Debate, Inquiry and Learning to Tell the Difference

Someone sent me Rachael Slick’s commentary about growing up in the home of an apologist and asked for my comment.  There’s almost no way to do so, though: it’s her testimony and so is inevitably one-sided, and the portrait she paints of her father is not flattering.  But I think regardless of your stance toward Christianity the whole thing reads like an unmitigated tragedy.

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, while the judgment about the story’s truthfulness is well beyond our capacity, that does not mean we can’t learn anything from it. Perceptions matter, after all, and Slick distills a popular stereotype about conservative Christians who have a disposition to engage in apologetics.  It’s an unfair stereotype, as many apologetics folks are some of the most patient and winsome people you’ll meet.  But persist it does, so let us consider it, again without necessarily granting the truthfulness of this particular description:



As my knowledge of Christianity grew, so did my questions — many of them the “classic” kind. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, why did He create a race He knew was destined for Hell? How did evil exist if all of Creation was sustained by the mind of God? Why didn’t I feel His presence when I prayed?

Having a dad highly schooled in Christian apologetics meant that every question I brought up was explained away confidently and thoroughly. Many times, after our nightly Bible study, we would sit at the table after my Mom and sisters had left and debate, discuss, and dissect the theological questions I had. No stone was left unturned, and all my uncertainty was neatly packaged away.

I don’t have children, so I can’t imagine the temptation from that standpoint.  But  I have sat with friends who have struggled with such questions and know that sort of response well.  You might say I’ve been a practicioner of it, in fact, once.  Or maybe twice.  (You know, the memory goes in old age.)

The instinct to answer and defend is, in fact, one of the most difficult temptations for those with an interest in apologetics to resist.  Some of that is sometimes rooted in insecurities:  we don’t want to let the questions fester for fear of where they may ultimately take us.  Sometimes, though, it’s simply rooted in an overactive eagerness to help, a hastiness that wants to skip past the discomfort of the questions for the sake of putting them to rest and moving on to the next topic.  Such answering appears to be a love for ideas and the truth, but ultimately isn’t.  Unlike Pilate, it takes answers seriously.  But it treats such answers as reasons to close the discussion, rather than the substance for more contemplation and deliberate reflection about them.   (More on all that, of course, here.)

And therein lies the difference between debating and inquiring, a distinction that people often miss but is fundamental to keep hold of if we are to question well.  There is a time and place for bringing out the intellectual gloves and going a few rounds. Pugnacity isn’t a spiritual gift, but it has its uses within the kingdom.  We need  more Doug Wilsons, who models this better than anyone we’ve got today.

But the time and place for that is generally not in our friendships or families, and not with those whose faith is quavering.  Nor can we make a steady diet of debating, at least not if we don’t want it to corrode our intellectual life.  A steady diet of polemics will inevitably dry us up:  it’s inquiry and understanding that we are made for, and if those are not the automatic reflexes of our minds and hearts than we have more growth ahead of us.  Debate needs to be the form we undertake deliberately:  inquiry should be the default mode of the intellectual life.

I say all this with some trepidation, especially as it could come across as suggesting that had things gone otherwise Rachael might have stayed in the faith.  These movements in and out of Christianity are mysterious and the reasons and causes often come from places that we do not realize while they are underfoot.  There is a danger of a “parenting-health-and-wealth” gospel that I want no part of that suggests that if people only questioned well then their children would stay Christians.  I suspect it improves the odds, but the ways of teenagers are stranger than the ways of God.  And “staying a Christian” should never be the goal of being a parent, it seems to me.  “Training up a child” in righteousness, peace, joy and the rest of them is a much more robust vision and one defined by its positives, not by the tacit negation of “remaining a Christian.”

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  • Christopher Benson

    Doug Wilson as apologist boxer par excellence?! I don’t think so. Did you see his debate on gay marriage with Andrew Sullivan? It was pathetic.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      It was no worse than the quality of your comment, Christopher! : )

      Matt

  • Ward Howard

    What
    she describes is something everyone goes through (or should go
    through!), asking whether what you grew up believing is true. I like
    what Francis Schaeffer’s daughter said about when she faced the same
    questions. It could very well have been the end of her faith, she said,
    but her apologetics dad told her he loved her anyways and that he was
    glad she was questioning and thinking through her faith. Encountering
    new arguments one finds convincing is not a good reason to immediately
    leave one’s faith. Examining them in more depth over a period of time is
    the wiser course of action. She now ministers to those with questions
    of their own and encourages inquiry, not debate. Doubt is something I’ve
    grown accustomed to, and having immediate answers is something I’ve had
    to let go of. While it might sound like foolishness, I can say I can
    trust the truthfulness of the Gospel and of Christ even when I don’t
    understand. The particular argument Slick found disconcerting is to me a
    non-issue now though I struggled with it in the past. What her argument
    actually critiques is inerrancy, not the existence of God. When you let
    the intellectual tail wag the dog, you miss out on the bigger picture.
    The truth of the gospel is so much bigger than potential contradictions
    or evolution or specific scientific theories. There are a lot of things I
    would want to discuss with Rachael if I had the chance to grab coffee
    with her about her reasons, but that is not ultimately where
    oft-fallible, finite beings should decide whether faith is worth holding
    onto or not. The freedom of Grace is a far better thing than the
    freedom of self. Joy in the love and forgiveness of the father, not
    being right or perfect or anything else, is the heart of Christianity. I
    can say it is by God’s grace alone that I stand in the faith today. I
    know I am morally guilty and that moral guilt is ontologically real and
    not just a human construct. Christ promises forgiveness in documents
    that are not terribly corrupted whether they are inerrant or not. I
    trust Him to do what he has said he will do.

  • Matthew Loftus

    Do you think that we really need more pugnacity in public Christian discourse? (I mean, I don’t think we need more falling-over-ourselves-apologies.) but pugnacity?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      I said we need more Doug Wilsons, not pugnacity per se. Wilson writes cheerfully, which is quite rare in public Christian discourse.

      • Matthew Loftus

        It’s a big jump from “we need more cheerfulness” to “we need more Doug Wilsons,” since Wilson’s cheerfulness seems to carry some other unhelpful baggage (I wouldn’t hold Wilson up as a model of anything besides how to overuse pugnacity.) And now I have no idea how pugnacity fit into the original thought.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Cheerful pugnacity is a thing. Chesterton had a strong contrarian streak and could engage in verbal fisticuffs pretty well, and so can Wilson.

          Yes, there are points that I disagree with Wilson on. But in this respect, we need a lot more like him than not.

          • Matthew Loftus

            I know exactly what you mean about Chesterton, and I feel like it’s qualitatively different from Wilson. I don’t follow Wilson very closely. He may have changed in the last few years, or there may be verbal fisticuffs of late that I haven’t read that exemplify the spirit that has been discussed on this blog quite well. But especially with the recent RHE dustup, I feel like his “cheerful pugnacity” veered quite frequently towards a sophomoric delight in making other people as offended as possible, giving little or no merit to their position. And that’s something that we have way too much of among intelligent Christians.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

            Matthew,

            If you are admittedly a “low information observer,” then perhaps you’ve drawn a hasty conclusion? We have way too much of that, too, even among intelligent Christians like yourself. : )

            Matt

          • Matthew Loftus

            I read some Wilson archives to see if anything’s changed since I last formed an opinion about him– I’ve been a little busy being a “high information” observer of better blogs! ; ) He’s just as intelligent, witty, cheery, and juvenile as when I stopped reading a few years ago. But if you think slurs like “collective Delilah” ought to be thrown around more often, it’s your blog.

  • davestrunk

    Matt,
    Really important post. As a parent, these kinds of possibilities are real fears. A pastor I know- in a sort of proverb form- really latches onto the law/gospel paradigm to understand much of life. Regarding parenting, he says, kids raised mostly with the law will rebel and not come home (reminder this is proverbial, not true in all circumstances, but many). Kids raised with grace will rebel and then come home eventually (they might still have lost faith, but they’ll know that they are loved more than anything else, and that ain’t nothing).

    I suppose, then, that I read her article through a different lens (as you did). Instead of seeing the substance of it being apologetics vs. science, I saw a girl who didn’t talk about reasons for leaving home and still hasn’t spoken to her father. In other words, I saw law. Your advice, so to speak, on how to handle family delicately is thus really well taken, and I think a part of that is the law/gospel paradigm.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Dave,

      All that may be true. However, I was *really* trying to avoid direct speculation about what transpired in their situation, or really what the deeper undercurrents were with her father’s approach to the world. It might be the case that there was a lot of law at work, as you put it, but that inference goes in a direction I was nervous to go.

      Matt