Another Week Ends

1. “Every day I set less store on the intellect.” These words of Marcel Proust’s […]

Todd Brewer / 3.5.21

1. “Every day I set less store on the intellect.” These words of Marcel Proust’s fall at the center of a remarkable new essay by James K. A. Smith in the Christian Century. And they are particularly bold words for a career philosopher like Smith. He explains:

When I answered the call to be a philosophical theologian 25 years ago, I imagined the world’s (and the church’s) problems amounted to a failure of analysis. If only we could think more carefully, the truth would come out. Good arguments would save us.

And yet here I am, in the middle of this profession, in the middle of a career as a philosopher, with second thoughts. I’ve had a change of heart about how to change someone’s mind.

As a young Christian philosopher, I wanted to be the confident, heresy-hunting Augustine, vanquishing the pagans with brilliance, fending off the Manichaeans and Pelagians with ironclad arguments. As a middle-aged man, I dream of being Mr. Rogers. When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love.

It’s not that I’ve given up on truth. It’s just that I’m less confident we’ll think our way out of the morass and malaise in which we find ourselves. Analysis won’t save us. And the truth of the gospel is less a message to be taught than a mystery enacted. Love won’t save us either, of course. But I’ve come to believe that the grace of God that will save us is more powerfully manifest in beloved community than in rational enlightenment. Or, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed.”

What convinced him? “All of my vocational confidence in the power of reason was quite literally humiliated in the face of depression. I couldn’t think my way out of this.”

Needless to say, I’ve abandoned all hope that we can think our way out of the mess we’ve made of the world. The pathology that besets us in this cultural moment is a failure of imagination, specifically the failure to imagine the other as neighbor. Empathy is ultimately a feat of the imagination, and arguments are no therapy for a failed, shriveled imagination. It will be the arts that resuscitate the imagination.

I think most people have run into problems they can’t think their way out of, and the turn to the arts to expand one’s imagination sounds like another way we talk about abreaction (the topic in episode five of The Brothers Zahl podcast). The issues that matter the most to us, the ones where there is the most pain or joy, escape deliberation. Love is perhaps more credible than truth specifically because it bypasses our rational defenses. At the end of the day, it’s the heart that is really running the show, and the arts speak the same language as the heart in ways that intellectual arguments can’t.

2. So how do we reach people with whom we disagree? I’m not talking about the relatively inconsequential matters of who has the best pizza slice in NYC (Di Fara’s, for the record) or which Star Wars movie is worst (Episode II), but the kinds of debates that are far more passionate and inspire more obstinance. Like religion, for example, or the closer to home “affairs of the heart.”

This is the question of Nicholas Kristof’s latest piece in the New York Times, “How to Reach People Who Are Wrong.” While he’s more interested in politics, talking across the aisle as it were, his approach has wider implications. Like Smith, he notes that in topics that people really care about, “Passion swamped expertise” — even to mathematicians.

The more emotionally invested we are in an issue, the more inclined we are toward self-righteousness. If the heart is what’s running the show, the mind is in the justification business, weighing the available data toward predetermined desires. More humorously, this is reflected in the brilliant Reductress article “How to Use the Phrase ‘I Need to Set Boundaries’ in Order to Not Compromise at All Ever in Any Situation.” Appealing to “boundaries” is a great way to do what you really want.

Debates about facts won’t move the needle. Instead, he notes, what moves the human heart is humility and empathy:

Research suggests that what wins people over is listening, asking questions and appealing to their values, not your own. […] It’s a painstaking, frustrating process of building trust, keeping people from becoming defensive, and slowly ushering them to a new place.

The process he outlines is remarkably absent of judgment. If you take away the assumption that you’re right, then the other person isn’t wrong by default. Rather than pointing out where the other person has erred and strayed (thereby inciting an intellectual defense), people might change their minds if they feel understood, i.e., loved. Somehow that feels like a radical proposal nowadays, when judgment is the standard means of convincing people.

3. At its root, the use of judgment to change minds reflects a belief that force and compulsion are enough to evince the correct response. That the demand to be or think a certain way is sufficient to change how people feel. We always think the law will work.

But instead of creating compliance, the results are so often the opposite: rebellion, hiding, resentment, and despair. Along these lines, in a recent story at Longreads, Heather Lanier wrestles with the expectation that she a must be happy with her disabled child. Happiness, she observes, is a measure of worth. If you’re happy, then you smile:

What I didn’t realize until having Fiona is that if a person is intellectually disabled, a parent’s feelings often become a barometer for their kid’s worth. What my friend and I have known, without ever knowing we’ve known, is that our culture judges the worth of our kids by judging our contentment. […] out there obliges us to offer our cheer. Are we happy? If so, then maybe the lives of our children aren’t tragic. Out there I have to smile. 

Being unable to express grief and then being required to smile in front of others is a recipe for disaster. Lanier writes how the law of happiness leads to many private tears and outbursts of rage behind the scenes. The whole dynamic is as exhausting as it is destructive. Being told how to feel doesn’t change how you actually feel, regardless of how well-intentioned such advice might be.

The heart is not moved by coercion, advice, or argument. It’s pretty obstinate in that way, recoiling at any assertion that has even a whiff of judgment. What it is moved by, though, is love. In love, the heart starts its engines to bend the will and the mind. And this is where the dynamism of Christianity is really discovered, which does not simply offer rules to live by, but God himself as the object of love. Returning to Smith:

“The mind is drawn by love,” Augustine affirms in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. Thus he pleads, “Give me a lover and he feels what I am saying: give me one who yearns, give me one who hungers … give me one like this, and he knows what I am saying.” God’s revelation, he goes on to say, is not a message in a bottle, like bits of information sent across the abyss to be received by the intellect. Rather, God’s self-revelation is a magnet for desire. “This revelation is what draws. You show a green branch to a sheep and you draw her. Nuts are shown to a boy and he is drawn. And he is drawn by what he runs to, by loving he is drawn, without injury to the body he is drawn, by a chain of the heart he is drawn.”

God did not send a message in a bottle, but himself. And like a green branch to sheep, Jesus draws us to himself by offering to us what is desirable: life, love, and forgiveness. Jesus did not compel subservience, but became a servant. He did not demand holiness, but gave it freely. In the face of such love, the obstinate were moved to love, their desires renewed to choose differently and even think differently. What the heart loves, the will chooses, the mind justifies. [1]


[1] This brilliant formula was coined by Ashley Null. In his classic book on Thomas Cranmer he summarized Philip Melanchthon’s anthropology as such: “[t]hese inner attitudes of the human heart determined the will’s direction which then had power over the other faculty of reasoning as well.” from Ashley Null, Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). p. 100.