“You need questions

Forget about the answers”

— Over the Rhine, “Nobody Number One”

This fall I will be teaching composition at the University of Oregon for the eighth time.  The course, Writing 121, like many required, introductory-level college classes, helps students to write argumentative essays.  As I’ve been putting together my syllabus this month, however, I’ve realized how much I myself have learned from teaching argumentation.

For example, I used to think of academic argumentation as something like a debate rather than the process by which individuals in a community inquire more deeply into an issue in order to find common ground.  In other words, an argument isn’t simply defending a thesis with points of evidence.  Instead, it’s seeking an answer to a controversial question that actually matters to those people and finding reasons for that answer that the group can accept.

The importance of questions and reasons (beyond answers) was emphasized to me recently by  reading two poetic works respectively about Thomas Becket and Thomas Cranmer, both Archbishops of Canterbury who were martyred for championing church reform and religious freedom.  Let me explain.

T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is about Thomas Becket as he anticipates his impending martyrdom by the knights of King Henry.  He is visited by three tempters who mirror the temptations of Christ.  They offer physical safety and power.  An unexpected fourth tempter encourages him to exercise not temporal power but spiritual power: to denounce and condemn his enemies, to make himself low in order to be highest in heaven, and to embrace the glory of his martyrdom.

Becket recognizes that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”  Even proclaiming prophetic truth, when done out of pride, can be treason against God, far worse than Becket’s falsely-imputed treason against king.  The answer ultimately matters less than the reason behind it.

However, the deepest reasons and motivations that guide our actions and beliefs aren’t what we usually show.

One area where public reasoning should be displayed is in politics, particularly in the judicial system.  Take the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  Many believed that DOMA did the wrong thing (create inequality) for the right reason (to protect and uphold the institution of marriage).  The court reasoned that the law instead was motivated by mean-spiritedness.  Thus many have said that the court did the right thing for the wrong reason.  Likewise, a recent abortion law in Texas was passed with the reasoning that one of its consequences (more strictly regulated, and thus less access to, abortion) had a certain value (good) while many opposed it by reason that another consequence (the increased suffering of already marginalized women) had the opposite value. I don’t pretend to know the right answer in either of these particular controversial cases. What if both reasons are valid?

And what if we’re asking the wrong question in the first place? An answer may matter less than the question it responds to.

“Cranmer and the Bread of Heaven,” by Eliot’s contemporary Anne Ridler, examines why Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Queen Mary.  The poem disputes the claim that what Cranmer believed he was dying for was the belief that “the [communion] bread had nothing to do with the Body.”  The poem suggests that this heretical position, falsely imputed to Cranmer, wasn’t the problem so much as the question that it answered:

    Yet how, if the question that caused so much pain,
Itself was wrongly made?

A change takes place: to this all can assent;
    But question ‘what place does it take?
    Or none at all?’—there’s the mistake,
    There we confuse our terms. For this is an event
    Not subject to a physical experiment…

Medieval scholars’ asking about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine—the “change”—in Aristotelian, scientific terms was what led to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation was the right answer to the wrong question. (A Protestant analogue might be the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.) By asking and answering the right question, Cranmer appeared heretical even though his persecutors’ supposed reasoning was in deep accord with his own.  (Of course, maintaining worldly power was the deeper reason for killing Cranmer.)

The Supreme Court, too, frequently changes what was originally at issue in a particular question.  For example, the issue of the 1966 case Miranda v. Arizona eventually became the rights of those under arrest. But asking the right question encompasses not just policy, but value, consequence, interpretation, and definition, too.  What we mean by the terms “rights,” “heaven,” “illegal immigrants,” “religion,” “God,” etc. may determine the range of answers we can give to questions involving them. Questions assuming, say, that salvation only has to do with individuals and sin might miss the larger point of God’s plan of redemption.

Thus, despite the importance of logic to argumentation, I always try to show my students the importance of the character of the arguer (ethos) and the desires and gut-level commitments that precede and orient our arguments (pathos).

I always try to show that critical thinking is essential to questioning and reasoning, but just as essential are the skills of reading and listening charitably to the voices of others, finding what we have in common and what we have yet to learn.  This must include listening to those who have gone before us, to the marginalized, to non-humans, and of course, as Over the Rhine sings in the song mentioned above, to the “still small voice … that so seldom can get through,” yet whose will most deeply accords with all that is truly desirable.

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