Over the years, I have learned five things about the sort of people who write strangers to ask religious questions: 1) even a question about an apparently trivial matter or a wildly unfair criticism may reflect a real spiritual struggle; 2) most inquirers are looking more for confirmation or consolation than engagement and teaching; 3) many of those who honestly want to be taught do not want to be taught that much, beyond a “yes” or a “no” and a two sentence explanation; 4) many who ask your advice believe they know as much as you even though they have never read more than three pages on the subject; and 5) few will read you closely and will instead often misread what you’ve written as agreement or approval because that is what they really want.
Here are ten rules developed from my experiences writing people I don't know, for those who find them helpful.
They also apply to the kinds of discussions any Christian whose faith is known will get into, with the curious neighbor, the office atheist (usually a relative of the village atheist), the spouse's most annoying uncle, even the skeptic in the next pew on Sunday mornings. You may know almost nothing, and feel hopelessly inadequate, but they asked you and you must give them a reason for the hope that is within you.
First, not all questions need or deserve an answer, but you can only sometimes discern the cases in which a tactful silence, a gentle non-answer, or a rebuke is best. Sometimes rudeness masks a serious search and wide-eyed openness hides a desire only for endless discussion or for trapping you into writing something on which they can leap. One learns to recognize the types with practice, but never with much assurance.
For this reason, never rebuke or confront even the most obnoxious inquirer, unless you know him well enough to judge that you can fruitfully do so. Many people often write (or speak) much more rudely than they mean to because they have no idea how their words sound to others, and those who mean to be rude will not respond well to being rebuked. Answer them as if they had written politely. If they didn't mean to be rude, this will encourage them to keep talking. If they meant to be rude, this will either convert them or annoy them. Both have their uses.
Second, assume the inquirer may be suffering a real spiritual struggle, and that he might actually do what you say or, if you offend him, the opposite. Therefore do not treat the question as the invitation to a battle of wits, but as a request to be heard and taken seriously. Often you will begin by asking questions and encouraging him to talk things out, and sometimes you will never get to the point of answering the original question at all.
The manner of your answer will affect your inquirer more than its content. You are often, as far as you can tell, trying only to encourage him to hear the answer, to open a crack in his defenses that might over time open into a door. Hope and pray that you are only one—perhaps the first, but perhaps not—in a series of encounters that will bring him to see the truth. You do not need to win the argument to change his life.
Third, concede as much as you can, particularly about the practical matters. Many people seem to think that if they have found an example of failure or hypocrisy they have proved whatever point they are making and disproved yours. Admitting that the Church has failed directs the writer back to the more crucial questions of principle.
Similarly, respond to an angry or wild statement with the practical evidence against it, not with an argument. You want to present the inquirer with facts he cannot deny, which may then allow you both to examine his statement more calmly. If you examine his logic, you will find him either refusing to speak to you again, making more angry statements, or enmeshing you in increasingly complicated arguments. Facts speak louder than words, so to speak.
Fourth, assume the inquirer has seen something of the truth and build your answer on it. If his question is simply heretical, for example, try to discern which orthodox teaching he has over-emphasized and begin by affirming the truth he has seen, but then share the truth he has lost by over-emphasizing the first. You are trying to find a common ground without implying that you agree with him.
Fifth, avoid qualifying your answer more than absolutely necessary, because your subtle distinctions will confuse many of your inquirers and they may well wind up thinking you’ve said the opposite of what you said. (This has happened to me a lot.) To do this, you must accept the fact that most people are never going to want to know the answer as deeply as you think they ought to. Learn to be satisfied with painting a reasonably good portrait using a one-inch brush.
Sixth, remember that most people want short answers, even though they ask questions that cannot be answered in fewer than 500 pages. This means that you have to give an effective answer (one that will answer the inquirer’s question clearly, avoid misinterpretation, and anticipate your inquirer’s obvious responses so he doesn’t think you are an idiot) and do all this in a few words. You can but try.
Seventh, in most cases do not challenge sweeping generalizations, no matter how daft. This will be a constant problem, because so many people think in generalizations and some of them are daft. Most popular generalizations are true enough that you cannot easily disprove them or even qualify them, and anything you say against it will be met either by more generalizations or by mountains of evidence for it, much of it dubious but also very hard to disprove.
If you do challenge a generalization, treat it as an over-statement, asking for example “Do you think that’s quite fair?” or “Is it always true that . . .?” or “But on the other hand we see . . .”. All you want is to help the writer see that his generalization does not cover all cases, in the hope that he will come to see that it doesn't cover the relevant cases.
Eighth, speak personally when you can, but speak personally about the impersonal (meaning objective) truth. Share from your own experiences and feelings, and admit your difficulties and doubts, but do not even hint that the point you are making is only the truth that works for you. This is an out upon which the average skeptic will seize, either with relief or in vindication. Speaking personally is especially useful if you have to say something to which the inquirer might take offense.
Always close with a reason for the inquirer to write back. If you have only just started writing each other, you may only need to say simply “Please write. I’m very interested in your thoughts,” or offer particular kinds of help. If you have gotten farther in a discussion, ask specific questions that will help your inquirer engage your arguments. Write as if you are beginning a conversation.
Ninth, point to the Church’s teachings whenever you can. People often assume that you are either making up your assertions or that you believe them because you want to. You want them to know you are bound by an authority, not saying what you like. But do not appeal to the letter of the law without trying to convey something of its spirit: do not say only “believe this because the Church says so” but also “the Church says so because it knows . . .”.
And always present the Church’s teaching as good news, even though the element of liberation in some of the doctrines and especially in some of the moral teachings cannot easily be conveyed.
But do not quote the obvious sources, like C.S. Lewis, when your correspondent knows them well enough to click off when he hears their names. Never appeal to them as authorities. Examples and arguments from more obscure figures are often more effective, perhaps simply because they appear fresh and don’t look like a cliché. Christians known for their achievements in other fields can often be quoted fruitfully. Invoking non- or anti-Christian sources is the best tactic of all.
Tenth, pray for the person who has asked you for help, especially before writing your answer and before mailing it, and then read it over one last time before mailing. For one thing, the prayer may help you respond with more patience, for many inquirers can be extraordinarily annoying, and even if they are kindness itself their serious questions may expose to you your own ignorance and sins, which is also annoying even if it's also good for you.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.