Responding to Non-Christians in Christian Discussions
[It is my hope that no one would conclude that I am hijacking a discussion that I not only joined late but kind of killed. I am posting on my blog for convenience, not for the purpose of driving traffic.]
Let me begin by quoting a verse that I have tried to make applicable to myself. It addresses how to respond to others in general and has specific and valuable application for online interactions with those who do not believe in Christianity. Such people are, from the Bible’s perspective, incapable of comprehending the significance and ultimate meaning of the gospel and the Scriptures.
This does not mean they cannot intellectually know what the Bible says; it does mean that they don’t know it intimately as a believer might. This does not make them bad people – some are honestly wrestling with spiritual issues (although, sadly, it seems clear now that “Kirk” is not one of them) – it means simply that they are limited or restricted. In fact, believers are only able to know God and the Bible intimately because of the indwelling Holy Spirit who illuminates God’s words to us. Without Him (the Holy Spirit) we are no better off that non-Christians.
Here is the verse I referred to earlier, along with a couple of others that I’ll remind the reader of:
. . . but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.” — 1 Pet 3.15, emphases mine.
What I want to draw attention to at this point is the attitude we should have when talking with those who ask about or question our faith. First, we are to be gentle or meek with others; we are never to be arrogant, condescending, or impatient. It is not an easy thing to do, in no small part because we take their objections personally. But typically they are not.
Second, we are to be reverent. This means we should treat all people with the respect and honor they deserve since they, too, bear the image of God. They are wonderfully and fearfully made. They are sinful (as are we) but they are foremost image-bearers.
Finally, we are to keep a good conscience, i.e., we should conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called (Eph 4.1). We should talk and behave in a way that demonstrates respect not only for them as people but for Him who created them, i.e., God. We are, after all, just beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.
A corollary of this is found elsewhere in Paul’s writings:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” — Eph 6.12
Unbelievers or even atheists are not our enemies but slaves in service to the true opponent: “the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ours is a spiritual battle against spiritual powers, not against other people. We should address their ideas and misconceptions but we should not attack them.
Another passage should be kept in mind when discussing biblical matters with unbelievers or non-Christians. It, too, is from Paul:
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” — 1 Cor 2.14
A “natural man” is a person without the Holy Spirit; without the Holy Spirit, the things of God are “foolishness,” or, more accurately, “moronic” to an unbeliever. We need to keep in mind that a person lacking the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth is restricted in their understanding. They are doing the best they can (sometimes) with what they have, often with a clear conscience. We should not fault them or criticize them for their inabilities.
And now to the point I hope to make in this post.
Those of you who followed the back-and-forth between me and “Kirk Roos” (if that is his true name) are aware that he has stated that he will “let sleeping dogs lie” and not engage me any further in the present venue. That is fine; I respect his decision. As he said, the discussion was not going to be resolved: he could not persuade me or I him; indeed, he seemed to take issue with my attempt or attempts to find common ground – or at least a common language.
Rather than refute what he has said I want to focus on two matters, one in this post and another in a post to follow. The next post will explain what philosophers and logicians call “informal logical fallacies”; this post will examine what appears to be Kirk’s “worldview” or practical philosophy in hopes of enabling Christians to better identify such argumentation and thereby know what they are up against and how to proceed.
Before going any further, let me attempt to calm any fears that might be emerging at the thought of delving into philosophy and, specifically, postmodernism. The latter is a term that seems impressive and reserved only for those with Ph.D.s in lofty ideas. In reality, it is easily understood and just as easy to detect. So read on without fear, knowing that if you don’t understand, it is my failure to explain and has nothing to do with your ability to comprehend.
At the risk of being too simplistic, the approach reflected in Kirk’s interactions falls under the philosophical heading of postmodernism.
There are three individuals whose works either laid the foundations for postmodern thought or provided the framework for those who would follow: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Wittgenstein’s philosophy later in his life (after renouncing pretty much all of what he had done before) affected language and communication. He saw language both as a tool and a game; the nature of the game allowed every individual participating to create their own rules. If you think this leads to confusion and people talking to themselves and past one another, you’re correct.
Foucault followed, bringing relativism with him. He believed that truth changes over time and from culture to culture; truth, therefore, is determined by cultures and individuals and cannot be imposed on others. What Wittgenstein had done for language — or undone, as the case may be — Foucault did with the concept of truth on a bigger scale.
Derrida is identified with the philosophical school labeled deconstruction, another of those concepts and words that intimidate without reason. James Mannion (2006) explains:
Deconstruction is the process of breaking down of a thing (in Derrida’s case, language) to show that what is being stated is in fact inherently false . . . He sees language as a flawed means of communication, arguing that the reader can not really know the author’s true intent, and for that matter, neither can the author. The text you are reading may have an entirely different meaning to you than the author intends, and the author may not even have a clue about what the meaning of his words are.”
The underlying narcissism of such a position is obvious: the postmodernist maintains that the author has no idea what he is really saying but you, the reader, can claim to know what is really meant. But, the reader must admit, it is a personal understanding and not necessarily one that anyone else would hold.
Mannion goes on to describe postmodernism as a manifestation of latter-day Sophism (another of those words!). Socrates argued against the Sophists of his day (c. 469-399 B.C.) and Plato (Socrates’ most famous student) had very little positive things to say about them. The Sophists were the forerunners of infomercials: they could argue persuasively for or against any position or concept because they were skilled rhetoricians.
Protagoras is considered the earliest of the Sophists. He thought everything to be relative and denied the notion of the existence of absolute truth (truths that are true for all people of all time in all places). He and the other Sophists had little time for spiritual matters. Mannion writes,
Protagoras also had an apathetic view toward the gods. His attitude was that you can’t really know if they exist, and because you can never know, they do not really matter much in your day-to-day life so you may as well forget about them . . .”
This has a modern ring to it.
The following quote from the movie The Wind and the Lion captures a written exchange between the movie’s dark hero and then-president Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt has successfully overwhelmed the sheikh with support forces in the form of the U.S. Marines:
To Theodore Roosevelt – you are like the Wind and I like the Lion. You form the Tempest. The sand stings my eyes and the Ground is parched. I roar in defiance but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place. While you like the wind will never know yours. – Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers, Last of the Barbary Pirates.”
Postmodernists do not know their place, either, for the simple fact that they have none.
What are we, as Christians, to do when we encounter postmodernists/Sophists? Perhaps the best thing to do is to resist engaging them further when we sniff them out: this saves time and eliminates the possibility of greater frustration on all sides. In addition to praying for such people (always), we can try to communicate our love for and acceptance of them. Very few people come to Christ as a result of argumentation; most come (humanly speaking) because they have been loved even though there is disagreement.
It is also possible to turn the tables on such people if they are not especially skilled in rhetoric. But that is a subject for another time.