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 responded 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 severe that we did not talk to each other for quite some time (seriously!). And you know what? 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 to prove my case and somehow turned my uncertainty into absolute certainty. I was now committed to my position. I now had a certain emotionally based belief that I did not have before the argument took place.
Now, as childish and worthless as this argument was, every time we see one of those signs on the road, there is a distinct feeling that resurfaces of an old bitter debate. To this day, I don’t really know who was right or who was wrong. But I could very easily, based upon a commitment of my emotions and time given to this argument that day in 2001, pridefully continue in the same vein without either thinking about the non-importance of the issue or whether I am actually right.
Why do we do this? Because we feel obligated to defend our positions once taken. We don’t like to change. Not only this, but we think that we must always defend our position or we feel that our intelligence been conceded and our belief compromised. It is an issue of pride first, truth second.
Now let’s up the move to something more significant. My wife and I have also had arguments about more serious matters. We have argued about particulars on how to raise the children, finances, and issues with in-laws. We have even had some fairly severe theological disagreements. We could and – I am sad to say – do have ongoing disagreements that have not had a chance to rest, mentally and emotionally, from our pride. When these things surface, it is like an old wound that is opened and the injury that took place so long ago has not healed in the least. If this occurs, we are less prepared to confront the issues because we have not reflected upon it in a self-critical manner. In fact, we usually harden with regards to the issue.
Hardening is something that has serious consequences. This is true whether it be in marriage or theology. By hardening, we force ourselves and the opposing party to defend a position in a way that is imbalanced. Here is the key: The opposition’s view becomes defined by your polemic against them. They find themselves representing an interpretation of their position that you have provided and into which you have forced them to harden. This is circular.
This is the problem that I have with some apologists (those who defend the faith). Don’t get me wrong, I believe very much in apologetics and also love many apologists. But very rarely do I find a reasonable apologist. Most are very hardened because they are committed first to defending their particular position, not so much to learning.
The problem is that, often, 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.
Does this mean apologists make things worse in Christianity? No, not necessarily. I am an apologist. This blog post is apologetic. Apologists are greatly needed in the Church. But we need to be wise apologists with great humility, giving time for rest and reflection. 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, and, therefore, 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 represent themselves in an imbalanced manner.
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. It means we don’t get to say “I told you so,” but 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.
I learned this in my marriage and have a hard enough time applying it there.