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Why Christians Should Examine All the Wares in the Marketplace of Ideas

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 15, 1991

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. --Proverbs 4:7

The heart of a liberal arts education is for the student to develop a wholeness of view, a circumspection, a breadth of understanding of the intellectual world--what ideas exist, who holds them and why. What are the claims for truth, for goodness, for action? What alternatives are proposed for living, for governing, for acting? What motivates people to do what they do, good or bad?

An acquaintance with many ideas provides a context and an explanation for our modern culture and its world views. So, for example, the Communist Manifesto or De Rerum Natura are important to read to provide us with such background and contextual information.

It is this wholeness of knowledge that gives us not only circumspection but humanness. The ultimate source of sympathy and compassion lies in an informed understanding of the situation of others. The French have a saying, "To know all is to forgive all."

Ideas, are in themselves, interesting things. Stimulating thought, analysis, new ideas, responses, causing you to adjust your position and incorporate new thinking into your view of things. Being challenged by strange ideas helps keep the rust and dogmatism off of our thoughts. Our thoughts are kept in proportion and a sense of measure is given to ideas.

Ideas are the raw material of other ideas, and you can't always tell what ideas are going to prove useful. Wisdom often travels unusual roads and it isn't always possible to know where or when you'll meet her. Impractical or plainly awful ideas can still be useful as stepping stones to practical or good ideas.

There are useful ideas and truths contained in the midst of bad ideas and falsehoods. Something true, useful, or good can be found in almost anything. Even Adolf Hitler said a few interesting things, about the nature of perseverance, for example.

All truth is God's truth. We should be interested in truth for its own sake, wherever it may be found, and we must realize that we don't have it all in hand right now. It is thus desirable to examine ideas to discover what truths they might contain.

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. -- Proverbs 18:17

Much of judgment consists in comparison of one thing with another. How do you know a good idea from a bad one unless you have a stock of ideas to compare with each other?

Unless you understand the opposing arguments and know how to respond to them, how can you hold your own position confidently, with integrity and conviction? For example, how can you feel sure that biodegradable products are so great unless you can state the arguments against them?

Belief of any kind, whether political, social, or religious, without thought is superstition. If something is true, it should be rational and open to thoughtful inquiry. Some truths are above being discovered or proved by reason, but all truths should be open to the investigation and affirmation of reason.

It is necessary to understand another point of view in order to rebut it. If you cannot argue the opposite side of the idea you believe, you do not fully understand the issue. In real thinking, we examine the arguments pro and con and come to a thoughtful conclusion. In backwards thinking, the kind all too common, we choose a conclusion or position and then generate reasons to prove it true. No real thinking or analysis goes on. To find out whether someone had come to a conclusion forward or backward, ask, "What are the arguments on both sides of the issue?"

Suppose a Muslim says, "But I believe in Jesus already." What will you say if you have no idea what Muslims believe?

If you say that Christianity is the best religion, in what way is it superior to Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism? What ideas do these religions have in common? What is there good in Buddhism, for example?

You might be wrong, after all. Unless you study the other side of a controversial issue, how will you ever know that you're right? You might learn something, change your mind, or at least adjust your position. For example, "Get the government out of the art business and eliminate the NEA." What arguments are there for the NEA? It supports traveling symphonies to small towns. Should that be eliminated, too?

Ignoring an argument strengthens it. There is a psychological problem with self-censoring ideas: they take on a power they otherwise would not have. As Robert Cialdini notes in his book, Influence, "Almost invariably, our response to banned information is to want to receive that information to a greater extend and to become more favorable toward it than before the ban" (239). In an experiment, when a group of college students learned that a speech opposing coed dorms would be banned, they became more opposed to the idea of coed dorms. "Thus," says Cialdini, "without ever hearing the speech, the students became more sympathetic to its argument" (240).

This means that if you refuse to listen to an argument against a position you hold, you may subconsciously be undermining your own position and giving the opposition position more power than it otherwise would have. You're thinking, "There is some argument, which I won't hear, that disproves my position." How firmly can you then hold your position?

Here's the danger of holding any belief with the attitude that all further thought about it is closed. It loses its suppleness, its strength, its health, and becomes stiff and cold and frozen, and ultimately, easier to conquer.

Supporters of a position who cannot discuss the objections to their position are either ignorant or dishonest. When I was an undergraduate, an anthropology faculty member told me, "There is no opposition to evolution." Having just read more than 30 books opposing the theory, I knew at once that he was either ignorant or dishonest--neither of which reflected very favorably on him or his belief.

Proponents of an idea who know of no objections show that they are not fully informed and they weaken the belief of those they persuade by not preparing them to respond to the objections. "Why I've never even heard that objection." Did no one who taught you the idea think of the objection? Or did they hide it dishonestly? How strong is the objection? If the proponent of the idea knew of this objection, would he have changed his mind? For example, when we teach about Christianity, we should discuss the problem of pain and the responses that have been made to it, so that those we teach will have thoughtful responses if ever asked about it.

An acquaintance with many different viewpoints lessens our worship of authority. The appeal to authority is weak; appealing to reason or data is better. When we discover that there is virtually no position--however bizarre or ridiculous--that some articulate intellectual hasn't held and promoted vigorously, then we will be less likely to accept some specious argument for some position. For example, the Marxists are fond of comparing Marxism in the abstract or theoretical to capitalism as practiced. Theory always looks better than practice, so theoretical Marxism sounds more humane than practical capitalism.

New ideas, by their nature appear strange and threatening, but lots of new ideas are good. We should get used to examining new ideas. 


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com