Difficult Argumentation on Issues that Matter

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool” – Richard Feynman

I was perusing articles at “Real Clear Religion” this morning and ran across a book review on The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind dubbed “Stupid Christians“. I will warn you that I have not read the book, but theme of the review (and apparently the book as well) is a useful one, so I thought to take it up here.

At its base is the concern that the evangelicals (note that the book was published in 1995, so the definition of “evangelical” is a 1995 definition) appear to be somewhat intellectually lazy. Or, to quote the reviewer (who is an evangelical):

“Compared to Catholics, Evangelicals have a reputation for being simplistic, rigid, ideological, and uninformed. It is enough to make one wonder if we are, at heart, the stupid part of Christendom.”

I too hold the label of “evangelical” by any broad/reasonable definition, and have certainly faced in times past the “facepalm” moment where someone of my ilk, espousing a belief that I very much hold dear, does so with such little insight or aplomb (or historical knowledge) that we all look silly by association.

Why is that? Why is it that we who cherish our faith and beliefs find ourselves so often scurrying to defend them with little in the way of effective argumentation? I have a theory (or theories) naturally, which I will begin to build here.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” – Prov 27:17

Iron sharpens iron. Hard, and rough around the edges – iron is made sharp by scraping against other iron. A man’s ideas, his logic, his defense of beliefs are made sharp by running into opposition, not agreement. I don’t mean by this that one should necessarily go looking for contentious debate (consider Titus 3:9). But if your ideas are important, then they’re important enough to sharpen the mind in defense – which will invariably mean defending them against arguments by those who do not agree.

Of course, in the process of iron sharpening iron, we may find we don’t actually believe the things we believe, or not in the way we thought we believed them. This needn’t at all imply a loss of faith. I’m reminded of Galileo and the controversy over heliocentrism. The modern church wouldn’t at all find offense at the idea that the earth moves around the sun – but at the time Galileo stood trial for these controversial (“dangerous”?) ideas. I dare say that today we not find any conflict between planetary motion and Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, or 1 Chron 30:16 (“The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved”). Sometimes, the process of difficult challenges helps us break free from our own misunderstandings.

It’s not fun though. We don’t wake up in the morning and say “oh boy, I want to have my beliefs challenged today because it will make me stronger.” Prov 17:3 says “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” Crucibles and furnaces are not pleasant experiences for the refined silver or gold, but after refinement there is beauty.

I’ve said in times past that red-state Republicans and blue-state Democrats face the same difficulty. Surrounded by people of like-mind they let their thinking get lazy … nobody challenges them, or challenges them in ways that cannot be dismissed by “you are well outside the norm [here],” and so they atrophy. The same can easily be true for evangelicals or any group, but I suspect we actually face a more difficult problem. For that we turn to Thomas the Doubter in John 20:24-30:

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Frequent readers will have heard me make this point before, so bear with me. The Lord’s handling of Thomas is key for us. Thomas had doubts about a matter of faith, perhaps even unbelief (not in the Lord, but in what others testified about Him). The Lord responded with “I will answer your questions” (not literally, mind you, those “quotations” are not an actual quote). He showed Thomas the answer to his doubts. He showed Thomas the thing Thomas needed in order to believe. He did not rail against Thomas, casting him out as an unworthy doubter.

In evangelical circles, we all-to-often take the opposite approach. Doubters are pushed aside, or even cast out, rather than having their doubts addressed in earnest. They are dismissed as somehow lesser, unable to receive some aspect of faith – but Thomas was an apostle of Christ, and even he had doubts.

I have even, in times past, see evangelical teachers stretch Hebrews 13:17 (“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority”) to mean “don’t question me boy … the Bible says so.” And yet we see that the Bereans in Acts 17 were commended for examining the scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. [Side bar: this is certainly a quality to look for in a church/pastor. One who will tell you, and tell the whole church (as mine does quite often) that they need to check everything against the Bible, rather than just believing what the preacher says.] Openly discussing difficult issues is not tantamount to subversion (though, making public display of them for the sake of causing division certainly could be).

It’s always easier though to simply toss the dissenter aside instead of dealing with difficult questions. It’s easier to shut them out of the “cool kids” club because they didn’t conform. (And, by the way, when “we” do that we can rest assured that others will get the message and not dare express dissent.)

The point is that a refusal to engage in earnest discussion of legitimate ideas, whether inside the church or with the world writ large, leads to laziness in argumentation, and even an eventual inability to defend the faith. This does not conform with 1 Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Or with 2 Tim 2:15 “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

The good news is that I suspect the problem is diminishing. The evangelical church is not the same place it was in 1995, and in enough places and times we have been forced to make sound argumentation for our beliefs. And on we go – for the end of debate has not yet come.

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One Response to Difficult Argumentation on Issues that Matter

  1. Thomas here :). It is not clear to me that “the problem is diminishing.” I see images like this, taken at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, showing a human child peacefully co-existing with an apparently vegetarian Tyrannosaur. The beliefs implied by this arrangement, which are presumably consistent with what I would roughly characterize as evangelical, are, well, fascinating. In the interest of such sound argumentation in defense of these beliefs, do you have any explanation for this scenario, and any resolution of its obvious conflict with current scientific consensus, based on repeatable observations from multiple independent fields?

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