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Civility and Rhetoric

Civility, rhetoric, dialogue, common ground

Recipe for Conversation

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Personally, there are few things I relish more than a ranging conversation with friends over an overflowing plate of supreme nachos. And, graciously, it is in this intrinsically good thing that lies the promise of truths that can set us free. Dialogue is no panacea, of course. In and of itself, it cannot usher in peace and goodwill on earth. Indeed, very often grudges and misunderstandings find their breeding ground here. Still, good conversation is the best thing on the menu, whether it is with a book, a blog, or a bloke. So what makes any old conversation about important and controversial issues a good conversation? I’d like to suggest a few essential ingredients, mostly learned from the unsavory taste of foot-in-mouth. Take these insights with a grain — or a dash — of salt.

Russell H. Dilday on Moderation

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But moderation is not necessarily synonymous with lukewarm moral weakness. The word "moderate" and its noun form "moderation" actually convey something admirable when applied to civility in public discourse. The classic meaning of moderation is a position that avoids excesses and extremes; that is, temperate, restrained, prudent, fair, and reasonable. A moderate believes that the truth usually lies in the "golden mean" between extremes. Moderates aim for judicious tolerance, a calm willingness to listen to and consider the conviction of those with whom they disagree. Without surrendering convictions, moderation seeks truth in the center, which is not always marked by a cowardly "yellow stripe." The "radical middle," as Gordon Fee calls it, is not bland neutrality, but it’s the path that avoids the dangerous ditches on either side of the road. It’s a courageous position held by people some have called "flaming moderates."

Truth With Love

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As one who awoke to the intellectual richness and cultural depth of the Christian worldview in the mid-1970s through the writings of evangelist-apologist-activist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), I often worry that the next generation will fail to heed the challenge and receive the inspiration Schaeffer gave us through both his writings and his life of discipleship. Truth With Love is thus heartening because it winsomely explains both the rational and the relational apologetic of Francis Schaeffer to those who may not have otherwise heard the good news. This book is a revised doctoral dissertation, but one that succeeds in being both intellectually meaty and existentially appealing to those outside the strictly academic crowd. There are plenty of quotations and footnotes, as well as personal interviews with those who knew Schaeffer well. While such a well-documented book needs an index of names and subjects as well as a bibliography, unfortunately, it has neither. ~ Douglas Groothuis at DenverSeminary.edu.

Toward a Civil Discourse

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Examines how, in the current political climate, Americans find it difficult to discuss civic issues frankly and openly with one another. Because America is dominated by two powerful discourses — liberalism and Christian fundamentalism, each of which paints a very different picture of America and its citizens’ responsibilities toward their country — there is little common ground, and hence Americans avoid disagreement for fear of giving offence. Sharon Crowley considers the ancient art of rhetoric as a solution to the problems of repetition and condemnation that pervade American public discourse. She investigates the cultural factors that lead to the formation of beliefs, and how beliefs can develop into densely articulated systems and political activism. Crowley examines numerous current issues and opposing views, and discusses the consequences to society when argumentative exchange does not occur. She underscores the urgency of developing a civil discourse, and through a review of historic rhetoric and its modern application, provides a foundation for such a discourse. ~ Product Description

Why Good Arguments Often Fail

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You gave it your best shot. You made the best case you knew how, and your friend still wasn’t persuaded to follow Christ. Why is it that solid, rational arguments for the Christian faith often fail? For over fifty years James Sire, noted author and public defender of the Christian faith, has asked himself that question. Sometimes, of course, the arguments themselves just aren’t that good. How can we make them better? Sometimes the problem has to do with us and not the arguments. Our arrogance, aggressiveness or cleverness gets in the way, or we misread our audience. Sometimes the problem lies with the hearers. Their worldview or moral blindness keeps them from hearing and understanding the truth. With wisdom borne of both formal and informal experience, Sire grapples with these issues and offers practical insight into making a more persuasive case for Christ. Includes an annotated bibliography of resources for framing effective arguments. ~ Product Description

John Courtney Murray on Holding Certain Truths

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The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt, but that there is a core of agreement, accord, concurrence, acquiescence. We hold certain truths, therefore we can argue about them. It seems to have been one of the corruptions of intelligence by positivism to assume that argument ends when agreement is reached. In a basic sense the reverse is true. There can be no argument except on the premise, and within a context, of agreement. Mutatis mutandis, this is true of scientific, philosophical, and theological argument. It is no less true of political argument.

Wendell Berry on War, Peace, and Christianity

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But "Christian" war has always been a problem, best solved by avoiding any attempt to reconcile policies of national or imperial militarism with anything Christ said or did. The Christian gospel is a summons to peace, calling for justice beyond anger, mercy beyond justice, forgiveness beyond mercy, love beyond forgiveness. It would require a most agile interpreter to justify hatred and war by means of the Gospels, in which we are bidden to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despise and persecute us.

Sam Harris on Not Tolerating Religious Beliefs

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Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene. There are still a number of cultures in which the germ theory of disease has yet to put in an appearance, where people suffer from a debilitating ignorance on most matters relevant to their physical health. Do we "tolerate" these beliefs? Not if they put our own health in jeopardy.

Early Modern Civil Discourses

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This collection explores the concept of civility in the early modern period. It addresses a range of writings in English and Scottish — among them, conduct manuals, colonial tracts, diaries, letters, dialogues, poetry, drama, chronicles — by English, Welsh and Scots men and women in and about the Atlantic archipelago. It explores the many meanings of civility in the early modern period; it recovers some of the lost associations of civility as well as the complex use of the adjectives "civil" and "barbarous" in cultural and colonial encounters. ~ Product Description

Utopia

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Sixteenth-century classic by English ecclesiastic and scholar envisioned a tolerant, patriarchal island kingdom free of private property, violence, bloodshed and vice. Forerunner of many later attempts. Since its publication in 1516, Utopia has provoked a hailstorm of debate. The minute details More ascribed to his "perfect world" make Utopia still a work of the future. • "There were utopias before this book that Thomas More wrote in the early 1500s, including Plato’s Republic. This, however, is the book that gives us the word ‘Utopia.’ The book is brief, barely over 100 pages, and only 60-some describe the place itself. That is enough, and makes me nostalgic for the habit of writing briefly and to the point. It’s easy to sum up More’s heaven-on-earth in a few words. It portrays a communal, democratic society. It is paradoxically unregulated and tightly regulated — overwhelmingly, More’s citizens just want to do what is best for their society, and that covers a remarkably narrow range of possibilities. There are, of course, some who break the laws of the land, and More deals with them harshly. "Harsh" is a relative term, though, and his punishments were hardly harsh in a day when it was a hanging offense to steal a loaf of bread for your starving family. It’s also a strongly religious society. Religious tolerance is a matter of law, a novelty by the standards of More’s day and the standard of his own behavior. ‘Tolerance’, however, meant tolerance of any monotheism that wasn’t too animistic, and certainly didn’t tolerate the unreligious. This translation from More’s original Latin is modern and smoothly readable. Even so, I wonder how another translator would have handled some of More’s neologistic names, like the unpleasant ‘Venalians’ who are the Utopians’ neighbors. No answer is right, but other renderings may convey more and grate less. Those are quibbles, though. It’s a good book as well as being a Great Book, and casts an interesting shadow into modern communism, theocracy, and ideas of the good life. I recommend it highly." ~ wiredweird at Amazon.com

Dulio, Medvic, Nelson on TV, Style, and Substance

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The problems include limited access to mass media outlets afforded to some voices in our political process; “sound bite” journalism that covers campaign strategy more than policy pronouncements and emphasizes conflict over consensus; and overreliance on the medium of television, the logic of which makes politics “an activity of style over substance, image over reality, melodrama over analysis, belief over knowing, awareness over understanding.” The primary cause of these problems, [Robert] Denton argues, lies in “contemporary news values.” As a business, the media must maintain high circulation (or ratings) in order to make a profit by selling advertising. The incentive to make the news entertaining is overwhelming. But information that is most useful in a democratic system may often be subtle and complex — boring, to some.

Ruth Lessl Shively on Believing in Something

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I have argued that if the ambiguists mean to be subversive about anything, they need to be conservative about some things. They need to be steadfast supporters of the structures of openness and democracy: willing to say “no” to certain forms of contest; willing to set up clear limitations about acceptable behavior. To this, finally, I would add that if the ambiguists mean to stretch the boundaries of behavior — if they want to be revolutionary and disruptive in their skepticism and iconoclasm — they need first to be firm believers in something. Which is to say, again, they need to set clear limits about what they will and will not support, what they do and do not believe to be best. … In other words, a refusal to judge among ideas and activities is, in the end, an endorsement of the status quo. To embrace everything is to be unable to embrace a particular plan of action, for to embrace a particular plan of action is to reject all others, at least for that moment. Moreover, as observed in our discussion of openness, to embrace everything is to embrace self-contradiction: to hold to both one’s purposes and to that which defeats one’s purposes — to tolerance and intolerance, open-mindedness and close-mindedness, democracy and tyranny.

The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America

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This expansive volume traces the rhetoric of reform across American history, examining such pivotal periods as the American Revolution, slavery, McCarthyism, and today’s gay liberation movement. At a time when social movements led by religious leaders, from Louis Farrakhan to Pat Buchanan, are playing a central role in American politics, James Darsey connects this radical tradition with its prophetic roots. Public discourse in the West is derived from the Greek principles of civility, diplomacy, compromise, and negotiation. On this model, radical speech is often taken to be a sympton of social disorder. Not so, contends Darsey, who argues that the rhetoric of reform in America represents the continuation of a tradition separate from the commonly accepted principles of the Greeks. Though the links have gone unrecognized, the American radical tradition stems not from Aristotle, he maintains, but from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. ~ Synopsis

Toleration: An Elusive Virtue

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If we are to understand the concept of toleration in terms of everyday life, we must address a key philosophical and political tension: the call for restraint when encountering apparently wrong beliefs and actions versus the good reasons for interfering with the lives of the subjects of these beliefs and actions. This collection contains original contributions to the ongoing debate on the nature of toleration, including its definition, historical development, justification, and limits. In exploring the issues surrounding toleration, the essays address a variety of provocative questions. Is toleration a moral virtue of individuals or rather a pragmatic political compromise? Is it an intrinsically good principle or only a "second best-solution" to the dangers of fanaticism to be superseded one day by the full acceptance of others? Does the value of toleration lie in respect to individuals and their autonomy, or rather in the recognition of the right of minority groups to maintain their communal identity? Throughout, the contributors point to the inherent indeterminacy of the concept and to the difficulty in locating it between intolerant absolutism and skeptical pluralism. Religion, sex, speech, and education are major areas requiring toleration in liberal societies. By applying theoretical analysis, these essays show the differences in the argument for toleration and its scope in each of these realms. ~ Product Description

An Ethic For Enemies

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The author, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, has produced a work that deserves close scrutiny. The casual reader is likely to conclude that Shriver is addressing, in some flight of fancy, the oxymoronic. After all, political forgiveness seems patently absurd, especially given the history of the 20th century-not to mention our contemporary culture of violence. However, while recognizing that forgiveness is a morally complex concept, Shriver argues that it reaches beyond the realm of the personal to the arena of political ethics. He contends that forgiveness is (or at least should be seen as) an indispensable element in politics and that it is an essential ingredient in our attempt to construct a proper political ethics. Not everyone will be persuaded by Shriver’s attempt to make forgiveness the cornerstone of a political ethic; nonetheless, his argument should not be ignored. ~ Library Journal

Lesslie Newbigin on Liberals, Fundies, and Doubt

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The words "liberal" and "fundamentalist" are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy. From one side comes the accusation that the mind of the fundamentalist is closed, shuttered against the possibility of doubt and therefore against the recognition of hitherto unrecognized truth. From the other side comes the charge that liberals are so open to new ideas that they have no firm commitments at all, that every affirmation of faith must be held only tentatively, and that every dogma must, as a matter of principle, be challenged. There are terms of moral opprobrium that each side employs to attack the other: the fundamentalist is arrogant, blinkered, and culturally illiterate; the liberal is flabby, timid, and carried along by every new fashion of thought. From the point of view of the fundamentalist, doubt is sin; from the point of view of the liberal, the capacity for doubt is a measure of intellectual integrity and honesty.

Bertrand Russell on Reasonable Belief

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If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based upon faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting or distorting the minds of the young in what is called ‘education.’

Uncommon Decency

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Richard Mouw wrote this short and simple book a dozen years ago, but it is, perhaps, even more timely today than when it first appeared. The last several presidential elections indicate that our country and our churches are badly divided over a broad range of important issues like gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, the place of America in the world, global economics, health care, and the list goes on. Many people employ a military metaphor to describe our so-called “culture wars.” In a war, to state the obvious, you have friends and foes, enemies and allies, the goal being for Good (that would be “our” side) to defeat Evil (“their” side). Sharp, partisan and demonizing rhetoric about these issues divides us even further. One is left to exasperate with Rodney King, “why can’t we all just get along?” Mouw shows how and why Christians should not only be people of conviction, but people of compassion and civility. We are, he reminds us, to “pursue peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14), and to “show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:2). Civility does not mean we have to like everyone we meet or forfeit our convictions to a relativistic perspective. Rather, it means caring deeply about our civitas and its public life. After defining the nature and parameters of Christian civility, Mouw investigates its implications for our speech, attitudes, pluralistic society, sexual mores, other religions, and leadership in a fallen world. He explores the limits of civility, when there is no “on the other hand.” In his final two chapters he cautions against our tendencies to triumphalism, and trying to usher in the kingdom of God right now, as opposed to appreciating the ways and means of a patient, slow-moving God who loves His creation deeply and longs to redeem it. ~ Daniel B. Clendenin

The Williamsburg Charter on Civil Discourse

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Recent controversies over religion and public life have too often become a form of warfare in which individuals, motives, and reputations have been impugned. The intensity of the debate is commensurate with the importance of the issues debated, but to those engaged in this warfare we present two arguments for reappraisal and restraint. The lesser argument is one of expediency and is based on the ironic fact that each side has become the best argument for the other. One side’s excesses have become the other side’s arguments; one side’s extremists the other side’s recruiters. The danger is that, as the ideological warfare becomes self-perpetuating, more serious issues and broader national interests will be forgotten and the bitterness deepened. The more important argument is one of principle and is based on the fact that the several sides have pursued their objectives in ways which contradict their own best ideals. Too often, for example, religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to tradition, champions of tolerance have been intolerant, defenders of free speech have been censorious, and citizens of a republic based on democratic accommodation have succumbed to a habit of relentless confrontation.

The Williamsburg Charter on the 1st Amendment

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Keenly aware of the high national purpose of commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, we who sign this Charter seek to celebrate the Constitution’s greatness, and to call for a bold reaffirmation and reappraisal of its vision and guiding principles. In particular, we call for a fresh consideration of religious liberty in our time, and of the place of the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses in our national life.

Jerry Gill on Dialogue and Taking Truth Seriously

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As I understand it, a dialogical posture is one that takes the matters of religious reality and truth so seriously as to require extreme openness to and growth toward them, as well as radical sincerity and commitment to them. Thus, all sides and aspects of an issue must be
explored with humble thoroughness, and whatever is deemed worthy of commitment must be incorporated into one’s life with integrity.

C.S. Lewis on Scrutinizing Christianity

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Others may protest that intellecutal discussion can neither build Christianity nor destroy it. They may feel that religion is too sacred to be thus bandied to and fro in public debate, too sacred to be talked of — almost, perhaps, too sacred for anything to be done with it at all. Clearly, the Christian members of the Society (Oxford Socratic Club) think differently. They know that intellectual assent is not faith, but they do not believe that religion is only ‘what a man does with his solitude’. Or if it is, then they care nothing for ‘religion’ and all for Christianity. Christianity is not merely what a man does with his solitude. It is not even what God does with His solitude. It tells of God descending into the coarse publicity of history and there enacting what can — and must — be talked about.