The persuasive power of thoughtful observation

For someone who claims to have no interest in politics, I know far too much about what is going on in this year’s presidential election. Some of it I can blame on the stream-of-consciousness nature of my daily diet of information; everybody’s a pundit these days, and if the topic of the day is presidential politics then whatever you read is likely to contain repeated passing references to it. I do look forward to the day when the architects of cyberspace take Google’s idea of safe search a step further and create a mechanism that would allow me to filter out, however imperfectly, information on a specific topic. (And when that day comes I hope I have the strength to use those filters liberally.)

But some of what I know about the election comes from deliberately reading the news that streams by, and even some occasional further research. As much as I think that politics is an irrelevant and often wicked distraction, it does provide an endless stream of episodes where people respond to unusual circumstances in an unguarded manner—and by “people” I mean not only the folks who initiate the news but also those who publicly discuss, argue about, and sit in judgment on them. Nothing has taught me more about how people think than watching a political season unfold.

A second reason that I want to know the basic lay of the current political landscape is that some of the writers and thinkers I admire greatly spend a lot of their time writing about politics, and being superficially informed on the topic makes it easier to read them. Strangely enough, being more than superficially informed is not particularly helpful, because I don’t read these folks to learn about the politics of the day, but mostly to learn about the behavior and thinking of people engaged in those politics.

One good example of this sort of writer is Peggy Noonan. I do not identify with Noonan’s politics, which seems to be a gentle and considerate sort of Reaganism. But I identify strongly with Noonan’s public persona, which is that of a thoughtful citizen who is always pondering the implications of her politics for everyday living, reconciling those implications with her understanding of how life is to be lived, and then reshaping her politics so as to reduce the friction between theory and practice. I read Peggy Noonan faithfully because I learn a lot when I watch her think through something publicly.

Yesterday Peggy Noonan was blindsided by the new rules of the game (“mugged by the nature of modern media” is how she put it), and she amended her latest column for the Wall Street Journal to address the situation. As you read about what happened, you may wonder exactly what the big deal is. At most this was a small skirmish that took place far from the thick of the battle; someone scored a few ponts when he embarrassed a not especially influential pundit by making public some ill-considered and easily misunderstood words about her friends.

What instructs me here is not the incident but the way Noonan responded to it. In this day of highly strategic public posturing, she must have been tempted to choose a public stance for the sake of its effect; perhaps ignoring it, or going for the distracting effect of attacking the trend toward making the private conversations of others public, or twisting her own words into something other than what she meant, or abjectly apologizing. Instead, she takes the riskier route of trying to explain to her readers what actually happened, counting on her formidable writing skills to adequately convey how someone who thinks what she thinks and sees what she sees could end up saying the words she said when she thought the world wasn’t listening. I thought she did a good job of taking exactly the blame she needed to take, no more and no less, while not falling into defensiveness or excuse-making.

Why is it important to me how Noonan handled herself here? Because for me she is a role model when it comes to writing as a thoughtful observer. I trust Peggy Noonan not because of her rigorous argumentation, but because over the years she has demonstrated to me that her own thinking is learned, detailed, thorough, sober, compassionate, and most especially honest. Her thinking on certain matters has changed in ways that can’t have endeared her to those in her circle, and yet she has been bold enough to continue thinking those thoughts in public. Her conclusions carry a lot of weight with me simply because they are her conclusions. Because of that, I know they are carefully crafted, well tested, and sincerely held. Whenever I learn that Peggy Noonan believes something, I will give serious consideration to believing that same thing myself, precisely because someone I admire and trust believes that thing.

It is this approach I think we should use to replace our foolish Enlightened faith in the persuasive power of the truth. As I wrote there:

I suspect that our faith in the persuasive power of the truth is just one more unjustified assumption that was imposed on us by Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that they would find salvation through knowledge, that man would always tend towards the good because of enlightened self-interest, that bad behavior was the result of ignorance and could be easily eliminated through proper education. The philosophes believed that in a standoff between truth and wickedness, truth would always prevail. Romans 1:18 tells a different story.

Truth is to be valued along with goodness and beauty. But we need to understand what truth can and cannot do. And we need to stop wondering why those who have heard the truth fail to live according to it.

Truth doesn’t persuade. What does? I think it is seeing someone already persuaded, getting a glimpse of the rubber meeting the road, pondering the example of a life lived in accordance with the truth in question. Dave Black mentions the distinction in a recent blog entry (scroll down to Friday, August 29, 2:15pm).

I have discovered through the years that there are two types of knowledge. The first is knowing WHAT. That is, before we can pursue a biblical ecclesiology, we need to assemble facts together. These facts come from the Scriptures, not from any man-made traditions. As we search the Word of God, we are confronted with the truth, with basic facts about church life. Of course, many evangelicals have never even taken this first step. They remain steeped in their traditions because they have never considered what the New Testament has to say about the church.

The second kind of knowledge is knowing HOW. That is, even if we know (or think we know) what the Bible teaches about church life, there remains the enormous task of actually en-fleshing this knowledge in our daily lives and in our congregations. This is a completely different kind of knowledge than just knowing the facts. This knowledge cannot be gleaned directly from the Scriptures. We gain this knowledge through the leading of God’s Holy Spirit, who enables us to move ahead by showing us the concrete steps we should take and, just as importantly, how and when we should take them. This takes a lot of discernment, and this discernment can only come from God, just as truth comes from God. […]

“The map is not the terrain,” is how a military instructor at West Point might put it. And so it is in the Christian life. Change — all change — begins with the renewing of our minds as we study the pure Word of God and begin to wean ourselves from worldly or non-biblical traditions. But then, as we move from intellectual comprehension to practical implementation, we must also move from map to terrain, as it were. We are now “on the spot,” “boots on the ground.” We are forced to make judgment calls. We
have to decide such questions as where, when, by whom, and how fast (or slow)? There are no set answers to any of these questions! At least I haven’t found any. Certainly, if the church is to be the church, all of us must move from the map to the terrain. But therein lies the rub. And that is precisely where so many of us struggle. My hope is that as the Lord Jesus leads you along this wonderful but sometimes frightening journey, He will keep you challenged and occupied with healthy, positive, and happy thoughts and deeds.

The power I find in the writings of Peggy Noonan and Dave Black lies not in any carefully crafted argument but in the honest account of a life lived thoughtfully, an example for the world to examine and ponder.

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