Criticism, Ignorance, and the Vandals

In my senior year of high school, my English teacher was a man we students regarded with a curious mixture of fear and admiration: Marion A. Wash. Unless you were hopelessly dense, you figured out quickly that if Mr. Wash asked a question and you didn’t know the answer, it was very unwise to hazard a guess.

One day, for reasons I can’t recall, Mr. Wash asked us, “Why did the Barbarians destroy Rome?”

I had no idea what the answer might be, nor did any of my classmates, so there was a long silence as his eyes surveyed the room.

Finally, he told us: “They destroyed it because they could not comprehend it.”

He explained that that this was simply human nature:  people tend to destroy that which they don’t understand. I remember thinking at the time that the idea was itself somewhat incomprehensible. But it seemed important, so the remark stuck with me.  With the passage of years, it began to make sense.

The Vandals (or whichever barbarian invasion he had in mind) had never seen anything like Rome. It was a magnificent city; it must have been incomprehensible to a bunch of garlic-eating nomads. Perhaps it was even a fearful prospect to be in such a strange place. Utterly incapable of understanding Rome, maybe the only way they could demonstrate their dominance over it was by ruining it.

I can’t say with certainty whether Mr. Wash was precisely right about their motivation, but his insight into human nature was sound. We do tend to destroy that which we can’t comprehend.

I’ve discovered that tendency in myself, though it surfaces as an inclination to dismantle ideas rather than buildings. The most negative and reflexive critiques I’ve ever generated have been in response to things that I didn’t actually understand very well at the time. Unfettered by actual knowledge of the target of criticism, one can let loose with what feel like teriffic rhetorical volleys; ignorance appears to act as a sort of catalyst for criticism.  Perhaps this explains why ignorance and criticism so often seem to go hand in hand. [1]

Visigoths, not Vandals – but you get the idea

Dismissing that which one does not understand is much easier that trying to comprehend it, and let’s face it: demolition yields instant gratification, unlike the slow-paced satisfaction that comes from developing an idea from scratch or building something from nothing. The Vandals trashed Rome in a fraction of the time that it took to build and had fun doing it.

To make matters worse, ignorant criticism maintains its greatest potency among those who are also ignorant. In the right environment, such criticism can snowball; even foolish ideas can grow in popularity so long as they aren’t examined closely.

The necessity of understanding other people’s points of view before deciding that they are worthy of criticism was brought home to me recently when I read for the first time a short article entitled “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” by the late Roger Nicole. The principles expressed in the article apply not only to theological debates, but to all sorts of areas of disagreement.

In the article, Nicole emphasizes that the first step in dealing with disagreements is to consider our responsibility to love our neighbor:

… what we owe that person who differs from us, whoever that may be, is what we owe every human being–we owe them love. And we owe it to them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated. (Matthew 7:12)

How then do we desire to be treated? First, we want people to know what we are saying or meaning. If we are going to voice differences, therefore, we have an obligation to make a serious effort to understand the person with whom we differ….In the case of an oral exchange where we don’t have any written words, we owe the person who differs from us the courtesy to listen carefully to what he or she says. Rather than preparing to pounce on that person the moment he or she stops talking, we should concentrate on apprehending precisely what his or her position is.

…The truth that I believe I have grasped must be presented in a spirit of love and winsomeness. To do otherwise is to do detriment to truth itself, for it is more naturally allied to love than to hostility. (Eph. 4:15) Belligerence or sarcasm may, in fact, reflect a certain insecurity that is not warranted when one is really under the sway of truth. …when dealing with those we have a desire to influence for the good, we need imperatively to remain outgoing and gracious.

The first thing that I should be prepared to learn is that I may be wrong and the other person may be right. Obviously, this does not apply to certain basic truths of the faith like the Deity of Christ or salvation by grace….Yet, apart from issues where God Himself has spoken so that doubt and hesitancy are really not permissible, there are numerous areas where we are temperamentally inclined to be very assertive and in which we can quite possibly be in error. When we are unwilling to acknowledge our fallibility, we reveal that we are more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation than in the discovery and triumph of truth. A person who corrects our misapprehensions is truly our helper rather than our adversary, and we should be grateful for this service rather than resentful of the correction. As far as our reputation is concerned, we should seek to be known for an unfailing attachment to the truth and not appear to pretend to a kind of infallibility that we are ready to criticize when Roman Catholics claim it for their popes!

The article is a gem, and ought to be required reading for all presbyters and, indeed, all Christians.

When I read this piece, I can’t help thinking of how often my motives for offering criticism fail to rise to the level of love for my neighbor. The desire to love my neighbor is too often buried deep beneath my perceived need to stand my ground and defend my personal status quo. Approaching criticism in the manner that Nicole describes not only requires love for my neighbor, but sufficient humility to set my neighbor’s honor above my own.

This is an article that I’ll profit from re-reading every few months. The temptation to argue like a Vandal can be hard to shake.

Footnote 1:
This observation connects nicely with a proverbial saying that I learned as a child: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
I decline to speculate as to why my family felt that this particular saying was one that I especially needed to learn.
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3 Responses to Criticism, Ignorance, and the Vandals

  1. Phil Pockras says:

    This is splendid, Tom. So very true. And I have sinned in this way. I thank God that it happens far less often than it used to. This is a testimony to the work of the indwelling and transforming Holy Spirit, not to any innate acquisition of my own wisdom.

    I’ve just seen a sister in Christ treated this way, and then her accuser treated back the same way by others rising to the sister’s defense. I think that I shall be passing this along.

  2. Patrick says:

    Tom,

    This is an excellent article.

    I find that the problem for most is that it is hard and humbling work figuring out someone’s position. It is interesting that most criticism of theologians and philosophers comes from people who have never actually read the works.

    I appreciate Karl Barth’s observation on criticizing Schleiermacher. He says that the absolutely wrong approach is to take pot-shots at the man from snippets you have read somewhere out of context. Instead, you must begin by a) understanding the context within which he wrote, and b) working hard at understanding what he was trying to do in that context. Only then can you provide criticism that is worthwhile.

    The same is true in the church. Consider how much slander is passed around by dishonest hearsay. This is a very important message for elders in Christ’s church (I Tim. 6:4). Too often we listen to criticize and not to understand.

    Thanks Tom

  3. Pingback: Lost Art of Logic: Irrelevant Reasons to Believe | ReformedRuminations

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