Must We Always Polarize: Why debates are so often purposeless

By Katie Tyrpak
Student Writer

The Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate on creationism and evolution was disheartening. I realized it was just a publicized media event to stir up controversy. It was not even a good debate since they argued on different terms. Nye stuck to observable tidbits while Ham used all of his time semantically defining Nye’s information as scientifically unobservable and pragmatically useless. The problem was neither Nye nor Ham—the problem was the pairing of the two. You can either debate facts or debate worldviews, but mixing the two is not effective. The way we interpret facts is tied so intimately to our worldviews, and attempting to change one without the other is a hopeless endeavor. When two opposing sides demand we chose one or the other, we become slaves to false dichotomies.

In my capstone class I read, “when any group feels attacked and disrespected, this naturally leads to a hardening of their position as they become defensive and seek to promote their cause […] Each of which vilifies the others.” And yet, “for most issues there is a relatively large group in the middle, but the ends dominate public awareness. Those who try to defend a middle position or promote discussion between the extremes often find themselves being attacked by both ends.” What a shame that we’ve polarized society to alienate the majority based on tiny aspects of whole belief systems!

As a biology student at Messiah, I’m encouraged to integrate faith and science. Yet, class discussions on controversial topics are still structured in a dichotomous (or, if we are lucky, polychotomous) fashion. It is an improvement to recognize the middle ground. But a graduated “spectrum” of non-extremist positions still doesn’t quite square with my experience. I can’t point exactly where on the spectrum I fall with so many issues.

I resonate deeply with Rainer Maria Rilke who “beg[s]…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them…Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer.”

If my journey of specific beliefs can be compared to the process of sanctification in salvation, I’m still in the early stages of the process. My faith runs deep, and my desire to be logically consistent with the empirical world around me does as well. Yet, I’m human, far from perfection or ultimate wisdom. There’s too much possibility for error in scientific and biblical interpretations for me to assume that my interpretation from my own finite mind is the correct view.

I have given up the idea that faith and science are on opposing sides. You can’t threaten my faith with a new scientific discovery, and you can’t threaten the reality of science with my supernatural faith. Furthermore, they both are necessary for me to understand the world and my purpose within it.

We’re all here trying to learn, and just like God expects a process of sanctification, I think God expects us to admit that we aren’t perfect and try to grow closer to a worldview that makes us love Him and love our neighbor more. Rather than arrogantly asserting our position and becoming defensive in our insecurity, we should, in humility, try to help each other find truth on these secondary issues, and trust that if our minds are open, the Spirit will slowly guide us to answers. We’re all different parts of the body of Christ: so long as our heads and hearts are aligned with the basics of the gospel, we each are going to have a different purpose and perspective, and this is good.

The conversation at Messiah entitled “Beyond Left and Right” with Shane Claiborne and Peter Greer was an excellent example of a healthy constructive discussion free of Western dichotomy. Claiborne and Greer obviously had different strategies: abundant generosity and giving out loans. However, both realized they were working towards the same goal—fighting poverty. By the end, sitting in the audience I realized that choosing one only limits the power that both could have in different circumstances, and I think both Claiborne and Greer would agree to that. Different people can have different opinions for the maximal amount of God-honoring impact on the world.

I do not believe in moral and truthful relativism–there are things worth standing up for. I’m just saying that Christians need to admit their opinions with humility and accept their questions. The non-polarized rest of the world is not a morally vague grey area; a spectrum of growing opinions is healthy for achieving change on a broad scale.

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