Know-it-all syndrome

Here’s an all-too-typical story from the front lines of Apologetics.

I was once doing some evangelism with a friend on my college campus. We engaged a guy in conversation about God, and things quickly became heated. He was an international student, not at all Christian, and had a more or less pluralist view of religion. He had thought about it just enough that the conversation was a little out of my friend’s reach, which left the ball squarely in my court. So I engaged him. When he argued fallaciously, I called him on it. When he back-pedaled, I pressed him. In short, I destroyed him. It wasn’t pretty. And for what? I seriously doubt that our conversation had any lasting impact on him whatsoever. If he ever came to faith, it was because someone after me loved him better than I did.

I have very little to add beyond what the author himself outlines at his website. He summarizes the primary dangers of studying apologetics. First, the very nature of Apologetics is to defend the faith, so it can mistakenly set up the conversation in antagonistic (offense – defense, us vs them) terms. That possibility is certainly very real, but hardly an excuse to avoid studying, as the author affirms. We need to study the material, but we also need to study how to use the material wisely in our interactions with others (which is the primary reason I wrote Arguing with Friends).

Secondly, “knowing how to argue well and defend your beliefs can turn you into a smarty
pants.” Amen! It is right to observe that knowledge can puff a person up, but as J P Moreland observes, the cure for that is humility, not ignorance.

The only observation I would add to the author’s is this; take your time. The author describes how it “quickly became heated” (here’s an idea, quickly cool it down – it can be done) and he speaks of the episode as though it was a single conversation. Discussions like this need to be taken slowly, coolly, calmly and usually over a long period of time and in multiple sittings. During each conversation give the person something to ponder, and your demeanor should be such that the person is eager to talk again. If you only have one conversation with a person (as appears to have been the case in this story) give them something good to think about and don’t go for the end game. Greg Koukl talks about this as “putting a stone in their shoe – something to ponder.” This is an excellent description.

I have come to think of these conversations as “personally important.” The “important” part means we have a responsibility to have the conversation; not avoid it. The “personal” part should remind us that we are dealing with people who hold ideas and people are not the enemy (as I have said before). Furthermore, the ideas are very personal to them as well; these are not mere abstractions. The conversations are so important that we need to use the right weapons to engage in the conversations; we need to learn the facts, arguments, fallacies, tools of Reason and so forth. But, like any soldier preparing for war, we need to learn how to use the tools properly. We need to consider the purpose of the battle, rules of engagement and so much more. Too many junior Apologists become diligent bookworms – mastering so many different subjects, arguments and rhretorical tools – and then hurl themselves into those kind of conversations without any interpersonal tact or consideration. I’ve been there; it’s not pleasant.

I wonder if you have a story to share? We can learn from the mistakes of others as well as from our own mistakes, so please educate me and the other readers of my blog by sharing of your story (good, bad or ugly). If you are willing to do so, drop me a line and let’s connect.

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