Challenging an assertion using questions…

29 May

Note: Earlier I posted on using two questions to ask in spiritual conversations to help you make progress without having to know every single detail about defending Christianity.

To continue down the path of evangelistic question asking we must shift the nature of our questions. If we have been in “discovery” mode, now is the time to turn on “challenge” mode. Remember, it is ok to question or challenge our friend’s point of view: people do it all the time. We just happen to be challenging his point of view on something that is very fundamental which can feel uncomfortable for both parties. The reason we use questions is to keep the exchange amicable so that we can stay at the table longer.

Once you have been in discovery mode for a while (asking “what do you mean?” and “how do you know?”) there should be something worth challenging.* Initially it may be difficult to find the best place to raise an objection or test the strength of a worldview. The best way to get better is to practice, i.e. have more conversations! Your friend’s view will falter in one of two broad ways.

Errors of Fact

Jesus’ divinity wasn’t asserted until the 4th century. The Bible has been translated and changed so many times over the years that no one knows what it really said originally. These objections to Christianity are based on information that is factually incorrect. Most of the time asking “how do you know?” will expose these claims as baseless, however it occasionally becomes necessary to go further. You don’t need to be tricky about your challenge in cases like this (more on that below) so introduce your objection by appealing to contradictory information “Have you considered some of Jesus’ claims to divinity from the Bible, which is universally agreed to have been completed before the end of the 2nd century?” or by proposing an alternative solution “well, modern versions of the Bible are all translated from Hebrew and Greek – the original languages – into whatever language they will be read in…do you agree that a one step translation process doesn’t destroy our understanding?”

In these examples the errors of fact are elementary, mostly the product of Dan Brown. If the facts become more sophisticated you may not know how to respond, and that is fine. Tell your friend that you’re not sure you agree but would like some time to think about it, and ask if you can get together at a later time.

Logical Errors

All truth is relative to the context. You shouldn’t push your morality on other people. Sound premises and necessary conclusions are the basis of good logic. Factual errors are ultimately logical errors because they ruin the viability of an argument’s premise. In the above examples of logical errors an impossible conclusion has been reached. We can challenge these conclusions by using questions to point this out.

To our friend pontificating about truth we can respond “Is that always true?” If so, then at least some truth is objective and his statement fails, or his statement fails because he must admit that it isn’t always true. Similarly with the morality statement, we can respond by asking “Why not?” Her assertion is a universal moral claim, so it will be impossible to defend.

You may remember in an earlier post I was speaking with someone who said “everyone should be allowed to believe what they want.” I challenged this by asking her opinion of a very detestable belief. Instead of saying “I disagree” or “you dumb idiot!” (which I wasn’t thinking, although sometimes people can interpret disagreement in this way) I asked a question.

Being clever

It is not your job to be clever. Asking “why not” to someone who has just asserted that you shouldn’t push your morality on others is a clever response though, so what gives? What I want to emphasize is that we shouldn’t be looking to score points, or “win” or anything like that. We are dealing with people who have feelings, opinions, beliefs that they actually hold to be true and which matter to them. Our job is to be gentle and honest and caring. It can (and will) still feel painful to be challenged, but the spirit and nature of the challenge make all the difference.

Here are a few examples of phrases to include that can help defuse the hostility of a challenging question:

“Can you help me out, I’m confused by what you said….”

“I’m trying to understand what you’re saying…”

“Correct me if I’m wrong…”

“Would it be ok if I asked a few questions about what you just said?”

Over time as you practice having conversations, and listen closely for errors of logic and fact you will become more astute at recognizing them. Often people hold similar opinions (check out The Reason for God for some of the most common) so you may even be asking a lot of the same challenging questions. If you remember that an attitude of humility is infinitely more important than a clever response then you can’t get into too much trouble with your conversation partner.

*Again – the truth of this depends on the truth of Jesus’ claim to be the divine Son of God and the claims of the early church about his resurrection. If true, then challenging an opposing view is the most loving thing you could ever do for someone.

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