When Christians and Buddhists dialogue I occasionally see a similar dialogue technique that shuts down their conversation. This technique — a sort of parachute out of the dialogue — also occurs outside of religions and I’d love to hear secular examples if you think of any. But for this post I will talk about religious examples of a subjective parachute used to escape impasses in reasoned dialogue. Tell me is you see the similarities that I see.
When some Christians argue with nonbelievers about Jesus’ resurrection, they may engage for quite a while in rational discourse but at some point of impasse they may pull the ripcord by resorting to something like the following:
“The resurrection has to be personally experienced in your own life to truly understand and know it.”
Likewise, when some Buddhists debate Sunyata (“Emptiness” — a central doctrine for Buddhists), they may use analytic and discursive reasons to bring their interlocutor closer to their understanding, but they may eventually freeze the parachute out of the conversation by reminding their dialogue partner that:
“Sunyata is not a belief, it has to be realized (experienced) to truly understand”
Having practiced both of these religious traditions, I understand what they are saying. And maybe exactly because I have experienced both, I also understand the problem with this sort of answer as a dialogue tool.
William Lane Craig, a famous Christian apologist/philosopher, debates with incredible logical vigor but is infamous for saying, “[The inner witness of the Holy Spirit] trumps all other evidence.” Thus, only subjective experience of the Holy Spirit serves as one’s unshakable epistemological foundation, according to Craig.
Zen Buddhists who engage non-Buddhists in vigorous logical and rhetorical debates may sometimes stall the dialogue by using the common Zen metaphor of “The Finger Pointing to the Moon”. In this metaphor, the moon represents Truth and the finger represents words or language. The Zen debater may chastise their interlocutor saying, “Don’t mistake the finger for the moon” meaning that only subjective experience of Truth (insight) serves as one’s secure epistemological foundation. Thye are implying that only by directly knowing the Moon (experiencing truth) can one understand it.
These examples rightly point to limitations in human understanding and to the limitations of language itself but they also illustrate limited dialogue skills, in my opinion. Since people with widely different beliefs can use this exact same subjective parachute to safely jump out of a conversation, I think we should think carefully about using it glibly in conversation. It is important to understand what a common technique this is. It is our attitude toward and ways of using this subjective parachute that concern me.
Questions to readers:
- So, do you see the similarity that I see?
- Do you have suggestions on how to work with this issue in dialogue?
- Do you have examples how this parachute is used in secular conversations?
(PS – Also, may I unabashedly fish for kudos on my PhotoShopped montage?)