07 May 2012

Great Debate

by Dr Rod Thompson

Gilbert Keith (G. K.) Chesterton, renowned Christian author and theologian, was born in London on 29 May 1874. His younger brother, Cecil, arrived 5 years later. At Cecil’s birth, the precocious Gilbert reportedly announced, “Now I shall always have an audience.” If Gilbert was hoping for a quietly passive younger brother, he was to be shocked. As soon as Cecil could speak, he refused to merely listen to Gilbert. He insisted on debate. And as the boys grew up together, they disagreed about everything.

Although the brothers engaged in relentless debate, each had a deep love for the other. They often argued, but never quarrelled. Apparently they once debated for 18 hours and 13 minutes! The problem with a quarrel, according to G. K, is that it so often interrupts a good argument. This was surely one of the keys to G. K. Chesterton’s intelligence, sharp wit, profound thought and lasting legacy in writing.

God, grant us great debate partners.

Too often, in a simplistic pursuit of certainty, we choose to only surround ourselves with those who echo back to us our own biases. We don’t seriously allow for contending points of view. At too early an age, we stop really thinking deeply. We settle in our own traditions, baptising them as the only truth. This, in spite of the fact that we know from the Scriptures that all of us are finite and fallen beings who are exhorted by God to diligently search for knowledge and wisdom as for silver and gold.

How much we need robust debate partners – and yet, how few models we have. Parliamentary debates, more often than not, are framed by adversarial attack. They are frequently characterised by cheap insults, personal attacks, thoughtless stereotyping and a blatant unwillingness to listen to alternative viewpoints. Worthy arguments are often shouted down before they are heard or considered. And sometimes we Christians are not much better. With God on our side, as it were, we are too quick to speak, too slow to listen and too lacking in respect for those who hold alternative viewpoints.

At Laidlaw we declare it to be our aim to graduate students who, among other things, exhibit the skill of being able to “articulate their faith in dialogue with others, with confidence, curiosity and respect.” These words are written into our Student Graduate Profile. And as an interdenominational, intercultural College, we are well placed to realise this goal through, among other things, rigorous debate.

What are the characteristics of great debate?

Can I suggest the following: firstly, genuine love for my partner in debate. Unless I love that person who holds the alternative viewpoint, I will never be genuinely free to learn. Secondly, I must have the capacity to attentively listen; and thirdly, the ability to patiently question. Finally, I will be genuinely prepared to change my view in response to the debate, for surely it is the case in real debate that I willingly become vulnerable to my opponent. I submit the sureness of my viewpoint to the critique of this other person. I allow for the possibility that I may be wrong, that I may need to alter my view. God give us all the grace to realise that we may be wrong!

Genuine debate will most likely be uncomfortable. It may assault the stronghold of my certainty and security. Nevertheless, in debate I am willing to embrace this tension because of my love for truth and my commitment to the quest for truth. For Christians, genuine debate will always result in a re-engagement with the gospel to which the Scriptures bear witness, the bottom-line for our lives and pursuit of truth.

God, grant us intelligent and incisive partners in debate. May genuine, robust debate become a context in which we all move closer to mature love, faith and hope, grounded in the gospel of God’s grace in Christ.

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