I was sat in a pub with the sister of a good friend of mine, an impressively articulate sort of guy who has ‘future politician’ written all over him, and we were talking about how frustrating he can be to argue with. He’ll never admit defeat. But apparently there was a knack to it that only a sibling can know.
“Show him why you’re right, then sit back and let him talk and talk until he’s contradicted himself and agrees with you. Then show him what he’s just done.”
Much as I mock him for it, my friend is not the only one who refuses to back down from a good debate. In fact, it’s a bit of a Christian trait. Especially when we feel in the minority, we can rush to defend ourselves and our faith as rational, evidence-based and solid in the face of tough questioning. The problem is though, that often means having to appear certain. Very certain.
I was a very certain teenager. One of my favourite Bible verses was 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have.” Answers were what I did. I read books on apologetics and went to lectures and memorised good answers to questions on science, religious pluralism, suffering, the Bible, the resurrection. You name it, I could answer it.
To keep up the ‘nothing can shake my faith’ persona though, I had to be certain about everything. I was certain that women couldn’t preach and shouldn’t lead. Certain that sex must only be for a married, heterosexual couples. Certain that you had to have prayed the right sort of words consciously and deliberately to get a ticket into heaven. Certain that God’s biggest purpose for us on earth was to get people to accept these tickets to heaven.
I stubbornly resisted other people’s views on any of those questions, reading articles from other perspectives only so I could tear them apart and reassure myself I was right. Deep down, I was terrified. See, if I started to change my mind about whether women could preach in church for example, where would it end? Would I soon be denying that Jesus really rose from the dead, or that he was anything more than a good man? That was the sense I got from other Christians – questioning and changing your mind is a very slippery slope. Real Christians don’t let cultural values or philosophical argument sway them. Better to stay certain.
Fortunately, I don’t think that kind of certainty is what God asks of us. So hopefully, I’m a little less insufferable these days. As I got older I met wise people who still asked questions and weren’t certain about everything, and actually didn’t feel the need to be. I discovered there are these exciting, interesting conversations I could be part of with Christians just trying to work stuff out as they went along, and who weren’t scared of seeing that someone else’s idea made more sense than their own. Perhaps paradoxically, the ‘uncertain’ Christianity seems to me to be a far more stable sort, because I’m no longer terrified that if one brick shifts, the whole tower will come tumbling down.
For all the efforts of my 16-year-old self to evangelise and witness and lead others to the same certainty as I had, it turns out there’s another irony. My ‘witnessing’ has been a lot more effective since I stopped pulling out tracts to answers my friends questions and started asking my own. Maybe it’s a quirk of our generation, but it seems that for most people their way into Christianity isn’t much to do with the presentation of neatly worked out arguments.
Instead, they find themselves drawn into a conversation with a bunch of other people who haven’t worked out all the answers yet. As we’re freed to ask our questions and get it wrong and reassess and listen to unlikely people and enjoy community while we do it, we attract other people to a Jesus who dished out more questions than answers.
(Photo via Milos Milosevic on Flickr)