One of my birthday gifts this year was the 2012 edition of The Best Spiritual Writing, edited by Philip Zaleski. The Best Spiritual Writing Series “presents the most intriguing works on faith and spirituality published in the past year.” They include writers from a variety of spiritual perspectives and from diverse sources. I won’t say I loved all of the pieces or that if I were putting together a similar volume I would have made the same choices as did Zeleski, but there was enough that I did think was excellent.

But what I came back to most in the book was not any of the essays, poetry or stories it included, but rather, Philip Yancey’s introduction to the book, which discussed the challenge for those who write about spiritual matters to find the proper balance between art and propaganda.

In the course of that discussion, Yancey talks about rationalization (vs. deduction). He defines “the process of rationalization very simply: it occurs when a person already knows the end result and reasons backward. The conclusion is a given; I merely need to find a way to support that conclusion.” He provides some example of situations where starting from foregone conclusions and reasoning backward blinds one to reality. He then writes:

Much religious literature has an echo of rationalization. I get the sense that the author starts with a fixed conclusion and sets out to supply logical support for that conclusion. What I read about depression, suicide, abortion, divorce, addiction, and homosexuality often seems written by people who begin with a foregone conclusion and who have neither been through nor fully understand the anguished steps that are the familiar path to a person struggling with those issues.

Although Yancey’s subject is religious literature, his sense is one that I have experienced often with respect to much public discourse. The problem, of course, is that when writing or discourse is conducted in this way, there is little chance of having real impact on the reader/listener.

Focusing more on the “anguished steps” than on the conclusion will not only deepen our own grasp of truth, but will make us more effective in our dialogue with others.