Unfiltered: Persuasion

*Unfiltered (and unedited!) thoughts on the idea and practicality of persuasion*

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

Throw a blanket over a chair. In all likelihood, you would recognize immediately that there is a chair beneath the contours of the fabric. The blanket is not the chair, but the chair gives shape to the blanket. This is a possible image for thinking about a certain aspect of creation – the shape it is given by the Logos. For the Christian, the shape of the universe, and everything in it, points towards something beneath, within, and throughout it. The universe is not just a lot of things; the things make “sense.” And, not surprisingly, “sense” would be one of many possible translations for the Greek word, Logos.

In our world of secular materialism, we would not tend to think that “sense” is anything other than something our thoughts do. But this begs the question: why do our thoughts make “sense” of things. Where did their “sense” come from?

The Logos does not belong to the categories of “things.” It is not a mathematical principle, nor a law of physics. But both the principles of mathematics and the laws of physics point towards something else. In Christian theology, both are just blankets covering a chair.

The chair and blanket is a helpful metaphor for an aspect of the human experience that perplexes me often. It’s easy for me to despair of any possibility for true communication or persuasion among people who have a fundamentally different conception of what’s under the blanket.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion. How do people who believe the unborn is a fetus and people who believe the unborn is a child talk with each other in any meaningful way? To put it in the terms of the metaphor: the collection of cells and tissue is the blanket and the reality of the being underneath is the chair. For any progress to be made in such a debate would seem to require a complete overhaul of a person’s philosophical and theological presuppositions. Such a transformation would cut to the core of of an individual–a sense of identity and understanding of personal experience would have to be completely reinterpreted.

It would be easy to say, “Well, if that’s what it takes, so be it.” But it’s easier said than done. Who honestly wants to pull the rug out from under themselves like that? No one.

Buried in the issue of a debate like abortion, the whole world is at stake. “So,” in the words of Eliot, “How should I presume?” If you’re religious, can you hope to persuade anyone without divine intervention? And if you’re irreligious, can you hope to persuade without an existential crisis?

Maybe I’m making too much of it. But some days I wonder if it’s worth arguing with anyone unless you are willing to put your whole life on the line. I know that’s dramatic, but I don’t see a way around it if the goal is true persuasion.

For one perspective on the issue, I recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Liz Bruenig. Liz argues that respect for human dignity and general hopefulness should motivate us to argue with one another. I think she’s right. To despair completely would enact a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Worried about being able to persuade someone? Don’t bother and you’ll know for sure that they aren’t persuaded!

I’d also add that it seems to me that true persuasion happens incrementally. To be persuaded is of cosmic significance, and no one person could survive a complete transformation of view/thought/experience. I just finished reading Dante’s Purgatory which impressed me with this reality. Not even sinners after death can expect to have their sin removed from them in its entirety. Such a surgical removal would annihilate a person. Cleansing, purification, transformation is slow and methodical. The sinners in Purgatory do not wish to rise too soon. When Dante meets Statius, a poet who had recently been released from his punishment, claims to have been surprised by his sudden desire to ascend. For the past five hundred years, he’s desired that his punishment last as long as necessary. And he did so without any idea of how long that might take.

So too with persuasion. No one will be persuaded of anything significant overnight. Someone who has believed that the chair shaped blanket covers a series of discrete cubes to give the illusion of a chair will not likely be convinced otherwise–that is, until argument and personal experience begin to converge and present a different picture altogether.

Thomas Becket and T.S. Eliot

The BBC Podcast In Our Time has a great episode on the life of Thomas Becket. I listened to it the other day in preparation for teaching T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.

(Side note: In Our Time ranks as one of my top five favorite podcasts; I hope to be like Melvyn Bragg when I grow up.)

Having not read much of the history about Thomas Becket himself, I was unaware of how what we know about Becket’s personality and reputation does not recommend him as a saint. His story reminds me of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal who eventually becomesThe Death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral Henry V. As a young man, Becket was energetic, rash, and stubborn. Henry II made him Lord Chancellor, and Becket proved himself an effective and efficient member of the state. As Melvyn Bragg and his guests point out, Becket was the kind of person who had very few friends: everyone loved him or hated him.

Becket took the job of Archbishop of Canterbury reluctantly. Henry ushered him into the position hoping Becket would ensure that the church would remain subordinate to the power of the state. But like Prince Hal who forsook his closest friends when he ascended the throne, Becket swore his allegiance to the church and made a habit of frustrating Henry’s attempts to exercise authority over the church.

There are at least two ways to view Becket’s transformation: either it’s a genuine spiritual conversion which resulted in his conviction that the church should remain on equal footing with the state, or it’s an instance of Becket being consistent with his brash personality. In the podcast, Laura Ashe argues that Becket’s change is similar to a professional footballer changing teams: the player takes his skill-set and uses it in a new setting, even if it’s to the disadvantage of his previous team. How you interpret Becket’s personality inevitably colors your interpretation of his death. Was it a courageous, selfless act in service to the church? Or was it unnecessarily undiplomatic and foolhardy?

Eliot’s dramatization of Becket’s martyrdom engages with this exact historical problem. Upon returning to England after seven years of exile, Becket recognizes that his decision to return will bring his conflict with Henry to a tipping point. He is then met with four Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot — Reviews ...different temptations, all of which point to different ways of handling the situation. The fourth tempter is the most insidious because he tempts Becket with martyrdom—a sacred and revered title within Christian history. The church remembers martyrs for their uncompromising bravery, and reveres them as spiritual exemplars of Christian conviction.

Martyrdom, however, cannot be sought for its own sake. Otherwise it becomes a vehicle for self-glorification and egotism. The tempter makes the case clearly in his appeal to Becket:

But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Said and Martyr rule from the tomb. (37-38)

And…

Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation. (39)

Martyrdom for the sake of fame and power is no martyrdom at all. Exasperated, Becket responds,

Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition? (40)

The play does not provide easy or clear answers to Becket’s questions. All human action is bound up with good and bad intentions, with sin and grace, virtue and vice. “Sin grows with the good” (45), Becket points out. No action can be viewed discretely or as devoid of value; yet every action can be construed in opposite extremes. How then should Thomas act in his situation when even holy martyrdom seems infected with pride?

Becket’s final speech before his death gives some clue. After the four knights have arrived and are returning to the cathedral to kill Becket, some of the priests attempt to persuade him to lock himself in the cathedral. Implicitly, the priests argue that Becket’s decision to leave the doors open is reckless. But Becket responds:

You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent. (73-74)

Temporality is the problem. Actions committed and perceived in time become mixed: “For every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown.” The passage of time also tends to fragment experience and perception. The moment of experience is only understood as a memory, which is malleable. There is no isolated, objective, unadulterated “fact” of experience. In time, everything “become[s] confounded.” The Thomas Becket | 10 Facts About The Murdered Saint ...only hope of a virtuous selfless action is eternity: some mode of perception in which experiences occur without the distorting effects of time. To act rightly requires either 1) a supernatural gift of insight prior to the decision to act, or 2) a grave humility that acts in faith and hope that right action does not require perfect knowledge, only the grace to act well.

Eliot ends the play with the four knights’ defense and the priests’ memorial speeches. Like the passage of time, the effect of Eliot’s ending distorts the audience’s ability to judge Becket’s actions. Is he a martyr? We’re never given the chance to consider his death on its own terms. Instead we’re met with a series of arguments for the practicality of his death as a means to retain peace within the kingdom, and then the laments and praises of Becket’s followers. Neither group—the priests or the knights—fairly represent Becket’s decision. They are equal and opposite extremes, demonstrating that “good and evil in the end become confounded.”

I think Eliot believed Becket to be a saint, but I appreciate that he doesn’t present him uncritically. There’s room within the play to think Becket made the wrong decision. Given the inescapable distortion of temporality, the play ends appropriately with a call to prayer, and specifically for God’s mercy:

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us. (88)

 

The Idea of a Sabbath

aeon:

When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive – the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough – the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.

The idea of a sabbath day is beautiful, but it’s an idea that always seems just out of reach. When I think about it long enough, a weekly sabbath makes perfect sense. Of course I should take one day a week where I rest from my usual work. And this is true even without all the (inescapable) religious connotations. A sabbath is part of a natural rhythm. Human being are not robots, the world is not a machine: we cannot work incessantly without also resting.

Keeping the sabbath would also reorient our perception of time. I recently listened to an episode of Mere Fidelity that discussed Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions, where Augustine meditates extensively on the nature and the human experience of time. At one point, Alastair described how a sabbath presents us with an opportunity to step out of the slavish linear progression of time: it gives us a birds-eye view of the past and the present, and simultaneously relieves our bodies and minds from the strain of living moment to moment.

Alastair’s comment reminded me of T. S. Eliot’s observation that “Time past and time future / allow but a little consciousness.” For Eliot, the moment of consciousness is a present moment, eternal and free from the march of time. But that moment is not experienced as an escape from time. Later in the same stanza, he writes:

To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

How fitting, then, is the sabbath–a moment in time where we stand still while the world continues to turn. Stillness, an idea Eliot contemplates throughout the Four Quartets, is always at the center of movement. It is the source and end of movement. Without stillness, there is only incomprehensible chaos.

And so we ought to sabbath.

Today I took a sabbath. Sort of. Really I just gave myself permission not to grade papers or plan lessons for next week. Instead, I took some deep breaths, read a non-school book, watched some soccer, played my guitar, attended a funeral, and then got caught up on a TV show with my wife. Today may not have been an ideal sabbath, but every aspect of my day was restful in some way. The mere act of choosing not to respond to the usual pressures of my work as a teacher was invigorating, almost timeless.