Confession: my title is a misnomer. I have relatively few problems with Calvinism as a doctrine (though for an ardent Calvinist, I suppose “relatively few” is tantamount to “enough to lay waste to our friendship”) –it’s just that a good number of the people I know and love tend toward a Calvinist bent, and I like to play the role of “fly in the ointment” whenever possible. It’s the middle child in me–if I can’t allure attention, I take it by brute force. Furthermore, the title “The Problem with Doctrine when People are Idiots About It” isn’t all that catchy.
First off, allow me to disseminate the pungency of my thesis with the disclaimer that “I love me some doctrine.” I very much believe that doctrine plays an important role in a Christian’s life. It helps organize the truths (and interpretations) of the Bible into a coherent, understandable format, from which we may then glean an understanding of how to relate to God, live holy
ly. . . holily?. . .er. . .holy lives, minister to others, and so on and so forth.
Doctrines can be an incredible tool to help the believer organize and better live out his or her beliefs.
But doctrines must be handled with care and Christians, I am sorry to say, tend to be quite sloppy in their doctrinal usage; if I may make a gross generalization, I would say that those Christians who consciously utilize doctrine in their lives tend to focus more on strong-arming others into believing their personal doctrinal interpretations than they do on utilizing doctrinal truths (or even personal interpretations, for that matter) to guide their lives toward sanctification or to build others up.
It has been my experience that when it comes to matters of doctrine, Christians tend to argue often–and poorly. They may start off kindly enough, but at some point an emotion usually triggers and in that instant, the game changes. The discussion is no longer about a mutual exchange of ideas, but about going for the spiritual jugular, about crushing the opponent, about winning as bloodily as necessary. The argument becomes a matter of personal pride rather than a matter of truth, and the moment that takes place, everyone loses.
I have seen numerous doctrinal discussions disintegrate into emotional battles of the wits, rife with ad hominem arguments, disproportionate harshness, and logical fallacies that would humiliate the speakers, were they to take a moment to actually consider the concepts about which they are blathering. Doctrinal discussions can go from civil to vitriolic in 2.5 seconds, and it’s usually not because the doctrines themselves are of life-and-death importance–the doctrines that leave room for various interpretations are those that tend to be discussed in these situations.
I remember sitting in a seminary class last fall with my mouth agape, watching two students come to verbal blows over whether the primary purpose of a church service is to be seeker-friendly or to build up the Body. I have no doubt each student was making some very good points, but I couldn’t hear them over the disrespect.
I believe that those prone to argument would gain a lot more credence were they to follow a few basic principles, such as:
1) Relegate emotion to the sidelines.
I’m a ‘Feeler’ on the Myers-Briggs (and how!). So I understand what it’s like to emote very passionately about a topic. I’ve learned, however, that passion obscures argument. Even worse, it creates wishy-washy disciples who are capable of being swayed every time they meet a more passionate arguer. Furthermore, when emotion triggers, thought tends to take the backseat, with the result that arguments become far less intelligible. Emotion certainly has a place, and there are topics about which I am willing to get angry. Being angry and evidencing anger are two different things, however, and I’m learning that the more important a topic, the more important it is that I am able to remain (or appear to remain) clear-headed and logical; otherwise, I soon come to the point of utilizing the rebuttal, “Your Mom!!!!!” And that, my friends, is certainly not how the West was won.
2) Listen. Listen. Listen. Then listen some more.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been listening to arguments only to realize, “They’re saying the same thing!” I don’t have an idea as to the exact percentages of arguments that stem from miscommunication of the same point rather than actively differing points, but I suspect the number is embarrassingly high. Listening, paraphrasing, and making sure you actually understand what your opponent is saying is a great way to prevent yourself from the humiliating realization that you’ve just wasted 3 hours and 98 emotions arguing the same thesis as your opponent.
3) Value the other person.
This is absolutely the crux of any good argument. Value your opponent–respect him or her enough to listen fully to his arguments, to acknowledge good points made, and to avoid any hint of personal attack or insult. When people don’t feel valued, they become defensive, hurt, and angry; winning the argument becomes paramount, because they are no longer merely defending a point–they are defending their senses of worth. There are very, very few truths so important they are worth insulting someone for; and the great irony is that those points will never “stick” if given in a context of contempt.
4) Know when to quit.
Most arguments can’t be won or lost, because most people aren’t humble enough to give up. There’s a reason high school debates are timed. Once you have actively listened to the opposing side’s arguments and stated your own clearly, you’re done. The opponent has everything necessary to shift his or her stance, and henpecking won’t help your cause a wee bit.
5) Look for common ground.
This is a simple way to de-escalate high emotion, grant the other person a sense of value, and keep from turning into the sort of rabid, hurtful, 16.45-point Calvinists (or defenders of whatever doctrine you choose to insert here) across whose paths I have occasionally stumbled. Most points are not as vehemently opposed as they may seem at the outset, and you can usually find some common ground with even the most imbecilic-seeming opposing point if you use such basic skills as non-aggressive questioning–and actually listening to the answers. (I am not suggesting that we water down truth; I’m merely suggesting that sometimes debaters focus so much on differences of opinion, they lose sight of areas in which they are in agreement; such falsely diametric opposition usually leads to far more passionate and hurtful arguing).
My intent here is not to villainize debate. I enjoy flexing my mental muscles against another person’s, provided that person knows how to argue well. Furthermore, I think it a healthful and wise thing to be continually refining one’s beliefs; it seems to logically follow that if the ‘superstars’ of Christianity have been arguing about an issue for centuries, I’m probably not going to be the person to suddenly discover the answer and deliver it (neatly bow-tied) to the Church. Therefore, making a conscious effort to at least listen to differing viewpoints seems to be a prudent move–but if you’re going to debate said viewpoints, it also seems wise to utilize some of the above guidelines to ensure you still have friends at the end of the melee.
Edit: I was also going to mention how useful humor is in argument; but it was throwing off the feng shui of my thesis, so I didn’t; but rest assured, I believe even C.S. Lewis once said something about how great humor is in an argument. The loose paraphrase is: “Something, something, humor is really great in an argument.” Believe that.