Charitable Thinking, Charitable Living

One of my favorite reads this year has been Alan Jacobs‘s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Jacobs’s purpose in this (short) book is simple: the reintroduction of the reader to rational, intentional thinking in our present age, which is often marked by irrationality, and the unwillingness to engage in civil, thoughtful debate and conversation with those on the other side of the aisle — whatever aisle that might be. I don’t even need to present an argument about why this book is important — we all have a sense that something is seriously wrong in current political, religious, and cultural discourse.

This book has proved significant for me, both in the ways I have attempted to re-order my thought life and in how I understand my relationships with others. His best (and perhaps even overarching) point of the entire book, is that good thinking requires charity. That’s not a word he uses, but it shows in how he encourages his readers to interact and dialogue with others. In a passage where he quotes Kierkegaard (my boy!), Jacobs says:

In his book Works of Love, Kierkegaard sardonically comments, ‘Neighbor is what philosophers would call the other.’ And it is perhaps significant that Kierkegaard, who spent his whole life engaged in the political and social conflicts of what was then a small town, Copenhagen, can see the the degeneration involved in the shift from ‘neighbor’ to ‘other.’ He is calling us back from disinhibition, and accompanying lack of charity, generated by a set of technologies that allow us to converse and debate with people who are not, in the historical sense of the term, our neighbors. (82)

What is Jacobs saying (that Kierkegaard is saying) here? Philosophizing — and even more than that, engagement with others — requires that we not automatically ascribe negative intention or stupidity to the persons with whom we are conversing. If we want the potential for a better society, one in which good quality thinking is a virtue, we have to be charitable about the intentions and logic of the people with whom we disagree. Of course, this entails risk, right? It means that we are admitting that the person we think is wrong may actually have valid reasons for thinking the way she does. Further, it means that we must accept that our reasons may be fundamentally flawed or illogical, and our posture must therefore be open to a changed perspective.

I’ve also been thinking about this in relation, not to thinking, but in relating to others. What does a healthy marriage look like, for instance, if openness and charitable thinking are virtuous characteristics? It means that when my wife and I reach a fundamental disagreement about something, I need to step back for a moment and open myself up to the possibility that her reasons are possibly better than my own. It means that, when her feelings are hurt by my actions, even if I know my intentions were not to be hurtful, that her understanding of my actions as hurtful is still valid (and, perhaps, her understanding of my actions is a better interpretation of my actions than my own). That can be difficult, because it requires me to suspend my limited rationality and admit that I ought to shift my perspective and change my future behavior.

Either way, charity, in both thought and relationship, requires risk.