Dialogue or Debate?

Last spring, there was a public conversation between atheist John Loftus and Christian Dinesh D’Souza on my campus.  It was well-publicized and well-attended – packing the 1,936 seat auditorium with an audience from all walks of life.

Such a buzz, however, produced little.  It took the form of a debate: a minister-turned-atheist who attempted to use his vast education in the Christian tradition to legitimize his conclusions about the nonexistence of God and an academic Christian who presented his faith with an air of intelligence and logic.

Their banter got my thoughts churning about why I believe what I believe, but I walked out of the auditorium the same person I was when I entered – although perhaps a little more frustrated.  And at many points during the debate, especially when their exchange began to seep into ad hominem attacks instead of formal debate, I wondered what the hundreds of students here were hoping to accomplish by attending.

Interfaith work, rooted in respectful dialogue, presents a different kind of conversation about religion.  My friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist, once said:

“This is the difference between dialogue and debate: debate is sharing in hopes of convincing; dialogue is sharing and listening in hopes of increasing understanding. In my opinion, we need more of the latter and less of the former.”

I agree with Chris.  And here’s why: history has shown us that little is accomplished in debate.  I’m willing to bet both sides of the issue, especially when that issue is the existence of God, walk out of the room more frustrated and annoyed than enlightened.  Dialogue, however, has the potential to inspire, build understanding, and develop relationships.

But let’s step back for a moment.  As an evangelical, I believe that the world needs to hear the message that my faith teaches.  I believe that it’s something of eternal consequence, and I believe that the loving approach to my neighbor is to communicate that message to them.  So when it comes to a choice between debate with the hope of convincing, and dialogue with the hope of increasing understanding, which do I choose?

For some time I would have chosen debate.  Naturally, an issue of eternal consequence carries a sense of urgency.  But since I began doing interfaith work, I have come to question the effectiveness of debate.  And I’ve heard it said that it is a symptom of insecurity that I’m not interested in arguing my faith’s validity against its greatest critics.  So is it a cop-out?

No, I choose dialogue because of my security in my faith.  I choose dialogue because it is an ally more powerful the soundest argument.  I choose dialogue because Jesus spread a message of love through listening, serving, and telling stories, not attacking, condemning or criticizing.  I choose dialogue because I believe that Jesus is the Truth and that understanding the truth is more powerful than being persuaded of it.

I have found that being a Christian in interfaith work does not mean putting evangelism on hold–no, it means understanding better what evangelism is all about, and taking the message of Jesus Christ to a table where ears are open and lives can be changed.

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2 thoughts on “Dialogue or Debate?

  1. Joe

    “I choose dialogue because Jesus spread a message of love through listening, serving, and telling stories, not attacking, condemning or criticizing.”

    I think you might want to read the New Testament. Jesus drove people out of the temple with a whip and called people “white washed tombs.”

    1. Greg Damhorst Post author

      A very excellent point. You’re right – Jesus at times spoke with direct and strong words, especially when talking to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in the New Testament (as you mention, Matthew 23 is a great example).

      But we also see that Jesus was a storyteller, that he ate dinner with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9, for example), and that he valued relationships.

      So, when I try to put that attitude in the context of the present day – should we choose to debate with people who aren’t Christians or engage in dialogue? What I glean from Jesus’ ministry is that dialogue better embodies his attitude.

      Now, in my mind (I say this because this comes from my present knowledge without researching the idea in depth — I’m certainly not an expert New Testament scholar), when Jesus spoke with criticism, it was toward people who saw themselves as religious and righteous but who were really self-seeking, arrogant, or hypocritical. As in your example with (John 2:13-17) driving people from the temple with a whip (they were misusing the house of God) or calling the Pharisees “white washed tombs” (they were arrogant and hypocritical). These were people who thought they “got” God but who really didn’t “get it,” as Jesus is quick to point out.

      But the lesson I learn from Jesus’ example is that when it comes to the way we interact with people who aren’t Christians, there’s a more effective route to communicating what we believe than to get up on stage and try to reason or criticize our way to victory.

      I’d love to hear what others think.


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