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Missionary syndrome

One hears occasionally about closed-minded people who say that one should never interact with seriously incorrect ideas lest one come to hold those ideas oneself. These warnings sound, on the face of it, hysterical and wrong-headed. How can we possibly counteract bad ideas if we don't understand them and present rational arguments against them?

And of course there is important truth in that reaction to obscurantism. As a philosopher I'm not going to downplay the importance of answering bad ideas. But in reflecting lately I've come to understand better why someone might be concerned about potential ill effects of trying to "go out to" those who hold bad ideas and "reach them."

The bottom line is this: It is extremely difficult to dialogue with people with extremely wrong-headed ideas without modifying one's own presentation to try to meet them halfway, to try to concede whatever one can concede for purposes of winning them over. In doing so, it is extremely easy to concede something one should not concede and to appear to agree with things that are seriously false.

I've seen this happen again and again, and in a wide variety of contexts. Here are a couple of examples:

--Someone trying to reach out to Muslims might downplay the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ under the assumption that Muslims who object to it simply don't understand it and would have no remaining objection to thinking that Allah can have a Son if they only understood the Christian doctrine.

--Someone trying to reach out to leftists in the pro-life arena might try to appear sympathetic to women's concerns and in so doing might seem to imply that pregnant women are heroic merely for not having an abortion, because abortion would solve so many problems for a woman in any undesired pregnancy.

--Someone trying to reach out to misogynists and appear sympathetic might appear to agree that women in general are treacherous and that any man who gets married is a hero for putting himself in such danger from a woman.

--Some pro-lifers might oppose the use of certain approaches (such as showing pictures of aborted children) on the grounds that these ways of making the humanity of the unborn child self-evident are "bad arguments" intellectually or on the grounds that these arguments simply anger our opponents.

--Someone trying to reach out to homosexuals might imply that homosexual identity is absolutely fixed, never in any way chosen, and that all of those with homosexual urges are sympathetic characters who are merely suffering from bad treatment from traditionalists.

--Someone trying to work in the field of New Testament studies might imply that a given theory about some passage of Scripture, which really is extremely weak, has a lot to be said for it, simply because some known scholar accepts it. For example, I have been told that I should take more seriously than I do the theory that John changed, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" into "I thirst" because of his literary themes. The grounds on which I have been chided for being too dismissive are simply that Daniel Wallace spends several pages arguing for it in an unpublished paper.

A lot of this is relative to one's personality. Someone with a gentler personality is more likely to feel the importance of trying to be winsome with the truth and hence more likely to modify his ideas in presenting them. Someone (like me) with a harsher personality is more likely to accentuate differences and hence perhaps to alienate the intended audience unnecessarily.

But I can probably do most good by using my personality traits in my blogging, and so I want to raise this issue because it has been coming home to me quite clearly lately that it truly is a potential problem.

In fact, the wide variety of topics in the above examples shows that this problem can come up anywhere. If you think that it is your job to "reach out" to those who believe that the earth is flat, that the moon landing was a fake, that the Holocaust never happened, or that Jesus never existed, chances are that in interacting directly with people who think these things you will at some point or other give the impression that their crazy ideas are more reasonable than they really are and that the truth is more questionable than it really is.

Readers will have gathered by now that I call this tendency to modify the truth for one's audience "missionary syndrome." In fact, if you study to be a Christian missionary (at a Bible college or seminary) you will be explicitly trained to "contextualize" your message to make it appealing to your audience. This was true over thirty years ago when I was a missions major in college, and I'm sure it's even more true nowadays. The assumption is that there is always some aspect of the way you would present your message "off the top of your head" that is dispensable, a mere artifact of your own culture, and that you need to find these purely rhetorical rough edges and sandpaper them off, replacing them with a culturally appropriate packaging. Of course, the textbooks acknowledged the danger that in so doing one would remove something truly essential to the message. The whole "deal" was to try to figure out how to thread that needle--how to retain the true, contentful core of the Gospel while contextualizing it for a particular new culture.

What has only occurred to me in recent years is the way that the dangers of this sort of missionary endeavor apply to any attempt at dialogue. And all the more so any long-running dialogue with a friend. If a Protestant and a Catholic are friends for twenty years and spend those twenty years trying to talk about their differences in a respectful way, chances are that neither of them will believe exactly the same things at the end of the twenty-year period. The Catholic will probably think that Protestantism is more reasonable than he previously thought it was, and the Protestant will probably think that Catholicism is more reasonable than he previously thought it was. And, somewhat disconcertingly, there will probably be some portion of this effect that has nothing whatsoever to do with some particular argument or the clearing up of some particular misunderstanding. It's merely the natural social effect of liking someone you disagree with, trying to see his position in a sympathetic light, and trying to make your own position sound reasonable to him.

Speaking as someone who prefers to change my views only in response to reason, I find that a little unnerving.

These social effects also explain why someone you know may seem to change his position on a moral matter rather suddenly when he makes a new friend. And it explains why homosexual activists will ask you how many gay friends you have or what you would do if your child "came out." How many people have the self-control to say, "My position on the wrongness of homosexual acts would not change just because someone I dearly love engages in those acts and thinks they are not wrong"?

Someone's changing his views on homosexuality because his child "comes out" is pretty familiar to us now, but consider for a moment that such purely social mind-changing or at least message-changing could work just as well for other views that are socially regarded as even crazier. If people fall in with neo-Nazis or flat-earthers, they will be likely to become more sympathetic to these views as well or at least modify their own previous blunt and sweeping dismissal.

I don't have any great answer to this issue, but it does give rise to a few small practical pieces of advice:

--Self-awareness is important. If you believe P and think that it is importantly true, be aware of how you seem to be speaking or writing as if ~P is true. If someone says, "It sounded to me like you thought ~P in that social media post," listen to that. Don't brush it off. Ask yourself if you did sound to a reasonable person like you believe ~P and if you really want to do that.

--Take stock from time to time about how your associations are changing your views. Ask yourself to what extent this is a reasonable change and to what extent it is just conformity. This includes on-line associations.

--If you think that some view S is horrible and pernicious (anti-Semitism, for example), be reluctant to declare yourself to be a "missionary" to people who hold that view, to go and hang out at their web sites, and to take a lot of time debating with them. Recognize clearly that your decision to spend a lot of time debating a view may very plausibly cause you to have more sympathy for that view than you had before you began spending a lot of time with those who hold it and trying to appeal to them.

--Keep moral truth clearly before your mind so that it doesn't get obscured by empirical claims. For example, if you know quite well "going in" that infanticide is morally wrong, don't treat "investigation" into the case for infanticide as being on a par with looking into the claimed evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. There can't be some lurking odd fact out there that makes it okay to kill newborn babies. Don't be "open-minded" to just anything.

--Remind yourself that it is quite accidental that you live at a time when this or that is widely accepted or is accepted in intellectual circles. It is also to a large extent accidental that you happen to be surrounded by people who believe a given proposition. Hence the fact that you are a philosopher (say) and that the theory that many human beings are non-persons is widely accepted by philosophers doesn't actually make that proposition remotely reasonable. The fact that many of your friends believe that essential oils will cure everything doesn't mean that that is actually true. (Am I putting these on a par? Not really. At least the essential oils question really is an empirical one. The view that many human beings are non-persons is even more obviously false!) Don't assume that you are correcting for your own biases in the best way by falling in with a new group and taking their ideas very seriously when you didn't before. You may actually be abandoning truth for falsehood.

--Take a "total evidence" approach. Never bifurcate your mind into what you believe "as" a philosopher, historian, scientist, etc., and what you believe "as" a father, mother, Christian, friend, etc. While it is true that your evidence may be messy and dissonant, the goal should be an integrated mind. Try to be intellectually integrated all the time and to present a picture of an integrated view when speaking or writing on-line. This of course doesn't preclude saying that you are undecided about something if you really are undecided. But it should preclude appearing to take one position with one group of people and a different (contradictory) position when talking to a different group.

--Be very aware of the potential feedback loop between your own presentation and your own opinions. If you present some proposition in such a way that it appears reasonable, not just for a few paragraphs in order to set up a response but as a free-standing statement, this is likely to cause you (and perhaps others as well) to think that the view really is somewhat reasonable. Do you want to do that? Is it a good idea to present something as reasonable when it is unreasonable or as true when it is false even in order to "reach" some people in your intended audience?

--It may actually be true that we need to be more careful about advocating engagement with other views, even though saying so sounds like obscurantism. I'm not sure what this will look like in every case, but one thing it means is that I usually urge correspondents not to "hang out" on atheist blogs or even in the comboxes of Christian blogs where they are endlessly debating atheists, Jesus-mythers, and the like. It may be useful to compare these situations to others. If you would advise someone not to "hang out" with Holocaust deniers and spend oodles of time trying to be a "missionary" to them, be respectful of their position, and answer them at length, the same standard should probably be applied to Christ mythers.

Missionary syndrome is a real thing. The stinker of it is that engaging with views one previously thought were stupid and false can bring you closer to the truth. After all, any atheist who ever became a Christian had to start somewhere to listen to a view he previously thought was both false and silly! So we can't tell people, "Never change your mind radically about anything" much less "Never associate with people who strongly disagree with you," or we'd be locking people up in falsehood in many cases. But at the same time, when I look at people who have something important right, I don't like to see them talking as if what they have right is actually wrong. (See examples above.) It seems like the only "solution" (which really isn't a solution) is to try to be clear about what one is saying and thinking all the time and, perhaps, to be willing to be a little more offensive in order to be clear.

Comments (12)

Excellent post.
Contextualization was a big theme in my missions class (as was some vauge view of prevenient grace and being incarnational).

Oddly, the Prof criticized the martyred missionary John Allen Chau wholesale (not just here or there, but absolutely). He wasn't culturally sensitive, wasn't incarnational. I responded, "It seems getting martyred for them is a very incarnational thing to do, as is spending years preparing, studying linguistics, first aid, etc."

Also, I asked on one of the last days of class, "Could someone have been saved in Balaamism," and he said possibly. He calls himself an inclusivist of other religions (he argued for it in an essay in the Wesley Theological Journal, which I criticized in an essay for that class.

He often used examples like Gandhi to motivate his position that there was "faith, hope, and love" in people of other religions.

I wrote a sermon for a college sponsered conference held in Atlanta, where I critiqued Church acceptance or indifference or homosexuality, abortion, consumerism, and the poor faith outcomes of Christian colleges. The Prof who organizied the trip tried to get me to change my sermon, since it wasn't loving or whatever. I preffered to keep it as it was, and had another Prof, who also is an Anglican Priest, and two friends agree.

So a lot of what you say rings true to my experience. It also suggests that having close ties with orthodox ane devout Christians and a robust spiritual life as the center or ones life is necessary. And avoiding the thought that you can or have to do everything. Jesus often seemed content to say things starkly, as in John 6, even if it meant most of his disciples stopped following him.

I wonder, too, how much "open-mindedness" or contextualization is due to a desire to try to avoid the stigma of fundamentalists. "No, I'm an intellectually sophisticated Christian: I don't know about the (e.g.) Ken Ham crowd."

I think thirty-plus years ago when I was an undergrad missions major I didn't really realize just how "poised" the entire field of missiology was to become somewhat avant garde. And I mean even within a very conservative Baptist denomination. That's not even thinking about what it would be like in a more mainline denomination. But looking back I can really see it.

I remember one lady prof. (who was very good to me, so I'm not trying to "diss" her) was clearly opining that it was wrong to tell African polygamists that they couldn't continue having sex with all of their "wives." Her opinion was that it would be too hard on the other wives who didn't get sex anymore. So the man who became a Christian and was already a polygamist had to go on living as if he was married to multiple women at once, because otherwise it was unfair. I remember feeling a bit puzzled at her passion on the topic, but nobody challenged her thesis.

Actually, something simmiliar was said by my missions prof. Not the same thing, but odd all the same. He said that polygamists who convert, whether the man or one of his other 'wives' often remain in those 'marriages' eitehr to give or receive housing and food. He didnt draw out the implications of that, as your Prof did, but I thought it was muddleheaded. Why couldn't the man just support them without, you know having sex with them or saying there married. In the other case, it is certainly a hard case - but I don't see how the logic is supposed to work. Are we do to evil so that good can come? The solution is finding shelter in a robust Christian community, or absent that, trust in God, not continuing in an adulterous pseduomariage!

Yeah, she was actually ranting (really ranting) against saying that the man should support the woman but *not* have sex with her. It wasn't even enough to say that the man had to support her (and her children). That policy, btw, was blamed on "Catholics." I have no idea what policy Catholic missionaries nowadays tell their formerly polygamous converts to follow...

So the prof was effectively advocating that the woman continue to give her not-husband sex in return for room and board: prostitution, by any other name...

I suspect, Lydia, that one should try to keep the majority of true mission activity to in-person, live relationships, where facial expressions and physical presence bring home the real person who is the missionary. I think that in the case of the apostles (and the later missionaries who carried on their work, such as St. Boniface in Germany, St. Patrick in Ireland) that part of the persuasion works where the man who preaches is SEEN to be a man who lives by the same word he preaches. Yes, there are valuable elements that take place in more specific arguments, including those made online, but (as far as I can tell) this is almost always ancillary to the in-person mission work.

As for making the missionary message more palatable: Not one of the Apostles studied in mission classes, and they were eminently successful. While one must know "the material" by being immersed in the Bible and in the Christian teachings, one does not have to study how to make the message palatable. St. Paul, preaching "Christ crucified," preached what he himself knew to be foolishness to the gentiles, and a stumbling block to the Jews. So? Ultimately, the message is contrary to the world's message. Sometimes (by God's grace), being contrary to the world is just the thing a person needs to hear.

If a Protestant and a Catholic are friends for twenty years and spend those twenty years trying to talk about their differences in a respectful way, chances are that neither of them will believe exactly the same things at the end of the twenty-year period.

You should be careful hanging around them Catholics! They'll rot your mind, you know.

If I had to sum up this excellent post in one short sentence, it would be:

Missionary Syndrome = Compromise.

Or more precisely, Missionary Syndrome is all too often unholy compromise.

Seeing your handle, Truth Unites . . . and Divides, I recall that my Missions prof frequently referred to "our Buddhist and Hindu brothers and sisters" and spoke of everyone being God's children. I pressed him on whether he meant these terms in the biblical sense or in the sense that we are all creatures of One Wise God, and he demurred . Something about not wanting an us-them mentality. I asked what he made of John and children of light and darkness and he said, "Well, that imagery is sometimes in John." Sometimes, of course, not from the beginning onward. It seemed that he tries to correct for the nefarious aspects of things that can fall under an 'us-them' attitude, like disdain for the them. But, as Proverbs says, "The wise man will hold onto both:" maybe there is a real and important us-them divide, which we seek to dissolve by incorporating more and more people into the us without despising the them.

So there is a (rather obvious) fact that sometimes people hold what is a part of the truth along with an error mixed in, where someone else holds the same truth but does not hold the error mixed in: the second must be accounted as being in the better position, having more of the truth.

Modernism, however, insists on a funny brand of relativism with regard to the truth: there is no accounting that the second person's thinking is more true than the first. Perhaps the first holds what is "true for him" and the second holds what is "true for him" and thus they are at parity. Naturally the typical modernist only applies their relativism in certain fields of thought - and WHICH fields varies from one to another individual modernist. (This allows the modernist to attack other modernists who are heretics about one or the other area of relativism.)

Christians who have not been taught to be wary of modernism often imbibe (sometimes deeply) of its drafts, and end up with the idiotic notion that comes out as "Buddhism is true for Buddhists" and so on, in direct contradiction to the Bible in the Christ is the only savior of men. It doesn't have to be in a missionary spirit, though I guess that missionaries are especially prone to allowing the relativism camel's nose into the tent, while being respectful of others' cultures.

Catholic institutions are just as muddled as your picture of Protestant mission schooling, what with various prelates (right up to the top) seeming to suggest that the "New Evangelization" is not aimed at converting people to the Church that Christ founded. I am not sure why we needed "New" evangelization, the stuff that Paul and Peter and Andrew and Thomas did a couple thousand years ago seems to have work fine. It is a failure of charity to not want to correct people who are in error, and it is positively uncharitable to confirm people in their error rather than (a) correct them when possible, or (b) demur when it is impossible to correct them.

An excellent post, something I've been thinking about recently, too. I find my own personal weak spots are:
1) Unwillingness to simply dismiss obviously stupid arguments. I take everything seriously and assume there is always a rational argument against even the most insane ideas. I think a more moderate position would be to say something like, "come back to me with a real argument and I'm happy to engage."

2) Wanting to be taken seriously. I "play the game" of arguing with obviously stupid arguments in order to demonstrate my good faith in the matter. As a more analytic type, I tend to not be good at picking up on the social cues that my interlocutor isn't necessarily interested in actual rational discussion.

3) Insane ideas are actually fascinating, and finding a coherent rational argument that falsifies them is exhilarating.

It struck me, as I read the post about the Prof who was so concerned that the other 'wives' of the polygamist would be deprived of sex if he monogamously settled for one, that she had no concern for the unfortunate men in this society who were unable to compete with this polygamist for the affections of these women? Did she consider that their needs were less important?

The subject didn't come up. Presumably once the women had been "married" to the polygamist, they would not be regarded as available for anyone else, regardless of whether or not he abstained from sex with them. But polygamy certainly does create a variety of dysfunctions in a society, including the one you mention.

A very good post. It's basically an example of a universal human psychological phenomenon, which is the tendency to conflate who a person is with what they believe -- this is the same reaction that causes us to experience criticism of our beliefs as attacks on us personally.

The tragedy is that the empathy which makes one eager to "rescue" people from wrong beliefs is the very same thing that makes it difficult for someone to be as blunt and uncompromising about error as Truth may require them to be, and to endure the backlash that gets provoked. This is one reason why, ironically, doctors and surgeons often come off as less empathetic to their patients than we might expect people in such a calling to be; to protect their own ability to function they can't allow themselves to imagine what the pain of surgery, treatment and recovery will feel like. Likewise, dentists are anecdotally a high-suicide risk profession not because they don't know themselves valuable and important, but because they can occasionally let themselves be too personally hurt by their patients' reflexive aversion to them. (Which is one reason I always try very hard to be cheerful and friendly to my own dentist.)

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