Headphones and Arguments: Owen Strachan, Kyle Roberts, and the Challenge of Conversational Clarity

I hate it when my headphones get tangled. As a church planter that lives out of a backpack, it happens very often, unfortunately. The longer the headphones have been in my bag, the more difficult to unwind. The more urgent the situation, the harder it is to get them straightened out. It doesn’t matter how carefully I put them in my bag, they tend to come out tangled.

Having read what feels like an endless amount of articles and blogs on critical issues in our culture and churches, it seems to me that arguments and discussions tend to do the same things as my headphones. Arguments, like headphones, naturally get tangled and are difficult to untangle. The trickier the topic, the more difficult it is.

A recent blog exchange between two guys I know—Owen Strachan and Kyle Roberts—serves as a great illustration. I can’t settle their disagreement or ones like theirs, but perhaps a couple observations could move the conversation along in a way that will allow people to better hear the heart of their arguments.

“Epistemic Certainty” Characterizes Every Side of the Discussion, Even When It Isn’t Claimed

One of the criticisms that Kyle levies against Owen has to do with his “epistemic certainty.” Kyle does this more than once. This criticism, of course, is a tempting one. With it, you can both paint your opponent as a “quick to draw conclusions before you hear the whole story,” arrogant, and an epistemological bully, while coming off as a humble, listening, and careful person.

As effective as the criticism is, it’s not without its problems. In order to criticize someone for an unwarranted “epistemic certainty,” you need “epistemic certainty” that they are in error. In this blog, Kyle seemed quite certain that Owen’s “epistemic certainty” was unwarranted. For instance, Kyle criticizes Owen for having an “epistemic certainty” that allows him to say people are on a path to hell. While it seems that Owen is the lone bearer of this pejoratively used title, a closer look reveals he’s not. Is Kyle sure that Owen’s wrong here? It would seem so. That takes “epistemic certainty.” It seems Kyle is saying that these folks aren’t going to hell. Is he sure? Better have some “epistemic certainty” to make that assurance. When your position moves from “I don’t know” to “we can’t know,” you have moved from uncertainty to certainty.

Further, since we see “you’re on the path to hell” statements in Scripture, it seems reasonable for believers to provide similar warnings? Sure, let’s be careful throwing that indictment around. But let’s not act like it’s off limits and let’s not be silent, if indeed we believe people are heading down that path.

“Epistemic certainty” characterizes every side of the discussion. That doesn’t end the discussion, it advances it. Make your knowledge claims and let the debate be heard.

Everyone Characterizes The Motives Of Others, And Sometimes That’s Okay

Kyle doesn’t like the way Owen characterized the pastor’s motives. He focused particularly on Owen’s use of “self-congratulatory” in reference to the pastor’s actions and those like him. Should Owen have done that? Perhaps not. Regardless of the pastor’s motives, it is the action that he took that is central. His motives seem to be irrelevant to the heart of the argument. Plus, it is just flat out difficult to know a person’s motivations. The Scriptures say that our own motives can be hard to discover, much less the motives of someone else (Jer. 17:9). Kyle’s right that we should be careful when questioning motives.

But on the other hand, maybe Owen was right. As you read Scripture, it seems that, while it doesn’t happen often, characterizing another person’s motives is fair game. After all, the Apostle of Love, John, did such things. In 3 John 9, he tells us that Diotrephes “loves to have first place among them.” The Apostle Paul says Demas deserted him “because he loved this present world” (2 Tim 4:10). There seem to be basic indicators that allow for such motive indictments. Perhaps such was the case here.

Regardless of your thoughts on this particular case, it’s important to see that both parties characterize the motives of others. As is often the case, the person who criticizes the other for questioning motives, questions their motives in the process. In this case, Kyle uncharitably labels Owen and others like him “Self-Appointed Guardians of the Galaxy.” Using “Terror Management Theory” and an encounter with two college students, Kyle argues that “fundamentalists” like Owen are motivated by fear and anxiety. They aren’t just defending a view; they are “defensive.” All of this, of course, is simply the same kind of motive talk that Kyle criticized Owen for—perhaps even more blatant.

Kyle is painting a picture of the motivations that drive Owen and “those like him.” That’s a lot of motivational knowledge. Maybe Owen is driven by fear and anxiety? While doubtful, it is possible. More likely it is the case that he and others like him are doing their best to follow passages like Titus 1:9 where we’re told both “to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it.” Surely this can be obeyed without wanting to be a “Guardian of the Evangelical Galaxy?”

It isn’t likely that Kyle would appreciate being characterized as a “Guardian of the Progressive Christian Galaxy?” Did someone else officially appoint Kyle the guardian who needed to call out Owen or did he decide to write that blog himself? Would it advance the discussion in any meaningful way if Owen labeled Kyle the “Guardian of the Progressive Christianity Galaxy?” I don’t think so.

When you negatively characterize the motives of the one you are criticizing for doing the same thing, it makes it hard for people to hear the truth of the argument. Mixed motives are on all sides and are hard to understand. Discussions will advance if we can admit that we all characterize the motives of others, not just one side; and it is justified in some cases—although rarely.

Criticizing one another for actions and/ arguments that we subtly do in the act of those criticisms doesn’t help the discussion advance. Let’s focus on the heart of the argument, admitting that neither side will do that perfectly. While I don’t think this brief post will cause Owen—whose position on LGBTs issues I share—and Kyle to agree on the issues at hand, perhaps the facts on both sides will be heard more clearly.