“Our problem at the moment is that we’re not having a debate. We’re simple having bits and pieces of a shouting match. I really grieve over this… but we’re not doing that at the moment. … We won’t get anywhere until we learn how to reason with one another. ‘Come now let us reason together,’ says the Lord. … I believe in the authority of scripture, I believe in the appropriate sub-authority of tradition, that is, respecting the wisdom of the church as it has wrestled with issues in scripture over the years. … Before we even start to have the debate, we need to relearn how to have the debate, and at the moment, in my church nationally and globally, that is just not happening.”
N.T. Wright, the man referenced above, is one of the Bible scholars of our time. As an Anglican bishop and author, he has made enormous contributions toward the understanding many have of scripture. His book, “Surprised by Hope,” is an in-depth look at death and resurrection. It’s safe to say he is a deep thinker.
It should give us pause when religious leaders say things like this. Especially when you frame it in its context: he was being asked about his opinion on homosexuality. For many people that would have been either a highly divisive answer, or a highly evasive answer. It really depends on how much of the mess you want to get into on the other side. That’s not Wright did, though. He recognized the dividing lines that form over issues like this and used it as an opportunity to teach his brothers and sisters.
It’s odd to me that the kingdom of God and of his Christ is supposed to be so different, and yet we work hard to make it the same as “the world.” That not being enough, we also condemn the same world we’re mimicking. We argue hatefully like people who have never entered a church, then go back and rant on social media about how the world is getting so bad. When we engage others like this, it polarizes them. Why should we be surprised, when it polarizes us? The tragedy of that is when the people who most need the message of the gospel refuse to listen because we have brought them to believe that Christians can’t have rational discussions. We can. We should. We just have to do it differently.
I know we try sometimes, but make things worse. We do things like cheer Ken Ham as he debates creation vs. evolution with Bill Nye, but we look like doofuses. We put a guy with a bachelor’s degree up against a highly educated scholastic dynamo, offer unsubstantiated “research” backed with a little proselytizing in the mix because that can’t be debated. We refuse to authentically listen to the other side of the story (Ken Ham even said he wasn’t there to change his mind), but are somehow surprised when the people we refuse to hear think that we are narrow-minded. Thousands of faithful cheer, thinking we really let ’em have it this time.
I was saddened by that debate. I thought it was going to be a genuine exchange of ideas, but Bill Nye wound up looking like the gracious one.
In a response to that debate, John Iadarola said something on “The Young Turks” that I think needs to be taken deeply to heart.
“I think that from his point of view, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out how say, I, as an atheist, look at his argument, how do I not understand what he understands? Alternatively, he doesn’t understand how I don’t believe it. So I have a solution for both of those, if you’d like to understand how Ken Ham feels and how I feel. If you’re a Christian, I want you to go pick up a book on Islam, or on Buddhism, or on any other religion, and read it. And read about the history of what they believe to be true. And at the end of it, I want you to say, “Are you convinced?” Did their historical facts they talk about convince you? Did their divine proclamations convince you? I have a feeling they’re not going to be convincing. And yet, they’re in many ways exactly the same as what you believe should be so convincing about the Bible. That’s a quick way to understand how atheists feel.”
This is a point of view that I think many Christians would actively fight against. Just the suggestion that they should read the Koran would be enough for many to leave in a huff. It’s important, though, because if we want to be heard, we have to listen. We have to realize that there are some nutty things about our story, and stop expecting the world to be the church. To be clear: I’m not saying we should do nothing. I’m saying we should do so much more.
the voice we should use
It’s intriguing to me that Jesus never got into a debate. He often encountered people who were against him (a lot of the time, they were the religious) but he never tried to convince someone that he created the world in six days. You would think that if that was a big deal, the guy who was there would have been a prime candidate to bring it up. He never did.
Jesus never tried to argue someone into the faith. His ministry was passive in its pleas, but active in its compassion. He invited people to follow, and some didn’t. Only when he was reaching out a hand to heal did he go on the offensive. (Except that one time in the temple, I know. Can we call that the exception and not the rule?)
It would take a radical undoing of what we’ve come to for us to take on that visage. We have to stop so many things. We have to let the Christ of scripture invade and take almost everything away, we are so entangled. Take away our pride. Take away our anger. Take away our need to be right. That would leave many with almost nothing left, and that may be exactly where we start from.
Some things just can’t be debated. There are things that must be sung, so we have songwriters among us. There are some things that can only be painted and others which can only be said in poetry. These are art forms that not everyone is skilled in using, but there is a type of artist that we could be: one who works in love.
Love is a thing you show to people. Debate is something you do with ideas. We somehow fuse the two together, demonizing people for their ideas and writing them off because we no longer have the patience to walk with them if they don’t agree with us.
Love is the thing that should come easiest to a follower of Christ. If we’re going to turn the tide and bring the Church back to a place where its voice is important, it won’t be because people suddenly realize that we’re right. The end of our delusion that we will change the world could be the beginning of us being the changed. By all means, say what you can. 1 Peter 3:15 says that if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. There’s absolute value in that. I have come to believe, though, that most of the time people won’t care about our words if they see our love. That is what John 13:35 says will truly prove who we are: “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” That is something that will make people want to join us.