3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Category: commonplace (page 1 of 4)

How to think (even when arguing)

Source: Wikipedia

Sometimes we need to sit down and think clearly what it is we think we are doing when we think. Then, as if to make the job harder, we need to think about how we express what it is we have thought. Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole attempted to do just that with The Art of Thinking, the first edition of which was published in 1662. Arnauld and Nicole were part of what has come to be known as the ‘Port Royal’ school, which included Pascal and Racine, and was named after the two religious foundations of that name in and around Paris, and which represented a resistance to the assumptions about education and knowledge prevalent in France in seventeenth-century (Arnauld, in particular, didn’t like the Jesuits, and the near-monopoly they had on education and French intellectual life).

A section in The Art of Thinking (which is sometimes also known as ‘Port-Royal Logic’, or plain old ‘Logic’) deals with the place of argument, disputations and contention. Significantly, Arnauld and Nicole place it within a wider argument about the dangers of “self-love” to clear and truthful thinking. Sometimes, we can be so caught up in proving that we are right that we neglect to see how much we have been seduced by ourselves, proving to ourselves that we are loved, even if it is only loved by ourselves.

I don’t know why I think this wise and pacific teaching about disputations should be so appealing today, of all days:

7. Malicious or envious contradictions may be to some extent distinguished from less objectionable disposition but one which produces similar faults of reasoning. This disposition is the spirit of contention, a disposition no less injurious to the mind than is self-love.

Disputes in general are not to be condemned. On the contrary, debates rightly used contribute more than anything else to our finding the truth and to our convincing others of this truth. An isolated mind examining a subject is often cold and languid; that it may be inspired and that its idea may be awakened, the mind needs a certain warmth. Often by the varied oppositions encountered we discover the obscurities of a position as well as the difficulties in convincing others of that position: and so debate gives an opportunity for both correction and clarification.

Helpful as debates are when rightly used and when not invaded by passion, yet they are dangerous when improperly used by persons who pride themselves on maintaining their own opinions at any cost and on contradicting all other opinions. Nothing can take us further from the truth nor plunge us more readily into error than a contentious disposition. Imperceptibly we become accustomed to find reasons for everything and yet to place ourselves above others’ reasons by never yielding to their force. Little by little we are led to hold nothing as certain and to confound truth with error by regarding both as equally probable. That a question is to be settled by discussion or that two philosophers agree is a rare thing indeed. Replies and rejoinders are always found, since the aim is to avoid not error but silence: To remain always in falsehood is believed less disgraceful than to admit a mistake.

Unless discipline has taught us perfect self-possession, we easily lose sight of the truth in disputes; no other activity so excites our passions. What vices have debates not awakened. says a celebrated author,  since they are nearly always governed by anger. We pass first into a hatred of the reason and then of the person. We learn to dispute only to contradict: Because each is busy contradicting and being contradicted, the fruit of the de­bate is the annihilation of truth. One goes to the east, another to the west; the principle is lost, the argument founders in cavil­ing. After an hour’s storm neither disputant knows what is being disputed. Some hold themselves above the dispute; others are incapable of entering into the dispute; and still others speak only beside the point in dispute. One seizes on a word or an analogy; another neither listens to nor at all understands what his opponent says, being so engaged with his own thoughts that he can follow only his own arguments. Others, conscious of their weakness, fear everything, reject everything, and either obscure the discussion from the start or else become obstinate and silent in the midst of the dispute, affecting a proud contempt or a stupidly modest disdain for contention. Some, provided only that they strike, do not care how they expose themselves; others choose their words and weigh their reasons. Still others rely on voice and lungs alone. Some end up opposing themselves, and others weary and bewilder everyone by their prefaces and useless digressions. Finally, some counter with abuse and trump up a quarrel to end a discussion in which they are suffering defeat. Such are the common vices of debates described ingeniously enough by this celebrated author, who, though he never knew the true grandeur of man, has nicely canvassed man’s defects. From this enumeration of the pitfalls of debate we see that de­bates could prove harmful to the mind. So, if debate is to be helpful, we must avoid these pitfalls ourselves as well as being careful not to follow others into the depths. We must see others wander without wandering ourselves, never losing sight of the end we ought to seek—the clarification of the truth under dis­cussion.

From Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, The Art of Thinking; Port-Royal Logic, ed. by James Dickoff and Patricia James, Library of Liberal Arts, 144 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), pp.274-275

Thomas Merton, on ‘progress’

Merton…there is a bulldozer working day and night in the cornfields, the bottom lands, and I sleep next to the window right over those fields. What are they doing? Can’t they be content to let the creek wind as it always did? Does it have to be straight? Really we monks are madmen, bitten by an awful folly, an obsession with useless and expensive improvements.

To the east, then, the bulldozer day and night. The noise never stops. To the west, the dehydrator. The noise stops perhaps at midnight. A layman drives the bulldozer, brothers work at the dehydrator.

To the northwest—a pump, day and night. Never stops. There is nothing making any noise to the south–but then to the south the monks’ property soon comes to an end, and there are only lay people, whose lives are generally silent. They only speak. We make signs, but drown everything in the noise of our machines. One would think our real reason for making signs might be that it is not always easy to be heard.

October 19, 1961,  Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years, ed. Victor A. Kramer, Journals of Thomas Merton 4 (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 171


To neglect my parents in old age is not an act of injustice but an act of impiety. Impiety is the refusal to recognise as legitimate a demand that does not arise from consent or choice. And we see that the behaviour of children towards their parents cannot be understood unless we admit this ability to recognise a bond that is ‘transcendent’, that exists, as it were, ‘objectively’, outside the sphere of individual choice.

Roger Scruton, ‘Authority and Allegiance’, The Meaning of Conservatism (2nd edition, 1984)

[Jung, Reich and Lawrence] tried, in their disparate ways, to go so far beyond psychologising that it would become a way of life, that culture would be destroyed as a system of controlling consolations and reconstructed as a system of more immediate releases of impulse… They did not so much seek some new consolation as that culture of release which would render the many consolations of high culture unnecessary. However, what they achieved was new consolations, locked forever in a struggle against defensive cultural ideologies.

Philip Rieff, ‘The Analytic Attitude’, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, (2006), p. 29

So full of faith I could fly!

I do like this…

Steve Bell "If..."

Things you’d never hear in church…

A small summer, bank holiday tribute to Mock the Week:

“Things you’d never hear in church”. Contestants to the performance area, please…

  • Bless you, Vicar. You’re the one with the training. You decide.
  • I think as a PCC we just don’t pray enough.
  • No, our generation has had its own way for long enough. It’s time for you young people to show us how it’s done.
  • He’s a hard working man with his heart in the right place. He needs our support.
  • I’m sure we can find another £500 a year to pay for that project.
  • Let’s do something spontaneous, generous and anonymous for the vicar’s family.
  • I love the way children behave in church.
  • Thank you for pointing out my children’s inconsiderate behaviour. I’ll have a quiet word with them.
  • The diocese think we’ve paid too much quota this month.
  • Are you sure you’ve taken all your annual leave this year, Rector?
  • Surely we could give more to support the work of the diocese?
  • No, no, we don’t need you to be at this meeting, Vicar. We can manage without you.
  • Do we really need to set up another committee to decide that?
  • I know she never came to church, so I suppose she wasn’t really a Christian.
  • We don’t want to use this christening as just an excuse for a party. We want the service to be the important bit.
  • I’d really love to learn some new hymns.
  • I’m going to go home and really think about what you said in your sermon, Vicar.
  • I realise now that my Sunday School faith isn’t enough.

And, finally…

  • Yes. Let’s give that a go.

Commonplace (31) : Evensong and Theologians

In 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer set up an illegal seminary in Finkenwalde, in opposition to the Nazi dominated structures of the National Church:

The programme for the day began and ended with two long services. In the morning the service was followed by half an hour’s meditation, an exercise that was not interrupted by the circumstances of the removal, though packing cases and youth hostel bunks were the only furniture. The services did not take place in church but round the ordinary dinner-table. They invariably began with a Psalm and a hymn specially chosen for the day. There followed a lesson from the Old Testament, a set verse from a hymn (sung daily for several weeks), a New Testament lesson, a period of extempore prayer and the recital of the Lord’s Prayer. Each service concluded with another set verse from a hymn. Readings from the Psalms and the Scripture took the form of a lectio continua, for preference without any omissions. In structure this very much resembled Anglican evensong. Bonhoeffer believed that this sequence of readings and prayers was the most natural and suitable form of service for theologians.1


  1. From Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian, Christian, contemporary. ed. Edwin Robertson, tran. Eric Mosbacher (London: Collins, 1970). []

Commonplace (30)

Choirs and Articles

The changing rooms of Durham Choir School at the end of a school term is a bit like the Church of England : full of Thirty-Nine articles, which nobody very much wants.

Attributed to John Grove, in a talk by Canon Martin Warner, Rochester Cathedral, 16 September 2002

Commonplace (29)

Huge Tragedy
John Ibbitson, of the Globe and Mail, on 14 September 2002 referred to an alleged conspiracy to murder an OPP police officer in Brockville in December 1999.

…the police and the local Crown attorney became convinced that they had prevented a tragedy of CNN proportions…

(… a tragedy of CNN proportions … Can a tragedy get any bigger?)

Commonplace (28)


…the great value of wearing a SMILE badge is that it leaves your face free to scowl.

Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Havernization’ , The New York Times, 29 September, 1977

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