In his famous play No Exit the French atheistic existential philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) wrote:
Hell is other people.
Engaging in apologetic discourse sometimes involves talking with people who have very strong opinions and who are not favorably predisposed toward Christianity. A clash of worldview ideas can sometimes result in a confrontational personal encounter. Often people who hold antithetical positions concerning the big philosophical questions of life end up doing little more than simply talking past each other. And after such an encounter we are sometimes left feeling there is an element of truth in Sartre’s description.
In parts one and two of this series, I discussed the biblical ethical principle known as the “Golden Rule.” This article continues to demonstrate the importance of following this principle while engaging the critical enterprise of Christian apologetics (the defense of the faith, Jude 3).
The Golden Rule in a Debate
To be candid, I like to argue. My fellow RTB scholars who regularly meet with me for lunch at Subway can attest to the truth of this admission. I enjoy formulating and presenting logical arguments as well as critiquing the arguments made by others. However, I have to say that I don’t always enjoy it as much when others critique my arguments.
When I’m in the midst of a truly heated dialogue I am usually not concentrating upon understanding in a dispassionate manner my opponent’s argument. Rather I’m thinking about what to say next once he or she stops talking (in order to stay ahead in the debate). I’ll bet many of you “A-type personality” apologists can relate to my somewhat temperamental condition.
Yet I have discovered an application of the Golden Rule that often helps when engaged in such a debate where you and your antagonist seem to be moving in different conceptual directions.
I stop, take a breath, listen carefully to my opponent and then seek to accurately repeat his argument back to him. I will say something like, “Your central claim seems to be _ _ _ _ _ and your support for it consists of _ _ _ _ _. Now, am I correct in my understanding of your argument?”
Being able to repeat your opponent’s argument usually produces four direct benefits.
First, it ensures that you are not misrepresenting your opponent’s argument (fallacy of the “straw man”). You show that you respect them enough to fully consider their case.
Second, people like to know that they have been heard and that their argument has been correctly recognized. They may even be more open to criticism of their argument when they know that you have endeavored to understand their position correctly. Attitude and demeanor directly affect personal persuasion.
Third, you can only effectively criticize an argument when you have a correct understanding of it. By first seeking understanding you inevitably help your subsequent apologetic critique.
Fourth, this practice helps illustrate to your opponent (as well as to others who may be listening) that you care more about understanding truth than you do about winning an intellectual argument.
After getting a handle on what my opponent is genuinely arguing, I will then ask them if they can repeat my argument back to me. Because I have sincerely sought to understand their perspective, they will often attempt to return the favor in kind. And if they cannot or will not, then it becomes quite evident who is really seeking truth in the dispute.
In ensuing articles I will address other ways in which the Golden Rule of apologetics can be applied.
For more on building intellectual virtue in the area of apologetics, see chapters 3 and 4 of my book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.