Dear Mr. Lough:
I found your last letter both informative and encouraging. I also noticed something else as I was reading it, and I’d like to comment on that before we go further in this series.
In the past—and I base this comment on my experience as your student a few years ago—I think your responses to my questions would have been far more… well… for lack of a better word, academic. Frankly, that’s what I was expecting. Something like the lectures you used to give—carefully structured, logical, filled with scripture references to support your point. But that’s not really what you have been doing in your response to my questions, is it?
I’m not criticizing your style or the substance of your answers, you understand. In fact, I like this new approach—something else that has changed over the past decade. Do you know what I am talking about? Do you agree with my assessment, or am I seeing something that is not really there?
In any event, I am finding this email exchange to be a helpful and invigorating experience. Thanks for being part of it, and for letting me raise these issues with you. In that regard, it seems like old times.
I know exactly what you are talking about, and I am pleased that you brought it up. My style has changed. Some of that, no doubt, reflects the changes in communication technology. My blog is the primary instrument I have for using my communication gifts these days, and blogs are better suited for brief opinion pieces, not long-form journalism.
Beyond that, when I left the classroom nearly eight years ago, although email had been around for a while, Facebook was fairly new, and Twitter was barely getting started. Since then, a half dozen more platforms have come on the cyber-scene, all based on communication in ever-briefer formats with extensive use of abbreviations and emojis. (I can’t believe I even know what an emoji is. 🙂 )
But that’s not all of it. I used to believe that, whenever I addressed an issue where I wanted to make my position clear, and especially if I was trying to persuade readers or hearers to embrace my point of view, I needed to imagine every counterpoint or opposing argument that might be presented against mine and try to answer it even before it could be raised. I couldn’t allow myself to be put on the defensive. It was important for me to make my case in a way that could not be logically refuted. I had to be right.
I convinced myself that the truth (i.e. what I believed and taught) was so important, it required the utmost diligence on my part, as its representative and articulator, to make an argument that was as close to airtight as possible. I don’t believe that anymore. None of it.
That is, I no longer believe that I understand truth, spiritual truth especially, in any comprehensive way. I am sixty-six years old, and as I read and talk to people and think about the same themes that have occupied my thinking and teaching all my adult life, I see something new every day. Ten years ago, that would have driven me to distraction. Today, I find it energizing.
Moreover, I no longer take myself so seriously as a representative or spokesperson for the “truth.” I do my best to make my views known, of course. That is consistent with the ministry gifts I have been given by God. But I know I am not the best communicator of my point of view. And I know that if I fail to make the case in a good way, there is somebody else just as smart as I am, just as able a communicator as I am, and a lot younger and with more energy who can make the case instead of me.
Finally, I no longer believe that most decisions about spirituality or religion or metaphysics in general are made on rational or intellectual grounds. If that were true, the membership of American religious denominations would not so frequently reflect socioeconomic “class” or family history. (Isn’t it amazing how tenaciously we defend a position when its defense yields social or financial or vocational benefits?)
For forty years I devoted my life and ministry to the defense of “evangelical orthodoxy” under the mistaken assumption that correct doctrine produced, as its byproduct, Christian graces such as compassion, kindness, acceptance and a rejection of materialism, discrimination, and alienation. I was wrong. There is no such automatic or natural or necessary connection between doctrine and kindness. And some days, when I am particularly susceptible to self-pity, I find myself lamenting the waste of an entire career.
But then, good judgment returns, sanity prevails, and I have occasion to remember what a friend once told me: The person with an experience is never at the mercy of the person with merely an argument. There was a time when I would have consigned such a statement to the rubbish heap of post-modern jibber-jabber. Not anymore.
As has happened so often over the course of our email exchange, your observation has prompted me to think deeply about a matter with a view to summarizing the heart of it as succinctly and yet as accurately as possible. In this case, I would summarize the change in my way of perceiving reality, which you have observed as a change in my method and style of argumentation, as the triumph of hope over fear.
I once heard the difference between liberals and conservatives expressed in this way by someone seeking to be as objective as possible in condensing both points of view to a memorable phrase. He said, “Liberals think, ‘How can we make this better?’ while conservatives think, “How can we stop this from getting worse?” Both perspectives are helpful by times.
My conservative friends, what few I have left, will probably take issue with my view on this, but I see those aphorisms as illustrations of my earlier point. For four decades, I defended what I believed to be truth out of fear of being wrong. The stakes seemed too high to take chances. The consequences of being wrong seemed too great.
I simply don’t believe that anymore. I see God differently these days. I feel warmly embraced more than righteously judged. That’s why my views of salvation and the gospel have changed.
So, I close today with the words of Billy Joel. “You may be right. I may be crazy. But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” 🙂 [I don’t really know if that is pertinent to the subject of this letter, but it was running on a loop in my brain, and I had to put it somewhere.]
Thanks for enabling this sidetrack today, Kathryn. I’m sure we’ll get back to more serious stuff anon. But then again, as I re-read this letter, I think you provoked some fairly important reflection after all. At least, it helped me think more clearly. I hope you found it helpful too.