Tonight’s debate between Ken Ham (creationist) and Bill Nye (evolutionist) impelled Christianity Today to inquire, “Do Celebrity Debates Help Christian Persuasion?”
The answer is “Not really, but they should.”
Some “expert” respondents to the question highlighted (and decried) the “celebrity” angle, but, while evangelicalism is awash in celebrity problems, that’s not the chief problem here. The chief problem here is the epistemology of postmodernity, and our entire culture is certainly awash in that.
Postmodernity, in reaction to Enlightenment’s enthronement of human reason and back of that, Christianity’s logos epistemology, according to which God places in every human the capacity for objective reason and logic, shifted attention to emotion and feelings as the driving forces in human thought and action. Related to this shift was the adoption of relativism: truth and facts and morals are not absolute but are always culturally and situationally dependent.
A Staple of the West
Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to elaborate on these themes, but they’ve become a staple of the West, particularly since the 60’s. At their most beneficial, these views remind us that we are not an exclusively reason-driven species (the Bible never taught that anyway), and at worst suggest that reason is simply a tool of deep (and sometimes malignant) emotions and that we can never arrive at objective truth to boot. The upshot is that reason and truth are in the dock, constantly having to defend themselves, while emotions and feelings and relativism get an unlimited supply of reloadable get-out-of-jail-free cards.
The Value of debates in Postmodernity
For this reason, the value of debates in our postmodern condition can be overemphasized. Debates — the right kind of debates — are all about reason: supplying evidence, arguing logically for a viewpoint, arriving at objectively justifiable conclusions. But if reason is suspect, and truth is relative, much of the audience will be persuaded more by emotion — the warmth (or coldness) of a debater’s tone, the feeling of empathy they have for him personally or for his viewpoint, his clothing “ensemble,” even anger at how he might employ reason to “beat up on” his less rationally skilled but more emotionally cogent opponent. Or they may simply opine of the debaters: “They disagreed on every single point, but they’re probably both right on all points — from their own perspective.” The debate’s “winner” won’t be determined by amassing “debating points” (the traditional way of deciding who won), but by the degree of cuddly emotion engendered in the audience.
Of course, emotion is part of the human condition, and a vital part, so emotion has a role to play in debates; and truth is always expressed from a particular perspective. But the value of debates centers in objective persuasion based on verifiable evidence (and revelational evidence no less than empirical evidence, mind you). In the end, it doesn’t matter if you feel emotionally unplugged after a debate, as long as you can tell which debater presented the best case. Debates aren’t meant to be cuddly affairs — unless you find reason and logic and objectivity cuddly.
Amid the radical subjectivity of secular postmodernity these days, debates aren’t especially useful. Our course of action, however, shouldn’t be to scrap debates but, rather, to work to revive the appreciation for reason and logic and truth, which are critical features of humans created in God’s image — and of debates based on that image.
Reason, after all, is no more or less depraved — or essential — than emotion.
And if truth and facts and morals are always situationally dependent, postmodernity itself will end up, to use G. Chesterton’s language, undermining its own mines.
Now that’s a great topic for debate.