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Speaking the Truth in the Beauty of Love: A Guide to Better Online Discussion

EDITOR'S NOTE: This talk was delivered by Dr. Bryan Cross, a Strange Notions contributor, at Franciscan University on July 29, 2017. Although the original audience was primarily Catholic, most of Dr. Cross' advice applies equally well to all readers at Strange Notions, Catholics and atheists alike. We're sharing it given our special commitment here to "speaking the truth in love," to rational, charitable discussion. Enjoy!



I. Introduction

A number of years ago, before I became Catholic, I received a phone call from a moderator of a private internet discussion group to which I had belonged for nine years, informing me that I was being removed from the group. The news was painful. Officially I was being removed because of my views, which had changed somewhat. But after some months and then years of reflection, it became very clear to me that no small part of the reason I had been removed was that although in regard to logic I was probably better than average among the members of the group, I lacked certain virtues crucial for participating in the discussion in a way that facilitated its advance.

Over time I came to realize more fully that fruitful dialogue depends on much more than good argumentation and sound reasoning; it depends even more so on the presence of particular virtues in the heart of each participant. I also learned that I did not know much of anything about rhetoric. So I began a long-term and still ongoing endeavor to acquire these virtues, weed out their opposing vices, and learn a bit about rhetoric.

What I learned applies not only to ordinary communication, but also to communicating the gospel, because grace builds on nature. So I'm going to be talking about how to speak and write in a virtuous way, a more beautiful way. I'm not talking about beautiful grammar, or about eloquence or turn of phrase, and I'm not talking primarily about the propositional content of virtuous communication. I'm talking about the mode, the stance, the manner, and awareness of and sensitivity to the place of the interlocutor, in other words, excellence in that personal dimension of authentic communication.

And excellence in one's mode of speech is not fundamentally a set of tricks, techniques, moves, or skills, because excellence of this sort is in one's character, one's dispositions, who one is as a person in relation to other people. In fact, verbal persuasion techniques without virtuous character tend to be counterproductive, even repulsive, because interlocutors soon see right through them, and feel as though the speaker is trying to manipulate them for his or her own advantage. So even though I will be talking about rhetoric, which is an art or skill, I'll be talking primarily about the role of virtuous character by which rhetoric allows us to communicate effectively.

Why should we talk about this? Media technology used well obviously provides us with many conveniences and benefits. But the arrival of the internet and social media, and sensational forms of television, have also facilitated the spread of a public habit of speech and writing that is less personal and less gracious. It is often uncharitable, ugly, angry, combative, abusive, abrasive, hateful, base, uncivil, mean-spirited, malicious, and entirely useless for resolving disagreements or persuading anyone. This is why some web sites have closed their comboxes. And the conversations in the comboxes of those that haven't closed tend to devolve quickly into verbal war-zones in which insults and invective are lobbed back and forth in attempts to silence or destroy opponents.

If a person is considering whether to voice an opinion on a public forum, and the issue is even possibly contentious, just the fear of verbal reprisal or orchestrated harassment or stalking can intimidate the person into silence. This public habit of mean-spirited speech tends to drive persons to withdraw into self-selected bubbles or safe spaces of virtual societies composed of like-minded people, and thus tends to increase polarization and social fragmentation. It also leads to a kind of despair regarding even the utility of reasoning and logical argumentation.

II. The Relation of Truth and Love

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes, "But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ." (Eph. 4:15) In this verse St. Paul shows that truth speaks and is made intelligible through love. And in his first letter to the Corinthians he notes that love "rejoices in the truth" (1 Cor. 13:6). To the Christian, this deep union and interplay of love and truth is not surprising, because the God who is the Truth (Jn. 14:6) is also the God who is Love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). In their ultimate referent, therefore, truth and love are one and the same, that is, God Himself, even though in our human minds these concepts are distinct, and in their expression in creation they are ontologically distinct. Yet because they are one in God, any attempt to separate them entirely from each other not only separates us from them both, but also distorts our image of God, and distorts man who bears His image. In short, there is a coherence of love and truth, and this coherence has important consequences for effectively communicating, and especially for communicating the gospel.

Richard of St. Victor wrote, "Ubi amor ibi oculus"—wherever love is, there the eye is also. Love sees the truth about what is loved.1 The truth is revealed through love for the truth. At the most basic level, this is why we listen, because we want to learn the truth, and this is why we speak, because we want the truth to be known and shared by all. Because of this relation between truth and love, truth is revealed more truly the more it springs from love, is conveyed by love, and is received in love. This is because Truth ultimately is personal; propositions are, in a way, abstractions, reflections of Truth abstracted by persons from communicating persons. Truth in its personal dimension as known by and communicated among persons, depends upon love, not only a shared love for the truth communicated, but also a love for the persons with whom one is communicating.2

In his 2009 encyclical Caritatis in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI wrote the following:

“Hence the need to link charity with truth not only in the sequence, pointed out by Saint Paul, of veritas in caritate (Eph 4:15), but also in the inverse and complementary sequence of caritas in veritate. Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the ‘economy’ of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practised in the light of truth.”3

Because love and truth are the same in God, each is necessary to acquire the other more fully, and a deficiency in one is a deficiency in the other. Love requires truth because love becomes authentic only as informed by the truth. Pope Benedict writes, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.”4 And the encyclical primarily develops that direction of the relation between truth and love, that is, how love needs to be informed by truth, in order to be true love.

But just as importantly, as Pope Benedict notes, the relation also operates in the reverse, that is, truth is empowered, animated, authenticated, and thus made credible and communicable, only by love.5

Personal Encounter

Because of the deep connection between truth and love, a failure in love leads to a darkening of the mind, whether on the part of the speaker or on the part of the listener. If the speaker is deficient in love, his words do not penetrate to the heart of those to whom he speaks; he fails to gain a hearing because he does not connect with his hearers at the heart. Likewise, if the listener is deficient in love, the listener closes himself off to the truth he might receive from the speaker. The greater the departure from the principle of charity on the part of the listener, the less he is able to listen and understand rightly what he is hearing. Inversely, the more we love the speaker, the more we hear what is spoken. For this reason, at least a minimal degree of love for the one speaking is a necessary condition for hearing and interpreting the speaker rightly.6

So speaking the truth in the beauty of love involves a personal encounter, a meeting of persons at the level of their personhood, not just a meeting of minds, but a meeting of hearts as well, where one speaks the truth from love for the other person.

Only in love does genuine communication of the truth become possible. Without love for those with whom we are speaking, the communication of truth is inhibited, we become a "clanging gong," and there can be no effective evangelism. Love as the animating principle of our speech characterizes our speech and writing with a tone of love and grace.

Two Principles

1. The Principle of Edification

Let's consider two principles following from the notion of truth speaking in the beauty of love. If our communication is to be animated by love, then since love always seeks the good for the other, our speech should always seek the good for the one with whom we are speaking. This leads us to the principle of edification, which is based on Ephesians 4:29, and which reads:

"Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."

The Greek here indicates some additional nuance, so as to be saying:

"Every evil or corrupt word, do not let it come out of your mouths but only let out those words that are good for edification, according to the need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."

Evil words are words that tear down those who hear or read them; edifying words are those that build up those who hear or read them. So the principle of edification is this:

Only speak or write what is edifying; do not speak or write what is not edifying.

Thus in our daily speech, in our social media statements, before we allow a word to exit our mouth or thumbs or fingers, we should consciously ask ourselves:,"Is this edifying?" and continue to ask this question until we develop the habit of speaking only what is edifying.

Now of course the immediate question is, so does that mean that I cannot criticize a claim or idea or person? No, criticisms of false ideas, imprudent proposals, sinful behaviors, and of persons, can be edifying insofar as such criticisms help persons out of error, poor judgment, or sinful behavior. That's true even if such criticisms are painful to hear. That's primarily what distinguishes a friend from a flatterer; the friend will tell us what is painful to hear, but is also precisely what we need to hear for our own good. Yet not all criticisms are edifying, unless they are communicated in the right way, at the right time, in the right context, and in the right spirit. And it takes self-reflection and prudence to distinguish edifying criticisms from unedifying criticisms.

Nor does the principle of edification mean that we cannot disclose our own faults and sins or struggles or sorrows, especially to a spiritual director or a close friend. When we confess our sins as sins, to the appropriate persons, this edifies both us and them, because we're confronting together the disorder within ourselves. Allowing other persons to help carry our burdens is a gift to them, and is thus edifying. What I'm talking about are things like venting anger or frustration, or spreading insults or detraction or scandal or tragedy or gossip or negative speculation. The test each word must pass before it exits the doors of our mouth, or the doors of our thumbs, is this: does this build up those who hear or see it, or am I communicating it to get attention, attraction, approval, even though it is unedifying? So the first principle here is the principle of edification.

2. The Principle of Charity

A second principle following from speaking the truth in the beauty of love is the principle of charity. When we speak of following the principle of charity in communication what we are referring to is not merely an external rule but a virtue, i.e. a rule that has become so internalized into our dispositions as to be connatural within our soul and character. Charity "believes all things," says St. Paul, and by the principle of charity we believe the best about others, given the available evidence. By this virtue when we are faced with ambiguous statements by others we choose the better of two or more possible interpretations. By this virtue we assume the better of two or more possible motives underlying our interlocutor's comments or actions.7 Charity is not blind, yet it does not presume the worst, but thinks the best when such explanations are available.

This virtue oils the gears of communication, because by its perceived presence it removes the threat of personal offense or insult, and frees the participants from the worry of being misunderstood or misjudged in a way that is harmful to themselves or to their fellow participants.

One way to abide by the principle of charity is as follows: when we think someone has said or written something we think is false or harmful, before responding critically we can ask that person to verify that we have understood correctly what is his or her position. The principle of charity impels us always to avoid the straw man fallacy, that is the fallacy of setting up and knocking down a caricature or weaker version of our interlocutor's position, as though we've knocked down his or her actual position.

Another way to follow the principle of charity is to assume, until shown otherwise, that persons are doing the best they can, with the information and formation available to them. Never assume malice when a non-malicious explanation is available and we have no countervailing evidence. Never assume ignorance when an explanation involving a simple mistake is available. And so on.

Know the State of Your Interlocutor

Speaking the truth in the beauty of love also calls us to seek to know our interlocutor, and know his or her state or condition. Who is this person with whom I'm speaking? In what mental or emotional condition is he or she right now? What is his or her current station in life, goals, activities, philosophy, etc.? Is this person interested in talking with me or not? The disposition to become aware of the condition and emotional or mental state of those around us with whom we are or could be communicating is part of the virtue of sensitivity. A person without this disposition can, for example, sit down with someone and talk for twenty minutes straight without determining whether the other person is presently interested in talking with him or interested in the subject matter.

That's not speaking the truth in the beauty of love. Developing the virtue of sensitivity requires learning to become attuned to where the other person presently is, what that person most needs at that time, and how or whether that person is presently receptive to communication. That person may need to be alone, may need silence, or a gentle touch, or may need to communicate something more than he or she needs to hear whatever I have to say.

Because the truth must be spoken in love for the person, and therefore involves personal encounter, evangelism is not reducible to monologue. Evangelism is a dialogue of heart to heart. In order to understand where the other person is coming from, we have to listen and receive. The type of communication involved in evangelism is a kind of dialogue precisely because it is an encounter of persons, and such an encounter is never merely one way, but also always give and take.

1. Interested/Inquiring/Open

I generally distinguish between three states: the first is interested/inquiring/open, the second is antagonistic/hostile, and the third is indifferent.

Of the three, the easiest for communication is, of course, the person who is interested, genuinely open, and even inquiring. In such a case we are free to communicate in a positive way, explaining and answering questions, so long as our interlocutor retains this stance. Obviously, determining a person's stance is easier when speaking face to face, because we can read body language. Determining a person's stance on the internet or social media can be more difficult for precisely this same reason. And this calls therefore for greater sensitivity.

2. Antagonistic/Hostile

What about the antagonistic or hostile person? Here I also distinguish between active and passive hostility. By passive hostility I mean that the person is not actively hostile, but would be actively hostile if you attempted to engage in communication. For such persons usually the prudent course of action is not to attempt to communicate, because that would not only be futile, but likely destructive. Instead, respect the person's desire to be left alone, pray that he or she would be blessed, and, if possible, find some other way to show some kindness to the person.

Now, what about the actively hostile person, the one who is actively attacking you verbally, is not open or interested in genuine dialogue, but only either wants to attack what you say, or wants to quarrel? Here there are at least two options.

One prudent option is silence. Why did Jesus remain silent when He was asked certain hostile questions during His trial? I think it was because the questions were not sincere, and He knew that engaging persons in such a state would be unfruitful and possibly even harmful. If a person is sinning against the truth in their words, and unwilling to listen, but is intent only on attacking what is said to them, then to engage them can be to participate in their sin, or at least give them further occasion to sin with their words. Silence is especially prudent if the object of the person's attack is your own person. While I need not subject myself to another's verbal abuse, neither do I need to defend myself if someone is verbally insulting me. In my own experience, I find it more fruitful to remain silent when I myself am the object of attack. And in general, silence is wise when speaking would involve what Jesus refers to as "casting one's pearls before swine."

But in a public setting, if the actively hostile person is, for example, attacking the faith, one way of responding is by engaging this person in only a defensive way. That is, instead of attempting to persuade your interlocutor by presenting positive argumentation and making a positive case, which would be futile on account of their disposition, you can use the opportunity to show briefly how and why their attacks are flawed, and their arguments unsound. In such a case you have an advantage in the defensive stance, because it is easier to defend a position than to advance a position. And that is especially the case when the position you are defending is true. The hostile critic may not receive your explanations, but these explanations can nevertheless be helpful to other persons who may be participating in or listening or watching the conversation. The time to make a positive case, laying out evidence in support of your position, is when your interlocutor is open and genuinely interested in examining the evidence to see whether it is true. But in my opinion, when your interlocutor is actively hostile, either silence or defense are generally the only two modes of prudent engagement.

Now, sometimes you can encounter a person who is in fact open and interested, but is merely venting, or leads with complaints, gripes, etc. Persons in this state generally do not want or need an argument explaining why their complaint is misguided; in fact, responding to them with such an argument only pushes them away because argumentation and explanation is not at root what they are looking for. What they are looking for is someone willing to listen, to understand, to empathize. And if that's how you respond, you will have established a personal connection that allows for fruitful communication.

Generally, avoid asking questions to antagonistic critics, especially in a public setting, because this only provokes an unfruitful exchange. Ask questions only to sincere good-faith interlocutors in order to understand better where they are, even when they disagree with you. And in general avoid asking rhetorical questions, questions for which you are not seeking an answer. Rhetorical questions suggest insincerity or an unwillingness to make a positive case, an attempt to let a rhetorical question substitute for an actual argument which can be considered and examined together.

3. Indifferent

This leads to the case of the person who is indifferent. This is the most difficult of the three states, and to talk about this state from a more informed perspective, I want to bring in some insights from rhetoric.

III. The Role of Rhetoric, Virtue, and Logic in Dialogue

A. Rhetoric and Dialogue

1. Aristotle's Definition of Rhetoric

In contemporary public usage the word 'rhetoric' has a negative connotation, as you likely know. The term 'rhetoric' is often used to refer to language that is manipulative, empty, or not substantive, hence the phrase 'empty rhetoric.' But classically, rhetoric is something positive, one of the original liberal arts: grammar, logic, and then rhetoric. Some of the early Church writers were masters of rhetoric, e.g. Tertullian, St. Augustine.

Aristotle, is his work titled Rhetoric, defines rhetoric as follows:

"Let rhetoric be defined as an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion. This is the function of no other art."8

Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is the skill by which in every situation one is able to see or discover all the available means of persuasion. That does not mean that the person with this skill will always persuade, only that he or she is always aware of the available means of persuasion, and puts them to good use. Given this conception of rhetoric, rhetoric is obviously relevant to evangelism, because even though there is a supernatural operation of grace by the Holy Spirit at work in the one who converts, grace builds on nature. And so excellence in rhetoric aids in evangelism. And therefore some understanding of rhetoric, and especially an awareness of the available means of persuasion in our time, is essential for evangelism in our time.

2. Sophistry vs. Rhetoric

Here it is important to say something about the distinction between rhetoric and sophistry, because in order to avoid engaging in sophistry, we must know the difference between the two. Sophistry, as Plato uses the term, is an imitation of rhetoric. It mimics rhetoric by attempting to persuade. But it attempts to persuade apart from commitment to the truth, and apart from a commitment to persuade only by showing the truth. That is, sophistry attempts to persuade not on the basis of truth or reasoning ordered to truth, and thus without adhering to logic. Sophistry is in this way a kind of illocutionary pragmatism; it makes use of whatever works to persuade. Imagine a car salesman who uses whatever techniques work to move cars off the lot, even if those techniques are deceptive and dishonest to customers. Or imagine a corrupt prosecutor who uses whatever techniques work to persuade juries to convict, even when the defendant is innocent. That's how sophistry functions.

Rhetoric, by contrast, seeks to persuade by the available means of showing the truth. Whereas sophistry seeks to persuade by any means available, rhetoric sees and uses only the available means of persuasion that persuade by showing the truth. So, for example, rhetoric does not resort to the logical fallacies, but avoids them. Rhetoric therefore requires greater discipline. When sophistry is the status quo all around us, we have to discipline ourselves not to adopt it, but to take the high road, that is, rhetoric in the service of logic.

3. The Role of Ethos

So what then does rhetoric add to logic? Aristotle says the following in his Rhetoric:

"Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself."9

These three are ethos, pathos, and logos.

Ethos is the perceived personal character of the speaker, by which he is recognized to be good and trustworthy, as one who loves the truth above all else, seeks what is truly good, and knows that of which he speaks.

Pathos is the ability of the speaker to move the emotions of the audience, and so put them into a receptive state of mind so as to come to a particular judgment.

Logos is that by which the speaker demonstrates the truth of the content of his speech.

Of the three, which does Aristotle think is the most effective means of persuasion? Ethos. According to Aristotle, the credibility of the speaker is the most important of the three.

So what constitutes ethos? Ethos is constituted primarily by three things: (a) virtuous character, including the virtues of prudence, benevolence, and truthfulness, (b) knowledge or expertise, and (c) experience.10

So growing in our knowledge of a subject and our experience in that subject increases our credibility in that subject. And for this talk my only advice regarding expertise and experience is to avoid speaking beyond your level of expertise.

As for virtuous character, we can also increase our credibility if we grow in virtue, and since love (charity) is the chief of the virtues, the virtue with which all the other moral virtues are infused, when we grow in love we also grow in our credibility, our ethos. Why did St. Teresa of Calcutta have so much credibility? Both her love and her experience were palpable. Why does Jean Vanier have so much credibility regarding care for the disabled? Again, self-evident love, virtuous character, and years of experience practicing in action what he talks about with his words. So let's talk about what virtues constitute the moral virtue component of ethos and are needed for dialogue.

B. Important Virtues and Vices For Dialogue

1. Disposition to Listen

Participation in genuine dialogue requires the disposition to listen so as to understand accurately the positions and perspectives of the others participating in the dialogue, where that person is.11 By this virtue one silences not only one's tongue, but also one's mental movements directed toward any activity other than receiving the communication of one's interlocutor, so that one can receive and more accurately and thereby more perfectly achieve the view from within his or her paradigm, ordering each newly discovered detail in its place in that paradigm. Through this virtue one restrains even the internal movement toward critical evaluation until the other paradigm has been fully comprehended and perceived from within.12 Jesus Himself provides us with an example, for He listened first for thirty years before teaching. Regarding the virtue of listening Pope Francis wrote:

"For this to happen, we must first listen. Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. ...
Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self- sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice."13

2. Sociability and Willingness to Reason Together

Another virtue necessary for communication is the disposition of sociability and a stance of willingness to reason together. The person with this virtue reveals him or herself as person, and thereby connects with others as persons, transcending thereby the ‘us vs. them’ divide at the level of ideas and positions. Maintaining anonymity, for example, hinders the development and expression of this virtue. So long as a person remains anonymous or hides his or her identity, he or she remains incapable of entering into authentic dialogue, because authentic dialogue requires the personal authenticity by which we reveal who we are, where we stand, and take responsibility for our words, by allowing them to be connected with our personal identity by those with whom we enter into dialogue. C.S. Lewis wrote, "I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind."14 Contrast this with Jean-Paul Sartre:

"So this is hell. I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the "burning marl." Old wives' tales! There's no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS- OTHER PEOPLE!"15

Vices: Captiousness, Quarrelsomeness, Disputatiousness

Of course the activity by which participants in a dialogue come to agreement most certainly requires critical evaluation of the various positions under consideration. But there is a crucial difference between mutual engagement in critical evaluation of the various available positions, and the vice of being captious, deprecatory, or disparaging. The ability to find actual errors in positions or arguments is a useful and necessary skill when evaluating positions and arguments. But the vice of captiousness disposes its holder to minimize or even fail to see and accept what is actually true and good, and to magnify errors disproportionately. In this way it prevents or hinders the attaining of the goal of dialogue, by preventing or hindering its possessor from seeing and embracing the positive truth present, and not seeing only the negative truths. In order to enter into genuine fruitful dialogue the participants must have the virtues by which they see fault and error in their proper proportion, and act in a way that corresponds to this.16

The person with the vice of disputatiousness or quarrelsomeness is incapable of entering into dialogue because he is incapable of reasoning together with others, and is inclined instead to reason only in opposition to others. He opposes every position advanced by the others, and affirms or in some way praises every position rejected by the others. He never acknowledges when his claim is shown to be false, and subsequently never seems to remember that it has already been shown to be false. He seems to disagree just to disagree. He does this perhaps to affirm his individuality and intellectual independence, but this vice makes him incapable of affirming a position together with the other participants or collaborating together with the others, and thus disqualifies him from even entering into dialogue from the outset. If he comes upon an already existing authentic dialogue, he does so already in debate mode, not comprehending that the existing conversation is not a debate.

The corresponding virtue required for dialogue is cooperativeness, agreeableness, civility, amenability, affability. By this virtue we behave in a becoming and agreeable manner toward others, disposed to cooperate with them toward attaining a good, and especially toward attaining our common good, including the common good of agreement in the truth.

3. Disposition to present the other person's position accurately

This disposition to listen is essential for achieving the mutual understanding that is the first stage of authentic dialogue. Accompanying and preceding this virtue is the deep desire to understand and represent the other participants' positions accurately, and a genuine sorrow when one either fails to understand the others' positions or misrepresents them as something other than, and especially something less than, they actually are. Repeatedly constructing or knocking down straw men, for example, is an indication that these two virtues are lacking. The person who finds himself repeatedly knocking down straw men has failed to develop within himself the virtue to listen, by which one refrains from criticizing a position until one has confirmed that one is understanding it accurately and representing it truthfully and fairly. If he lacks any sorrow regarding his condition, then he has in addition failed to develop the corresponding appetitive virtue by which one loves the truthfulness of truthful presentations of positions other than one's own, and detests misrepresentations of positions other than one's own.

These virtues underlie the basic ground rule in fruitful dialogue according to which, out of respect and charity, each person gets to define, articulate and specify what is his own position, such that no one ought knowingly to attribute to or impose upon another, a position his interlocutor denies is his own. The one holding a position has the say in determining what is his position. And this therefore requires on the part of each interlocutor a disposition and willingness to listen so as to allow his own conception of the other interlocutor’s position to be informed and shaped by the other interlocutor.

4. Virtue of Trust / Vice of Suspicion

In addition to the virtue of sociability, in order to enter into genuine dialogue one must also believe that the other persons entering into the dialogue are capable of engaging in the activity of mutually exchanging and evaluating evidence and argumentation for the purpose of reaching agreement concerning the truth of the matter under dispute. And one must believe that the other persons sincerely intend to enter into this very same activity. In this way a good faith belief about the capacities and intentions of the other persons is necessary, and this belief itself requires the stance of charity toward those who would participate.

By contrast, a stance of suspicion and distrust concerning the motives of the other persons, or an assumption that the other persons are incapable of pursuing the truth in dialogue or rightly evaluating evidence and argumentation prevents the one having this stance from entering into dialogue with those he or she distrusts or assumes to be so incapacitated. If, for example, I believe that the other persons are only out to convert me, rather than come to agreement with me concerning what is the truth, I cannot enter into dialogue with them, because I do not believe that they are engaged in sincere dialogue.

Similarly, if I believe that the other persons are blinded by sin or by the devil, I cannot enter into dialogue with them, because I believe them in their present condition to be incapable of doing that which is essential to dialogue, namely, sincerely examining the evidence and argumentation with an aim to discovering and embracing what is true.

5. The Virtue of Humility and The Vice of Pride

Here too the vice of pride, for example, disposes a person to be unwilling to enter into a shared activity aimed at the mutual pursuit of truth, because collaborative inquiry requires a certain humility. Such a person will at best resort to teaching, attempting to transform the dialogue table into a classroom. Of course in the classroom there is typically a kind of dialogue between the teacher and the students, but there is also there a preceding mutual agreement to accept the respective roles of teacher and student. But the presumption of the teaching role in the presence of others placed into the student role by this act of presumption, without any preceding mutual agreement to accept a teacher- student relationship, indicates that the one so presuming has not entered into the mutual activity of dialogue, but is engaged in his own activity. Here again Jesus provides us with an example. He who is God is "meek and humble in heart," willing to learn from humans how to speak, how to dress Himself, how to engage in carpentry, etc. In dialogue I must always maintain the stance that I can learn from you, and I want to learn from you.

6. The Virtue of Hope and the Vice of Despair

In addition, participants in dialogue must possess a certain kind of hope, particularly the hope that the goal of the activity can be achieved. This is not a pollyannaishness, but a vision in the present of the goal as accomplished in the future, and of the real possibility connecting that future achievement with the present condition of disagreement. This hope is the energy of dialogue, driving it by anticipation toward the accomplishment of the end-as-envisioned. For this reason those who come to the table predicting that unity and agreement will not occur, or who claim that the pursuit of such agreement is the disillusioned expectation of heaven-on-earth, disqualify themselves from participating in genuine dialogue. Without the hope that the goal of dialogue can be attained, they by their own relegation can only be cynical observers of the dialogue of others.

C. Acquiring the Virtues for Dialogue

How do we acquire the virtues necessary for dialogue? We begin with a regular examination of our heart and actions to discover and root out the vices that hinder dialogue. We have to take a step back and examine our comments to others. Are they kind? Are they rude or mocking or angry or derogatory or cynical or continually sarcastic? Do they constructively advance the discussion toward reaching agreement in the truth? Do they show an appreciation for what is true and good in the opinions of others? By their tone do they invite a cooperative response from others, or do they drive others away? Do they attack the other participating persons? Do they misrepresent the positions of others? Do they stay on-topic or do we use any forum to advance our own agenda? Are we truly trying to achieve agreement in the truth with the persons with whom we are speaking, or are we merely trying to make their position look bad to others who may be observing, or have our questions answered, or get our opinions out there?

Am I envious of others, when they are right or do well or speak or write well? These are the sort of questions a person wanting to grow in the virtues essential for dialogue must ask him or herself sincerely, with an aim to discovering the truth about him or herself.

One way to do this is to ask these questions to others who know and read our writing, who perhaps can see us better than we see ourselves, and are willing to tell us unpleasant truths about ourselves that we need to know in order to grow.

In light of what we discover upon reflecting carefully on our present habits and attitudes, we can then take small steps or adopt disciplines that develop the necessary virtues in us over time. For example, when entering a dialogue, it is a good idea first to take some time to learn the positions and arguments of the other participating persons. Always try to learn the history of a discussion. When commenting within a dialogue, we should be able to specify to ourselves how our comment will help advance the dialogue toward agreement in the truth, and otherwise hold our tongue.

Before publishing a comment or article, we might have someone of good character, distance, and objectivity read it and point out to us any places where our content or tone is not gracious, kind, or edifying. When I began writing at Principium Unitatis, I made it a habit never to post anything without having my wife read through it to look for any unkind words. That practice helped me acquire the habit of examining all my drafts carefully for any unkind or uncharitable comments, even though sometimes uncharitable comments unfortunately still slip through, both in writing and in speaking. But by developing the discipline of prescreening all our writing for any words or statements that are either uncharitable or do not help advance the dialogue toward agreement in the truth, we can develop the habit of writing and speaking in dialogue with more charity, focus, and substantive content that is helpful for advancing dialogue toward its goal of agreement in the truth.

D. The Order of Knowing

In order to practice the art of rhetoric we must be aware of the relation between the order of being and the order of knowing. St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from Aristotle, distinguished between the order of being and the order of knowing. That which is first in the order of being is last in the order of knowing, and that which is first in the order of knowing is last in the order of being. One implication is that to reason with someone fruitfully, we must start with what that person already knows. An argument has no persuasive force if the person does not accept the premises. Rhetoric as the art by which we recognize the means of persuasion also necessarily recognizes what will not persuade, and therefore is attuned to the order of knowing and its application, learning where people are, in order to start where they are.

Imagine as an example initiating evangelism of a random non-Christian couple by telling them God commands them to repent. With supernatural guidance this may be justifiable, but without supernatural direction or credibility or ethos, this will most likely have the very opposite long-term effect, because it (a) ignores where persons are in the order of knowing, (b) fails to establish the credibility necessary in order for a truth of this sort to make it to the level of the heart. And here again Jesus provides an example, as can be seen in His conversation with the woman at the well, with the woman caught in adultery, with Zaccheus, and with the blind man, Bartimaeus.

E. Dialogue vs. Debate 

The art of rhetoric also carefully distinguishes between dialogue and debate. In debate, as I am using the term, each participant's aim is persuading onlookers of the superiority of his own position, in part by making his "opponent's" position look inferior.

The words and arguments are typically and ultimately aimed at observers. Usually the debaters are not facing each other, but facing the audience. And often there is a moderator, for very much the same reason that boxing matches require a referee in the ring. The 'opposing parties' are generally referred to in the third person, and typically in adversarial terms (e.g. "my opponent"). Usually there are some subtle or not so subtle criticisms of the other person himself, his intelligence, education, character, etc., again directed to the observers with the purpose of 'scoring points with the crowd' by denigrating the credibility of one's "opponent," and thus indirectly denigrating his position as well. Debaters attempt to dodge difficult questions rather than face them, and often attempt to score points by way of generalities and hand-waving (i.e. unsubstantiated assertions), because in debate in this sense, it does not matter if one's position is true and one's argumentation is sound; it only matters that one's position seems to be true and that one's case seems to be adequate. To the crowd uneducated in logic, hand-waving generalities and point-scoring sound bites will typically do for that purpose. Finally, at the end of the debate the question is "Which side won?"

In genuine dialogue, by contrast, the participants are talking to each other as collaborators in a mutual endeavor to come to agreement with each other concerning the truth regarding the matter about which they presently disagree. They are 'facing each other,' working together toward a common goal. There is no moderator, because there is no need for one. The participants are not exchanging cheap shots or personal criticisms, because there is no intention of scoring points with observers, and because engaging in such behavior would be contrary to the singular activity in which by conscious intention they are mutually participating, namely, working together to achieve agreement in the truth. They are not ultimately speaking to or trying to persuade observers. Their shared goal is not winning a contest between one another, but is rather coming to agreement with each other concerning the truth. Anything short of attaining agreement with each other regarding the truth is considered by each participant to be a failure to reach the goal of their dialogue. In debate, by contrast, the activity is considered a success only if one side 'wins' in the eyes of the crowd, even if over the course of the debate the persons debating do not come to any agreement regarding what is the truth.

Debate as an attempt to win a contest in persuasion is a sophistical contest of power, because it requires only the power to persuade. Dialogue, by contrast, can be a shared collaboration of love, because the goal of dialogue as mutual pursuit of agreement in the truth requires love not only for the truth, but for the one with whom one pursues agreement in the truth. Debate is in this respect easier than dialogue because in debate one can remain disengaged from one's "opponent," and do battle in an arena without any second-person union. In dialogue, by contrast, one must enter into a shared activity with one's fellow participants working together in an I-Thou relation to achieve agreement regarding the truth. Debate, like boxing, requires no friendship between the competitors; it requires only following the rules. Dialogue, on the other hand, requires a certain kind of civic friendship by which persons relating in the second-person, even though they disagree, work together in a singular activity to achieve a shared end.

For this reason debate is an entirely different type or species of activity from dialogue, and one clear sign that a person has not entered into dialogue is his engaging in the grandstanding that characterizes debate, that is, talking critically to the observers about the other person or his position rather than talking directly to the other participant.

So we need to ask ourselves: Do we conceive of our interlocutor as our "opponent"? Are we trying to score points, land blows, like a boxing match? Our interlocutor is not our enemy. The divine imperative to love our enemies shows that from our point of view, our interlocutor is not our enemy. Insofar as we have enemies, it is at most our interlocutors who conceive of themselves as our enemies. For us, they are fellow human beings made in the image of God, persons for whom Christ died, called to share in eternal life with God together with us, even if they, like us, are presently flawed or mistaken in certain respects.

F. Public vs. Private

The art of rhetoric is keenly aware of the role of the difference between public  and private speech in the available means of persuasion. A public conversation, if in the least bit a debate, is very rarely fruitful, because in public people tend to dig in their heels. Whether in public or private, I try always to avoid moving into the debate dynamic, especially where the other person is put placed on the defensive. However, one way to help avoid the debate dynamic is to shift the conversation from a public to a private conversation, ideally in person, or, next best, by videoconference or phone. A person does not feel peer pressure and defensiveness in a private conversation. And dialogue is more effective at reaching agreement when it is in viva voce personal conversation than in exchange of Facebooks notes or emails.

A key rhetorical insight is first to help the other person see the positive, true, beautiful aspect of one's position, then see its evidence and strength in the face of his objections, showing how it withstands his objections, and only then examine the problems in his own position, especially in relation to your own. Starting with the problems with your interlocutor's position is rarely a fruitful way of initiating a genuine dialogue, because it tends to elicit defensiveness and move the conversation into debate mode.

As a general rule of thumb: publicly present objections to another person's position only in the abstract, not explicitly directed to that person by name. That avoids putting the person on the defensive. It does not tie the person to the criticized position, but gives the person a chance to disown the position based on your objections. As a general rule, never put the person on the defensive, especially in public. Let him be his own critic, by letting him observe the refutation of the position he holds, while not attaching his name to it.

G. What About the Ad Hominem?

Sometimes we're reminded by interlocutors that the argumentum ad hominem is a fallacy only as a response to an argument. When a personal attack is not a response to an argument, then, say these interlocutors, it is not a fallacy. And strictly speaking that is true. In effect, however, such a reminder tends to provide a kind of approbation and justification for opening the 'bomb bay doors' and releasing a payload of insults that are not responses to arguments, because, it is thought, logic does not prohibit personal attacks. Yet virtue and civility go far beyond the formal requirements of logic, and if we wish to improve and elevate the quality and fruitfulness of both public and private dialogue, and heed the principle of edification, we do well to nurture not just our skill in logic, but, more importantly, the virtue of civility, especially in dialogue with those with whom we disagree, as I have just discussed. This may mean refraining from attacking another's person even when doing so does not involve a logical fallacy.

I wish to point out here, however, that even within the domain of logic there is a way in which the public use of personal criticisms not as a direct response to an argument or as an intended refutation of an argument, but directed to or said of persons whose argument or position we reject, can be nevertheless fallacious.

Here's why. All other things being equal, public insults and criticisms of persons who have advanced an argument or hold a position, as part of one's critical response to that argument or position, are fallacious because they criticize the argument or position indirectly (i.e. by criticizing its source) but not by evaluating the soundness of the argument or the truth of the position. And even if such personal criticisms are accompanied by a critical evaluation of the argument or position itself, they remain fallacious because their rhetorical purpose is to criticize the argument or position through attacking the person making the argument or holding the position rather than resting on the refutation of the argument or the falsification of the claim.

Defending the use of personal insults that are not responses to the interlocutor's argument, nor intended to refute or falsify their argument or position, by noting that such personal attacks do not formally commit the argumentum ad hominem fallacy focuses on the "letter" of the ad hominem fallacy. But the fallacy has a spirit as well, because it has implicit forms and not only an explicit form. There are many ways of implying that a person's argument or position is bad because of something negative related to the arguer or position holder, without explicitly saying that the person's argument or position is bad because of something negative about the person. Those too are ad hominem fallacies of the well-poisoning sort, albeit again implicitly so, for the very same reason that the explicit ad hominem is a fallacy, namely, because they attack the position or argument by attacking the person holding it. That's why, all other things being equal, stating something negative about the arguer, within the broader context of critically evaluating the arguer's argument or position, just is engaging in the ad hominem fallacy, because that statement of something negative about the arguer is not accidentally included in one's attempt to criticize the argument or position, but is included in one's statements in order to aid in one's attempted refutation of the argument or position, at least aid in one's attempt at dissuading others from believing it. And such is an instance of implicit engagement in the ad hominem fallacy.

So under what conditions is criticizing a person in the public square not fallacious in the way just described? There are at least three such conditions. Publicly denouncing the personal, character, moral, or behavioral flaws of a person is appropriate when (a) either the person is being considered for holding or retaining a public position or role requiring certain character qualities, or (b) the truth of a person's claim is being questioned, the person's character flaws or deficiencies are relevant to the likelihood of the truthfulness of the person's claim, and there is no other way of determining the truth of the claim than by evaluating the character of its source, or (c) the criticism is a second- person public rebuke directed at the person deserving of rebuke, when the conditions call for such a rebuke, any preceding requirements have been satisfied, and the person giving the rebuke is at least one of the right persons to do so.

Apart from conditions such as these where personal criticisms are appropriate for reasons altogether different from illicitly short-cutting a refutation of an argument or falsifying of a position by attacking the messenger, public insults and criticisms of persons who have advanced an argument or position, as part of one's critical response to that argument or position even if these insults and personal criticisms are not made with the explicit or conscious intention of refuting the argument or falsifying the position, are fallacious because they criticize the argument or position indirectly by criticizing its source, rather than solely by evaluating the soundness of the argument or the truth of the position. In short, when you need to criticize, always criticize the position not the person, and show what is wrong with the position that you are criticizing. This is part of the path away from sophistry, toward virtuous reasoning.

IV. Evangelism as Dialogue

A. Evangelism Proselytism

Let's apply this to the distinction between evangelism and proselytism. In calling others to conversion, Pope Francis said Christians must avoid the practice of proselytism or coercion, "which goes against the Gospel." Proselytism connotes coercion, manipulation, a notches-in-one’s-belt approach that fails to respect persons as persons, and fails to affirm their freedom in love and authentic person-to-person friendship. It is, for example, inviting a person to an event portrayed in one way (e.g. a meal, or entertainment), but then springing a sermon on them trying to get them to make a decision for Christ, such that they feel tricked, deceived, coerced, or manipulated. The definition of 'proselytism' given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is as follows:

"the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person."17

By contrast, evangelism is by attraction, to the truth in love, not by pressure, which is contrary to freedom, and contrary to love. Pope Francis talked about this in his address to catechists in September, 2013, saying,

"Remember what Benedict XVI said: ‘The Church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.’ And what attracts is our witness."18

What Pope Francis is talking about is establishing an ethos that creates the attraction by which evangelism in word and deed is not imposed on others, but is freely received, and even invited.

B. Attraction and the Indifferents

So let us return to the indifferents. If we want to attract those in the indifferent category, we must create in our local communities an attractive presence and way of life. In order to help people know who we are, and thus communicate with the needed pathos and ethos, we need to contextualize our arguments and reasons in a personal narrative framework allowing those with whom we communicate to know our stories, where we come from, what we've done, what is our education, who is our family, what is our service, etc.

Likewise, if we want to be attractive online to those in the indifferent category, our online presence and interaction ought to be beautiful and attractive. It certainly cannot include bickering, fighting, insulting, attacking each other or others. Anger never persuaded anyone. If you find yourself angry, take time to cool down. Never type while angry. If you simply have to think about this as a competition, think about it as a competition in which the goal is who can outdo the other in love. Pray for the persons you communicate with, if online, before every post, reply, every comment, every text, etc.

Do not push or coerce. So if someone does not want to talk, I do not push; I respect their request. The truth wins not by pushing, but by drawing, by attraction, by being willing to be silent yet at the same time with your interlocutor, even if only in spirit. But the rhetorical key is prior to that point of being forced to silence. That is, the key is not getting to the point where the other person cuts off communication. And that requires being sensitive to where that person is; it requires taking an approach aimed at attraction rather than pushing.

V. Conclusion 

Evangelism is somewhat like courting or wooing, attracting interest by generating and eliciting attraction. There is a subtleness necessary here, a discreteness. Attraction builds by seeing/noticing something attractive. Pressure or coercion or pushiness eclipse and obscure any attractiveness in the agent. What nurtures attraction is precisely their contrary. Wooing is subtle and patient and sensitive; it gives space and time to allow attraction to manifest itself naturally, and attractedness to grow naturally. And here too grace builds on nature. What we have in the gospel of Christ is that than which nothing is more attractive: Christ Himself. If we speak the truth in the beauty of love, with graced rhetoric, keen to the order of knowing and at the level of personal encounter, the Holy Spirit will nurture and develop in those with whom we speak an attraction to the beauty of God as revealed in the beauty of the gospel, as manifested in the beauty of our lives, and in the beauty of our mode of speech.


  1. Cf. John Senior's The Restoration of Christian Culture, p. 13.
  2. Love rejoices not only in possessing the truth, but also in its universal propagation and diffusion. Love for the truth is in this way also irreducibly social. We cannot love the truth and hate our neighbor. Love for the truth requires of us that we desire our neighbor freely to love the truth and be united by love to the truth we love. Our neighbor himself is a truth because as a created person he bears in his very nature the image of Truth itself, and is in this way an analogous adequatio of the Truth, a truth of the Truth. The truth he is includes his teleology, the flourishing toward which he is ordered by his created nature, and by which his heart is restless until it rests in the Truth who is Love. Therefore if we love the truth, we must love to see and effect our neighbor's well-being. Scorning one's neighbor while claiming to love the truth is in this way a kind of contradiction, because in doing so one is failing to love the truth one's neighbor is, the Truth imaged in one's neighbor.
  3. Caritasin veritate, 2.
  4. Caritas in veritate, 3.
  5. Faith working through love is a more specific and elevated application of truth speaking through love.
  6. Disdain or apathy for the speaker does not allow the truth he might be saying to be received and sincerely considered. The absence of love in his heart places an obstacle in his intellect to perceiving correctly and subsequently embracing the truth presented to him. Insofar as the listener departs from the principle of charity, he will distort even unintentionally, in a negative and further polarizing manner, what the speaker is saying, constructing a straw man and construing the speaker's words as harmful or threatening either to himself or to what the listener loves.
  7. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2478.
  8. I.2.1355b26-28.
  9. Rhetoric, 1.2.
  10. Compare Rhet. II.1, 1378a6ff.
  11. In speaking of the disposition to listen, I am referring to the disposition to understand so as to meet that person where he or she is, so as to arrive at agreement concerning the truth. This disposition is an intellectual virtue that corresponds to empathy.
  12. Obviously if we bear bitterness or deep animosity toward the other position or person, we are less able to develop or exercise this virtue. Similarly, the vice of a "short attention span" prevents its possessor from developing and exercising the disposition to listen deeply. One way we can develop the virtue of listening is by disciplining ourselves to confirm if necessary that we have understood correctly the position we are criticizing, by writing or calling in advance the person whose position we are criticizing, before publicly responding critically to that person's writing. We can also develop this virtue by sending a private draft of our criticism to the person whose position we intend to criticize, and letting his or her response reform our criticism prior to publishing it. In general we should always take some time to think carefully before responding to anyone, and never say anything when angry, or say anything critical of our interlocutor's person, especially not any unnecessary critical comment. If the conversation is through writing, I recommend praying for the other person before and after writing any draft reply; then re-reading your draft to make sure that there is agreement (not contradiction) between how you write to the person, and how you pray for the person. When I first began writing for Called To Communion, I adopted the discipline which I keep to this day of saying a prayer not only before publishing any post or article, but also praying for each person to whom I reply, before I reply to that person. This sort of discipline can help us develop the virtues necessary for entering into fruitful dialogue with persons with whom we disagree.
  13. Misericordiae Vultus, 23.
  14. The Abolition of Man, p. 19.
  15. "No Exit" (1944).
  16. A certain qualification is necessary here. What counts as a fault or error, and the magnitude accorded to that alleged fault or error, can differ according to the position under evaluation and the position of the one evaluating. That difference has to be taken into consideration by the participants in the dialogue. But that difference is not the same as the vice of captiousness, which is not merely the intellectual disposition to see as false what is false according to one’s position or paradigm, but is rather simply the disposition to see only the false or to see generally as false what is not false, or to see falsehood as disproportionately magnified.
  17. "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelism," Footnote 49.
  18. "Address of the Holy Father Francis to Participants in the Pilgrimage of Catechists on the Occasion of the Year of Faith and of the International Congress on Catechesis" (2013)
Dr. Bryan Cross

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Dr. Bryan Cross was raised as a Pentecostal Christian then became a Reformed Protestant shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Michigan. He then received an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary. In 2003 he and his wife and two daughters became Anglican. On October 8, 2006, he and his family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He recently received a PhD in philosophy from Saint Louis University and began a tenure track position as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Mount Mercy University. Follow Bryan at his personal blog, Principium Unitatis, and at CalledToCommunion.com.

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