We’ve Lost Our Ability to Argue

This morning, at a book club meeting, one of my friends put forth the thought that there doesn’t seem to be any—or many—real theological debates in our time. The extent to which that is true can be disputed—it certainly is true, but it really got me thinking about why it’s true even if it’s only to a limited extent. One conclusion that I’ve drawn is that in our specific place, in time and culture, we’ve generally lost our ability to argue—debate, so in many meaningful ways we’ve given up arguing altogether.

|| This is an observation of personal not academic interactions ||

In the disciplines of philosophy and logic an argument is to simply put forth premises—statements—that when placed together lead one to accepting a particular conclusion. Once that is done, someone else can surely question the accuracy and truthfulness of the premises, and pose counter arguments that lead to a different, or—in a more accurate way—the same conclusion. This can go back and forth with the ultimate goal of determining what is really true.

However, when we think about an “argument” we will often associate other words with it like disgust, hostility, animosity, and disrespect. This is because we have taken arguments out of the realm of a discussion and debate over the accuracy of how we draw our conclusions, and made them to be attacks against people.

I mean this in two ways, and both deal with how we use and perceive the logical fallacy of ad hominem—attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument.

Used ad hominem—what are you saying and how are you saying it?

We haven’t done ourselves any favors in recent years by holding most of our debates online. And it doesn’t help us that this fallacy is most prominently wielded by the primary ambassador of the United States. But even in the best of circumstances, disagreements online seem brutal. They seem callous, unsympathetic, and ruthless. And they can quickly deviate to essentially name calling. I think, in part, that’s because of the distance that the online experience can create between one image bearer and another.

Unlike online, when disagreements occur face-to-face we’re in some sense forced to be keenly aware that we’re disagreeing with another human being and not just some online avatar. This isn’t to say that our in-person disagreements can’t digress to essentially lofting insults at one another. I simply mean that we seem to be less likely to do that when we’re confronted with our fellow debater’s humanity than when we’re slinging stones from the distance and comfort of our lofty online towers. We can sling our stones, but our stones should be rational arguments thrown at another’s argument with respect for the individual and in a pursuit of the truth—not simply to “win the debate.”

Assumed ad hominem—how is what you’re saying being perceived?

We can also look at this from the point of view of the person perceiving that they’re being attacked. The most recent generations, having grown up in a cultures submitted to the idol of unconditional affirmation, tend to see any contradiction to their personally held beliefs to be an attack against them. When their argument is contradicted it’s no longer received as someone finding fault with their statements or conclusions, but instead it is that someone has found fault with them.

This creates some significant challenges to arguing anything with anyone, and this difficulty is only multiplied online where things like non-verbal cues and phrasing can’t be distinguished—at least not as easily.

Are There Theological Debates or Not?

We may try to fool ourselves into thinking there are no arguments becasue there is nothing to argue about, but the fact of the matter is when there is one truth and multiple truth claims, we have something to argue about. Perhaps we attempt to separate ourselves from these sorts of disagreements in a “holy” way under the guise of trying to be at peace with all people. However, I think we just use that as a scapegoat when we’re really worried that we are using, or may be perceived to be using, ad hominem. So, instead, we think that it’s better to live peaceably among many “truths” rather than seek the truth together.

There are certainly theological debates to be had,  but the questions of if and how we will have them remain.

In our culture of degrading public discourse, we must be cautious to not to attack individuals when the argument is what’s at fault. Let’s use our words to build one another up (Ephesians 4:29).

In our culture of affirmation where we are afraid of how our argument is going to be received, we must learn to communicate out of love with grace and truth. Let’s believe that our brothers and sisters are speaking in love when they challenge arguments, and not assume that they are looking down upon individual people (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

Let’s seek truth. Let’s argue. But let’s do it well.