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Apologizing with Style: Defining Your Meaning

6 Mar

Definition of terms, especially in religious dialogue, has become increasingly more important as our society shifts away from the belief that words have absolute meanings.  Not everyone agrees upon the dictionary definitions, so we can’t presume that we are discussing the same topic, even when we are using the same words… especially in a “faith” context.  (It is interesting that this waffling about meanings seems less prominent in discussion about non-philosophical/theological issues – no one ever questions what I mean when I ask them to bring me my “blue” sneakers!)

Because of this, I often begin faith dialogues with a series of questions which will help me better understand the way the other party defines key terms which will be used in our conversation.  Keep in mind that even basic terms like “God” or “religion” may require some definition.  Ask an atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, an Hindu, a Mormon, and a Wiccan to define the term and you will get a wide variety of responses, all of which will differ tremendously from the Biblical Christian definition.  If you are unaware of these differences, you’ll likely end up talking past each other rather than to each other!

Not all of the definitions need to be settled upon up front.  If the conversation seems to hit a sticking point that revolves around a particular word, you can bet that the problem is a difference between your understanding of its meaning and your friend’s.  Stop the dialogue, define the word (in some cases, it may even be worthwhile to write down the definition being used in order to confirm your understanding of your friend’s point of view), then move on with a clear comprehension of what each party means when they say “we are saved by grace” or “God has no son”.

For example, it would be tempting to say that we believe the statement that “we are saved by grace”, but disbelieve the statement that “God has no son”, yet because of differing definitions of the words, this may not always be the case.

When an LDS person says that “we are saved by grace”, they are not generally referring to our “salvation” in the sense of the assurance that we will spend eternity with our Heavenly Father, but rather that all men will be resurrected.  For the LDS, “salvation through grace” falls far short of securing eternal life!

Likewise, if in speaking to a Muslim, you were informed that the New Testament commits blasphemy by declaring that Jesus is the “Son of God” and that “God has no son”, it would be worth the effort to verify exactly how your Muslim friend is defining the word “son”.  You might be surprised to discover that he views the term as biological rather than sociological and objects to the idea that God, who has no body, would obtain one in order to have physical intercourse with a human woman for the purpose of creating offspring.  In this case, we would agree that no, God doesn’t have a son in that sense!  (Please note that not all Muslims define “son” in this fashion – which further emphasizes the need for us to ask about definitions rather than presuming that we already understand!)

It’s also important to take the time to clearly define what you mean when utilizing previously undefined words.  You’ve probably heard that old joke about speaking “Christianese” – that secret language only understood by those long initiated in the Church tradition.  Well, it isn’t a joke.  When you’ve been hanging out around believers for a while, you start to pick up terms like “salvation”, “redemption”, “propitiation”, “justification”, and the like.  To someone who isn’t a part of the Church or who is already familiar with another faith in which these terms are utilized, but with different meanings, our use of these words can be confusing.

You can add a definition into the dialogue with a great deal of ease, simply by expounding upon what you mean by a given word immediately after using it.  For example, “My salvation, the right to spend eternity in the presence of my Heavenly Father, is the result of my faith in Christ’s works, not my own.”  By following this format, you both clarify your meaning to your listener and conveniently avoid that awkward moment in which you must ask, “Do you understand what I mean by that?” – a question sure to shut down any dialogue in which the person with whom you are sharing does not view themselves as an idiot and firmly believes that you have no right to view them that way either!

That said, once I’m certain that I understand where the other party is coming from, I make it a point to use their definitions rather than my own throughout the discussion.  The primary reason for this is that it alleviates any potential that the traditional Biblical concepts which I seek to convey will be misunderstood due to an “error in translation”, but it also lightens the atmosphere by relieving the pressure for the other party to accept or adopt my own definitions before a productive dialogue is possible.  Perhaps even more importantly, by taking the time to enquire about and understand where those of other faiths are coming from, i.e., how they define their terms and how those definitions influence their world view, I convey the message that this dialogue isn’t about winning a debate or being right, but about understanding one another and sharing those things which are so dear to our own hearts that we can’t help wanting to tell others.

Apologizing with Style: When Things Get Awkward

27 Feb

Over the last few weeks, we’ve spent quite a bit of time examining the rules which govern informal religious dialogue.  We’ve taken a look at the importance of keeping a conversation on task in “An Introduction to the Rules of Debate” and considered a few “Duh Rules” that can be useful in keeping a debate on friendly terms.  This week, we’re going to conclude our list with a brief discussion of the rules which govern those “awkward” situations that will inevitably occur if you ever try to share the Gospel with… well, just about anyone.  Don’t panic – if the conversation is on-task and friendly, these situations aren’t nearly as fear inducing as they might be otherwise!

Rule 5 – If You Don’t Know, Just Admit It

Next to Rule 1, this might be the most important.  There are a lot of people with legitimate questions about Christianity.  While we’d all like to be “Super Christian” and have the answers to every objection a skeptic can pose… we don’t.  When someone fields a question that you can’t answer, the best thing you can do is to admit it.  Then, volunteer to find an answer.  When someone is legitimately interested in your faith, they’ll be willing to let you check your sources and give them a response.

On the flip side, if you ask a question and the person you’re debating doesn’t immediately have an answer, be gracious enough to let them do some research as well.  When you are respectful of others, the chances are, they will be respectful of you.

It’s also important to maintain a level of understanding for doctrines which simply can’t be defended in a “logical” fashion.  The “trinity” is a fine example.  Go ahead.  Ask me how there can only be one God, but three distinct persons!  The truth is, I simply don’t know. At the risk of sounding trite, “The Bible says it, so I believe it.”  Interestingly enough, more than a few of my friends have been willing to accept this as a legitimate reply, if only because most recognized that there were many similar cases in their own religions.  I didn’t make a point of pushing them around for embracing something they weren’t capable of explaining and they returned the favor.  Being honest about my own ignorance ended up furthering the relationship more than faking my way through an answer ever would have!

Rule 6 – Don’t Be Afraid to Admit When You Are Wrong

On the same note, never be afraid to admit that you were wrong!  It can be easy to misunderstand the beliefs and teachings of other faiths.  Since you’re not a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or an “Enter religious preference here”, it’s not shameful to lack a complete understanding of someone else’s beliefs.  If you make a statement and find yourself getting corrected, take it in stride and thank your friend for caring enough to correct you.

By the same token, God did not call us to be Bible experts either.  At some point or another, someone is going to point out that your knowledge of your “sacred book” is deficient.  Your ability to both admit that you were wrong and to alter your views to match the Bible’s teachings can go a long way towards adding legitimacy to the dialogue.  Through this, people see that the point of the debate really is the discovery of truth, not your proving yourself right and them wrong!  Try to be consistent in what you present.  Check your facts and double check them.  But don’t panic if you’re wrong, because God can use that too!

Rule 7 – Just Present the Truth

Last, but not least, it’s important to recognize that sometimes we lose a debate.  Keep in mind that the only job God has given us is to present the truth as clearly as we are able.  Sure, sometimes we say something really stupid (or even just plain ignorant), but God knows our hearts and He will make sure that what He wants to accomplish gets accomplished.

And yes, sometimes we think of the things that we should have said long after the discussion is over.  While you may use those ideas in future discussions, you needn’t kick yourself for not using them in the last one.  If God had needed you to say that, you’d have thought of it at the time.

So there you have it, seven rules to help you keep your religious dialogues on track, friendly, and honest.  Follow them and, even when you “lose”, you’ll wind up a winner.

One final word: once you’ve found the high ground, hold it.  Others may not treat you with courtesy or respect and they may even be downright rude, but that’s no excuse for you to return “in kind”.  We are ambassadors for Christ and we represent Him in all situations, even the unpleasant ones!

Apologizing with Style: The “Duh” Rules

20 Feb

Last week, in “An Introduction to the Rules of Debate”, we discussed the importance of keeping a religious discussion focused and “on task”.  This week, we’re going to look at a few more rules that will help us keep that discussion friendly.  I call these rules the “Duh” rules because most of us would like others to treat us with the same courtesy they outline… but we sometimes struggle to return the favor.  As you read through the list, take a moment to ask yourself which of the rules you follow and where you could do with some improvement.

Rule 2 – Don’t Present Arguments You Wouldn’t Accept, Yourself

While this may seem obvious, often, in the heat of discussion, it simply isn’t.  That’s why I’m taking a moment to state it here.  Before making an argument against someone’s beliefs, make sure that if the same argument were reversed, you’d be willing to accept it as valid.

A perfect example of such a weak argument is the frequent appeal to the lack of archeological evidence for the “Book of Mormon”.*  While, initially, the argument may seem solid, a closer investigation proves otherwise.  For years, there was no archeological evidence for the Hittite civilization mentioned in the Old Testament.  Then, in 1906, Hugo Winckler of the German Orient Society uncovered over 10,000 clay tablets confirming their existence.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone will ever find evidence to support Joseph Smith’s teachings, but what I am saying is that this is a dead-end argument that’s likely to end in a shouting match and not a discussion about Christ.  The same goes for arguments based upon emotion.  It just feels/doesn’t feel right is subjective, not objective and leads to the idea that truth is based upon my feelings, not God’s Word.  Sure, emotion comes into it, but this doesn’t form a solid basis for arguments about eternity.  The basic rule of thumb is, “If you wouldn’t accept a similar argument against Christianity, then don’t use it against other religions.”

Rule 3 – Don’t Debate Someone Who Just Wants to Fight

This can be a really difficult rule to observe both because it requires the ability to control one’s own emotions while discerning the motives of another equally erratic human being.  The truth of the matter is that some people ask us questions about our faith, not because they’re interested, but because they want a fight.  Most of these discussions are worthless and only end in frustration and ought, in general, to be avoided.

You can usually tell if someone is merely trying to pick a fight by the way they react to the answers you’re giving.  For example, if they interrupt you mid-sentence or shoot off another six dozen questions before the last word is out of your mouth, they probably care more about demonstrating their own superiority than they do about the truth.  They’re out to show you how wrong you are and, believe it or not, they will win, if only because their voice is the loudest.

While we shouldn’t turn down an opportunity to share Christ, we need to take our cue from Jesus.  When He entered a town, He’d present the Gospel.  He’d dine with those who were interested, but when someone clearly didn’t care, He moved on.  His energies were better devoted to sharing than to arguing.  If you find yourself in this situation, pray for the person and then head on down the road.  Don’t waste your time on worthless debate.

Rule 4 – Don’t Be Someone Who Just Wants To Fight

We all like to be right, but when it comes to evangelism we need to keep our eyes on the goal.  Remember, this is about Jesus and the gift He offers us, not about proving our superiority!

If you ask a question, listen to the answer… the full answer.  Respect for a person and their beliefs, even if they differ from our own, is essential to forming the type of relationship that may eventually lead to a commitment to Christ.  Jesus often disagreed with the people He met, but He never cut them off, made fun of their beliefs, or sought to make them feel stupid.  He heard them out and so should you.

Romans 12:14,16-18 reminds us, “…bless and do not curse… do not be haughty in mind… Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

Next week, we’ll take a look at a few rules regarding “awkward” situations, but for now, take the time to share a few of your own experiences with the “Duh” rules in the comment box below!

*This type of argument can be used effectively, but in order to do so, you’ll need the opportunity to build a case just like a lawyer does in court, presenting it as part of a “preponderance” of evidence.  Finding someone’s fingerprints at the scene of the crime isn’t enough to convict them of murder, but add in the threatening message on the answering machine and the victim’s blood all over the defendant’s laundry and you have a case.  The same applies to arguing against a given religious view.

Apologizing with Style: An Introduction to the Rules of Debate

13 Feb

Perhaps one of the most important things that I ever learned from my mother was how to have an honest, open, friendly debate.  For years, I watched as she welcomed those of other faiths into our home and engaged them in dialogue, presenting her faith (often while enquiring about theirs) with a gentleness and finesse which left everyone feeling at ease.  Everything I know about apologetics and the rules of debate began with her.

Before I start sharing what she taught me, however, we need to take a moment for some etymology.  (“Etymology” is the study of word origins and should not be confused with “entomology” which is the study of all things creepy crawly.)  Our English word “apology” comes from the Greek “apologia” and no, it doesn’t mean saying you’re sorry.  Instead, to the Greek mind, an apology was a “defense for” something whether it be one’s actions, philosophy, cooking style, or faith.  The best orators, those who held the attention of the masses in the public square were excellent “apologists”, reasoning for their own point of view in such a manner as to convince others to embrace it as well.  It should come as no surprise then that “evangelism” and “apologetics” go hand in hand, helping us to present the Christian faith in a reasonable and ordered fashion for the purpose of bringing others “into the fold”.

In order to make a great defense, however, you’re going need to know the rules of informal debate.  For the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at these rules and how they apply in different evangelistic situations.  This week, however, we’re going to present you with just one… and it may be the most important of them all:

Rule 1 – Always Bring it Back to Jesus and the Gospel

The core of Christianity is Christ.  It is Christ Who created and it is Christ Who redeems.  Not surprisingly, this is one doctrine upon which most religions differ.  For this reason, my parents always used to emphasize the importance of keeping our focus on Jesus.  You may wander off into a peripheral issue or take a quick trip down a rabbit trail, but the conversation must always come back to its Core.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree upon mode of baptism or the importance of enforcing laws against theft – according to traditional, Biblical Christianity, those things don’t save you.  You and the Bible can be in perfect agreement upon every issue, but if you don’t stand in the same place regarding what is required to spend eternity in the presence of God, it simply doesn’t matter.  If you want to present your faith clearly, you must present Christ as its center.  Go ahead, answer the questions others have about your faith, but don’t lose sight of what really matters.  If you’re going to be an effective apologist, you’ll need to take your cue from the Apostle Paul, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Next week, we’ll take a look at a few more “rules of debate”.  In the meantime, take a moment to share your own experiences with conversations that did (or didn’t) follow “Rule 1” in the comment box below!

 

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