Saturday, October 23, 2010

When Writing About Those With Whom You Disagree

I got this from Ardel Caneday, who got it from Ken Keathley. I think it is something we all need to learn, especially me.

What Are The Best Ways To Engage In A Debate?
1. Describe your opponent's position in such a way that he can recognise it.
2. Know your opponent's position well enough that you could argue it for him.
3. Write as if your opponent and you were going to dinner together after you finish.
Keathley concludes, "Have I followed all three rules in all of my writings? I must confess that I have not. But I want to. And by God’s grace I hope to 'love my neighbor as myself' even when I’m disagreeing with him."


Gordon Cheng said...

Like Jesus in Luke 7:36-50? Or even better, Matt 21:33-46 (esp v 45)?

I wonder if in matters Christian we have a tendency to dignify falsehood by debating it instead of denouncing it?

David McKay said...

Hi Gordon. But I think our Lord Jesus did all of those things, don't you?

Gordon Cheng said...

I'm not sure what you mean by 'all of those things' David, but I don't think he ever treated the Pharisees with much respect. I'm struggling to think of counter-examples to that. Even the respectful Nicodemus in John 3 earns rebuke (3:10), and it's downhill from there for his Pharisaic friends.

Of the three principles Keathley puts forward, I would say Jesus only consistently applies the second.

David McKay said...

Hi Gordon.
I think Jesus possesses an authority that none of us have and that we can't take him as a model in every respect.

I help to moderate an online theology discussion group and it would be so much better if people were to adopt these three guidelines. It would do me out of a job, which I'd happily give up.

It is so easy to be arrogant and rude and to unfairly represent the other person's position, partly because you don't really understand their position.

Also, people write mean nasty things in emails that they wouldn't have the guts to say in real life. [Such as in response to posts by folk like you and Michael Jensen in the secular media.]

But, this doesn't mean that we can't tell someone they are wrong. But it does speak about the way we do it.

Gordon Cheng said...


if I were moderating a theology blog, I would love your three rules and enforce them with maximum prejudice.

However, God in his mercy has spared many that scenario. That leaves the freedom to ponder whether they are good rules, or merely practical rules, if you see the distinction. Of course, they may be both good and practical, but that makes no difference to the usefulness of the distinction.

What I wonder is if in the process of arguing that these rules of discussion are not only practical but also good, you've shifted ground?

What I mean is that you've initially argued that they are good rules, and that one of the proofs for the goodness of the rules is the example of Jesus.

That is a very powerful argument indeed, and I heard a great sermon yesterday where we were reminded of just this thing—that Paul himself wants people to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. (1 Cor 11:1)

The difficulty arises when Jesus breaks the rules! As he so often does, in the 4 gospels.

When he does break the rules, we are left with a number of alternatives.

The first alternative is to imitate Christ in being a rule-breaker. That is a dangerous alternative, because some rules are clearly not intended to be broken, and Jesus himself keeps a number of rules.

The second alternative is to say (as I think you've done) 'Aha! But Jesus is God. He makes the rules, and therefore he can break the rules'. Indeed Jesus seems to be arguing something just like this when he says 'The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath'

(although I note that 'the Son of Man' is a human rather than a divine title!)

Now I don't mind going for that second alternative, in that it leaves us on safe ground, insisting that Jesus is God and we mustn't attempt to imitate him in all things.

But I also have to note that it undercuts the argument that we should follow these three rules, because Jesus did—which happens to be the argument you initially used, I think.

Another possibility here is to recognize that they are 'practical' rules, that Jesus frequently followed and, just as frequently broke (but only for 'good' reasons!)

David McKay said...

"What I mean is that you've initially argued that they are good rules, and that one of the proofs for the goodness of the rules is the example of Jesus."

Gordon, I thought it was you who said that Jesus didn't abide by these rules. I don't think that initially I said that they were an example of how Jesus operated.

But after you challenged the idea by introducing the example of Jesus, I then suggested that Jesus did not misrepresent what his opponent was saying, did understand their argument, and [you might debate this] argued as if he were later to have lunch with them.

But I still think that Jesus is in a much different position from us and has a right to challenge people because of his own authority, which we don't have because we are not the Son of Man [isn't that a name of divinity, as in Daniel 7, but also used of humanity, as in Ezekiel?]

I think we can denounce sin and falsehood, but that because we are fallible, we have to be cautious.

We can't denounce the other bloke because we are sure we are right.

For example, I'm assuming that you and I have different views on baptism. My view is closer to, but not the same as, the Baptist view. It seems quite clear to me that baptism means immersion of believers. I see no hint of infant baptism in Scripture.

Should i therefore denounce those who think differently?

My problem is that maybe 50% of Christians, perhaps more, have thought differently from what I think the Bible clearly says.

Yet they are people who seem to understand and embrace other aspects of the Bible's teaching. They exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

I think the 3 guidelines Keathley gave are a good model for me in discussions on baptism. And, on most things, because I'm not jesus and I'm not God.

[And my wife reckons I'm arrogant enough, as it is...]

Gordon Cheng said...

David, quite right that I introduced Jesus into the discussion, but as counter-example rather than example. Examples are useful for the purposes of illustration, but counter-examples do more than illustrate; they reveal that the original principle needs qualification in some way.

You can qualify the principles you've set up by appealing to Jesus' divinity

(is 'Son of Man' a divine title in Daniel 7? Or is it an ascription of authority that invites the reader to ask whether a man may, in fact, also be God?)

but I am suggesting that this is not at all straightforward.

That is a big discussion which we are only touching on here, but when we move to this qualification:

I think the 3 guidelines Keathley gave are a good model for me in discussions *on baptism*.

then I am with you.

Presumably however if the theology discussion topic was 'Is pedophilia ever ethically justifiable if the perpetrator is a priest?' then the priest who wanted to support the affirmative case should be denounced rather than debated, 3 rules or no.