Barry Arrington, responding to R. R. Reno’s “On the Square” column The Idols of Revisionist Theology, writes:
I suppose we have an obligation to challenge and defeat error wherever we find it, but I sometimes wonder whether we really need to kick every barking dog. Johnston’s thesis is self-evidently stupid and incoherent. Should we dignify it (and even to some extent propagate it) by responding to it? Can we not rely on people’s innate common sense to recognize Johnston’s blitherings as such?
I ask these questions and then I consider some of the truly outrageous things people believe (e.g., scientology) and I wonder whether it really is necessary to combat even preposterous arguments. Then, on the other hand, if people are gullible enough to believe something like scientology in the first place, it seems that trying to dissuade them through rational argument is quite useless.
Now that I’ve gone back and forth on the issue in the course of writing this comment, I see the wisdom of Proverbs 26:4-5 more fully. The answer really is “yes we should answer them” and “no we shouldn’t answer them,” and which applies when is a matter of wisdom.
It is a very good question, and one those of us who write on such subjects ought to ponder. When you’re young, you can’t resist responding, because the targets are both important enough to engage (professors, bishops, senior clergymen, popular writers) and often easy to take down. And if you’re a male, and almost all apologists are, you’re probably testosterone-poisoned too.
You read some “important” work and find a particularly bad argument, or some nonsensical or self-contradictory declaration loftily if not smugly delivered, and feel as if you’re holding a long sharp pin in your hand as a over-filled balloon floats by. Or better: you feel as if you’d just rushed the net and your opponent has hit a weak high return that you have to, just have to, smash. It’s the right shot to make, and you’re going to enjoy the crushing finality of it.
It’s especially tempting if you are, as I was once, an Episcopal activist and the people you engage are often the junior varsity team of Protestant liberalism, or even the junior high team. You’re at the net a lot watching the weak high return float toward you.
The feeling seems to wear off as you get older, which may indicate maturity, exhaustion, despair, or the demands of middle-aged life (you want to read to your child, the gutters need to be cleaned — the heretic can wait). In any case, you think something like “let the dead bury their dead,” though with different inflections depending on the reason you’re less eager to argue, and you hope with real charity.
But one thing to be said for responding is that many people who read you actually need to hear you. Their innate common sense doesn’t protect them — sometimes they listen to the “experts” out of simple humility — but nor are they so gullible as to be beyond argument. And of course the revisionist or skeptical or liberal position is usually presented in an attractive and plausible way, some use of the appeal of “freedom” being one of the common ways of packaging the innovation.
These people are often, judging from conversations I’ve had over the years, wavering back and forth, caught between a feeling that their authorities must be right and the feeling that what the authorities are saying just has to be wrong. The mistake may be obvious to you but it is not to them. You may feel you’re standing at the night as the weak high return floats toward you, but they feel they’re standing at the net having just hit a weak high return to Rafael Nadal who’s standing about ten feet away with his racket pulled back.
We don’t need to kick every barking dog, because some of them are aged, toothless, Chihuahuas, but we do have to kick more dogs than we want to. (I’m using Mr. Arrington’s image, so dog-lovers please don’t complain. I love dogs myself.)