By Jessica Keye.
Why is contention and argument so entertaining? When two or more individuals or organizations with differing worldviews meet, we reach eagerly for the popcorn and wait to see what will unfold. I don’t think it really matters what setting either – religion, popular culture, politics, relationships… It’s all fair game.
I’m sitting here trying to think of possible reasons why some people find conflict so engaging and enjoyable. I’m actually stumped. The only thing that has popped into my head is that perhaps it is an opportunity to feel good about ourselves. As third party onlookers there are two teams vying for our approval and we sit above it all, with all the ultimate decisional power over who is right or wrong. Or if we’re in the hot-seat ourselves we get to flaunt our intelligence or something. Sounds pretty horrible and maybe I’m choosing not to let myself believe that’s the case completely because if that’s what’s going on, it is a deplorable way to operate.
So I’m not ignorant. I know that not everyone on the planet agrees on everything entirely and that being able to share your thoughts, values and beliefs with others and indeed hear the thoughts, values and beliefs of others is a privilege. But I suppose there’s just a few things that have caught my attention lately that make me wonder whether, as a Christian community, we are going about this in the best way.
Too many times I have sat in a Sabbath School class having established that the person who was supposed to take the lesson that morning was not going to show up and asked for people in the group to possibly suggest some topics of conversation – maybe things that they’ve come across during the week that has challenged them or Bible stories that they don’t necessarily understand… only to receive the same old, same old “controversial” issues, like ‘homosexuality’, ‘alcohol and drugs’ or ‘abortion’. Before you get defensive and tell me “but Jess, these are the topics we need to be talking about with our youth!” I will say that I agree with that sentiment – but not when such suggestions are delivered with immature giggles, cheeky glances across the room and winks and nudges to our mates. It is so transparent – people don’t actually want to reach a logical, God based understanding around these subjects… it’s certainly not a primary goal anyway. No, we’d rather trivialize these issues and try to pit people against each other for a bit of drama and a good laugh. Please don’t think I am saying such topics shouldn’t be suggested for discussion – if you have a genuine interest in learning and understanding, that is fantastic! But it’s in situations like these we should be employing the wise ancient saying “check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self” (Ice Cube, 1993)… be really honest with yourself and what your motives are - are you suggesting this conversation or taking part in it to learn and grow or to laugh, cause a stir and eat popcorn. It’s the latter that is a problem and makes the former so hard to achieve.
When it’s spelled out like that, I think we can all agree that talking about things in such a setting is inappropriate. But of course we still need to be providing opportunities to offer up information, facts and opinions to the masses in order for them to learn what a Christian worldview looks like. And it has to be in a respectful and objective way otherwise we’ll be discredited immediately. So, ladies and gentleman, I give you debates! However, I’ll say straight up, I’m not convinced debates actually serve the function we’re told they do. I was always unsure when it came to debates in high school. Your team was given a topic and you had to argue and persuade your audience that your line of thinking was correct at all costs – the aim was to win, at all costs, even if you didn’t agree with your argument in the slightest. A breeding ground for deceit, misconstrued information and taking and twisting things out of context to suit your means. What a thing to be teaching 13 year-olds. Uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable.
I won’t say that formal debates don’t have their place… but I think there are a couple of things that need to be carefully considered where debates are concerned. Not everyone plays fair and debates can open us up to a lot of ridicule and deception. It’s also important to remember that casual conversations can easily become “debates” and therefore I would respectfully suggest that you avoid debating altogether – particularly on the subject of God and religion. The Bible itself actually says not to debate. Titus 3:9, Romans 14:1, 1 Peter 3:15-16. Debating can be harmful, and a huge distraction away from the things that really matter when it comes to God.
The evolution-creation debate is a huge one when it comes to religious argument and the existence of God. A lot of these arguments (going both ways) are based on discrediting and disproving the other’s position. I don’t think any one has ever believed in creation before they have believed in God. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense really – for creation to be a thing, there first had to be a God in order to create; hence, God then creation. It is useless to try and “convert” people by disproving evolution rather, it starts from building a perspective based on the truth you know. If we show people the relationship they can have with God, His character and love, and what this means in regard to the way we experience life, isn’t that so much more appropriate, authentic and powerful? Belief in creation and all that other stuff is just part of the package deal and an understanding of that is likely to follow naturally after people meet Jesus and begin to get to know Him.
We need to give up this idea that it is our duty or right to persuade and convince people of the reality of God via argument or debate- as if God is a sales pitch or a really good deal people should get on board with straight away. In reality, God does not need our help at all with this. It is far better for us to show people Jesus in our lives and allow God the opportunity to work on their hearts in order to achieve the rest. Yes, by all means defend your beliefs and explain them should anyone ask! But don’t think you have to do this to the point where you will change their minds about something. It’s important to recognize when these conversations turn into debate arguments and therefore, when to bow out. So I’ve come up with a little list of things to look out for to help us recognize when a discussion is a turning into a “debate” and when you are in danger of the other person not being the least bit interested in hearing what you have to say:
1. You get increasingly agitated and emotional as the conversation progresses
2. You find you are repeating a lot of what you say
3. You’re only in the discussion to push a personal agenda – you must ask yourself whether the conversation is benefitting anyone, particularly in terms of relationship with God
4. The discussion centres a lot around specific words, definitions and the way things are said – a lot of the time its semantics that are a diversion from the content that’s being presented in conversation
5. The other person makes frequent jokes and putdowns related to what you’re saying
6. You keep getting interrupted or find you are interrupting with your own points – you feel you aren’t being listened to
7. When you ask them if they are genuinely interested in learning your thoughts and they say “no”……. (honestly just being straight up and asking is probably the easiest route to take at the end of the day)
Mature discussion is good! It’s healthy for our spiritual life even… it is an effective way to learn and to test and examine our beliefs up against another’s. But debate and senseless argument for the sake of arguing is foolish and a waste of time and often leaves at least one person in more of a negative state than before – and I don’t think our mission should be to make people feel bad or put ourselves in a position where we might feel bad either. Don’t get caught up in the iddy-biddy details of religion and argument that people make more important than they really are. Instead convince others of God’s goodness by showing them without words what Jesus has done for you. When it gets down to it, you will never persuade someone to love you, and it’s the same with God.