“Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” -Matthew 7:6
I got my start in the online Catholic world when I was 15, learning and applying apologetics on a very secular forum. As a trial by fire, it was was extremely beneficial in teaching me the various attacks that most often come against the faith. It was also, however, extremely addicting. Like a gambler who always pulls the handle of the slot machine “just one more time” for the next spin he feels certain will result in a windfall, I have a difficult time stepping away from an apologetic debate. What if my lack of dedication to the conversion of this soul results in its ultimate failure to get the Gospel? What if that one further exchange could have finally done something to convince that soul of the truth?
This is where my co-blogger, Andrew, laughs at me.
Every time I relate some story to him about online apologetics, he chuckles and tells me how futile it is. To him, online apologetic debates rarely accomplish anything because the internet fails as an effective medium. Truth be told, though I’ve seen exceptions, I actually have to agree. Many people online fall under Christ’s Pearls before Swine instruction, unwilling as they are to give the Gospel any more attention than the latest meme.
It got me thinking: Here we are in the midst of the New Evangelization and there are certainly other Pearls before Swine moments out there. Yet it must be possible for a person to prepare their debate opponent with some preliminary points so that they might be more ready for the Gospel. What are these Pearls before Swine moments and is there a way around them?
Note: I use the term “opponent” below technically, not uncharitably. Always be charitable to your opponent. You’re there to help them approach Christ.
- There is no objective truth. This one makes the top of the list because it’s so often encountered. In today’s world, where so many things are presented as just this or that expert’s opinion – and the definition of opinion is pretty stretched these days – most people just assume a comfortable position of letting go of every truth. (I once had a math teacher deny to my face that 2+2 always equals 4.) Denying objective truth will be comfortable until they realize truth is their shield and only defense. Is there a way around it? You can always try pointing out that “there is no objective truth” is itself a claim to objective truth. This usually makes them squirm, but if they’re really committed, they’ll just shrug it off, because shrugging is what they do best.
- That’s just my opinion. The current generation that is coming to adulthood has been raised – with the help of social media – to believe that the most important thing they can do throughout the day is have an opinion on something. It doesn’t have to be an informed opinion. In fact, it can be an opinion that flies in the face of every solidly established fact in human history. If it is their opinion, it is to be held as sacred and never challenged. Is there a way around it? Ask your opponent to explain his opinion. Most likely, he hasn’t really thought it out. If he’s honest with himself, you can show him the flaws in it. Some, however, will not be honest with themselves, and it seems they only thing that can help that is prayer.
- I just feel otherwise. Similar to #2 above, this argument utilizes a sacred cow of American society – feelings – to justify any position. Having once debated an atheist into a corner, I received this reply. Frankly, it may have been more telling than any of his intellectual points. Many atheists reject God as a surrogate for parents, teachers, politicians, or other authority figures, due to hard feelings toward those individuals. Is there a way around it? Try befriending your opponent, get him to open up about his life, and see if you can bring the healing of Christ into his heart. He may be far more willing to listen to reason once those emotional defenses are down.
- Hydra-Heads. If you’ve ever argued against a skilled debater (or at least someone who thinks he is), you’ve probably encountered the hydra-head. It’s the debate opponent who interrupts you with a tangential question every time your argument is starting to gain steam. It may also take the form of a group of back-up singers to your opponent’s argument, each asking individual tangential questions. Is there a way around it? Insist on proper debate etiquette – no interruption, one question at a time – but don’t appear to be an enforcer of the rules. If the interruption continues, simply end the debate, making sure to mention that you’re ending it because you’re not able to get your argument in between interruptions, and allow the issue to calm down until a better opportunity arises. If the debate is in a more formal setting, you may consider giving brief answers to each objection afterward, with the understanding that the point is to clarify your position for future debate, rather than to start a new one immediately.
- Scoffers. In debate, it sometimes happens that you’ll invest a great deal of time trying to make a point only to be mocked. Your opponent doesn’t have a counter-argument, he just wants to see you exert yourself for his amusement. Is there a way around it? This is probably swine-like behavior in the fullest sense. I didn’t understand some of the admonitions against excessive laughter from various saints until I encountered a scoffer. The need to find everyone and everything amusing, and to use people for amusement, comes from an extremely egotistical personality. Discontinue the debate immediately on grounds of etiquette and refuse to re-engage unless the other party is willing to take it seriously. In the meantime, pray for his – and your – humility, and see if there’s a way to sober him up a bit.
- Word Twisters. You’ll frequently encounter folks who twist your words into strawman arguments. Is there a way around it? More than likely, it’s not malicious, it’s just some misunderstanding. Use very clear terms and definitions, short sentences, and a very logical structure. Know the etymology of commonly misunderstood words (when we “pray” to saints, we ask them for something, as the archaic meaning of pray meant to ask). If the word-twisting seems malicious, discontinue the debate and pray for your opponent until he’s willing to take the debate seriously.
- Broken (Illogical) Records. Once while I was a student at the University of Nebraska, I encountered a fundamentalist Christian who was preaching to students about what Catholics believed. The trouble was that he had it all wrong. When I asked him to show it to me in the Catechism, he changed the subject to sola scriptura: “I don’t need the Catechism, I’ve got the Bible!” “Sure,” I said, but you argue that Catholic teaching isn’t in the Bible, so why don’t you show us what it is from where you know you can find it? Show it to me in the Catechism.” “I don’t need the Catechism, I’ve got the Bible!” Is there a way around it? More than likely, your opponent is not a skilled debater and has been taught how to evade his opponent rather than engage. He has a few hot button issues in his back pocket that he pulls out and repeats whenever certain trigger words are used by Catholics, but then he doesn’t know where to go from there or how to think logically about the debate. Stand your ground. Try clear definitions and short sentences. Most likely, anyone observing the debate will realize that he doesn’t have anything of substance. Your patience may even be a great witness for the truth of Catholicism.