Beavers Help With Apologetics Formal Debate Jailbreak - Part 1

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Beavers Help With Apologetics Formal Debate JailbreakToday I have a hankering to talk about beavers. Who doesn’t love beavers? The binomial nomenclature reads Castor canadensis. In Narnia they talk and drink beer. In our own universe, supposedly, Pleistocene beaver pushed upwards of 250lbs. One fun fact that is often left out of popular beaver education is their ecological insensitivity. They are notorious for manipulating their environments. They clear large swaths of forest for materials and construct dams staunching or redirecting water flow—all without the requisite ecological permits.

They are capable of so much damage that the EPA has put them on the managed species list, discussing management tactics in official publications such as Best Management Practices for Resolving Human-Beaver Conflicts in Vermont and Utah Beaver Management Plan (Google them, they’re real documents). These read straight out of an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation—go government!

Alright Mr. Philosopher, thanks for the beaver lesson but what does this have to do with 1517 and an apologetics formal debate jailbreak?! The short answer: I think we view the apologetic task as beaver management policy, not evangelistic conversation.

Here at 1517, we are committed to discussion regarding all things Gospel-related. Many of us became interested in the Gospel due to the apologetic zeal of our mentor, Rod Rosenbladt, and we want to see his genuine care for the lost and free expression of the Gospel preserved. This meant that all of us were in some way, shape, or form introduced to apologetic methodology. We cut our teeth on numerous apologetic texts and many beer-hazed, late-night conversations.

Luckily, as our undergraduate years turned into graduate years and we dispersed around the world ensconced in arcane studies within theology, history, and philosophy, the topic of apologetics became the topic du jour within much of Christianity. A Google search for ‘apologetics’ yields 2.5 million hits in .15 seconds while a Google Video search yields 2.15 million in .16 seconds. A YouTube search reports 96,100 hits. This is an outstanding body of reference material, much of which is geared toward the laity and education. Even the LCMS cannot afford to ignore the value of apologetics any longer, ostensibly shown by the number of apologetically minded persons at Concordia University Irvine and as a recent meeting with KFUO (the radio broadcasting arm of the LCMS) executives confirmed.

Recently, due to an interview I read with apologist William Lane Craig (“The New Theist” 2013), I was reflecting on the nature of apologetics and apologetic education. I am by no means an expert in apologetic education, but I’ve sat through enough presentations and watched a good number of YouTube discussions to notice an alarming trend. The trend I’ve noticed is that of conversation management.

Apologetics is standardly presented as something akin to a policy manual for beavers. We operate as if we are government agents of the Lord, mindlessly ticking off boxes in our manual, rather than free agents gathering and implementing as many resources as we can into a creative presentation of the Gospel.

Why is this? The answer is found, I believe, in a certain specialization of the apologetic task. Apologetics is viewed as speech and debate. Think of St. Paul courageously arguing the resurrection against Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at the Areopagus, or St. Thomas Aquinas writing a gigantic missionary manual (Summa Contra Gentiles) explicitly laying out the arguments and counter responses for the existence of God.

More recently William Lane Craig, every bit as formidable as St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas, reported in the interview, “I find it hard to understand how people today can risk parenthood without having studied apologetics…We’ve got to train our kids for war.” What kind of war? Craig answers, “I believe that debate is the forum [Craig's emphasis] for sharing the gospel on college campuses…these are respectable academic events conducted with civility and Christian charity.” I think Craig is correct in highlighting the importance of debate as a forum for sharing the Gospel, but I question whether it is the forum.

Let me make something very clear. I am not denigrating the value of formal debate as a valuable apologetic avenue. The work that Craig does when he squares off against the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is as valuable to contemporary society as that of Aquinas and St. Paul was to theirs (and ours).

My concern is with what effect such an overemphasis on speech and debate might have with our everyday apologetic conversations. It is a simple fact that most of us will not be engaging in formal debate. The questions we field will be coming from friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, postmen (or postpersons for the P.C. minded), and the questions will NOT be given in a formal setting.

The conversation will more than likely take any number of disjointed turns, dive down various rabbit holes, and sputter out of gas before arriving at the intended destination (or any destination for that matter). This is far from the mechanics of debate, and more akin to the ebb and flow of ocean tides—predictable, but not precise.

I sense two altogether unhelpful themes developing out of an overemphasis on speech and debate as the focal apologetic model. First, it necessarily re-describes our conversation partner as the ‘other.’ In debate, it is either win, lose, or draw. Therefore, any number of strategies may be employed to win the argument and persuade the audience or ‘other’ to your position. If you’ve ever watched William Lane Craig debate, you will notice that he constantly reminds the audience what his interlocutor has NOT adequately answered regarding his position.

This is a fantastic rhetorical move to remind people that the posturing of the opponent is not applicable to the debate topic at hand, exposing much of the foolishness that passes for “good debate,” and perfectly acceptable in a formal setting. However, if you are talking with a friend, relative or coworker, it isn’t helpful with or part of genuine conversation.

Second, and related to the first complaint, is the fact that nobody likes to be managed. Once a person gets the sense that you are trying to direct them, even if it is simply ‘driving’ the conversation, his or her behavior will change accordingly, closing certain avenues to future conversations. We have all been around somebody who ‘controls’ the conversation. Even when done with joy and ease, it is a turn off for all those not in agreement with the speaker.

The formal structure of speech and debate tends to codify “a position.” This is done because one needs to make their points and respond to the opponent within a predetermined structure. Structural constraints do not allow the exploration of more nuanced relationships and/or differences between “positions” in anything longer than a Twitter response. The problem with this is the “position” becomes an unyielding bed of truth, where, in reality, truth is larger than any systematic attempt to capture it. Moreover, we ignore real needs and questions regarding the person with whom we are conversing in favor of the unyielding bed. Again, it is part of the game of debate to do this, but hardly a way to treat our neighbor with dignity.

A consequence of the two observations I’ve made relates to how debates are “won.” More often than not, the constitution of the audience is more fundamental than the actual arguments presented. I imagine that a pre-debate survey inquiring about religious affiliation (including atheism & agnosticism) would provide a reliable predictor of any apologetic debate outcome. Certain people are pre-committed to the “position” of Craig or Dawkins, making the arguments of secondary importance.

Again, this is fine in the forum of speech and debate, but when conversing with the people in our everyday lives, it is unfair to them. Our interlocutor is treated not as Homo sapien (wise) but Homo puerilis (foolish), hardly an image of “civility and Christian charity.”

To see an example in action, Google ‘Craig’ and ‘eastwooding.’ You will find a humorous YouTube video of William Lane Craig debating an empty chair, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s discussion with an empty chair at the 2012 GOP Convention. Craig was rightly chastising Dawkins for not returning his invitations to debate and for nasty claims Dawkins made about William Lane Craig. However, it is fascinating that Craig really didn't need Dawkins to engage in the debate. The “positions” of both interlocutors are so formalized, that a debate script may be constructed from a party of one.

Think about it this way, in speech and debate it seems perfectly acceptable to have a conversation of one. However, if we see someone having a conversation of one on the street, we gently steer our children away from them as the conversation is more indicative of rubber-padded rooms. Again, while Craig has good motive to poke some fun at Dawkins, I fear that the clip clarifies all too well the contentions of my post about speech and debate being the primary forum of apologetics.

I will close by returning to the beavers of paragraph one.

Government manuals are much like debate manuals. They are filled with a lot of dry figures and statistics that anyone can cobble together into an effective outline of a “position.” The cost of this mentality, however, is at the expense of the beaver's beauty, one of the reasons they are an object of study. Beavers become nothing other than a beast in need of management.

Likewise, when apologetics is seen first and foremost as speech and debate, we lose the individuality of our neighbor and the reason why we talk to him—Christ crucified. Our neighbor, coworker, friend, relative, whomever we share public and private space with become beavers in need of cognitive management.

In a coming post I will explore what insights may be gleaned by shifting the analogy of this post. Instead of understanding apologetics through the lens of governmental beaver management policy, I want to examine what we might learn by viewing apologetics as a naturalist studying beavers for the sake of understanding.