Recently, I was listening to a Q&A session with [my school] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, Albert Mohler, and he was asked a question about reading books. It is no secret he has a passion for reading, and having been to his home and seen his personal library of 50,000+ volumes (half of his library is out in boxes in his garage), I can bear witness that this is so. He had a book rack in his library with 12-15 books and the note on the rack read, “read for this week.” Actually, in this Q&A session he said he tries to read 7-10 books a week, which I find astounding in general, but even more so given how busy the president of a seminary is.
Anyway, he was asked the kinds of books he reads and I found his answer really profound and true of myself. President Mohler said that he “reads more books by people he disagrees with than he agrees with.”
This is speaks into my life. For some reason I have this same tendency. I find it edifying to read authors with whom I agree. However, I am challenged to know my position better when I read perspectives I don’t agree with because I have to be able to wrestle and defend my perspective, if I then still consider it to be the accurate one.
This exercise of reading others’ perspectives is a slippery slope, of course.
Here is an example: I love church history. All kinds of it. I like knowing where certain ideas originated and what happened to who and when and where. I like reading about the men who here influential (for good and bad) throughout church history, and Included in this list are men who have been condemned as heretics such as Origen, Arius, and Pelagius. As I read and study these men I have to be careful that their views don’t infiltrate and “poison” my (orthodox) theology. You want to be knowledgeable about heresy, but in reading so much of it, you must be steadfast and discerning to not let it “infect” you in a sense.
Here are three reasons you should read those with whom you disagree:
1. To Broaden Your Mind.
It forces you to think!
Staying caged up with only those you agree tend to cause one to lose touch with other views, and that isn’t healthy. You believe your view to be superior, which depending on the subject, it actually could be, but that doesn’t lead to meaningful dialogue. Without broadening your scope on the issue, whether it be theology or politics or how to bake cake, your thinking may become unhealthy because there could be another way to view a theological issue, political issue, or how to bake a cake better; But you wouldn’t know until you read.
I think about the theological debates between Calvinists and Arminians in the Southern Baptist Convention. So many people who argue against one or the other, don’t have a real understanding of the system of thought they oppose. Usually the attacks are against myths and misnomers, and not against the thing itself. For Calvinism, the misunderstanding comes in regards to the urgency of evangelism and prayer. For Arminianism, it comes in regards to believing in a “weak” God and a denial of the seriousness of sin and its effects on our world. These unfortunate, and unhealthy, things happen because people have not actually read good Calvinist theology, or solid Arminian theology; people who are uneducated on these issues just repeat what they have heard, and heard, probably, from another person who hasn’t studied for themselves.
Another example is reading the late Christopher Hitchens, a journalist and atheist. Though I don’t agree with Christopher Hitchens on many subjects, particularly issues of religion, I do enjoy reading some of his work on politics, particularly foreign policy in regards to the Middle East, and culture. I can learn from Hitchens, and his writing style. I better see the world from another perspective because it reminds me that my view isn’t the only view, though my view on, say religion, is I believe, a better position.
Again, this doesn’t mean you have to agree. It simply shows signs of health in your thinking, as you don’t get too bogged down with a pseudo-intellectualism that thinks itself to be the only position. I believe the Christian faith is the one and true faith. I have reasons for believing such, but I acknowledge there are many other religions, and should be open to learning about them, particularly for the third reason I give. This leads into the next reason why you should read those with whom you disagree:
2. To Reflection, Evaluation, and Evolution
It allows you to do serious evaluation and to change your own position in light of the newly acquired information, if needed, because, let’s face it, you could be wrong. Many don’t want to read that which doesn’t fit within their preconceived notions, which as I mentioned before is unhealthy, and can stunt the progression of your own views. When you read other views, especially those really unfamiliar to you, you are challenged to think, as you think you ask questions, formulate answers, evaluate (the plausibility of) those answers, compare to current view and if you need to make changes to a position you hold, you do so (evolution of ideas).
It’s like a math problem, a subject that I have never liked. When something is added or subtracted to the original proposition, you are forced to deal with the new information. You must carefully consider the possible outcomes, and evaluate your process for finding the correct answer.
Going back to theological terminology, and the Calvinism-Arminianism debate; if a new passage, perhaps one you had never read before or previously interpreted to fit into your system of thought, is brought to your attention in such a way that challenges a particular doctrine you hold, you are obliged to reconsider. Look at context, look at original meanings of words, find where those words and ideas are used elsewhere in Scripture, read some good (and orthodox) commentaries, and evaluate. If you come to a conclusion that another view is more biblical than the one you currently hold, you adopt it. A subject that people are always reading and changing their opinions on is eschatology in relation to the Millennium, the rapture, and how to interpret apocalyptic literature in Scripture (preterism, idealism, futurism, historicism).
3. To Defend and Debate.
Reading those I do not agree with allows me to better understand their perspective, why they hold to it, its strengths and weaknesses, and it allows me to offer a serious, thoughtful critique; with which I can offer a proper defense of my position (if on theology, thinking about 1 Peter 3:15-16; if on religion as a whole, 2 Cor. 10:5). I can use the weakness of said other view to my advantage, perhaps in strengthening my reasons for not holding to their view and even for the purposes of strengthening my own view. It is only when I adequately understand an opposing view that I should be at the ready to debate it; otherwise, one would look like Richard Dawkins, meaning foolish, as he attempts to deconstruct the Christian religion, though he is attacking something altogether different than biblical Christianity; usually its a liberal kind of Christianity, which I too would disagree with.
Daniel Dennett, another prominent atheist and philosopher, has suggested that you should be able to articulate your opponent’s arguments so well that they would say, “I wish I had put it that way.” That is good debate etiquette. Doing such requires being knowledgeable on the subject, hence requires reading those you may disagree with.
Watch some of James White’s debates with people from other religions, and even with people inside of orthodox Christianity. White exhibits the fruit of being studied up on subjects, and views other than his own, and it allows him to be an excellent apologist and debater.
There could be other reasons as to why you should read, especially with those whom you disagree, but for now these three large categories shall suffice.