An Essay on Christians and Open, Respectful Debate
Note: This reflection grew out of watching two people I've never met -- one a Christian and the other not -- attempt to discuss a "hot topic." It honestly pains me that not only are Christians not known to the world as masters of reasoning, logic, and debate/philosophy -- but that they are viewed as the exact opposite (and it's a mostly deserved label).
Using close-minded and hurtful debate methods is a notorious problem within Christian circles. While it's certainly not limited to Christianity, I think we (especially Evangelical Christians) have a certain inherent proneness to it. In my mind, this is mostly because of how we think about debate and truth.
If we believe that the Bible is authoritative absolute truth, we should live by it's laws and guidelines. In fact, anything less is hypocrisy. But when we begin to take the Bible's principles and apply them outside of our own lives we tend to have problems. There are normally grey areas where we see multiple interpretations and can be drawn, and these are generally points where we can "agree to disagree" quite easily. However, the more firmly we believe a tenant of our faith -- especially when we believe that it is absolute truth -- the harder it is for us to have an open and respectful debate.
This creates a gulf that exists between us and the person we are talking with. Until we bridge this gap, it is impossible to put ourselves in their shoes and see things from their perspective. The biggest thing we can do to start to stop the problem is to LISTEN to the other person. I'm not going to attempt to cover a course in listening 101, but I do want to highlight a few important aspects:
Asking rather than assuming
Keeping generalizations neutral and under control
Focusing on the topic (ie, "I don't understand the logic here" rather than "you're an idiot!")
Remembering that you're talking to a person (who has feelings, flaws, etc just like you do)
Following these rules will help ensure that your conversations are respectful, but that's only part of the picture. What about the open mindedness? In my experience there's a strong culture within Christianity that views debates (and conversations or discussions) as something that can be won or lost. Even more problematic is the notion that, if we lose we have let God down, so we have to win our debate at all cost. Sadly this applies to evangelism as well.
Because I don't think it's possible to be open minded and still have this mentality, I'd like to present 4 points to counter the win/lose scenario. The first 3 mainly address the idea of "losing" and the last more on "winning." 1. Debates are Important I'm not going to list a long string of Scriptural references on this (but I'll be happy to provide them if anyone wants), but open discussion and debate are a staple part of both Jesus' ministry and that of the Early Church. There are a few verses that encourage us to end pointless arguments and debates, but I think it's a misapplication to take these verses and use them as a reason to not engage in discussion and debate both inside and outside of Christian circles. The weight of example is certainly on the side of debate.
In addition presenting one's reasoning is a skill. One becomes better able to express his or her views by expressing them, better able to defend them by defending them, and better able to reason them out by reasoning them. 2. Being Open Minded Does Not Mean Changing Opinions Being open-minded does not mean that you're planning to adopt the other person's opinion. But it does mean that you're willing to reconsider your own opinion based on the perspective and facts that are brought to you.
This is scary because being in a state of doubt or uncertainty is unpleasant. However, working thought doubts and uncertainties makes your faith stronger and your opinions and beliefs more likely to be accurate (the more sides you can see something from the more clearly you can see it and the less likely you are to be wrong).
This is humbling because pride would like to tell us that we're always right. But in reality we are humans and prone to mistakes and errors. Sometimes our faith and beliefs need refining -- and God often uses either debates or life to that end (and I'd rather go with a debate any day. Life hurts more!)
Lastly reexamining or even refining our beliefs does not mean that our faith is weak or that we are letting God down. The exercise of re-examination makes our faith stronger, and God doesn't need us to defend him. 3. Neither Absolute Truth nor God Need Defending For many Christians this may initially seem to be an enormously flawed position. But, if something is Absolute Truth, it can withstand the force of any logic we can bring against it. In fact, since our perspective of truth is not pure or 100% perfect, bringing the brunt of our fears and doubts against our beliefs is one of the best things we can do. Like throwing a piece of pottery on the floor to expose the diamond within. No matter how hard we throw, the diamond will be uninjured and the harder we throw, the better it will be revealed.
Since (or perhaps I should say IF) God is Absolute Truth as we claim, He welcomes our questions and doubts. He knows that they will only better reveal Himself to us. So "losing" the debate is part of "winning" the battle of faith. 4. Relationship and Religion Christians tend to like to use the "Relationship not Religion" phrase. But sometimes I wonder if we really understand what it means -- particularly in the implications it has on the issue of "winning" a debate.
Relationship = unique, dynamic, internal, between us and God.
Religion = uniform, static, external, between us and society.
Our beliefs and understanding of God are defined by our relationship with Him (through personal experience, thoughts, quiet time/devotions, etc) and guided to a certain extent by religion (through creeds, church, bible study, etc). Because of this, our beliefs will bear the marks of relationship much more than religion. Meaning that our true beliefs are more unique, dynamic, internal, between us and God than uniform, static, external, between us and society.
It's important to note that the beliefs we claim to have are not always what we truly believe. Being dogmatic can make others claim one thing and really believe another, or to "tune out" what we're saying.Sometimes "winning" the debate is really heading toward "losing" the battle of faith. If winning the battle of faith is determined by God's work in our lives as individuals (and by some extension, in groups) and His timing,then the pressure is off of us to win our discussions, conversations, and even debates. This leaves us free to focus on our words and speaking in a way that reflects our position as Christ-Followers