dialogue redux

Following up on my previous post, I want to say something more about interreligious dialogue. The way to healthier dialogue — and this is just as true in the political realm as in the religious — is not the path that Philip Jenkins recommends. Effectively, Jenkins is making two suggestions: first, that we cultivate vague uncertainty and call it humility; and second, that we try to convince ourselves and others that our disagreements are insignificant. Both of these counsels are problematic. I suggest that as an alternative to them we contemplate two statements.

The first comes from G. K. Chesterton:

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.

The second comes from the philosopher Hilary Putnam, commenting on his attitude towards his longtime colleague at Harvard, Robert Nozick, an attitude which he calls “respectful contempt”:

I want to urge that there is all the difference in the world between an opponent who has the fundamental intellectual virtues of open-mindedness, respect for reason, and self-criticism, and one who does not; between an opponent who has an impressive and pertinent store of factual knowledge, and one who does not; between an opponent who merely gives vent to his feelings and fantasies (which is all people commonly do in what passes for political discussion), and one who reasons carefully. And the ambivalent attitude of respectful contempt is an honest one: respect for the intellectual virtues in the other; contempt for the intellectual or emotional weaknesses (according to one's own lights, of course, for one always starts with them). 'Respectful contempt' may sound almost nasty (especially if one confuses it with contemptuous respect, which is something quite different). And it would be nasty if the 'contempt' were for the other as a person, and not just for one complex of feelings and judgments in him. But it is a far more honest attitude than false relativism; that is, the pretense that there is no giving reasons, or such a thing as better or worse reasons on a subject, when one really does feel that one view is reasonable and the other is irrational.

It is possible to be bold and yet charitable; it is also possible for what we call “humility” to really be indifference or cowardice. That’s all I’m saying.