This week’s mailbag episode got me thinking about how we handle questions. If you enjoy OTT, I’d guess that you are interested in the life of the mind and find yourself in situations where others are coming to you for your considered opinion on big questions. That can be a weighty responsibility and we all, absolutely including me, have room to grow in how we steward it. I take it we all want to grow in our intellectual virtue. To that end, here’s 4 tips for growing in virtue that you can start doing today!
1. Notice how a particular question makes you feel.
If you are tempted to write this off as hippie-talk, then this practice will be especially helpful for you. It is normal for ideas to have an emotive effect. And further, it is wise to notice which emotions are evoked by a particular thought or question. Let’s use an example from this week’s Mailbag episode. Christa asked “Will God have enough patience and grace for those who plant themselves honestly and earnestly in the camp of "I just don't know anymore"?
What are you feeling? Are you feeling inquisitive - like you’d want to ask follow-up questions for clarity? Or perhaps you feel threatened or worried - seeing some immediate potential implications for answering in a certain way and what that might mean for your theology. Or maybe you feel confident and would have no problem issuing an answer for Christa.
Whatever it is you are feeling, that feeling can provide an opportunity for some self-examination.
“Why does this question make me angry?”
“Why do I feel so sure about my response?”
“Why am I so afraid of answering the question this way?’
Performing this inventory can provide surprising insight for understanding your own mind, how it works, and what adjustments you’d like to make moving forward.
2. Look for key terms that deserve further clarity so you and your interlocutor are on the same page.
I resist the notion that philosophy is all about arguing about what words mean. There’s so much more to it than that. Yet, we will forever talk past each other unless we can closely approximate the way we are using the same words. Let’s say you were having a conversation and using Christa’s question again, which words would you want to make sure you agree about?
I would not pick the word “camp” - I’m not worried about the latitude of meaning here between a campsite or a children’s summer camp, I trust that she means “group” or “adherents of a view”. But, if we had the time for it, I’d probably ask just a bit about “patience” “grace” and “know”. How these words are being used will heavily influence the thrust of the question and potential responses.
3. Shifting the focus from belief-adjustment to personal care.
Some might call this being “pastoral”. What we believe matters and influences how we act. But, if our primary aim is just to change what other people believe, we are going to miss out on some of the greatest joys of exploring big ideas - the depth of relationship and community you can have with others. That’s why they are “big” ideas. They have existential importance for us and likely make contact with our personal stories in profound ways
A simple way to shift your intellectual conversations toward this pastoral side is to ask questions like: “Why do you find this topic important to you personally?”, “What do you think is the driving force in you asking about this?”, “When did you first start thinking about this and did something in particular spark this idea in you?” These types of questions encourage people to share how their intellectual projects intersect with who they are as people. When we shift our focus to caring for the person, and how they are growing in the midst of their questions and doubts, we get at the heart of what inquiry and conversation is meant to do.
4. Knowing when to say “I don’t know”
Both extremes of this lack of knowing can be particularly grating - the know-it-all who has an overly-confident opinion about everything and the person who never dares do some “epistemic trespassing” and consistently resorts to declaring that “they don’t know”. Somewhere in the middle is far more healthy and conducive to fruitful conversation. In my younger years and left to my own devices, I would gravitate toward the former. What about you - which side do you drift toward?
Either way, there is a skill and awareness in assessing whether or not you, in fact, knowing something. Reporting that state honestly is typically the best policy. This isn’t to say we can never speculate or guess; that is where creative and critical thinking can flourish most. But a surprising amount of charity enters conversations where both parties simply acknowledge places where they are less confident in their position.