion is simply a means by which we silence our doubts, the nagging voice that suggests our reasoning is weak or that we might need to be corrected by those who are far more mistaken than we?
While Paul was in Athens, Luke tells us he “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). This was not unusual for Paul—he reasoned with the folks in Thessalonica (17:2) and in Corinth, seeking to persuade them of the truth (18:4). The Greek word means to “discuss using reason,” and it’s used at least ten times in the New Testament in connection with Paul. He disagreed with them when necessary, not disputatiously or contentiously, but with a desire to persuade.
Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. This maxim is merely a restatement of the third and fourth discernment questions. It isn’t enough to merely assert that we agree or disagree; we should have good and sufficient reasons for the truth.
“I am not arguing with you,” James Whistler wrote in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, “I am telling you.” Such an approach may end the discussion with a “win,” but it will never be persuasive. If we don’t give reasons for our convictions, we can hardly blame unbelievers for thinking we have none worth giving.
We need to remind ourselves that having truth in God’s Word doesn’t mean all our opinions are equally true. What is called for, in the end, is two things: the willingness to give reasons for truth, and the humility to recognize that the truth (not my ideas, ego, or ability to win a debate) is what is at stake.
In Order to Disagree...
Show wherein the author is uninformed. Arguing they are uninformed means we are prepared to show that there is important information about which they are unaware. They have left something out, something which is actually crucial to their conclusion. “To say that an author is uninformed,” Adler and Van Doren write, “is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve. Notice here that unless the knowledge, if possessed by the author, would have been relevant, there is no point in making this remark. To support your remark, you must be able yourself to state the knowledge the author lacks and show how it is relevant, how it makes a difference to his conclusions.”
Being uninformed about something that is actually crucial to our conclusions on some issue is a common experience. Most of the people whom I have met, for example, who claim that Jesus was merely a “good teacher” are, in fact, largely uninformed about his life and teaching. Few of them have read the gospel accounts seriously, nor have they considered carefully how outrageous his claims would be if asserted by a mere man.
Show wherein the author is misinformed. If we claim they are misinformed, we mean they are incorrect in what they claim or assume to be true. “To say that an author is misinformed,” Adler and Van Doren write, “is to say that he asserts what is not the case. His error here may be owing to lack of knowledge, but the error is more than that. Whatever its cause, it consists of making assertions contrary to fact. The author is proposing as true or as more probable what is in fact false or less probable. He is claiming to have knowledge he does not possess. This kind of defect should be pointed out, of course, only if relevant to the author’s conclusions. And to support the remark you must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s.”
Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli give an illustration of this in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics. They point out that some people object to Christianity because it is exclusive; Christ as the only way to God is “too narrow. Life isn’t like that,” the unbeliever argues, “life is open, not closed, inclusive, not exclusive.” Kreeft and Tacelli respond that this person is, in fact, misinformed about the nature of life. “Reality is terribly narrow,” they point out. “There is only one operation that can save you, only one road out of the forest, only one answer to the equation, only one place a body can be at one time, only one living spouse to be married to. There’s only one correct formula for Pepsi; other formulas give you other things. Other roads lead to other places. Other saviors save you from things other than sin—if they save at all.”
Show wherein the author is illogical. If we make this claim, we must be prepared to show that they have made some error in their reasoning. “To say that an author is illogical,” write Adler and Van Doren, “is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning. In general, fallacies are of two sorts. There is the non sequitur, which means that what is drawn as a conclusion simply does not follow from the reasons offered. And there is the occurrence of inconsistency, which means that two things the author has tried to say are incompatible. To make either of these criticisms, the reader must be able to show the precise respect in which the author’s argument lacks cogency.”
Kreeft and Tacelli give an illustration of this sort of error as well. “The idea of heaven,” someone says, objecting to the very thought of it, “is prescientific superstition.” This is very bad reasoning, Kreeft and Tacelli point out, because the very objection “is unscientific. The scientific way to refute an idea is by evidence, not name-calling. Plenty of ‘prescientific’ ideas are valid, true and important, not superstitious—for example, birth, death, life, good, evil, beauty, ugliness, pleasure, pain, earth, air, fire, water, love, hate, happiness.”
Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete. Adler and Van Doren define this by saying the person “has not solved all the problems he started with, or that he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, that he did not see all their implications and ramifications, or that he has failed to make distinctions that are relevant to his undertaking.”
It’s important, of course, not to trivialize this fourth point. No argument, no book, no discussion is ever fully complete, but that isn’t the issue. When we disagree with someone because their position is incomplete, we must be prepared to show how that inadequacy is damaging to the conclusion they are drawing.
Agree, Disagree, or Suspend Judgment
After listing and defining these four criteria for disagreeing, there are three possibile ways to go. We may disagree, or agree, or we may choose to suspend judgment.
If someone is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical in presenting their case—whether in a book, article, film, or in person—we will have to disagree with them. They have failed to make their case.
If someone who is well informed by the truth makes a case logically, we will find ourselves agreeing with them, even if we hadn’t considered their ideas or arguments previously.
And, if we have doubts, but are unable to pinpoint the problem, we can suspend judgment, knowing that no particular argument is ever fully and perfectly complete. We must not leave it there, of course, for intellectual honesty requires we investigate further, so we can finally agree or disagree (in part or in whole). Still, sometimes it takes time and a bit of effort to identify where and how an argument fails—where someone is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical—and so withholding judgment in such cases is perfectly valid. If we don’t know, but have some doubts, we can say so—it is the truth. Learning and discernment are never instantaneous and perfect, but occur over a lifetime, as we read, think, pray, and grow.
The truth is never threatened when a Christian has the humility to say “I don’t know, but I’ll think about it.” Truth and godliness are both threatened, however, when we are so filled with pride that we place “winning” the discussion over finding and speaking the truth.
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1940, 1967, 1972).
Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World by Richard Mouw (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1992).
“Culture War Casualties: How Warfare Rhetoric is Hurting the Work of the Church” by John D. Woodbridge in Christianity Today (March 6, 1995) pp. 21-26.
Kreeft and Tacelli from Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1994) p. 263, 334.
Francis Schaeffer in Two Contents, Two Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1974) pp. 17-18.
Adler and Van Doren in How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1940, 1967, 1972) pp. 156-167.
Denis is the author of The Rest of Success: What the World Didn’t Tell You About Having It All and has written articles for such journals as Reformation & Revival Journal, Eternity, Covenant, and World. He holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.