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John Wilson, Editor

Stranger in a Strange Land

Greatly love the intellect

In a lecture delivered at the University of Notre Dame in October 1998 for the eighth annual national conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in the Humanities and the Arts, Nicholas Wolterstorff sketched what might be called an ethics of reading: "If the Christian is going to engage in that practice of our common humanity which is called scholarship, then he is thereby under obligation to honor his fellow participants by understanding as well as he can how they are thinking and where, to put it colloquially, they are 'coming from.' " Wolterstorff adds that this is a point he makes to his students "once a week" or so, and then he amplifies it:

Thou must not take cheap shots. Thou must not sit in judgment until thou hast done thy best to understand. Thou must earn thy right to disagree. Thou must conduct thyself as if Plato or Augustine, Clement or Tertullian, were sitting across the table—the point being that it is much more difficult (I don't say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.

Not only scholars but all Christians engaged in the life of the mind should post these rough-and-ready "commandments" in a prominent spot. (Wolterstorff's lecture, entitled "Tertullian's Enduring Question," appears in The Cresset, Trinity [June/July] 1999.)

Genuine engagement entails both an effort to internalize the arguments of opposing viewpoints, understanding them from the inside, and an effort to examine one's own position from the outside, testing it for weaknesses. (These two necessary steps are represented, for example, in the Scholastic method of disputatio, as practiced by Aquinas.) On both counts, most arguments fail miserably, whether the subject is U.S. policy in Kosovo or the best place to stack dirty dishes—in the sink, as some contend, or on the counter? (The latter, of course, is the position endorsed by BOOKS & CULTURE.)

One way to put it would be to say that many arguments are deeply ...

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