I remember being told in a class that, while there were no such things as stupid questions, there certainly were “uninteresting ones.” I found the 2014 debate between scientist Bill Nye and young-earth creationist Ken Ham to be uninteresting.
It’s not that I don’t like debate, or one that challenges my beliefs. On the contrary, I enjoy a good debate, and have for most of my life, and I think the best debates do challenge my beliefs. Debates, when constrained both by appropriate form and forum, are useful for exploring the various aspects of a question, sharpening ideas, and building understanding. We should not shirk from them.
Appropriate form certainly includes the conduct of the discussion. The “ground rules” must include civility, sharing of time, listening to the other parties, and mutual respect. For these reasons, certain collegiate-style debating forms where debates are scored on the basis of which team broadcasted, at a blistering pace, the largest number of source citations in a set time make me question the use of “debate” as a descriptor. (For an example, check out this YouTube video)
Equally important to the form of the debate, however, is its construction: the common ground not only upon which these rules must stand, but also from which the question can spring, providing the divergent positions to be debated.
For instance, while a debate with a vegan over the question “Is eating animals ethical?” could be interesting, it would be quite uninteresting to debate that same person on the question “Is Memphis-style BBQ better than South Carolina-style?” The reason it would be uninteresting is not simply because the answer to that question is obvious, “[REDACTED],” but because the common ground for the debate doesn’t exist.
The forum of the debate is also important. Mom was right when she said “everything has a time and a place.” Certain questions which are appropriate to debate in one forum are not appropriate in another. The demographics of the participants/observers, the nature of the venue, the effect the debate would have on the purpose of the gathering, and the follow-on effects of such debate must be considered before engaging the question. For instance, some questions entirely appropriate for debate before a college audience would not be appropriate in a kindergarten.
Sometimes neither form nor forum lend themselves to a productive debate. For example, while disrupting a politician’s “town hall” event to air your grievances may be (in our country) a valid exercise of Constitutionally-protected, or even encouraged, rights, the result is likely to be the simultaneous broadcast without reception, rather than the exchange and consideration of opposing views. More recently, we as pastors entered into a presentation to our congregation on a subject of Christian Liberty and, upon later reflection we realized we had been unwise in both form and forum, and had to make apologies.
At other times, it is only one or the other which is inappropriate. Such was the case, I suggest, in the 2014 debate between Nye and Ham on the question, “Is creation a viable model of origins?” Many watched the live and recorded broadcast, and people supporting both debaters claimed victory. However, because of the elemental form of the debate, few were convinced by either set of arguments.
The problem was not with the rules or even the conduct of the debate. For the most part, both participants stuck to the agreed-upon constructs and maintained a civil discourse. The problem was that, although the question could have begun from common ground, the manner in which it was addressed did not. From the opening words, both participants narrowed the question to whether creation, specifically Ham’s interpretation of the Bible’s account of creation as a seven-day process, is a viable model of origins.
The problem with this rephrased question was that there is no common ground for Nye and Ham to debate. Nye presents himself as an avowed athiest, one who denies the existence of deity and indeed the supernatural. Ham presents himself as a believer in the God of the Bible.
So, while “Is creation a viable model of origins?” could have been a valid debate (I would argue a better question for these participants might be, “Is there evidence of the divine?”), the manner in which the debate caused the form to crumble. Nye’s position became as irrelevant as a vegan debating BBQ, and Ham’s (no pun intended) one of convincing the vegan of how best to prepare a meal he would never consider serving or eating.
However, while I found this debate uninteresting in its outward form, as I considered it further, I was convicted in how I have fallen so many times into the same trap in my discussions with those who believe differently than I do.
Christians, how often do we attempt to tell the Good News (cf Mark 16:15, 2 Tim 4:2), enter a discussion or debate with another person without considering the form and forum?
Do we speak both with Truth and Love, remembering that truth without love is a lie, and love without truth is hate?
Do we seek to start our discussions from common ground, or do we insist it be based on our own turf? Can we expect a person to have a discussion with us on the merits of our Biblical position if the person doesn’t accept the Bible as being God-breathed?
This is not to say that we should never mention Scripture, our beliefs, or our experiences – the essential elements of our story – with someone with whom we do not share them. However, as we share our story, we should also be willing to listen to that of the other person. Where those stories intersect and overlap is where productive debate and discussion will happen.
When we lived in Greece, one of my favorite places to visit (besides Thermopylae… but that’s another story for another post) was the Areopagus.
I appreciated this site in part because of how the Bible depicts Paul using this principle of finding common ground upon which to start a discussion.
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler have to say?”… And they took him to the Areopagus saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” – Acts 17:18-20
Paul was presented with a great evangelical opportunity. Certainly, the forum was perfect. We read in the next verse, “Now all the Athenians and foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
He could have started his speech with the Hebrew Scriptures, or with the words of Jesus, or even his own conversion story. But the Athenians to whom he spoke did not accept any of those as common ground. So Paul found some, by observing the culture as he traveled along the “Sacred Way.”
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’…” – Acts 17:22-23b
Paul started this discussion by finding common ground with the Greeks. Some might have read the Tanakh, but they did not accept it as Scripture. Some might have heard the words of Jesus being passed along with other ideas, but they had not accepted them as divine. Some might even have heard of Paul’s personal conversion story, but they certainly didn’t hold that in common.
Instead, Paul starts with common ground. He finds common ground in their religious pursuit of the divine. He notes that in that pursuit, they are still looking for answers, even worshiping “the unknown god.” And having established that connection, he uses it as the foundation of the central argument of his speech:
“…What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” – Acts 17:23c
He continues, again returning to the host culture – and if you are at the Areopagus, it seems so natural to do so with the Sacred Way and its shrines winding below and the temple of Athena Nike above.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything…” – Acts 17:24-25
Make no mistake, Paul is not timid about challenging the beliefs and practices of the Athenians. Indeed, he confronts them boldly. But he does so only after finding common ground. And in the end, while some rejected the Gospel or even mocked it, others asked him to tell them more, and some of those eventually believed and began to follow Jesus (Acts 17:32-34).
May we learn to follow his example.