Debates: They’re Emotional, Not Logical

 In Pei Blog

Why debates make me think of sports… and about the meaning of true love and humility. 

As I was watching last night’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it reminded me of a debate I attended in college.  It was held on a college campus between a Christian and an atheist professor, about the topic of God.  A huge crowd filled the auditorium, and naturally each “side” had its passionate supporters.  In fact, the energy felt so much like a sporting event, that I was a little surprised there were no popcorn or lemonade vendors in the seats.  : )

As the debate started, the atheist shared about his impressive credentials, and then gave an opening statement about why he believed God didn’t exist.  Then the Christian gave his credentials and opening statement, and they began to go back and forth.

Two things stood out to me during the debate.

First, like a sporting fan, it seemed most people just wanted their “side” to win.  When their team made a good point, they pumped their fists (Slam dunk!).  When the other team made a good point, they thought, “Baloney!” (That was an offensive foul, ref!).  And of course, neither side ever acknowledged when the other was right about anything — including data, research or a valid argument.

It really wasn’t as intellectual as it may have seemed, although two professors and philosophers were going at it, using all kinds of fancy and impressive language.  No, it was emotional in a way that most sports fans can understand.  If we were honest, this wasn’t really about a “respectful forum of ideas” or an earnest pursuit of truth.  This was a time for fans to wave their banners and signs for whichever team they identified with most, and to show their unwavering support.

Whenever I watch debates, I’m reminded of what author and philosopher G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book OrthodoxyPeople can be rational in their arguments, and still be completely out of touch with reality.  Even a madman can be logically consistent and win arguments, and in fact Chesterton claims it’s easier for him to do so, because his mind moves “in a perfect but narrow circle.”  Most debaters are more driven to protect their image and defend their pride, than to really seek the truth of things.

Back to the debate between the Christian and atheist professors.

The second thing that stood out to me was that the Christian was no different in his approach and behavior than the atheist.  And this bothered me more than anything else.  Granted, the Christian professor was intelligent and witty, but also sometimes dismissive and condescending.  He would cut off the atheist, make fun of him, and even resorted to name-calling a few times.

I began to feel discouraged.

I understood the pressures these men faced, to represent their worldview in an antagonistic environment.  But I just couldn’t accept that there wasn’t a better way.  1 Corinthians 13 came to mind:

“Love is patient, love is kind… It does not boast… It does not dishonor others… it is not easily angered.”

And I wondered, “Why is this passage only talked about during weddings and in romantic relationships?  Why isn’t it talked about in business meetings, Hollywood, and in public debates?  What would it mean to be patient and kind in a conversation between a Christian and an atheist?”

When I first became a Christian, I remember hearing the most offensive street preachers label their actions as “tough love.”  But the more I studied the Bible, the more I felt a disconnect.  Belittling and calling people names was certainly not “kind.”  Interrupting, pressuring and other manipulative conversational tactics were certainly not “patient.”  I saw many of these Christians treating people in a condescending manner, and quickly becoming defensive or angry.  This wasn’t the love of 1 Corinthians 13, nor was it the “Fruit of the Spirit” of Galatians 5.

And then… I saw Christians who were different.  I met friends who were gracious in conversation with people who believed differently.  I learned from mentors who weren’t afraid to admit “I don’t know” or say “I was wrong about that.”  And these were the people whose humility attracted many atheists to take a new interest in the Christian faith.  It reminded me that I didn’t have to compromise my deepest values about loving and honoring people, to be a strong Christian.

As I’ve tried to follow in these Christians’ footsteps, I’ve found that I don’t need to compromise my beliefs or intelligence in debate.  I can hold my own discussing most topics out there related to religion, society, and life.  But I don’t need to put anyone down to make myself feel better, or to try to prove I’m right.  I don’t mind admitting when someone knows something I don’t, or makes a valid point.  After all, I’m only human and I know my limitations.  I know I’m not “above” other people, and in fact I’m humbled by my flaws and mistakes on a weekly basis.  And God has made me secure enough in knowing who I am, and what I believe, to treat other humans with the respect and dignity they are worth.  Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian?

Presidential debates?  I don’t expect rational discourse or gracious behavior when I watch them these days.  I simply pull up a chair, try to educate myself about the issues of discussion, and eat some popcorn.

But when it comes to everyday conversations and debates with the people around me, I believe God holds me to a higher standard not just in what I say, but in how I treat others.  And while I still make mistakes, I strive for love — God’s love — in what I do.  It’s a love that is gentle in adverse circumstances, respectfully waits its turn, and seeks to understand and honor those who are different. 

Isn’t that the toughest love of all?

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