I’ve been a contender in a number of informal debates in my short time on this earth. These have typically been the product of conversation with family members, friends, or colleagues during which some matter arises about which we disagree. I am not happy with my “performance” in most of them. I tend to overpower the other person by interrupting or deriding them or their arguments. I tend to get emotionally inflamed, raise my voice, and even ignore my opponent. In short, I tend to be an arrogant fool. These are failures on my part to operate in a way that is consistent with the example and command of my professed Lord Jesus Christ through His Word (i.e., “with gentleness and respect” – 1 Peter 3:15) and to interact in a winsome and effective way with my fellow human beings.
I’m sure that you, whether you are a Christian or not, have a similar testimony about your debate experiences. Most people are impolite and ineffective debaters.
As I live and learn, I hope to gain as complete an understanding as possible about the most efficient and effective ways to debate as I believe debate is an inevitable and important part of the human experience. I will not make an effort here to provide such a complete understanding; I wish to briefly share my thoughts on one thing I believe to be a crucial component.
What is that one thing? In a word, humility. I believe humility is an essential element of both epistemology and apologetics.
Epistemology has to do with the study of knowledge and justified belief. When I say that “humility is an essential element of…epistemology” I mean that I believe humility will aid one in their search for truth; it is necessary for one to discover truth. By humility, I mean a willingness to be wrong and an openness to different beliefs. This openness is a recognition that one’s own beliefs and opinions are not the authority on the matter, i.e., there is an authority higher than oneself. Unless one is omniscient, then it is certain they will have incorrect beliefs. Therefore, we all should be willing to have our beliefs corrected. I can sum up my thoughts on the epistemic utility of humility in an aphorism: A prerequisite for being right is the willingness to be wrong.
Apologetics has to do with defending beliefs against opposition and making the case for one’s beliefs. Recognizing where one’s knowledge of or case for their beliefs is weak and deficient and admitting as much will do much for one’s reputation in the eyes of those to whom they are offering their case or defense and thus remove barriers to belief in your proposed truth that would otherwise be there. I can’t tell you how freeing and helpful it is to say: “You know what, I’m not sure I know the answer/solution to that. I’ll have to study it more.” This phrase is nigh on miraculous. It keeps us from putting on a false front and acting more confident or knowledgeable than we actually are and shows others that we are not arrogant, but are, as Aquinas said, “seeking understanding”.
Another thing I’ve found helpful: When someone makes a point or argument to which you don’t know the best response, ask them to point you to some resources that convince them of their opinion on the matter. This is another way of preventing yourself from extending yourself too far in the argument and might actually lead to a better understanding of the matter through your study of the provided resources.
Jim Rohn, a businessman and personal development trainer, said something that I thought was profound. He said that, due to our limited knowledge, about the best we can say on any particular matter is: “It seems to me…”. None of us can claim certainty. We are all dealing in probabilities in one way or another when it comes to knowledge. I think this is good advice for our continued conversations.
For my Christian friends, I want to make clear that I do believe God’s revelation to us provides certainty. However, I do not believe that God’s revelation comes to us in a vacuum. For example, as a Christian, I believe that the Scriptures are God’s Revelation. However, the Scriptures needed to be transmitted so that they could be translated; they needed to be translated so they can be interpreted. That is a lot of non-vacuum! Regarding our proposed interpretation of God’s Word, which of course we believe to be proper, I think we should exhibit the humility recommended by Mr. Rohn: “It seems to me…”.
To sum up: I think maintaining an attitude of humility will aid us, Christian and non-Christian alike, in our search for truth.