Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Logic for theological discussion

Many readers will know that while I was in seminary, I taught at a small school just outside of St. Louis. Two of the classes I taught were Logic and Rhetoric. (I won’t go into a lot of detail about Rhetoric, but “Rhetoric” means a lot more than the way we hear it thrown around on the news; the study of Rhetoric is actually the study of persuasive communication, which obviously includes a great amount of the communication we have today.) I taught those classes because I had a fair amount of training in both areas, and over the years I’ve picked up a lot about how language, reason, and sound thinking work (and don’t work) in discussions, both formal and informal.

Since beginning seminary, I’ve also noticed a good bit about the nature of theological discussion and debate, as well. In short, I’d have to say that at least a simple majority of the discussions, debates, and conversations I’ve witnessed fairly butchered many of the fundamental ideas of basic reason and logic.

So one of the things I want to do is to start an occasional series of blog posts that look at logic and how it ought to guide theological discussions. I think that a large part of the problem is that many people don’t know what makes an argument for or against a particular position or viewpoint a good or bad argument. That’s a problem that we can fix-- and we should.

(For some people, I did something in the previous paragraph that was a new idea: the notion that an “argument” is actually a neutral idea, and that some may be good and others may be bad. Many of us have been taught implicitly that “arguing” and “fighting” -- or “arguing” and “bickering” -- are essentially the same thing, when they are not. One can offer a good, well-reasoned argument for or against something that is loud, vitriolic, and abusive; another may offer an unsound argument that is pleasant, civil, and gentle. Or vice-versa.)

For starters, here’s a fundamental concept of logic: The way we say things is just as communicative as what we say.

By “the way we say things” I mean their form. Language offers us a number of forms that are important to consider; to name a few:
  • Grammatical form-- often a misplaced comma or a poorly understood semi-colin can change meaning drastically.
  • Syntactical form-- word choice (syntax) is also important, since words usually have a great variety of meanings.
  • Logical form-- moving beyond grammar and word choice, by this I mean the way that sentences, paragraphs, and communication on a much larger scale fit together-- in themselves, and when connected to each other.
  • Forms of ethos and pathos-- how we are sensitive (or insensitive) to embodying character (godly character, sinful character) and emotion in what we communicate, not only by words but by how we say them.
These are just some examples of form. To get a sense of how form matters as much as content, consider the sentence below:

I know you didn’t mean it.

Now, think of how placing accent behind one or another word in that sentence might change its meaning:
  • I know you didn’t mean it. (Implying that others may not know.)
  • I KNOW you didn’t mean it. (Suggesting that it may have seemed like you did.)
  • I know you didn’t MEAN it. (But it hurt anyway.)
Get the picture? Words are powerful. But language is much more than words-- it’s also about how we use them. That’s a fundamental principle of logic.

More on this soon.

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