In Conversation: “The Best Defense…”

During my time as a religious living in community––specifically as a Dominican, recognizing all our Dominican-ish quirks––in conversations, I have noticed pet peeves developing in me as regards personal interaction.  I want to share this with the world because I think that a disclosure of this kind will serve to elucidate on a much broader scale how we tend to short circuit what could be genuine personal interaction that could lead to meaningful relationships.  See if perhaps these kinds of conversations happen in your life.  If they do, I'd be interested to know how you feel/think about them.  If it doesn't help... well, excuse my overly self-referent style.


The one I wish to share is: correcting and being corrected.  I'd suspect that in the interest of fraternal charity we'd defend ourselves by saying that we have a moral duty to "fraternally correct" one another (Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 33) (see also: Msgr. Charles Pope: Fraternal Correction, the Forgotten Virtue).  However, I suspect we become overzealous in this... and in what I want to exemplify below, it should easily become clear how it is not true fraternal correction.  So, I want to provide an analysis and a couple of points as to what I think this causes in an environment that is purportedly Christian and fraternal.  Take the following conversation for example:


Brother X––explaining, for example, his efforts in ministry that day––says "...and I was trying to give them a coherent explanation of the Trinity."

And before Brother X can even realize that he's probably made a theological faux pas (You know, like saying "the Big Apple" when you're in New York), Brother Y responds like a junior police officer catching his first speeder on the radar: "Well, that's the problem, you can't give an explanation of the Trinity.  It's a mystery."  Which comes along with the subtext: "You dolt."  


Brother X has some options for rebuttal at his disposal, at this point:

1) "Right, but insofar as you can explain it, that's what I was trying to do."

2) My personal fave: a witty retort that will put Brother Y in his place, supplanting his assertion of theological superiority with an even greater claim, like: "Of course you can explain the Trinity, what you can't do is give a comprehensive treatment that conveys complete understanding of the very nature of God.  That, of course, you can't do... because God is simple and infinitely beyond our comprehension.  But you can explain the Trinity insomuch as you can understand the Trinity, which is certainly possible because otherwise, how would we ever have the Beatific Vision wherein we see God, who is, by his very nature, understandable, according to Aquinas?  And of course you can explain something that you understand, even if you don't understand it completely and exhaustively!"  Which is accompanied by the equally abusive subtext "You imbecile." 

3) Or, "Yes, I know that.  You knew what I meant." 

4) Or, the very unlikely: "Of course, you're right.  How foolish of me."  

5) Or by making a joke... which may be the only way to diffuse the situation at this point.


But what is clear, regardless of the response, is that the exertion of Y's intellectual prowess has caused a rift in the conversation.  No longer is X allowed to recount his efforts in ministry that day... now he is faced with a challenge to not only the means by which he ministers, but to the very foundations of his thought about what is supposedly his expertise: God.  What is the result?  Y's best defense of a good offense has put X on the defensive when he wasn't even playing.  What was previously a conversation about one's day, or ministry, or whatever... has now become a game (or worse, a battle) where the winner takes all.  


However, I'd say this kind of exchange, which happens often enough, also happens innocently enough.  That is to say, Y doesn't intend to humiliate X––chalk it up to zeal, perhaps.   What could he have done?  Well, given X the benefit of the doubt, I suppose.  Having drawn out the interaction, I suspect now that it happens quite a bit in the public scene.  Take, for instance, the academic, political or ecclesiastical sphere.  There's a way in which we think we're being helpful, but in fact shut down the conversation by "correcting."  So, my conversation partner might say: "... you know, if only Thor hadn't bought that car, he might have more money at his disposal."  And I could quickly fly in to the rescue: "No, he didn't buy the car, he only leased it."  But the problem is that what's in question here is Thor's available cash, not whether he bought or leased a car.  The important thing to note is that he spent money on the car.  Can the conversation continue without the correction?  Of course it can.


Now, the caveat, before someone else jumps the gun and corrects me is that I do think precision in speech and thought is important.  However, it seems that within any given conversation, there are certain things that can and ought to be taken for granted––like the speaker's understanding of basic principles.  So, if Ellie Mae says to Bobby Joe that she is glad the sun came up this morning... Bobby Joe has no need to tell her either that "Of course, the sun comes up everyday..." or "Well, you know the sun doesn't 'come up' strictly speaking.  The earth rotates around its axis, yadda yadda."  


Have you played the game today?