Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The spiritual hazards of debate

I recently read a book by a pointedly atheist author. This was not just someone who happened to disagree with Christians, but one who even made a false statement or two (easily enough demonstrated), falsified his source material (again, easily enough demonstrated) and misrepresented its contents in order to put together a logical "case" against Christianity. His tone was frequently mocking, his portrayals of Christians so skewed that I found myself wondering if there is some objective standard to measure and demonstrate the extent of bias in a piece of writing. (No doubt there is somewhere, if I were inclined to track it down.)

I found myself, as I read, mentally gearing up to demolish these distortions. And as I did, I saw the author as the enemy. Now, in his own mind he probably is; it would be difficult to imagine someone setting out to write and publish a book like that without first deliberately and consciously taking position as an enemy of mainstream / orthodox / traditional Christianity. But I found myself reacting to someone who is, honestly, trying to provoke a reaction. I have watched myself -- and other Christians in debate -- forget what we're working towards. Yes, it's best if we counter the lies and malicious talk. But if I let myself forget why I'm doing it, I may gain a small win at the cost of a large loss.

I read several books recently by atheists who engage in Christian baiting for sport, and had planned a series of posts. Recently I checked some of my planned posts lists. I was planning a post on baptism in the gospels and in the epistles, not to learn more about baptism, but to show "those people" how wrong they are about Paul having no interest in Christ's teachings. Worse, I was planning a post on Christ's teachings on the primacy of love and how Paul, more than anyone else in the New Testament epistles, picked up that idea and ran with it -- not planning this post to learn more about love or to ingrain the primacy of love deeper into myself, but again just to show the bias and blatant distortion of facts coming from the anti-Christian crowd when they claim that Paul taught an entirely different thing than Jesus, or had no interest in Jesus' teachings.

I could multiply examples, but I'm hoping by now my point is made: hostility and factions and discord are typical price tags of "debates", and "debates" may not be the best way to answer someone. How often are polemics productive? (Productive of what?) Even within Christianity, we find ourselves polarized, and polarization often distorts both parties from their original position. At any rate a debate format makes sure the sides remain "parties" or partisans -- it prevents union, interferes with outreach.

I do not intend to abandon the original proposed posts. But I hope to handle them differently. If I approach this in a better way, proclaiming the answer to the constant stream of misguided accusations will show Jesus at his best, not me at my worst.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anastasia Theodoridis said...

What I was trying to say (deleted post) is that I'm really looking forward to seeing how you do this and taking from you a good example!

Weekend Fisher said...

Ah, you're such an optimist, "taking from (me) a good example". I appreciate your confidence. Hope I'm half of that. ;) I do have a little practice with that, and have even (occasionally) done jobs with which I'm pleased. I just need to improve my batting average ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

-C said...

The spiritual hazards are great indeed, I think. I was in a similar situation a couple of weeks ago and became so angry that I couldn't even reply to a discussion I read on someone's blog.

I spoke with my wise godmother about the discussion and she suggested that for the duration of the Dormition fast I stay off the sites where these most troubling discussions were going on.

What good advice this has proven to be!

Tony-Allen said...

I had a similar bit of internal struggle, as apologetics are one of my favorite things to practice (as I'm sure my blog can attest to). I worried if I was becoming too prideful, and maybe looking for fights. Was I, as you suggested, seeking discord rather than order?

In my teenage days I was all about rabid debates. I was ready to debate everyone and everything. I insulted, I got mad, I made sarcastic remarks, nothing was sacred to me. Soon I became really apathetic, and didn't really care about anything. Now that I'm a young adult and my passions have developed into constructive energy, I think I'm more able to control my passion.

We should debate, we should write apologetics, and we should defend our faith - we are called to do so. We are called to do so not only against unbelievers but against even fellow believers; remember Apollos had to be corrected by two fellow believers in the book of Acts. At the same time, we must remember two important things:

1) We must be cool, calm, and collective. Before debate it might be good to reeducate ourselves with what Paul identifies as the fruits of the spirit and ways of the flesh. We must be educated but humble. Even if our enemy is rude, arrogant, and insults us personally, in keeping calm we will, as Paul says, "heap coals of fire on his head."

2) We should pick our battles. If random forum member #29 said something rather ridiculous, chances are no one else in the world is going to see it. It isn't worth our time. However, if we see a common argument or we see something being taken seriously by a large group of people, then yes we should respond.

Just my own two cents on the matter.

-C said...

But before we engage in apologetics or debate, especially those of us who are converts must remember that we are only infants in Orthodoxy - and we must take care not only that our arguments accurately reflect the teachings of the Orthodox tradition, but more importantly, that our words are loving as well as true.

If we make our point and "win" our debate, but our words lead our "opponent" away from Christ and his church altogether, everyone loses.

Orthodoxy is the fullness of the church and the truth, my arguing with someone else about it does not make it more true or more full - it only puts in peril my own salvation and the salvation of others.

Weekend Fisher said...

"but more importantly, that our words are loving as well as true." -- ~c

Nicely put. And you all mentioned converts -- I've seen many converts who are blind to the shortcomings of their new tradition and blind to the decencies of their old one. I suppose that's part of being a convert, but ...

Take care & God bless

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

Very good discussion. It is so very easy to get drawn "down" to a lower level if we try to engage in debate or "correction" of somebody else, especially in the arena of faith and Bible reading. WF called me to account on one of my blog posts for over generalizing; I have yet to post something that is better way to state what I meant.(procrastination.)

Since I've been blogging, I have often gone to many faith related sites, and especially those in another segment of my (general) denomination. I've found a number of these pastors who write blogs claim that the doctrines and practices (types of music, lack of liturgy, etc) of certain groups are not possibly Christian. Actually, I've run across phrasing like "straight from hell." They cite verses that they claim it is their duty to correct others' interpretations of the Bible. Basically, they are the only TRUE group.

These discussions are so disturbing to me that I finally told my pastor that I was reading this stuff and was told to stop! I read the stuff because I thought it is very narrow minded to just read things that reinforce one's own (narrow) background. I want to know more about why I believe what I believe, and why others believe what they believe, rather than just believe because I was told to believe.

Yet, the feelings provoked in my did not make me want to attend those churches, rather, I wanted to run away.

So, to go back to the point of your post: if a person writes about what one believes because he/she loves God and wants to spread God's love and grace, and graceful interpretation of Scriptures, then it should follow that the "tone" of the writing will reflect that LOVE. If the writing is to prove others to be wrong, and, not incidentally, to build oneself up, then that tone will also come through. Trying to prove one is a Better Christian automatically shows that one isn't.

Weekend Fisher said...


I know what you mean about people with THE TRUE GROUP mentality. And, honestly, most people who have consciously chosen a group rather than lucking into it chose it because they think it's THE TRUE GROUP. I don't mind people thinking that. The part that rubs me the wrong way is what you mentioned that so often comes with THE TRUE GROUP mentality: the arrogance, the disdain, the closed-mindedness ... Humility doesn't mean being ambivalent about our beliefs, but it does mean giving our brothers and sisters fair treatment, considering others better than ourselves.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Enigman said...