The Reality of Arguing versus Debating


When I was in high school, I was an avid debater. Not quite as good as my little brother Nathan, but I could stand on my own two feet. I loved debating and even got offered a very small scholarship to do it at a local college. Nathan, as an aside, is a high school teacher and debate coach with a degree in communications. I don't feel bad playing second fiddle to him in the world of debate.

I've noticed something lately. As I've “flexed” my theological muscles and entered into some debates at work or on Twitter/Facebook, I've realized that real debates bother me deeply. For example, I got into a rather heavy argument with a fellow Sailor about the existence of God. It's very difficult to prove the existence of our Father, and I was up against a wall on more than one occasion. I was bothered about that for several days. Still am really.

Recently, an argument (that I referenced on a previous blog post) on Twitter really got me going. The guy I was arguing with was a Christian, which makes me feel even worse. Christians should be able to debate and then make up and walk away. We're Christians, right?

Three days later and that guy has stopped talking to me, but I don't know if he's just preparing another round of questions that I won't want to answer (he's too political for my taste). If he does, I'll have to call him out on his misinterpretation of scripture meant for Israel. I'm hoping it doesn't come to that. (As an update...he has unfollowed me on Twitter. I reciprocated the action.)

I realize my problem with apologetics and debating in general. My problem is that I expect that the arguments will remain respectful, that the sides will realize their differences, and that they will shake hands upon completion of the debate. It is, after all, what happens in structured debate. This, however, is not often the case in real life. And as I can't stand uncomfortable situations, I loathe debating now.

My heart's desire is to tell the world about Jesus Christ. What they do with him is up to them, but I know how I feel about the issue. I've been able to share my faith with many people at my command (No MRFF problems here) and I'm grateful for the experiences. What I'm not grateful for is the feeling in the pit of my stomach when real debates take place.

I asked Nathan, who is also a PhD student in educational psychology at Kansas University, to weigh in on the subject. He suggests handling the feelings of real debate by remembering what a debate is really about - compromise. A real debate is not about winning or losing. Especially if you're in a competitive environment (high school debate tournaments, presidential or mayoral elections, etc.), it's hard to see debate as anything other than winning something. "Yet, in real life, it is not that simple. There aren't really winners and losers. There are a lot of partials. Theology aside, there are very few instances of clearly defined rights and wrongs. The issue that you're having, from the sound of it, is both rhetorical and psychological.

"It is rhetorical because, as I described above, both of you are looking to win the debate instead of looking for a compromise. There are probably some truths in between both sides of arguments, which is usually where most truths are located. Hardly ever is the truth found in the extremes, especially involving politics. For instance, I tend to be adamantly against the death penalty because I don't believe it is my calling to ever judge another person's life. Yet that position is not, from what I know at least, completely backed up by the Bible. There are plenty of instances where a death penalty was not only appropriate, but commanded by God. So am I disobeying God by following what I believe is my "true" conviction to protect life? You tell me. I am willing to compromise that there might be times in which death could be an appropriate sentence; however, I will never allow myself to sit on that jury unless I'm forced by death myself to do so.

"The issue also seems to be psychological, and here is where I am not trying to sound harsh by any means. It looks like this is becoming a fight for pride. Again, think about winning and losing. If your Christian friend is trying to rebut you at every turn, most likely there's a wound festering. Maybe on both sides. Humans are a very proud species, and part of that is the ultimate price of sin. Psychologically, then, it is hard for us to step down from our positions at times and realize that we might not have the full answer, or that we might actually be wrong (or at least not completely correct). Now, I say all these things not to indict; rather, I say them because I have only been given the information above."

Nate continues, "I am saddened that so many Christians are involved in many of the "debates" that you and your friend are involved in. Sure, a good debate is worth the investment. Bu a good debate should, as you put it, be respectful of various viewpoints, and it should not seek one right answer. Instead, a good debate will allow for multiple solutions, all of which might be good options. Maybe one is better than the rest, but it could be that all options are viable. Individuals get so stuck in their self-made ruts of ideologies that they cannot see past their own brainwashed theories. This is what debate coaches are supposed to teach their students, but 1) not every student becomes a master, and 2) many debate coaches are stuck in the same rut. We create ruts like this: "God-fearing, gun-owning Christian lives in this home." So if I don't own guns, can I not be God-fearing? Or how about the "God hates fags" slogan that I'm sure you are aware of floating around. Did not Jesus himself hang out with the worst of sinners of the time period? If that is the case, and if we are going to label any individuals as being the worst of sinners, shouldn't Christians be all about loving and living with those individuals? Anyway, just my thoughts."

He concluded by saying that, "In the end, a good debate should end up asking more questions than answering. If it doesn't, or you can't come up with multiple, respectful truths, then you're probably not having a debate. You're throwing around arguments with no real intention of persuading anyone else or being persuaded of anything else yourself."

Thanks Nate. I for one am going to start reviewing how I “debate” with people regarding my faith.

4 comments:

Greg Cope said...

Great article. Keep them coming.

Randie White said...

I found this post very helpful. Not necessarily the information, but mainly in seeing I'm not the only one who wrestles with keeping an argument from becoming a quarrel. I have three comments I'd like to make.

1. I enjoyed the fact you totally avoided any specifics of the event(s) that lead to the post. I appreciate how difficult that can be and feel it adds to the integrity of your point.

2. There should be a clear difference between an argument/debate and a quarrel. Unfortunately in todays world that difference only seems to show up in the dictionary or a logics class. That difference must be recovered to allow civil discourse in the public square. After all isn't that the true drive behind the first amendment?

3. There will always be theological differences among Christians. Some of these differences will be trivial and some quite significant. Although these differences should be knowledge and discussed, we should not allow them to interfere with the gospel and great commission work. I think of Wesley and Whitefield who would publicly preach very similar gospel sermons. Debates on theological differences were saved for afterwards on the boat.

I hope my ramblings are in someway helpful.

Dan Smith said...

@Greg: Thank you for your comments. I know my previous post was not impressive, so it's nice to know this one did well.

@Randie: Thank you so much for your thoughts! I appreciate every one of them. Here are my responses to your points:

1. The background was not important, but I think you can look the argument up under my Twitter account. Anyway, it was just ugly on both sides, so I felt it was wise not to discuss it.

2. In our current political climate, and theological for that matter, quarrels are becoming the norm. This is unfortunate. I remember several real debates on my first ship regarding religion, but I don't know how many we'll keep having in the future.

3. I am so impressed and grateful that your primary objective is the Gospel message. And thank you for the historical reference!

boilt frog said...

Regarding the existence of God, listen to "The Great Debate" between Bahnsen (Christian) and Stein (atheist). Bahnsen uses Van Til's presuppositional apolegetics. I felt sorry of Stein. Bahnsen (d. 1995) was regarded as Van Til's greatest student.

Debating is about cogently stating your position. Few people capitulate at the end of the debate.

Regarding the death penalty reference: the New Testament Church's equivalent of the O.T's civil death penalty is exclusion from the Lord's table. Will you participate in this process?