If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in class, a Facebook thread, blog, or a Twitter-battle, you’ve engaged in polemics. Now, you needn’t worry that this is a particularly un-Christian activity. A friend of mine recently pointed out that Christians have always argued and always will—for good reason. Thinking through history, some of the greats in the Church have been polemecists: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and many others were willing to throw down over truth. They were great precisely because they could argue, not despite it.
That said, it’s wise to think through our basic attitudes and approaches to polemics as a people, especially within the body. We should regularly ask ourselves “How am I going about this discussion? Is my attitude consistent with Christian virtue? Are my words in conformity with Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self?” Here are three qualities or attitudes that should define our approach to whatever discussion we engage in, and one that shouldn’t.
Playful- One quality in short supply in our polemics today is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton embodies in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to admit they aren’t “serious”, dealing with significant issues. No, it is to recognize they are clearly not driven by fear or pride, but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them.
This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful, or condescending. When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son. One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless, and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for. The Gospel should lead to a confident, good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time, allows you to take yourself less seriously.
Passionate- Our polemics ought to be passionate. Like playfulness, this characteristic is deeply rooted in the truth of the Gospel and a love for people. You can see this all over Paul’s letters. Paul is nothing if not passionate in his polemics for the sake of the Gospel. Galatians, anybody? A holy zeal marks his tone in that letter because of his great gospel-fear that they might be abandoning Christ. He does not shy away from making his points forcefully, giving voice to his real concern in order to communicate just how important the issue was. A friend might know you disagree, but may not grasp the significance of an issue is until they hear the alarm in your voice. Paul’s letter not only communicated truth, but the way he communicated it gave it an emotional tenor, an urgency, that was vital to the content.
Many of us, especially in the younger generations, enjoy being liked a great deal. Given that, passionate engagement with our neighbors and friends over the truth can be intimidating. We’re scared of offending, or coming off as pushy or unloving. In a world like ours where our radios, TVs, and blogs are full of people just yelling and trying to brow-beat people into submission, that’s a real danger. I don’t want to minimize that. We should never argue just to argue, yet so often that’s what we find ourselves caught up in: meaningless arguments about things that really, nobody should get that agitated over. Still, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging passionately with our friends about things that really matter. Love engages over truth. Apathy or an unwillingness to trouble yourself with a difficult conversation out of fear is not the loving thing to do. The truth is something to be passionate about because truth is about life.
Principled- Our polemics must to be principled. (Honestly, I could have used other words like “integrity”, “honesty”, etc, but I’m a sucker for cheap alliteration.) We should strive to deal honorably, speak honestly, and actively avoid unfair caricatures and cheap shots in our polemical engagements. Whenever arguing against a position we ought to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that. That’s just dishonest.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there is a place for irony, sarcasm, and the reductio ad absurdum in arguments. Humorously following someone’s premises out to their surprising conclusions, or creating surprising, sarcastic analogies can be a great way to bring out a point. Still, there is absolutely no place for a lack of integrity in our communication with others, even those with whom we deeply disagree. This is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us to. Being people who confess the lordship of Jesus, the one who is the Truth, we should never play fast and loose with it to score a cheap, rhetorical point.
Never Putrid- If we endeavor to keep these three qualities in mind as we engage others, they will keep us from descending into the putrid polemics that seems to define our culture’s approach to “rational” discourse: putridity. So much of what we hear and read today pours out of corrupted hearts darkened by arrogance, rage, pride, fear, and the rot of our decomposing sin nature. Lies, fear-mongering, cynical mockery, caricature, manipulation, gracelessness, straw-manning, cheap shots, and rhetorical bullying dominates, especially on the internet. It is simply putrid. For those of us who have been raised in Christ and indwelled by the resurrection Spirit of God, there should be nothing rotten or foul about what we say. As I’ve noted elsewhere, even our sharp words should only cut in the way a doctor’s scalpel does–in order to heal. They should be words of life, not death, because we are made, and are being remade, in the image of the God who, by his Word, speaks life into existence.
In sum, we should follow Paul’s injunction:
8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator… 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:8-10, 16)
Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog, and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also follow him on Twitter.