This week, in partnership with the International Society of Women in Apologetics, Apologetics315 will be featuring a series of essays from women in apologetics. This following essay has been contributed by Holly Ordway, entitled: Argument and the Woman Apologist.
Why are there so few Christian women apologists and intellectuals?
They do exist; I should know, I’m one of them. But it’s a small sisterhood. I see women’s ministry leaders, yes; writers of Christian fiction and devotionals, yes; but active apologists and scholars, not many.
Furthermore, in my own experience, I find that my most interesting and stimulating conversations about books and ideas are usually with men rather than women. Yet my female friends are just as intelligent and thoughtful as my male friends. What’s going on?
Of all the possible ways to approach this question, I am going to develop just one particular line of thought here.
I believe that there are different modes of intellectual engagement, and that we often fail to appreciate the way that these modes function. What we often take as a tension between the intellectual life and femininity may really be the product of a mismatch between an individual woman and the mode of argument in which she’s attempting to work.
If we can better understand the different modes of argument, we can better equip both men and women to be effective apologists – serving Our Lord with their unique gifts in the fullest capacity.
I will present these three modes in terms of images: argument as Fight, as Exploration, and as Dance.
Our first image is that of the Fight. In this mode, argument is structured as conflict. In the Fight mode, an argument has a clear winner and a clear loser. Debates are a classic form of Fight argument: the debate opponents have distinct, contrasting or conflicting views, and they take turns striking as hard and effectively as possible, and parrying the rhetorical blows of the opponent. Debates are scored and a winner or loser is declared; the success of a debater lies in his ability to take apart the opponent’s logic or rhetoric and make points that cannot be defended against.
Sometimes this mode can be perceived negatively; after all, when we talk about people “getting into an argument” we are often equating that with “having a fight.” I would venture to say, based on totally anecdotal evidence, that the Fight mode is more appealing to men and less so to women.
I, myself, do not work in the Fight mode. I don’t enjoy watching debates nor do I have any desire whatsoever to participate in one – even though I enjoy public speaking and am not the least bit shy about articulating my ideas.
However, my (mostly) male friends who enjoy the Fight mode of argument are not barbarians. You see, there is no shame to losing in a fair fight! If two people square off and have at it, it is actually a show of respect to the other to give it your very best. If you can knock your opponent out, it is right to do so – to hold back is to subtly disparage your opponent’s intellect and dignity. The Fight mode of argument can be a refiner’s fire, as you discover the weaknesses in your own thinking and presentation through your opponent’s exploitation of them.
The Fight mode isn’t necessarily adversarial; good friends who share this mode can have discussions that habitually take place in Fight mode and have it be a joy to them, a way of stretching their thinking and strengthening their ideas.
One caution with regard to the Fight mode is that it is not the exclusive mode of argument – and in order for it to work, both parties must be clear that they choose to engage in this mode. If only one person wants to be in Fight mode, then this form of argument can create hostility, resistance, and anger – especially when the topics are sensitive ones, like the state of one’s soul!
The second image for argument that I propose is Exploration. In Exploration, we can visualize two people going for a walk side by side. Both people in the argument are facing in the same direction, moving into new territory together. In the Exploration mode of argument, the ideas are traded back and forth, turned over, looked at, and questioned: How does this work? Why is this important? What are the implications of this idea?
In Exploration mode, the discussion can be quite as intense and productive as in Fight mode. The difference is that the people involved are partners in exploration, not opponents in debate.
A soft version of the Exploration mode is often associated with the stereotypically “feminine” mode of argument. I suspect that more women than men find the Exploration mode to be their primary mode of argument, but there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about it.
Exploration done right is intellectually rigorous. Literature is exploratory, not combative – and yet it can challenge the reader to his or her very bones, just as much as an argument in Fight mode, perhaps more. In the Fight mode, we attempt to defend against the challenging idea; in the Exploration mode, we interact with it.
However, if the danger of the Fight mode is to become narrowly combative, the danger of the Exploration mode is to become comfortably vague. In order to have a productive argument in Exploration mode, you have to be willing to ask hard questions and test out the answers. Otherwise, you get Dorm-Room Philosophizing or Idle Speculation, entertaining but ultimately unproductive.
The final image of argument is that of the Dance, in which we have a give and take, a combination of Fight and Exploration. Ideally, the Dance mode is a mutually engaging and satisfying experience, in which the participants can venture ideas and allow them to be shaped by the push-back from the other person.
The danger of the Dance mode is that it can be ambiguous. Is one participant really in Fight mode? If so, he won’t be willing to change or adapt his ideas in the flow of the conversation – he will not be willing to say “You’re right; now let me think about how that changes my ideas.” Is one participant really in Exploration mode? If so, he won’t be able to handle the push-back of the other Dance partner, and will allow himself to be silenced and perhaps hurt by what he perceives as a rebuke of his ideas.
All three modes have value; however, apologetics today is often framed exclusively in terms of Fight. Debates; destroying false ideas; winning the argument; making an airtight case for the truth. All of these are ways of doing apologetics in Fight mode.
First, while Fight mode may be energizing for the apologist, it’s not always effective in terms of communicating the truth. Sometimes, yes; often, no. And certainly, if we rely solely on Fight mode apologetics, we will not be able to share the Gospel effectively with people who value different modes of communication. In my own experience of conversion from atheism to Christianity, arguments played a key role – but the Exploration of those same ideas in literature was equally important.
Second, an emphasis on Fight mode sidelines the gifts of many apologists (both women and men) who could be doing tremendous work for the Kingdom, but whose preferred mode of argument isn’t recognized as legitimate.
Third, women’s ministries often highlight Exploration mode to the expense of the other two – and all too often water it down into a sentimentalized exploration of feelings rather than ideas. If we are to take our sisters in Christ seriously as disciples in mind as well as heart, we must be intellectually rigorous in whatever mode we use. Women who work with a specifically female audience should think about their chosen mode of teaching. Is there provision for those women who are more analytical thinkers, who would greatly benefit from argument in the Fight or Dance mode?
Having a solid understanding of the different modes of argument can help us to equip all our brothers and sisters in Christ to do good work for the Kingdom.
Validating the Exploration mode of argument may particularly help women to discern that they are called to the intellectual life, in a different mode than they perhaps thought of it. But with this comes a challenge: we must make sure that the Exploration mode is intellectually rigorous. And we must recognize that for those women who work in Fight or Dance modes that these are appropriate ways to use their particular gifts.
Intellectual rigor is not antithetical to femininity. Whether our chosen mode of argument is combative or cooperative has no bearing on one’s own core identity as a woman or man. Let us remember that Paul argued on Mars Hill, and Our Lord taught in parables. Let us remember that we are all of us – women and men – made in the image of God, and use our gifts according to how He has given them to us.
Dr Holly Ordway holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MA in English Literature from UNC Chapel Hill. She is the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith and speaks and writes regularly on literature and literary apologetics. Her website is Hieropraxis.com.