Einstein, Socrates, Arguments and Civilization

Michael Metzger

In an argumentative mood.
“Do you have to go to church?” That’s not the way I imagine a business meeting beginning, but since my work is helping organizations navigate conversations that advance faith-centered reform; questions about religion inevitably come up.

The question was raised by George, who can be an argumentative person. But I like that. And there’s a reason why, but I’ll save that for the end. In the meantime, let me retrace our conversation – picking up after his question about church attendance.1

At first, everyone in the room groaned. “What’s that got to do with today’s meeting?” Good point, but then the CEO suggested it’s a worthwhile inquiry and that we take five minutes to tease it out.

Most religious people regurgitate reasons why we ought to go to church, what the Bible says about a relationship with God, and how much they enjoy attending services. In other words, we’re good at providing religious answers. But Albert Einstein said you could never solve a problem in the framework in which it was created. George’s religious questions typically cannot be solved by religious answers.

My hunch is Einstein and Socrates might offer a better way to address George’s query. Einstein believed imagination is more important than knowledge, and that you have to modify the metaphor in someone’s mind if you’re going to win an argument. Socrates believed asking questions is superior to offering answers. So I hitched a ride on Einstein’s and Socrates’ backs and steered the conversation in a different direction.

“George, do you have to kiss your wife?”

Now George is a bright guy. He knew where I was heading. Of course, you don’t have to kiss your wife to be married. “George, if I asked you this question, it would indicate to you that I don’t understand the nature of marriage and friendship very well. It seems to me you don’t understand the nature of religion very well.”

“Going to church is part of the total package of expression that enriches a person’s faith experience. Of course, you don’t have to go to church to be a follower of Jesus. But you don’t have a very deep appreciation of what it means to embrace Christ if you don’t want to be a part of a local community.”

“OK, Mike… but I have another question. I don’t like “organized religion.” Why does this exist?

“George, I understand your distrust. But remove the word “religion” and replace it with any other word. For example, are you opposed to organized business?” He thought about my question for a moment and then replied, “No… you have to organize business… it’s chaos without it.”

“I agree… organizing a business simply means you take your work seriously and want your business to be taken seriously. OK, let’s try it again: are you opposed to organized marriage?”

No need to belabor the point. “George, it seems to me your questions indicate you don’t understand the nature of religion. People who organize their religious lives simply take this matter seriously – and they want others to also take faith seriously.”

The more I’m around George; the more I like him… and his argumentative moods. G.K. Chesterton observed that the problem with a quarrel is that it spoils an argument. Civilization, Thomas Aquinas once wrote, is constituted by conversation; that is, by argument. Civilized people, treating each other as reasonable, argue with one another. Barbarians club one another. People like George, along with these kinds of conversations, are what constitute a democracy. That is, as long as we keep in mind the rule of Richard Baxter, “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

The next time someone asks you give an account for the hope in you,2 hitch a ride with Einstein and Socrates. Ask more questions and modify the metaphor.

1 I received permission from “George” to retell our conversation, but changed his name in order to respect confidentiality.
2 I Peter 3:15. Followers of Christ are supposed to be able to respond to those who ask questions about faith and religion


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