Hammering out consensus with the foe

There’s a small group of friends that I’ve been having intellectual discussions with, usually on a daily or weekly basis, since I was eighteen.

I really disagree with them on some things that are really important to me. They’re a bit older than I am, and during their educations they decided to see if they could be good Christians while embracing a radical, unrelenting rejection of the sort of classical philosophical heritage that has long underpinned Christian thought.

They think they’ve found a good way to achieve that goal, and while it’s taken me a long time to be able to say this, I agree that they’ve found something workable. They also think what they’ve found is superior to the more classical alternative, and of course on that point I still have to disagree.

We’ve been able to continue conversing mainly, I think, because of our shared faith. We have something we all care about that anchors us together, a shared set of presuppositions we can appeal to and agree on as needed. Without that, there’s no way we could have kept the closeness that we have managed, even though at times our patience with one another has grown quite thin.

They never convinced me of their side, and I never convinced them of mine. We both saw ourselves as the underdog; I always felt like they represented the politically ascendant, oppressive opinions of the contemporary humanities, and they in turn saw me as representative of the ancient, hegemonic dogmatism of past ages of intolerance.

But I am unbelievably grateful for the long, often painful process that has been my friendship with this group. They generally aren’t my closest friends, but they have shaped me in one of the ways that it is hardest to be shaped. They have helped me expand my thinking, and escape some of my mental limitations.

I think of this when I hear some intelligent right-wing ideologue making snide comments about a strawman version of an opposing argument. When you don’t understand the people you’re disagreeing with, you are not only unpersuasive, but really, ridiculous. The best way to beat an intellectual opponent is to understand thoroughly, to steal the best ideas, and then to critique accurately. I’m not perfect at it by any means, but I’m grateful that I’m less bad than I otherwise would have been without these companions.

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