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Dialogue without End?: The Prideful Doctrine of “Intellectual Humility”

“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

Luke 10:11-12

There is seemingly harmless tactic the devil uses to slowly infiltrate and change from within the people of God. This tactic is often presented to us as a call for “continued dialogue” or “more engagement” with those who hold to abjectly unbiblical teachings, or who openly embrace and act upon unbiblical moral orientations. We could call this tactic the doctrine of “endless dialogue,” a perennial politicking over unpopular historical dogma, a hallmark of any church about ready to capitulate to the pressures of the culture and embrace the norms of its day. The idea being that if we are good “Christ-loving” people, we must always be open to conversing about the same issue over and over, and over again. Dr. Geoffery Kirk explains the need to call this liberal bluff,

In the culture wars which have ravaged Europe since the seventeenth century, the principal tactic of the Left (to use the term broadly) has been entryism. This has been particularly so in the Churches. More recently WOKENESS in the guise of ‘inclusion’ has sought to replace the Christian virtues of tolerance, hospitality and forgiveness. This was never more true than in the cases of women’s ordination and the approval of gay marriage…What liberals want is endless conversation, dialogue without terminus. What they cannot stomach is a blunt recognition of their own apostasy.

This tactic of endless dialogue could be especially tempting in the world of Christian scholarship, where philosophers and theologians are specifically trained to charitably engage with their interlocutors, to “steel man” their opponents views, or otherwise remain open to alternative opinions or doctrines so as to never appear intellectually arrogant or epistemically confident. While all of these approaches in themselves are right and good, there is potential for the Christian academic to make the approaches themselves the ultimate ends. “Intellectual humility” is a big catchword in the arena of Christian academics,1 After writing the first version of this essay, I received some valuable feedback from a Christian philosopher who assured me he was not aware of any of his colleagues who held to this view of ‘Intellectual Humility.’ I see that as good news. even though its biblical roots as a virtue are questionable. “Wisdom,” or sophia, is clearly biblical, and certainly humility is as well, and love too. If we pursue these we will likely be less arrogant in how we present our arguments for what we hold as true, that is sure.

However, if one interprets “intellectual humility,” as some may be tempted, as the need to always remain open to other viewpoints, even ones that have consistently been adjudicated as unbiblical or biblically immoral, then one has to wonder if the Christian intellectual has lost his or her capacity to simply bear a conviction in the face of social pushback and scholarly peerage. Or, paradoxical as it may sound, perhaps the Christian scholar professing the virtue of intellectual humility is really not as intellectually humble as they present themselves. For it is one thing to appear intellectually humble before one’s peers and colleagues and another thing to be intellectually humble before the Word of God. Could it be that many who are engrossed in the life of the mind, nevertheless are unwilling to submit their mental life to the authority of the Bible?

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a vivid image of the kind of person who remains ever open to endless dialogue about God, yet who can never just accept God for who he is. We discover this Episcopalian theologian as a passenger from hell visiting heaven, a place he ultimately finds far too stilted for his own intellectual freedom, a freedom which demands that he never take too firm a stand on a biblical doctrine, especially a doctrine like hell, but rather always allows his mind to be open to other possibilities,

“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

One can easily imagine that on earth this theologian would have been seen as quite “intellectually humble,” always looking but never finding a “final answer.” How beloved he must have been by his colleagues! However, Lewis’ intuition is correct, for the day will come when such dialogue ends, and the monologue of the Word of God will be proven absolutely true. There will not be debate over God in the presence of God, nor over the validity of His moral law.

Christians who think that the need to engage in endless dialogue over immoral teachings like same-sex marriage, abortion, or transgenderism, or to submit endless research papers on more abstract doctrines like Christian physicalism, the reality of Hell, or now Critical Race Theory, should consider Lewis’ intuition above. We should be careful that when we speak of “intellectual humility” we first mean humility before the authority of the Word of God, and only then humility before the conjectures and views of men. If not, we may find ourselves one day, in the very distant future, still thinking about God but never knowing Him. A dialogue without end may sound humble, as many progressives will make it sound, but unless we realize that the Word is the End, then it is the height of arrogance.

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    After writing the first version of this essay, I received some valuable feedback from a Christian philosopher who assured me he was not aware of any of his colleagues who held to this view of ‘Intellectual Humility.’ I see that as good news.

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