Looking for a different way to write, ctd.

You’ll be much better served by reading this series of three posts by Alan Jacobs than my reflections on them, so in case you have to choose I’ll link them up front:

Jacobs examines the modern addiction to a certain sort of “philosophical hubris, to the idea that arguments can be produced that will defeat the opposition once and for all.” And its corollary, that disagreement must be destroyed rather than tolerated. He contrasts this to Bernard Williams’ claim that disagreement is not only tolerable but valuable:

The context here is, broadly speaking, ethics—how people should live—and Williams thinks that ethical questions are immensely complex, so that disagreement about them is “merely to be expected.” Indeed, any attempt to shut down disagreement on such matters will be an impoverishment of thought, and perhaps of life itself.

I am definitely on the side of Willams (and Jacobs). The only things I know about life that are useful and satisfying arose in some way from a dissent from conventional wisdom, whether the dissenter was (occasionally) me or (usually) someone else, and whether I ended up rejecting the conventional wisdom or, due to a deeper examination of it, embracing it. Jacobs again:

The ancient idea of the philosopher as gadfly arises from the awareness that a person can serve society not only by being correct but also, and in a distinct way, simply by being different—by challenging conventional wisdom and received beliefs.

I remember very clearly the moment I woke up to this truth. It was during the five-year stretch when some friends and I met monthly to discuss readings selected by the Great Books Foundation. That month’s reading was Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I’d never read Freud before, and knew little about his thinking beyond what the average person assumes he knows. But this short book addressed a cultural topic I knew something about, and as I read through it a second time I realized: I not only don’t agree with this, but I have substantial objections to his claims which I can back up.

Now, the point is not that I was actually in a position to refute Freud, but only that for the first time I felt I could profitably engage a thinker of Freud’s stature. I learned that day to carefully consider a position I was inclined to disagree with, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation, challenge it at some points with my own thinking, and walk away edified but unpersuaded.

Since then I’ve treasured and even sought out opportunities to amiably disagree with folks who’ve given their own positions enough thought to present them intelligently. The potential for doing this on the internet is staggering—butif it was ever a possibility it seems to not be one now. As Jacobs points out in his second post:

Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.

Jacobs goes on to observe that lately we have moved on from wallowing unreflectively in our received beliefs to demanding justice be exacted on those who believe differently, what he calls “disciplinary bulverism.” The examples he gives are all too familiar, so I’ll leave you to read that post without further commenting on it.

Not only can I not relate to this attitude, I can’t even find a suitable pathway into the fray. Several times in my life I have tentatively embraced a way of life—not with wholehearted before-the-fact acceptance, but in the spirit of exploration. There are some things you can’t evaluate properly by observing them from a distance, you need to be up close. On the other hand, plunging in runs the risk of blinding you to what is weak or just plain wrong about the approach. When you are fully invested, it is tempting to rationalize those away for the sake of protecting your investment.

The most recent example for us was farming. We farmed for seven years without becoming farmers. And that was intentional—the time was spent looking for a way to embrace the life fully, to find a balance between the need for income, the needs of children growing into adulthood, and the need to live with integrity. There are many possible ways to strike the balance—we know several who have done it, no two alike—but we weren’t able to piece one together out of the hand we’ve been dealt, our history and inclinations and skills and beliefs. So it ended up being a good and valuable experience that we also needed to walk away from.

Similarly with writing. I’ve written for 25 years now, in letters and emails and newsgroup exchanges and blog posts and blog comments. And I still don’t consider myself a writer—or, more accurately, I haven’t committed myself to a particular approach to writing. I continue to write things down because to me it is an integral part of self-examination, something I have long been committed to. But making that writing public has always been experimental, and each experiment has left me mostly disappointed. I try approaches that others use to achieve their own goals, approaches that have at least some potential for helping me realize mine. I am mostly frustrated by the results.

But I’m also OK with it. Inability to make progress towards a goal is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the goal itself. I’ve been unable to engage others in fruitful discussion—but is that so vital? Where I see others so engaged, the discussion itself is rarely fruitful. And although a clash of viewpoints can sometimes be enlightening, if done in good faith and with mutual respect, the truth is that I am far more edified when someone has the courage to give a full-orbed account of their own thinking, without an eye to defending it or using it to club opponents into submission.

So I’m thinking now of focusing more on getting my thinking recorded and less on shaping it into a consumable bit of writing ready to be floated out into the stream. I’ve created a wiki, using the platform that runs Wikipedia, and am proceeding to fill it up with my own notes. The content of this blog (at least the stuff worth keeping) will eventually be recreated there, expanded and annotated and with links to related material. If that continues to look promising, I will make it public. Meanwhile, this blog will continue to exist in its current form, both as a historical record and a place where I can post new bits and pieces created for the wiki as seems appropriate.

Jacobs’s third post in the series, Code Fetishists and Normolaters, presents a good example of why I need to find another vehicle for my writing/thinking. It highlights some intriguing ideas from the philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age—intriguing enough to get me to order two of the books mentioned in the post, plus James K.A. Smith’s introduction to Taylor’s thinking, and to read several of the articles mentioned—as well as articles mentioned in those articles! In the past I would have written a longer post about this particular post, quoting excerpts and adding my own observations, perhaps going off on a tangent or two, but all as a fairly immediate reaction to what Jacobs wrote. Now I think it would be better to use the post as an opportunity for extended study, creating a written piece which I can revisit and expand and rearrange as I follow the trains of thought that the original blog post inspired. We’ll see if that works!

Meanwhile, Taylor’s intriguing idea is that for perhaps 800 years now we’ve endured a tension between “code fetishists” and antinomians, between those who believe “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code” (a code which can then be enforced), and those who reject any imposition of such a code. Jacobs writes:

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.

And then he raises this possibility:

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”? What if rule-following doesn’t produce justice, and the antinomians have an inadequate conception of freedom?

I think this is right, and I agree with many (but not all) of the reasons that Jacobs gives for thinking this. And it fits with my growing understanding of God’s economy, of goodness as the ordering principle of creation, a principle that is best embraced but is not imposed. But I’m in no position right now to present my own thinking, since it will surely be informed and shaped by what Jacobs has inspired me to read. So again, I need a way of planting a stake, identifying a piece of ground that needs to be revisited and elaborated in due time.

Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature

This essay is long but worth a read. The first half cuts through all the pious nonsense one hears about why this is bad, as exemplified in the opening paragraphs:

Go to just about any English department at any university, gather round the coffee pot, and listen to what one of my colleagues calls the Great Kvetch. It is perfectly summarized by the opening sentence of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s recent book: “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” She is not speaking of looming environmental disaster or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You see, those are threats we can discern. The danger Nussbaum is highlighting “goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government.”

When a writer invokes the insidious progress of a cancer, you know she hopes to forestall the objection that there is little visible evidence to support her argument. What is this cancer threatening democracy and the world? Declining enrollments in literature courses. Her book is titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

Following this the writer looks at several actual reasons that students avoid literature, giving them their due. The short version is this: students see no benefits to reading literature that can’t be obtained in other, easier ways, and the professors who moan about it don’t bother to make those benefits available.

What makes this essay worthwhile is the second half, where the writer very clearly spells out the benefits:

Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects. […]

It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.


We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. I have never heard anyone say: “Yes, you only see things from my point of view. Why don’t you consider your own for a change?” The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently. […]

We live in a world in which we more and more frequently encounter other cultures. That is part of what globalization means. And yet we are often baffled by them. Americans have the habit of assuming that everyone, deep down, wants to be just like us. It simply isn’t so, and I assure you that others assume that deep down we want to be just like them. When Russians listen to our leaders express their views about what people really want and how nations ought to behave, they think our leaders must be lying, because no one could actually think that way. They are as deeply convinced of the obvious correctness of their perceptions as we are of ours, and so they cannot imagine that others can sincerely perceive things differently.

But great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

And, most important to me:

Students will acquire the skill to inhabit the author’s world. Her perspective becomes one with which they are intimate, and which, when their own way of thinking leads them to a dead end, they can temporarily adopt to see if it might help. Novelistic empathy gives them a diversity of ways of thinking and feeling. They can escape from the prison house of self.

I think this last is true of any bit of writing, fiction or nonfiction. When we read, we see things through another’s eyes. I’ve understood for a long time how vital it is to continually broaden my perspective, to extend my empathy, and I’ve also become ever more aware of how much the pursuit has blessed me. Reading has played a central role in that, since writings are the single best source of relevant information. But until reading this essay I hadn’t thought much about the writer’s role in this, the eyes he or she offers the reader. I’ve benefited from them, but unawares. Thanks, authors!

Scattered thoughts on thinking and writing

I’ve often said—usually to myself, occasionally to others—that not much makes me happier than having my kids carefully consider a situation, and then respond differently than I would. My goal is not to teach them what to think, or even how to think, but to persuade them that thinking is vital.

Of course I’ve taught them my own thinking over the years, both conclusions and techniques. But that is only scaffolding to be used as they come into their own as thinkers. I expect them to discard whatever doesn’t meet the standards they eventually develop. And when I see that happen, it is evidence that I did what I set out to do.

Back when we sold homeschooling materials, I wanted to write a set of short study guides for broad topics—economics, history, philosophy, mathematics, theology, and so on. These were not to be comprehensive but only starting points, a very broad overview of the issues together with a bibliography of good introductory books. The hope was that the overview would equip the reader to pick and choose intelligently from the list of books so as to gain a very broad understanding of the topic, its outline and primary issues and relevance to the rest of life. And for those who wanted to explore further, the books on the list would be proper jumping-off points.

This is how I go about familiarizing myself with a topic—not always by starting with an introductory book, but almost always by chasing down citations in whatever I happen to be reading. If the topic is new to me, my Kindle will begin to fill with free or library-provided books, and the mailman delivers a steady stream of four dollar used books I find through AbeBooks. I get to them right away, or I get to them later, but I get to them. (We moved to the farm in 2005 largely because of Joel Salatin’s writings, and those books had sat on my shelf for four years before I read them.)

The usefulness of citations doesn’t always correlate with their source. I have two writers in particular who are precious to me, even though I disagree with and even dislike most of their own thinking, because the works they cite are always profitable. If they recommend a book or essay on a topic that interests me, I will add it to my own reading list because I know they are discerning readers.

I needed a name for my study guide series, and settled on How to Think About …. But I wouldn’t use such a name today, and even then I was uneasy about it because of its prescriptive flavor. Telling people what to think is pretty bad, but telling them how to think is worse since it will narrow their range of perception even further. And it wasn’t what I meant anyway.

More accurate would have been How I Think About … or A Way of Thinking About …. Or, these days, just A Way of … (seeing, reading, handling money, interacting with others, relating to God’s economy, etc.), since thinking is only a part of it, and not the most important one. All I hope to do in my writing, whatever the venue, is to describe my own understanding of a topic in the hope that others might benefit in some way from a different perspective. And I think it’s important to restrict myself to describing understandings that I have lived out in some way for some length of time. In essence, I want to present myself as an example—not necessarily one to be followed, but for the reader’s consideration.

In her essay Why I Write, Joan Didion writes, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I’m sympathetic to that. I’ve read and studied, thought and considered and pondered for all my adult life, but when I began trying to write down my thoughts the quality of my thinking (and understanding) improved markedly. In the beginning it was a method of clearing out a lot of mental rubbish. Many things I thought I knew didn’t stand up to the test of being articulated, and I learned to jettison them, initially with pain but eventually with pleasure. Other things—not nearly as many—I rethought, researched further, and eventually beat into a shape that could be put into words. Often that process would highlight gaps I hadn’t noticed, and I learned to view this as an opportunity to deepen, solidify, or sometimes change my thinking on this and related topics.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” I second this wholeheartedly. The most important things I learn tend to come to me as crystal clear statements, and although I credit the skill of the writer I also think a sound thought will lend itself to simple and direct presentation. So if I’m writing and the words aren’t flowing, I’m more inclined to revisit my understanding of the matter than to play with the wording.

Although I’ve found it helpful to set down my thoughts in writing for public consumption—a regime that forces me to actually do the work required for quality thinking, rather than just telling myself I’ve done it—it hasn’t led to the sort of conversations I hoped for.

A good part of this is because my interests have wandered so far afield that there isn’t a lot of common ground between me and most people on which a conversation can be built. I don’t usually have the time or energy to lay the needed groundwork, and I don’t expect a reader to wade through endless preliminaries just so we can converse.

But I also have a growing awareness—resignation, maybe—that those who might be willing to engage on these subjects also view public discussion differently, as either confrontation or commiseration. I would prefer to explain rather than defend myself, and to closely question the explanations of others without appearing provocative. Sometimes I manage this in email exchanges, but so far not in public.

When I’m thinking through a problematic issue I like to examine all my assumptions, while holding them as lightly as possible. This is because I rarely know in the beginning where the source of the problem lies, and I don’t want to skew my ponderings by assuming the source is probably here or probably not there. I’ve been surprised too many times to trust my initial instincts.

I haven’t yet figured out how to do this in public writing. The best I have managed is to summarize my thinking once it is settled, highlighting the assumptions which others aren’t likely to share. And this doesn’t work very well with issues where the reader is heavily invested in his own different assumptions.

I’ve tried to engage a Christian academic writer about the challenge that self published ebooks present to the traditional publishing model. I’ve tried to engage one pastor about how many sermons a faithful parishioner needs to hear before they can be excused, a second on whether should be paid, a third on whether his flock actually took his exhortations seriously enough to act on them or even thought they were expected to. Even when the conversation began publicly I quickly moved it to a private setting, email or face to face, because the heat of the response surprised me. I had no vested position and was trying to learn more. The other had their identity tied up in the issue, and the surface content of the exchange didn’t seem to match up with fierceness used to defend the position.

When we “discuss” contentious topics, it seems to me we rarely discuss the topic itself. I haven’t been a member of a church for ten years and expect never to join another, based on reasoning I am happy to discuss. But I don’t think I’ve even mentioned this to someone who is a strong advocate of church membership, because their own reasoning appears flimsy and shallow to me, and doesn’t match up well with my understanding of the very deep issues raised by church membership. (I don’t mean by “match up” that we disagree on how the issues should be resolved, I mean that we don’t agree about what the issues are.)

I’ve heard people assert that it is legitimate, necessary, and even loving to question the salvation of someone who does not belong to a local church. This is a dire judgment to level on another, and I can’t imagine even entertaining such a possibility unless I’ve worked long and hard to be sure that no other, more generous interpretation is available. And yet when I look into explanations of the rationale behind church membership, the reasoning seems flimsy and shallow to me, and I suspect that the reasoners have worked backwards from the conclusion they wanted, gathering up all the bits and pieces that could possibly be called into service to support it.

Although I now take a dim view of church membership, the dimness is mostly practical. Historically the purported benefits have been far outweighed by its potential and actual abuse. When I hear of another abusive situation in an institutional church, I first ask myself: would this be a problem if no one was exercising authority over another? The answer is almost always: no.

And so I would genuinely like to engage a thoughtful advocate of church membership, simply to ask: what exactly are the benefits bestowed by membership that outweigh the abuse that is inevitably inflicted by imperfect authority figures? are these benefits somehow available only through the exercise of authority? or is authority simply a bottom line of the faith, not to be questioned but only to be enjoyed/endured? But I expect that such a conversation would quickly become something else—a challenge to the other’s authority—no matter what words were exchanged.

Have I mentioned same-sex marriage? Of course not! To me the topic appears to be out of bounds for discussion, no matter what your position. You may preach to the choir, or you may issue “gotcha” challenges to the opposition, but you are not encouraged in any way to revisit your thinking about marriage and how it fits into overall Kingdom living.

If you don’t believe that, try to entertain this thought: Should churches be in the business of marrying people? The historical information is scattered, but I gather that for most people throughout most of history marriage was a social and legal matter, not a religious one. The Christian church insinuated itself into the process over many centuries, and it wasn’t until the Council of Trent (1545-63) that sacramental marriage became part of canon law.

Now, wouldn’t the current social situation be much less contentious if the church simply repented of elbowing its way into the marriage business, and stopped performing weddings? I don’t insist that this is the only reading of history, but it seems to be one valid reading among many. Yet I can’t imagine even raising the possibility.

Thinking and writing are inseparable for me. And the thinking is primary. If I could think adequately without writing, I wouldn’t spend the extra time to write. Especially public writing, which runs the risk of puffing one up. I have witnessed the gradual destruction of several very smart and well-intentioned thinkers who fell prey to the dangers of writing for an audience. I am no stronger, and have no desire to develop the strength required to survive them.

So I don’t really write down my thoughts for an audience—certainly not to grow an audience—but just for myself and the few friends and family members who care to read them. And I regularly reconsider my writing habits, checking to see if the current pattern is likely to accomplish what I hope.

Right now I’m wondering about the short essay format that this blog encourages (for me, anyway). It pushes me to publish less than I might otherwise, since I want the pieces to be complete in some way, and for many of the things I’m thinking about I’m not yet ready or able to write up my conclusions. Of course, in this case less may be better, at least for the reader! But for me it means that I will usually not apply the discipline of writing to thoughts which I’m not likely to publish—perhaps they are too tentative, or likely to be provocative or contentious, as on the issue same sex marriage—and so I’m wondering if there might not be better ways to spend my limited writing time.

The form this post is an experiment in response to my worries about spending my writing time wisely. Not that it represents “the new approach”. It is only a modest attempt to write differently, to get outside the old box and into another.

Turning sixty, and some life events which accompanied that, has affected my thinking in many lasting ways. Most important, I was finally able to view my life as an arc, and to turn my attention to finishing well. I now have a tangible sense of the time left to me, as well as can and can’t be accomplished in that time. Most of my life’s possibilities are now actual. I know the things I will know, I live where I will live, I know the people I will know, and I am influencing the people I will influence. The remaining time and energy needs to be focused on assembling something of quality from the pieces already at my disposal. And time and energy grow ever shorter, so it is important not to waste them.