My Criticism: Apologists can often produce more difficulties than they solve due to harsh and imbalanced polemics.
Let me put it another way: It is often the case that our polemics are built upon misunderstandings which lead to mischaracterizations. These misunderstandings escalate. During the escalation, the cement begins to harden, making it virtually impossible gain perspective. So far so good?
No. Okay. Hang with me.
Anyone who has been a student of Church history has stood on the sidelines and watched as the great fathers of our faith in the East and the West clashed over word distinctions and politics. We watched as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli agreed on 14 points of theology, but parted ways due to the 15th (the exact nature of the Lord’s supper). We bow our head as we see traditions of the same family go their separate ways over misunderstandings turned sour and bitter.
Theological rigamortis sets in when the discussion turns into lines drawn in the sand. We lose our ability to learn and grow. We then cement the opposing view in categories that are nuanced according to how our side sees the opposing view. The nuances of our view are not concerned with being fair. We normal just want them to look bad and get others on our side throwing darts at the dragon. We often do this because we feel that we have to justify our separation, schism, and/or lack of compromise. Once the cement is set, the difficulty multiplies as ones own position becomes defined only by what it is not. In other words, people begin to define themselves according to the emphasis and abuses of the opposition.
My wife and I have had many arguments. We are better today as we know what “hot” buttons to stay away from. But early in our marriage, these arguments would often become severe to the point of us saying to ourselves “Who is this person I married?” Even minor petty, stupid arguments can become something ridiculously traumatic to an immature marriage that lacks perspective.
I have told this story before, but it is worth telling again (although coming on the heels of my last post, people may get the wrong idea!)
I remember one time in 2001 my wife and I were driving from Dallas to Colorado Springs for the ETS conference. There was a sign that said “50 Miles to Colorado Springs.” She said that we were almost there. I said, “No, not really. The sign does not refer to the city limits, but to the central office within the city.” She said with a surprise and smirk on her face, “No it doesn’t.” I don’t know why, it was just one of those days, but we argued for the next hour about this. The argument became so intense that we did not talk to each other for an hour. In truth, I did not really know if I was right. But her reaction and distrust to my “knowledge” on this issue caused me to defend something that I was not even sure about. Her persistent argumentation gave me resolve. I rolled up my sleeves and was ready to prove my case.
Now, as childish and utterly worthless as this argument was, for many years every time we saw one of those signs on the road, there was a distinct feeling that resurfaced of an old bitter debate. To this day, I don’t really know who was right or who was wrong (and I don’t care). The point was that the polemics of the situation caused both of us to defend something that we were neither sure about or cared much about. It also caused us to have a temporal breach in our fellowship. What we should have done was act maturely, take a time out, and discuss the necessity of this turning into a debate.
I often think that we do the same thing in theology. Because of age old battles fought, lines drawn, and punches landed, we define ourselves by things that make little difference and are not really important at all. We lose the ability to use our ears. We need to take a time out and assess whether the lines drawn in the sand really need to be there. We need to discuss whether the discussion, turned debate, turned theological rigamortis, is really worth it, at least at its current escalated status.
Why do we do this? I think it is because we feel obligated to defend our positions once taken. We don’t like to change. We are not comfortable with personal indecisiveness. We like to see things in black and white. Cases closed are better than cold cases. Frankly, we are prideful.
Hardening is something that has serious consequences. This is true whether it be in marriage or theology. By hardening, we often force the opposing party (who, by this time, is usually hardened as well) to defend their position in a way that is imbalanced. The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their position in a very subjective manner. Did you get that? Let me say it again: The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them and they feel forced to defend their position in a very subjective manner. They find themselves representing an interpretation of their position that you have provided and into which you have forced them to harden.
Let me demonstration how I have seen this in Protestant/Catholic divide:
Protestants, seeing the abuse of this authority, rejected the Church’s elevated status and replaced it with Scripture. Catholics responded and said that if you do this, people will interpret the Scripture in a way that is outside the tradition of the historic Christian faith. Protestants said better this than being forced to hold to distortions propagated by an abusive authority.
As this debate between Tradition and private interpretation raged, imbalance and misrepresentation became the norm. Hardening began to set in. Protestants became more and more defined as those who only rely upon and submit to their “personal relationship with Christ.” Why? Because Catholics set the agenda for us. We were backed into a corner and let the opposition define what we were all about and began defending a position that was not quite accurate. We defended this imbalanced representation and passed it on to those after us.
Catholics on the other hand were defined by Protestants as those who submit only to an outside authority, and this outside authority was not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ as represented by the visible Church headed by the bishop of Rome, the Pope. Protestants said Catholics are against personal Bible interpretation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, Catholics picked up this ball, shaped by the polemics of the day, and began to defend it and pass it on to those after them.
The problem is that Protestants, historically, are not against outside authorities that shape and guide their theological accountability. They are just against these being the ultimate authority. As well, Catholics, historically, are not against personal Bible interpretation or a personal relationship with Christ, they just seek to balance these with accountability in the visible Body of Christ. Notice, therefore, that it is not the positions themselves that were defined by the opposing side, but the particular imbalanced nuance of the position.
Since we don’t like to allow rest in these issues, since each side’s apologists already have all the answers, since there has been so much time and energy put into this debate, we are now obligated to make the other side focus on a polemic which is imbalanced, misrepresented, and completely dismissive of the other side. We have now hardened into a particular nuance of something we are not. And old wounds like this cannot heal this way.
The point is that sometimes the better the apologist we are—the more we “win” a debate, the more we “fight” for the cause–the more we actually lose because we make the situation worse than before.
Apologists are greatly needed in the Church. But we need to be wise apologists with great humility, giving time for rest and reflection. In a sense, we need to protect the opposition so that it does not turn into something worse than it actually is.
Does this mean that given time, rest, and reflection to issues that all issues will all be solved? Of course not, but at least we will have then acted with humility, gained a fresh perspective, have a better understanding about when compromise can occur. We will begin to only fight the battles that are truly worth fighting. We will be apologists with tact, humility, and wisdom.
What does this mean? It means that our first goal is to be intellectually honest. We have to represent the opposing side well. But this is not enough. We have to look out for them, knowing that argumentation and debate has the tendency to cause the other side to misrepresent themselves.
We also have to be willing to concede. We have to be willing to change our opinion. This is not easy as we may have to disavow a commitment to our previous blogs, papers, books, debates, and thoughts.
We also have to be willing to let the other side change without requiring them to admit their wrong. The “Kristie, just admit you were wrong about the road sign” concession needs to go. It means we don’t get to say “I told you so.” We humbly accept their change without a conceded attitude of personal victory.
My advice to Christian apologists is this: We need to be careful that we are not actually making the situation worse, hardening the opposition, causing them to define and defend a position that does not really represent who they are. We need to make sure we are giving the issue time to rest and the wound time to define and heal itself. Otherwise, we might find we are doing more harm then good.