I have recently become a tutor for Classical Conversations, a homeschooling curriculum/ community. For those of you familiar with CC, I’m directing Challenge II. For those of you not familiar, it boils down to me meeting with eight 14-16 year olds once a week for six 6 hours and having conversations about a variety of subjects they are learning at home. And by conversations, I mean, since this is my first year, struggling with myself to not lecture while simultaneously trying to encourage the students to dialogue with the class, and since the class is 3/4 male, about something other than sports. And since I have the Most Awesome group of Challenge II students in existence, we succeed a lot of the time.
We went over a chart the other day that spells out the difference between debate and dialogue, taken from the book Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland, which he in turn took from a Social Studies textbook published by Saskatchewan Education. It details the fact that while debate is about winning, dialogue is about finding common ground. Debate is oppositional, while dialogue is collaborative. In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and counter arguments. In dialogue, one listens to the other side in order to understand, find meaning and find agreement. Debate affirms a person’s own point of view; dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view. And the list goes on. After we had gone over the chart, the students spent the rest of the day calling each other out on it: “Wait, is this dialogue going on here or is it debate? Because it sounds like some DEBATE is going on here…”
I think it would behoove many of us to study this chart. Go ahead, click on the link. It will take you to a pdf; the chart is on pages 5-6. Print it out. Stick it on your refrigerator. Because I think we could all use a reminder of the difference between debate and dialogue, and I think we could all benefit if we aimed at the dialogue before the debate.
The thing is, I find myself avoiding posting many overtly Christian statuses on Facebook, not because I’m ashamed of the gospel, but because I cringe at what some of my well-meaning but deluded Christian friends may do in the comments section. It seems to me that far too many who claim to be following Christ are operating under the mistaken assumption that it’s a club sport. It’s all about being on the winning team. We are right and you are wrong. We win and you lose. This works great if you are actually playing a club sport — the teamwork, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the chants and cheers and slogans. Awesome, if you’re trying to win at soccer.
Horrific if you are trying to display the love of God to a hurting world.
Because somehow, coming from a debate mindset makes it acceptable to name-call, to be rude to people you haven’t even met. It causes you to lower yourself to the level of someone who may be spouting negativity simply because they are hurting so very, very badly, which means they have an excuse… but what is yours? It blurs the lines between religion, politics and what-my-daddy-told-me, while having nothing to do with what the Bible actually says. A disagreement about a favorite candidate/political issue/social arena somehow gets taken as an attack on the “Christian’s” personal relationship with God. And I do mean those quotation marks around the word Christian, because there is nothing about following Christ that has anything to do with this kind of behavior.
Religion should never look like a team sport. This is what gives the word “religion” a bad name. This is why many Christians avoid using it, and even avoid using the label “Christian.” And yet the Bible does talk about religion. It says,
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26 (ESV)
The Greek word for “religious” here is thrēskos, which means,
fearing or worshiping God
trembling, fearful (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)
Not much about debating in that definition. A lot about keeping in mind Who is listening to your every word (and reading your emails).
What is interesting is that the Greek word for “religion” at the end of the verse is not the same word, but a derivative: threskeia. It has a slightly different connotation:
esp. external, that which consists of ceremonies
religious discipline, religion (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)
So what James is saying here is that if you think you are a God-fearing, God-worshiping Christian, but do not bridle your tongue, then you are deceiving yourself, and your external show of Christianity is worthless. Scrape the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker off the back of your car. Put away the WWJD bracelet. It’s worth absolutely nothing. You might as well just go to a ballgame on Sunday.
The verse doesn’t just deal with the concept of religion, however; there is actually something about debating in that verse. It’s pretty clear. Bridle your tongue, i.e. DON’T DO IT!!
And by debate, here, I mean lashing out and trying to prove that your idea is better than someone else’s idea. Not that you shouldn’t participate in a formal debate about any issue regarding religion, Christ or anything else. Because in a formal debate, there are rules, structures and guidelines designed to eliminate our tendency to degenerate into name-calling. Being able to explain clearly why you believe a certain way about any given topic is a good skill to develop, and a true, formal debate is a good way to develop it.
Facebook, however, and likewise the comment sections on blogs and articles, is not the arena for a formal debate. Those avenues are excellent places, on the other hand, to practice dialogue. Can you disagree with someone in a dialogue? Certainly. But you do it respectfully. Can you contradict someone in a dialogue? Again, of course, but you do it out of a desire to reach a better understanding of what they are saying rather than to shut them down. Will everyone else respond to you with the same courtesy? Probably not. But we have to start somewhere. And at least we won’t be deceiving ourselves.
And possibly, if we are truly dialoguing, we will communicate to the other person that we value him or her as an individual, rather than attacking him or her as a representative of this or that belief system. We may even, by listening carefully, with respect and honor, learn something new, something that causes us to rethink our propensity towards jerking our spiritual “knees” every time we hear a certain word or phrase that someone once told us was an awful, awful sin and therefore scary.
Not that sin isn’t scary. It messes people up. It derails lives. It entices, sells a bag of goods that is nothing like what it was purported to be, and then condemns the person for holding that bag. But sin does not extend to the person. Sin does not become the definition of the person. The person may be a “sinner,” i.e. someone who sins, but he or she is still a much-loved and desired creation, made by an Almighty God, who valued that person so much He sent His only Son to die in that person’s place. Who desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9) and quite possibly is trying to reach out to that person through us, if He can just get us to get over our list of Buzz Words That Are Evil and bridle our tongues long enough to communicate love.
The Bible has something else to say about religion. In fact, it’s in the very next verse in the book of James:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27 (ESV)
Again, the word threskeia is used for “religion.” So he’s saying half of your outward form of worship, the thing you display to those around you, rather than your scintillating intellect, rather than your ability to spout memorized arguments, catch phrases of apologetics or slogans you collected off bumper stickers, is to take care of people who need your help. The other half is to simply keep yourself unstained from the world. Note it doesn’t say, ‘better than the world” or “insulated by a bubble of Christianliness from the world.” Just unstained. Let the world’s standards of judgment, attack and one-upmanship roll right off your back.
I think if we all worked a little harder on rising above on the inside while reaching out on the outside, we would find ourselves needing the tools of dialogue far more than we need the tools of debate.
Besides, in a post-Christian, relativistic culture, winning an argument means very little. Even if you do disprove their belief, your opponent is just as likely to shrug and say, “Whatever, man, I’m still going to believe this,” as he or she is to say, “Forsooth! At last I see the error of mine ways!” Showing understanding, honor, respect and love to someone, however, goes much further. You may be the only kind words that person has come across that day.
Which is probably why Jesus tended to answer his critics with questions. He could have silenced every last one of them with his superior understanding of spiritual matters, but He chose not to. Those of us who claim to be Christ-followers, should, indeed, follow Him in this.