Debate as a form of social interaction is typically not very helpful as an avenue toward truth, yes. Yet making arguments and counter-arguments can be and often is mutually illuminating and helpful. The key lies in making that process of exploring alternative ideas a mutual and collaborative one, rather than an adversarial one.
Of late, debates on any subject tend to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I have observed my share of debates (in academic, political, and online settings) and engaged in a few myself. Debating societies have been around for a few centuries and the form goes all the way back to Ancient Greece. The idea is that debating helps people develop rhetorical skills and sound reasoning. However, I wonder if debate is really all that useful as a pedagogical tool. It seems to bring out hubris instead of humility. It encourages a defensive posture instead of active listening. Being proved right seems more important than seeking truth and people become reduced to their positions. Transformative engagement is rare.
In Luke 20, we find several interactions between Jesus and religious leaders. The religious leaders use what some might view as legitimate debate techniques in an attempt to undermine Jesus's authority. They pose trick questions and present convoluted hypothetical situations. They flatter him, then hit him with a no-win question about the relationship between politics and religion. They try to control the interaction by being the questioners instead of the responders. They use duplicitous means, having people pose as allies and followers (no doubt violating some of their religious laws in the process) in an attempt to catch Jesus off-guard. They want to poke holes in Jesus's teachings, to trap him with his own words, to expose Jesus as a false teacher. They want to win the war of words, but little do they realize that they are engaging with the Word in person.
In the past, I tended to read these exchanges through the lens of debate, admiring Jesus for his cleverness, for making religious leaders look foolish, for one-upping the know-it-alls, for beating them at their own rhetorical game. I uttered a silent, triumphant Gotcha! each time Jesus foiled the trickery of the religious rulers. I desired to be a person who could dismantle verbal attacks and trick questions with effortless, transcendent shrewdness. I thought that part of being like Jesus was being able to defend my position, never looking stupid and never being at a loss for words. Now, I think I was wrong. I don't believe Jesus ever engaged in debate. He was, as always, inviting people into an encounter with transformative truth, into an encounter with himself.
When Jesus answered a question with another question, he wasn't being a smart aleck. He was getting at the heart of the matter. The leaders asked Jesus by what authority he was acting. In response, Jesus asked them about the baptism of John, whether it was from heaven or from human origin. The reaction of the leaders was telling. Instead of considering the actual question, offering their thoughts on whether John the Baptist was sent from God (which was a legitimate and important query), they focused on the effect their response would have. Would it provide Jesus with a winning retort? Would it turn the crowd against them? They completely sidestepped the question itself, revealing that they weren't interested in discernment at all. I believe Jesus's question to them was not an evasion tactic, but a legitimate invitation to consider how one knows what is from God and what is not. However, the religious leaders missed the opportunity to engage in this important dialogue because they didn't think they could win the debate. Winning precluded learning.
Jesus then told a parable about people who failed to recognize true authority when it was right in front of them (the parable of the wicked tenants). The religious leaders soon realized that Jesus's story was about them (they were a smart bunch), but instead of embracing the rebuke, they got defensive (the default position in debate).
The leaders then sent spies disguised as honest, interested followers to trap Jesus with a tricky political question, hoping to get him either to insult Jewish law or speak out against the Roman Empire. Either way, it would mean a win for the religious leaders. But Jesus once again answered a question with a question, not to elude, but to shine a light on the real matter: who deserves our loyalty? In asking whose image was on the Roman coin, Jesus was not only highlighting the conflict of loyalties which his listeners faced, but reminding them of their origin story. In showing people the image of Caesar, Jesus was implicating the imago dei, inviting people to recall whose image they bore (Genesis 1:27). After this, the leaders became silent, a very appropriate response, but sadly, not an indication of their desire to listen.
Jesus's questions were not strategies meant to win a debate; they were questions which invited people to encounter the truth. Jesus took a question meant to trick and conceal and reformed it into a question which revealed the heart. He was never intent on showing himself to be the superior debater; he was showing himself to be Truth. And that type of encounter was and is uncomfortable for many.
Truth does not cry Gotcha! when it is proved right. It does not resort to ad hominem arguments, does not answer trickery with more clever trickery, does not rejoice when another is defeated. Truth weeps when pride blinds people. Truth is grieved when people turn away from the light instead of toward it. Truth longs to be recognized and embraced. Truth does the painful but rewarding work of revealing the heart. Truth is not afraid of hard questions and even harder answers. Truth rejoices in humility. Truth is not concerned with winning or losing. The purpose of truth is not to make the false or mistaken look foolish, but to set people free (John 8:32).
Let us disentangle ourselves from arguments and debates which pit us against each other. Let us refuse to impose the win/lose paradigm on interchanges with those who believe or think differently than we do. Let us be people who speak words of freedom and ask questions which engage the heart. And let us tend to our own challenging, humbling journey toward Truth before we demand it of any other.
Image from ted.com