An appeal to apologists

Speaking the truth in love

Prior to early 2004, I’d at least heard of apologetics, but had never been involved in any way. Falling in love with an LDS girl changed that, and I started to do the whole bit: reading apologetics books and websites, reading Scripture with an eye for doctrinal support, honing my logic and argumentation, and posting on discussion boards. This last is a hallmark of modern lay apologists, and I’ve found that what someone writes on a website can be a good indication of their approach to apologetics in the rest of the world. One could certainly tell a lot about my own habits by reading my forum posts through the past couple of years. It hasn’t been pretty.

By God’s providence, and at the cost of a fair amount of suffering, I found that I had been making a number of bad mistakes in the way I dealt with correspondents on the discussion boards, friends and acquaintances face-to-face, and most importantly, my girlfriend. I want to write about some of the lessons I’ve learned the hard way, and hopefully help fellow defenders of the truth avoid or fix any of the errors we share.

Lesson #1 – Know your enemies

People commonly think of apologetics and argumentation as a fight. It’s common for someone to arm himself with bits of information his opponents may not have, enter the fray, and try to blast his opponents apart with them. This is the right content and the wrong approach.

We do arm ourselves with the truth, but it shouldn’t be with the intention of winning a battle. It should be with the intention of embracing Truth himself, our Savior and Lord Jesus. What we know and can explain can certainly help attract others to our faith, but our mission to others is secondary to our mission to ourselves, lest we be hypocrites (think speck and log). Besides which, a doctrine we live out, if it’s true, speaks much more eloquently than a doctrine we try to explain, whether we’re the Pope or a next-door neighbor.

The apologetic field is indeed a battlefield, just like a war zone or the battleground of a man’s soul. The mistake is in thinking that the person with whom one is speaking is one’s enemy. Latter-day Saints are not our enemy. Brigham Young and Joseph Smith aren’t even our enemies. Our enemies are Satan and his demons, and they alone. When we fight error we fight against Hell. If the devil is using an institution to spread error, then in that teaching aspect the institution is our enemy. But I repeat, LDS members themselves are not our enemy. The same goes for any group with which one debates. People are our friends and brothers, not our enemies.

The last point is where most people go wrong. We must not go into it expecting to win the argument and lead cheering throngs into the house of the Lord. We must not even expect to win the argument. This will be elaborated in the rest of the lessons.

Lesson #2 – Remember that people are people

Even if I compose some essay, pepper it with support from Scripture and history, scrutinize and revise it a dozen times, analyze and answer every possible objection, and get advice for it from theologians and scholars, I can’t expect it to make a bit of difference to the person against whose beliefs I argue in the essay. Even if it’s nothing so elaborate, such as when I point out a contradiction or demonstrate an inconsistency, I can’t expect him to say “Ah! I understand. I mustn’t believe that anymore.” The reason I can’t expect that is because the person is a human being, just like me, and has all kinds of things conspiring to keep him from changing his mind, just like I do. Pride, bias, brainwashing, mistaken logic, stubbornness, fear – you name it, every person suffers from it to some extent. And since most people are approaching the debate forums with the mistaken mindset outlined above, nobody seems to get anywhere.

Christians who understand this and know how to deal with it are what will make the difference. Don’t try to run things into the ground. Recognize when someone has lost interest, or is afraid and retreating, and let it be. Jesus didn’t run after anyone or throttle them until they admitted they were sinners. Truth is good enough that people will eventually come back to it. It can be hard, but it’s crucial to let things go, at least for a while, when it will no longer be fruitful to talk about them.

In the same way, an unbeliever must be met on his own ground, his own terms. I can tell you from experience that even the best philosophical arguments, whether from Augustine, Aquinas, Pope John Paul II, or Peter Kreeft, will probably not go far with the average LDS. The reason is that they’re not used to dealing with doctrine in such ways, and so many of them simply are not interested. The same goes for historical arguments. They’re used to believing things against what secular authorities say. So as maddening as it is, I’ve found that it’s best simply to bring up those arguments once, talk about them, and then leave them alone for a while.

Yes, people believe x, which implies y, and yet they don’t believe y. They do all kinds of stupid things, just like every one of us. This carries us into the next lesson.

Lesson #3 – Never call names

I see a ton of this on Internet discussion boards. The habit that all of us should maintain is never, ever, ever to say something negative about another person, ever. This is one of the fastest ways to get someone to clam up and stop talking to you for that discussion and future ones. It stuns me how bad the problem can get, but even when people do it subtly, it causes harm. Examples of this would be saying that someone is crazy, stupid, or evil in any way. More subtle ways include saying that if someone wants to be honest, they need to concede the argument. The implication is that they’re dishonest. Another example I see a lot is saying things like “I have totally refuted your argument,” or saying “You utterly failed to defend your point,” or things like that. Even if they’re true, saying so is useless. It’ll be self-evident to disinterested third parties.

The corollary is extremely tough for a lot of people, me included. The corollary is to avoid saying negative things about a person’s beliefs. It’s possible to say or imply negative things about a person’s beliefs, such as comparing them to heresies or cult groups, that are fair, honest and true. Even so, it’s best to avoid doing it, because just like us, people who are sincere in their faith see themselves as one with their faith in some way. I repeat: it can be true, logical, and fair. But if it’s going to offend the people you’re speaking to, don’t say it.

This doesn’t mean you compromise or tolerate falsehood. If you believe that Mormonism is a cult, feel free to openly say it – but only to people who would agree. If you’re sincerely trying to help an LDS, just don’t say the kind of thing that will offend, even if you’re right about it. Again, I’m not saying to deny what it is you’d say, or to be ashamed of the truth, or anything like that. What I’m saying is that it’s best to focus on other things, if you really want to help the person.

There’s a time and place for being blunt and brutally honest, but it’s not very often. If you insist on doing it at the wrong time, it’s like trying to perform surgery with an axe instead of a scalpel. Just don’t do it.

Lesson #4 – Be a teacher like the Teacher

To sum it up, the right kind of attitude to have is not a debater, but a teacher. The word “argue” has its roots in a Latin word that meant “to clarify.” That’s what we should primarily be doing. Our attitude should be more like the servant’s than the master’s.

In other words, we must be more charitable, patient, and humble than our correspondents deserve, because Jesus is infinitely more charitable, patient, and humble than we deserve. If our Master forgave our debt of a thousand talents, we should be able to handle the hundred denarii.

If you find yourself making any of these mistakes (and I still have to be careful myself, of course), change your approach, and I promise that you’ll find people to be more receptive, and your discussions will be more fruitful. Please, consider carefully your approach, and follow this last lesson if nothing else.

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