How to loose your influence in a theological debate:

A response based on the reading of this article.

An interesting piece which strikes a chord for me as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time discussing theology with people. I was happily nodding along in agreement with it, much of the actions is something that I see in others (of course never in myself, oh no), and then I came to point 7.

7. Be perpetually non-committal: Be in fear of what others will think. Be in fear of being offensive. Call it grace, call it tolerance, call it whatever, but don’t ever take any definite stand. In every situation be timid, walk on theological eggshells, and never, ever, ever act as if your view is the right view to the exclusion of others. Qualify everything you say with, “this is just my opinion” or, “to me…”

That is something that I find myself doing all the time. I can quote other’s opinion and then state my agreement with it, I can give another (already validated) theologians stance and say that I agree with a part of it, but not another part, but when giving my stance, I often preface it with a qualifier. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary), , for example. Theology is a very emotive subject, I should know.

My guess is that the source of this article is for a true theological debate. One where you have those who would consider themselves “theologians” butting heads over some deeply thought out neuance. Theology and Culture, for example, and the roll of R. Neibhur, and whether or not his model holds true, can early Paul Tillich really shed light to a sensible way to approach Theology and Culture. Can Theology and Culture really be seen as an interplay between Prophecy and Tradition?

These questions are almost never discussed. What tends to be the fare that passes for theology in most cases is “Can God Love the homosexual” and “Is Paying More Tax Christian”. Two subjects that are, in theological terms, so utterly mundane as to be almost laughable. The reason for it being that you can’t answer those questions in the ways in which the people who ask them expect you to answer them. The answer can be short, but the rational behind it is not. Theology is always part of a bigger whole. All theologians are in some way Systematic Theologians, yes, even the Atheists. That means that when you do come to answer a question that is posed in most debates with a statement, without the qualifier, you find yourself trying to defend a straw-man that appears to be of your own making.

A perfect example of this is “God is Love”. A simple statement, loaded with theological import. Generally it can be accepted as true, and no more need to be said. However, in some debates you will quickly find the retort “But what about God ordering so and so to do this atrocity”. You are now busy defending the Old Testament, and trying to explain how that fits with the theology of “God is Love”. The problem, of course, is that trying to answer the barrage of questions as they arrive is almost like trying to build a castle out of very wet sand. By the time you’ve got one bit of wall to stand up, the other bit has fallen down. This gives the impression that your theology is not sound, or that you have not fully thought it through. For some, perhaps, the Stoic method of questioning will shed some light on holes in their thought, but for most people, while they are (as said previously) Systematic Theologians, many would not admit it. Theology is, as a subject, so big that it often takes volumes to complete, and even then corrections must be produced.

I do not want to spend my time in debates which are, mostly, meaningless. In my experience most people who send these barrage of questions your way do not listen to answers. You spend most of your time trying to explain some minutae of the conversation, and when you think they have got it, and you move on, you find that they really haven’t. I’m never sure if this is intentional or not, but what it does is lead to unfulfilling and unproductive debates.

The debates I find most fruitful are those with people who at least attempt to see my point of view, whether they agree with my premise or not. I have spent many hours trying to grasp as much about physics, geology, and so on that I am mentally able to do (much of the physics is beyond me mathematically-speaking, and without a diagram I confuse geological strata too easily). I have also spent hours reading up on theologians that I would not otherwise read, websites of other faiths. I have even learned about Anabaptists. This has meant that in many cases the debates have been fruitful. We have learned together. While neither of us are out to convince each other one way or the other, we have both grown in the understanding of our own position and theirs. Perhaps even conceding a point or two.

It is always difficult to concede a point in a debate. Perhaps avoiding saying ” My position is” helps with that. It removes a sense of public ownership, which could lead to an easier public concession. Any thought gratefully appreciated.