On Letting Your Unbelieving Friend Have the Last Word
An atheist friend of mine unleashed a combustion of anger. The fuel? ’Twas my use of male nouns and pronouns. I had written a blog post, The Vastness of the Universe and Man's Seeming Insignificance. Of course, by Man, I meant mankind, humanity, humankind, all people everywhere, etc., and my friend advised me that I should be sensitive to language that is harmful to others i.e. sexist language. Then, there was an ordeal: thorns and spikes and barbs of wire lashed and fastened into me from my enemy. This is because I resisted her advice. To wit, I let her know that I eschew the whole politically correct modus operandi which has taken root in our culture for a generation or more now.
After the weapons were deployed, I reflected on Dallas Willard, the USC philosophy professor and spiritual writer. Willard was a man of a peaceable character that was immense in its proportion. He had—and has—a reputation of being extremely humble, soft-spoken, and filled with the peace of God. He was a mentor to many prominent Christian thinkers and pastors, including J.P. Moreland and John Ortberg. When Dallas died in May of 2013 at age 77, an ocean of people were deeply moved and saddened at his passing. Even in death, Willard still changes lives. Former atheist Nicole Cliff, for example, writes of her conversion to faith in Christ in part due to reading Willard’s obituary, which led her to tears. Willard was so peaceable! I wondered about him. We viewed a number of video lessons on The Divine Conspiracy in Sunday School at my church. In the lessons, pastor Ortberg is in dialogue with Willard about spiritual formation, maturity in Christ, humility in the Spirit, and the love of God. Willard told a number of stories as he sat quietly in his rocking chair in the California sun in an open causeway, seeming more like a kind grandfather than a professional philosopher. And yet, for all his keen ability as a scholar, Willard radiated gentleness, humility, and kindness.
“I wonder how Dallas Willard dealt with conflict?” I asked myself. “Did he even get into conflict?" He seemed so likable, so gentle, so quiet. How could anyone ever have anything against him? I raised this question in my Sunday School class.
On of my teachers responded to my query. One day, while Willard was teaching a class, a student shot out of his seat and mouthed off at the professor, vehemently disagreeing with him. Professor Willard responded with a smile and said, “You’ve raised some good questions here. I’m happy to talk about them with you over a cup of coffee after class.” After the ordeal, someone asked Dallas, “Why didn’t you deal with this young upstart? You could have ripped him to shreds!” Dallas responded, “I’m trying to practice the art of giving others the last word.”
Giving others the last word. Giving others the last word?
I decided this is what I was going to do with my atheist friend. Now, I’m no scholar of Willard’s calibre (not even close!), but I think I could raise some serious challenges to my friend’s philosophy of language. I could show how intentionality is one, much-needed key to interpreting language, for example. (I don’t intend to offend anyone, and I don’t intend to mean ‘male’ when using the word ‘man’ when describing the human race). She replied that intention has nothing to do with understanding language; it is the reader’s response which counts. On that, I could then ‘turn the tables’ on her and show her how such a view is self-refuting. At the outset, I had explained some etymological issues regarding the nature of the English language over against Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as inflected ones, but she dismissed my approach en toto.
Then, there was the issue of feminism: women have been oppressed, and have had to fight to drive a car, vote, get better jobs, get equal pay, etc. I tried to show how I’m a feminist too, because I advocate for women and children in the slums of a developing country. I also challenged the so-called ‘wage gap.’ I’m a feminist? There is no wage gap? This incensed her.
I had challenged her once, but I after consideration, I decided to giver her the last word. Why? After all, I could show her the research of female, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who denies the ‘wage gap’ narrative: women make less money because of the choices they make: being moms, and choosing particular jobs that earn less. I could reveal her presuppositions to her, as they are rooted in cultural Marxism (or, postmodern fascism, which says that "narrative is the only access people have to reality, and people in power control narrative." (This is self-refuting, too). But, I decided against such argumentation. How come? Aren’t I an apologist? Aren’t I supposed to reason with people with logic and evidence? Yes, of course I am. But there is a limit to what people will hear, and there is the right time and the right place in which to offer a new set of reasons for something. Doesn’t Proverbs say something about that somewhere? Somewhere, huh.
Instead of returning the spite and hammering her with an argument I’m confident I could either win, or at least neutralize in a stalemate, I wrote to her, thanking her for her trusting me enough to be angry with me, for being comfortable enough with me to blast me against the wall, for raising some important questions and giving me much to think about. I hoped some day, we could talk about this face to face, but that until now, she can have the last word on the subject. It seems to have been a good thing, because she texted me, thanking me for the email with a ‘happy face.’ That seems to have been a winning move. Perhaps over time, I’ll be able to explain my point of view, and perhaps she will see the rationality of it. Perhaps. But until then, I’m happy to give her the last word. Thank you, Dallas Willard.
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