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I Kissed Debating Goodbye

Fourteen years ago, when I was in seminary, a professor made a startling confession. The truth came out during a chapel service on campus, where he was the keynote speaker of the day. The professor began his sermon by stating that he had a confession to make. He explained in nebulous terms how he had been unfaithful, how he had lost sight of his first love. After a few minutes of remorseful talk he made the bombshell announcement: “I have been having an affair (dramatic pause) with books and ideas.”

As you might have guessed, the professor’s message didn’t have the affect he intended as numerous students audibly scoffed at his announcement and “having an affair with my books” became the running joke on campus for the remainder of the semester.

Although the professor’s delivery wasn’t successful, he was making an important point about himself, seminary culture, and modern evangelicalism: we’ve come to love propositions about Jesus more than Jesus himself. This misplacement of our affection is no more evident than in the arena of debating.

The Culture War

It was during the culture war of the late 20th century that evangelicals took the offensive, looking for any opportunity to promote and debate Christian beliefs. The context didn’t matter—workplace, college campus, coffee shop, family dinner, or even a funeral service. For it was declared that “truth” was at stake and it was one’s Christian duty to speak up anytime a word was uttered that contradicted Christian beliefs.

In this fight for “truth,” evangelicals became much more interested in defending the words of Jesus than living the words of Jesus, and the love of neighbor was reduced to speaking the “truth” regardless of how inappropriate the setting may be. “Truth divides,” “The truth is offensive,” and “The greatest act of love is to tell someone the truth” became justification for speaking the “truth” at any time, in any place.

Intent on defending the Bible and its teaching about Jesus, Christians lost sight of what it means to love Jesus and love their neighbor.

From Debate to Discussion

In post-culture-war America, there has been a gradual shift away from debating and towards discussing. I believe this shift provides a wonderful opportunity for Christians to get reacquainted with our first love and to live the faith we so adamantly profess to possess. Just consider the difference in tone, attitude, and spirit between a debate and a discussion.

Debate. A debate is a rhetorical contest where there’s a winner and a loser. In a debate your goal is to defeat your opponent. To this end, you project supreme confidence, focus on the strong points of your position, and downplay the shortcomings of your position. In a debate you don’t value the opinion of your opponent, you dismantle them, and you only listen to your opponent in order to craft a counterargument.

Discussion. In contrast, a discussion is an exchange of ideas, where there’s no winner or loser. In a discussion your goal is to gain greater understanding of one another’s position. To this end, you project humility, graciously communicate the strong points of your position, and freely admit the shortcomings of your position. In a discussion you value the opinion of each participant because you respect differing points of view, and you genuinely listen to the perspective of others because you believe every human being on the planet has something to offer you.

As Christians our fight isn’t against people or culture; our faith is not rooted in well-reasoned arguments; and we are not called to live a Pharisaical existence. We’re called to be lovers of Jesus and doers of his word. We’re called to be people of compassion and peace.

So if you ever find yourself getting drawn into a debate, let me encourage you to run away before you’re headlong into a torrid affair. And if anybody ever asks you why you don’t debate, just tell them that you’ve kissed debating goodbye.

 

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About Leon Hayduchok

Comments

  1. I think a lot of people prefer to debate because they get to hold their position the entire time. It’s my conviction that to truly dialogue with someone takes a willing suspension of one’s own beliefs, in order to clearly hear the other person’s. I have to be willing to be wrong. Hopefully through discussion, as you point out, two people come to better understanding. Either deeper in their own convictions or clearer about the needs and questions from someone different than myself. Thanks for posting this article!

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