Can Friends Argue With One Another?

October 24, 2012

Can Friends argue? When we are at our most Quakerly best, do we never argue with one another, never present positions supported by reasons or evidence, anticipating that we may well hear alternative or counter arguments also supported by reasons or evidence?

At times that appears to be the view of Friends, but that doesn’t seem right to me, so here’s an argument for arguments.

First, the case for the other side, as best I understand it.

“I was not aware that ‘arguments,’ with connotations of rhetoric and reasoning, are part of Quaker spirituality,” writes a Quaker in a comment on a blog post I wrote. He continues, “For sure there is a period of threshing when these things are given space but once aired give way to a clearness process based in waiting worship.”

He’s saying, I take it, that there is a way we should seek the truth, and it doesn’t involve the giving and taking of arguments. Instead, it involves putting ideas on the table, perhaps in a fashion that others might call brainstorming, but then sifting through those ideas in waiting worship. And in waiting worship, we don’t ever say how we disagree with one another. Rather, listening always for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we discern a small particle of a right idea voiced by one, next we voice a way to grow that small particle into a larger right idea, and then we continue in that fashion until a way forward has been grown together by the group into something that all can affirm in unity.

Yes, I say, this is how we work together in waiting worship, seeking the truth. Arguing is no part of that process that Friends hold so dear.

So the question for me is whether gathering in stillness in waiting worship, listening for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, is the one way, the only way, by which Friends can seek the truth. Or might there be other ways?

For me, that leads me to wondering whether and how Friends value reason, the extraordinary capability that humans have that other earthly living creatures do not – or that humans have to a much greater extent than other creatures.  Is there a place for reason in discerning the truth? If so, does that place for reason fall within waiting worship or is that place for reason outside of waiting worship?

And so, for me, this opens up into a very old and very large question that Christians (also Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, etc.) have been considering for millennia: what is the relationship (if any) between spirit and intellect or between faith and reason? Are they convergent roads to the truth, or does a commitment to seeking the leadings of the Holy Spirit mean that one should lay down the use of reason?

For me, spirit and intellect are complementary.  (It was reading Etienne Gilson’s majestic Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages [1938] that first opened this question for me.)  Certainly there are those who reject the leadings of the spirit, and certainly there are those who reject the use of reason, but I am drawn to embrace both.  Also drawn to embrace both are those who write – or read – books of theology or Bible interpretation (etc.!).

Of course those Friends who have founded or sustained educational institutions – schools and colleges – must believe that there is harmony to be found between intellect and spirit.

I often find myself leaving meeting for worship with fresh questions I want to explore or puzzles I want to think about. Sometimes I enter meeting for worship with my mind abuzz with things I’ve been thinking about that don’t quite fit together and leave with a clearer sense of things.

Must the use of reason involve argument? There’s a pejorative sense of “argument” and a more positive one. When arguments become unceasingly negative, when it seems that vanquishing others rather than find truth is the goal, then we are surely talking of arguing in a way that should find no favor with us.

But arguments at their best involve the giving and taking of reasons and the mutual sifting of evidence with an eye towards finding the truth.

So yes, I want to say, Friends can argue with one another, constructively and productively. At the same time, not all things can be known through reason. For these others we need to wait on the Lord to show us what we can understand.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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