Charitable Reading: It’s Good for You

This is a reposting of something I did on a mothballed blog of mine. My original post was called “On Charitable Reading.”

When I was in college, I was in an oral examination with two professors, and one of my professors told me that I was good at performing a charitable reading. I was not sure what that meant, and I was uncertain whether that implied that I had a sliver of naivete. Today I came across a posting on a forum called The Forge entitled “On Charitable Reading,” and that set me straight on the meaning of “charitable reading.” Now I take that as a compliment rather than a description with confusing implications.

The author of this post, Chris Lehrich, emphasizes taking time to understand what a writer is saying. Even if their terminology is unclear or their analogies are like a refrigerator falling through a wardrobe, the responsible reader on the forum will understand before mustering disagreement. On the subject of maladjusted examples, Lehrich emphasizes the need to understand writers without arguing with their terminology. He says that it is important to deal with the argument that an example supports rather than arguing the inadequacy of the example, or not to argue with analogies because analogies are not arguments. I do not know anything about Lehrich, but he cogently lays out something that is important for all teachers, students, bosses, peons, or any participants in any sort of discussion to understand: the need to charitably listen or read and understand.

I do not remember who said it, but it may have been from Mortimer Adler’s book How to Read a Book, “Before I say that I agree or disagree, I need to say that I understand.” Understanding could erase perhaps forty to sixty percent of all disagreement, and it could help us resolve most of the rest of our disagreements much more kindly and cleanly than we otherwise might. I was doing a paper on Francis Bacon’s The New Organon and how Bacon interacts with religion. Bacon mainly emphasizes the need for scientists to get out and measure actual things and base theories on actual data, rather than relying upon a few indisputable principles to predict physical properties and other scientific facts. He also addresses the interaction between faith and theology, and his manner of doing so might alarm theologians who want others to recognize the authority of divine revelation.

In my paper, I drew on Stephen Jay Gould, author of an article proposing a doctrine of Non-Overlapping Magisteria in dealing with the integration of faith and science. To make a quick and dirty summary, both Gould and Bacon say that it is necessary to distinguish between the realms of authority of separate domains of academic study. Furthermore, in one way or another, they say that faith should stay within its own proper sphere of authority in relation to doing science. Broadly stated, some theologians would swiftly condemn such talk of limiting faith as a threat to acceptance of divine authority in matters such as the creation of the world. If they do, I would say that it is not necessary to fully agree with writers in order to learn from them, so perhaps charitable and insightful reading might help theologians and apologists to sharpen their own arguments.

It is necessary to learn from whoever will help you learn truth, even if they are not on “your side.” I once heard a Muslim Imam say that if all the trees in the world were pens, and the oceans were ink, there would not be enough to describe God. I am not a Muslim, but I believe that what the Imam said is true about God. Although it is unacceptable to piece together a belief system at whim and call that a respectable religion, it is possible to derive truth from interactions with other philosophies and religions. Gould and Bacon successfully draw out the need to distinguish between fields of study, so we who are in learning need to properly account for when we cross into fields of study outside of our own.

In sum, a music major friend of mine said that sometimes musicians have the worst concert-going etiquette of anyone. In the pursuit of truth, down with this sort of thing.

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