Begging the Question

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One of the greatest challenges of contemporary discourse- especially on contentious issues- is that so many of those engaging in it do not understand what constitutes logical argumentation or expression of ideas. It is thus almost trivially easy to point out numerous fallacies in much of what is written, especially on contentious issues.

The trap that many fall for when engaging with those they disagree with is allowing their opponent to beg the question. A lot of moderns actually misuse this phrase, thinking that ‘begging the question’ means that ‘a question is raised.’ Begging the question is, however, actually a logical fallacy in which the premise assumes the conclusion is true or in which a proposition of an argument is presented as true without proof.

Thus, what can often happen is that if Arguer A allows Arguer B to beg the question on a particular point, Arguer A is thus backed into an argumentatively defensive position. This frequently occurs when the question begging proposition is allowed to essentially define the categories of argumentation.

An illustration of this occurred recently in Charisma News, in which a megachurch pastor sat down to opine on that most contentious of contemporary issues- human sexuality- especially as it relates to same-sex sex/marriage/whatever. And while the interview is not an argument, it nevertheless illustrates how question begging leads to not only poor argumentation, but could also be a rhetorical trap for those who would rebut it.

Carl Lentz, who leads megachurch Hillsong NYC, told Katie Couric in an interview on her self-titled show that he did not believe he had a “moral imperative to speak publicly about some of these more controversial issues” because, he says, “We try to be like Jesus.”

The fallacy is extraordinarily easy to spot here, in that Lentz is presuming that being like Jesus entails not speaking publicly on controversial issues. As a corollary it also implicitly assumes that Jesus did not speak publicly about more controversial issues.

One who wished to rebut Lentz’s argument here might get caught in the rhetoric of ‘being like Jesus,’ and in doing so miss that there is some rather egregious question begging going on here. There is no reason to assume either the explicit or the implicit propositions, and thus one would be well within one’s rights to press Lentz on this question, to substantiate this assertion.

In fact, he seems to recognize the question-begging nature of this statement and continues:

“Very rarely did Jesus ever talk about morality or social issues,” the 35-year-old pastor explained in a pre-recorded interview that aired Thursday. “It was about the deeper things of the heart, and often people want to talk about behavior modification. Our church isn’t about that.”

The first point, of course, is actually an attempt at substantiation, although a rather weak one. In response one could easily adduce examples of Jesus speaking about both morality and social issues. In fact- and more to the point- one could strengthen one’s rebuttal by pointing to Jesus’ publicly wading into the contentious dispute over sexuality as embodied in the debate over the grounds for divorce. This is a case of Jesus talking about morality, talking about a social issue, talking about something regarding sexuality that was controversial, and doing so in a public manner, which gives the lie to Lentz’ question begging.

The next step would be to nail down how the term ‘very rarely’ is being defined, rather than assuming along with Lentz that it is an accurate description of Jesus’ actions and statements viz-a-viz contentious issues. What constitutes ‘very rarely?’ A certain percentage? A certain number of passages? The issue in question? The opponent could actually fairly easily adduce numerous examples in which Jesus speaks publicly on morality and social issues; what, after all, is the Sermon on the Mount but an extended moral lesson? What of Jesus’ ‘’you have heard it said X, but I tell you Y’’ statements? Until the parameters of very rarely’can be defined, it is not an assumption that should be accepted uncritically.

The second point is more subtle but is still question-begging, in that it assumes there is a necessary dichotomy between the ‘deeper things of the heart’ and ‘behavior modification.’ The trickier part is that yes, there probably are people who only want to talk about behavior modification, but unless we can define 1. who these people are 2. how ‘often’ they want it to be about this, we are left with a straw man argument, which, while providing a rhetorical foil for Lentz, is not actually an argument.

No doubt some people often want to talk only about behavior modification, but one can easily fall into this rhetorical trap. After all, if we are not granting that ‘deeper things of the heart’ and ‘behavior modifcation’ are necessarily mutually exclusive, then the tendency of some ‘people’ in regards to the latter is actually not germane. It does, however, serve as a bit of a distraction, in that one can fall for the straw man argument and waste time either trying to demonstrate the straw man doesn’t exist or trying to defend the straw man. However, since there is no reason to accept the question begging opposition introduced here, one would be best served by rejecting the premise in the first place.

As a way of buttressing this approach, one could also point to examples from Jesus’ life and words wherein he proposes ‘behavior modification.’ Statements such as ‘go and sin no more’ certainly seem to destroy the question begging opposition introduced by Lentz here.

“We’re about soul transformation,” he continues. “You start talking about some of the symptomatic stuff, that’s not what we’re about. We’re about talking to people about their heart and the condition of their soul, and some of that stuff out-works itself. But we’re not trying to change anybody because we can’t.”

One might accuse Lentz of equivocating here, since on the one hand he is introducing an opposition between ‘soul transformation’ and ‘behavior modification,’ and on the other admitting that the latter sometimes arises out of the former. A good opponent would perhaps be more charitable in recognizing that Lentz isn’t being terribly critical in his reasoning, and thus probably shouldn’t press the inconsistency too much.

That is not to say, however, that there is not more question-begging occurring here. It actually seems to be much the same assertion, just stated in different terms. Soul-transformation becomes roughly equivalent to the ’deep things of the heart,’ and ‘symptomatic stuff’ is roughly equivalent to ‘behavior modification.’ The use of the term ‘symptomatic’ is of course problematic in that is presumes that what is being characterized as ‘symptomatic’ is therefore unrelated to either the ‘deep things of the heart’ or to ‘soul transformation.’

One wishing to rebut this line of argumentation would be well within his rights to question the dichotomy being once again presumed between one’s ‘soul’ and one’s ‘actions’ or ‘behavior’ or ‘stuff.’ Given that these statements are being made by a Christian within a Christian context, one appropriate rebuttal might be that Christian theology understands human beings to be a complete whole; they are not a dichotomy of intent and action. While the two are not identical, neither are they independent of each other. Thus, presuming that one is merely ‘symptomatic’ is presuming too much.

The final difficulty that shouldn’t be ignored is that while Lentz’ church is self stated to be ‘about soul transformation,’ this mission statement admits its own inefficacy in that ‘we’re not trying to change anybody because we can’t.’ Granted, the most likely and charitable approach to this rather confused statement is that they are ‘about soul transformation’ in that they wish to see souls transformed, even though they cannot do this themselves. There is nothing terribly problematic with that statement, in that Christian theology presupposes that only God can change anybody, but it would lead one to question why, if this is the case, the dichotomy stressed between being about the ‘deep things of the heart/soul transformation’ and ‘behavior modifcation/symptomatic stuff’ is trotted out at all, since it would become absolutely non sequitur, as favoring one over the other is admittedly of no avail. In fact, all it does is further accentuate the presumption that there is a necessary dichotomy between the two and further underscores the initial question begging about Jesus’ predilections in regards to what he talked about.

When Couric asked Lentz if his church has a position on issues like gay marriage, he said, “We have a stance on love, and everything else, we have conversations.”

This is hardly an argument, but is rather what I like to call ‘bumper sticker theology.’ That is, while it is pithy and rhetorically well suited for those to whom such a statement is efficacious, it is actually mostly devoid of substance.

What, after all, characterizes ‘love’ in this stance? What sort of definition are we employing here? It is all well and good to say that one will take a stance on love, but that hardly means anything in and of itself, especially for a word as used and misused as love.

This of all statements is where many might fall for the rhetorical trap; after all, who wouldn’t want to ‘take a stance on love?’ What happens, however, is that if one does not insist that the terms of the argument be defined, one will be at an immediate rhetorical disadvantage in that one will be forced to argue against ‘having a stance on love.’

It is also important to notice the subtle link (which I doubt is intended by Lentz) between Jesus’ presumed aversion to speaking out on certain topics and ‘having a stance on love.’ But if one does not continually press the question begging used initially, and if one does not not insist on the meaning of the terms, the end result is that any argument is essentially going to be trying to argue that Jesus didn’t take a stance on love. And while it is very likely that he didn’t in the sense of which Lentz is using it, the ultimate rhetorical effect is that one ends up arguing that Jesus was a mean guy (not taking a stance on love, you know!) who publicly called for behavior modification for certain sins over against soul-transformation.

Granted, this is probably not how one would frame it, but the rhetorical effect nevertheless remains. At the very least one will always be on the defensive, captive to the terms and question begging premises employed by one’s opponent.

Asked to explain what he meant, Lentz added, “Often people want you to make these big statements about things, and I don’t believe that’s fair. I don’t think a public forum is always the best place to talk about something that’s so sensitive and so important to so many, because … there’s no discussion there.

It strikes me that if one doesn’t wish to be pressed for statements on contentious questions, one shouldn’t appear on talk shows.

Levity aside, while I won’t dispute Lentz’ own opinion in this matter, it strikes me as disingenuous to talk about a contentious issue in a public forum (such as this interview) and then decry talking about the issue in a public forum. One might also question the wisdom of not talking about sensitive and important topics in public forums; if they are actually so important to many, is that not all the more reason to talk about them in the public forum, especially if one is ostensibly all about ‘soul transformation?’ And while discussion may or may not happen within a public forum, is that reason in and of itself for it not to occur?

Granted, Lentz is giving his own opinion here and charting his own course, but one might question whether speaking about something in public forum is necessarily exclusive of discussion, or if the former might not actually more greatly facilitate the latter?

He added, “You go look at what Jesus did. He was always talking about the heart of an individual and the soul of a person, not these symptomatic societal problems. People hate that, because a lot of churches are about what they’re against. We’re about what we’re for.

We finish up an argument that is markedly similar to the one expressed earlier, just couched in slightly different terms. Naturally, the same critique would apply.

The final statement- ‘we’re about what we’re for’– is another bit of the bumper sticker theology. It contrasts nicely with the ‘about what they’re against’ for some rhetorical flourish, but such statements are so devoid of substance it is difficult to know exactly what he means. It somehow manages to get even more substance-less in that the ‘for’ is in reference to the previous statement about having a ‘stance on love.’ And this ‘love’ on which a stance is made and which constitutes what they are ‘for’ is itself vague and undefined.

The void, it would seem, goes down forever!

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Jason Watson

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