In 1974 a secular atheist and a Christian theologian set out “to discuss discordant elements that divide our own society into fragments and to discover” ways of working together “that can make even discordant elements one.” Twenty years later James M. Smith and James Wm. McClendon Jr. believed “that the times [had] at long last caught up with [them]” in two important ways:
1) “Philosophers can no longer be dismissed as threats to the faith or religious believers as soft-headed dogmatists”; and 2) “there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the general approach to the theory of knowledge called ‘foundationalism’ . . . . there is a much greater tendency today to examine the credentials of claims in terms of the disciplines or communities within which the claims are made.”
And so these two “unequally yoked” authors took on the task of revising their twenty-year-old book. Now, twenty-one years on, I can think of few other books that are as relevant to our times. Still today—and maybe even more so than the 70s or 90s—“differences in those beliefs that guide our lives, that make us who we are . . . are indeed the stuff of arguments, manifestos, estrangements, revolutions, and wars.” Many are asking again Smith’s and McClendon’s guiding questions.
“Why are differences in convictions so intractable, so impervious to appeals to evidence or rational argument? And is there a method by which this intractability can be overcome, a method by which convictions can be justified not only to those who already hold them but to those who presently hold other, rival convictions?”
I cannot recommend enough their book-length answer to these questions. Click through and pick up a copy of Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (rev. ed.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002; orig. Trinity, 1994) right now!
One last lengthy excerpt to further make the case that this is a book you should read:
Convictions are the beliefs that make people what they are. They must therefore be taken very seriously by those who have them. This means that to take any person seriously we must take that person’s convictions seriously, even if we do not ourselves share them. If we regard integrity and a certain degree of consistency as important elements in being a person, we should neither expect nor want others’ convictions to be easily changed or lightly given up. On the other hand, if we have a true esteem for our own convictions, we will want them to be shared in appropriate ways by anyone whom we regard. A certain tension appears here. If persons who hold opposed convictions are to come to share common ones, then some sort of exchange must take place in which the disparate partners communicate with, persuade, change one another in significant ways, so that one or both become significantly different persons than they were.