Tactics and Tools

Street Tactics – Part 4

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 09/01/2020

Street Tactics are specific conversation maneuvers you can use to navigate graciously, safely, and effectively in what otherwise would be difficult interactions with others.[i]

I devoted the last three issues of Solid Ground to the topic, showing how to engage specifically with the problem of evil, atheism, and abortion, respectively.[ii] In each case, I offered insight on the weaknesses of the opposing view then suggested specific questions you could use to get rolling, along with samples of ways your dialogues might play out.

In this issue, I’d like to address a handful of smaller challenges that often come up. First, I’ll offer you insight on problems with the objections themselves, then I’ll provide sample conversations to show you how to employ those insights productively. The dialogues always start with simple questions you can use to get the discussion moving forward in a safe, relaxed way.

Silent Christ

Tim Barnett and I recently dealt with a challenge to the pro-life view on Twitter that seemed compelling to many, especially since the authority being cited was Christ.[iii] Here’s what the woman tweeted:

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks often about how to treat people. He covers a LOT of turf on the sick, lepers, the afflicted, the poor, widows, daughters, sons, tax collectors, travelers, strangers, learned men, fools, the old & the young. BUT NOT ONE WORD ABOUT THE UNBORN.

You might call this the “silent Christ” line of logic because some people attach great significance to Jesus’ presumed silence on a number of current controversial issues (though it’s worthy to note that many who hold to “silent Christ” seem to care little about what he actually does say when it interferes with their personal desires—but that’s another issue).

I say “presumed” because it’s clear the Gospels are not exhaustive accounts of Jesus’ teaching. John admits as much (Jn. 20:30, 21:25). The historical accounts do not cover everything Jesus said or did—indeed, hardly any of it, according to John. They are selective records of the words and deeds of Christ that mattered to his immediate mission.

You have probably already figured out the problem with the “silent Christ” approach. Actually, there are two. The first, I just hinted at. We cannot say with confidence what Jesus never said unless we have a complete record of everything he did say, which we don’t.

Put another way, it’s difficult to conclude anything about what Jesus did not condemn based on the limited written record of what he did condemn. The fact that the record was silent doesn’t mean Jesus was silent. We simply have no direct evidence one way or another.[iv]

Second, what if he actually was silent—if in his entire ministry he never uttered a single word about the unborn? What do we conclude about Jesus’ view on abortion then? I’ll tell you. Nothing. Nothing at all. Even if Jesus did not utter a single word about the unborn, his silence tells us nothing about his views.

Here’s why. It’s a variation of the first problem. You cannot conclude anything about what Jesus approved of based on what he did not condemn. Even if he said nothing about abortion—which is likely since it wasn’t the kind of public moral issue it is now—it’s a mistake for anyone to assume his approval.

As far as we know, Jesus never weighed in on slavery, capital punishment, spousal abuse, sex trafficking, racism, and child sacrifice, to name a few. Do we infer from this reticence that he approved of such things? Of course not. This is a perfect example of a flawed argument from silence.[v]

Given our understanding of the problem this challenge poses, here’s how it might play out tactically in a conversation, this time dealing with the “silent Christ” move to endorse homosexuality.

“Jesus never said a thing about homosexuality.”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at. If that’s true, why is that significant?” [This request for clarification is almost always our first tactical step. It’s a variation of the question “What do you mean by that?”]

“Well, if Jesus objected to homosexuality as much as you Christians do, then he would have mentioned it, but he never did.”

“Well, I have a couple of questions about that. Do you mind if I ask them?”

“Go ahead.”

“First, how do you know Jesus never said anything about homosexuality? Are you a student of the life and teachings of Jesus?” [This question is a version of our second tactical question, “How did you come to that conclusion?”]

“Not really, but I did read the Gospels once, and I didn’t see anything about homosexuality.”

“Do you think everything Jesus said over three and a half years of public ministry was recorded in the four Gospels?”

“Of course not.”

“Then how can you say Jesus never said anything about homosexuality if most of what he said wasn’t written down?”

“Well, if it was really important to him, then I think there’d be something about it in the Gospels.”

“That confuses me.”

“Why?”

“It has to do with my second question for you. Let’s just say you’re right. Let’s say Jesus never uttered a word about homosexuality. Do you think that since Jesus never condemned homosexuality, he must have been okay with it?” [Checking to make sure we’re not misunderstanding or misrepresenting the view.]

“You got it.”

“Well, that would mean Jesus approved of slavery.”

“What!”

“Well, he never mentioned anything about that, either, as far as we know, so his silence on slavery must mean approval, too.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“I agree with you there, but that creates a problem for you, doesn’t it? Are you still comfortable arguing that whatever Jesus didn’t condemn, he approves of?” [Closing the point off with a question.]

Notice, by the way, the impulse with both of these issues—abortion and homosexuality—for critics to cite Jesus for support. Cleary, they want Christ on their side. Why? Why should it matter to them what Jesus taught? The answer is obvious. Most people think Jesus is someone substantial to be reckoned with. If he agrees with them, that’s a plus for their view.

Letting Christ argue for us, after a fashion, is a sound tactic I’ve dubbed “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” When done legitimately­­­—trading on Jesus’ actual statements and not on his silence—it’s a move we can make, too, and it’s often a shrewd choice. [vi]

“Who Created God?”

This question comes up frequently with children. Unfortunately, it also comes up regularly with adults who ought to know this is not an appropriate question to ask a theist. American atheist Michael Shermer raised it during my national radio debate with him, and Oxford’s Richard Dawkins is convinced it’s a significant rebuttal to theists since “even children know to ask it.”

It’s not, for a simple reason: No one believes God was created. No theist believes it, and no atheist believes that if the Christian God were real he’d be the kind of being who had a beginning—which makes it a bit odd when educated atheists ask the question “Who created God?”

The challenge often surfaces as a rebuttal to the cosmological argument, a rationale for God’s existence based on the existence of the cosmos. One form of that argument reasons that everything that begins to exist has a cause, and since the universe began to exist, it must have had a cause—ergo God.[vii] Simply put, a Big Bang needs a Big Banger. Pretty straightforward, it seems to me.

“Who created God?” is a standard parry to this point, but it fails on two counts.

First, it deftly disregards the argument proper by deflecting the attention elsewhere. Asking, “Who created God?” does nothing to address the main concern. If the universe is not eternal, then what caused it to “bang” into existence? The question is a fair one and needs to be answered, not ignored. Since the effect is the natural realm, then something outside the natural realm must be its cause—a conclusion that puts naturalism in serious jeopardy.

To sidestep the native persuasiveness of this argument, atheists deploy the “Who created God?” gambit, essentially charging that the theist’s view suffers the same liability. The query, though, merely deflects the argument; it doesn’t answer it.[viii] Simply brushing the reasoning aside does nothing to weaken its force. That’s the first problem.

The gambit is a misstep in a second way. The theist’s view does not suffer the same liability since the cosmological argument only applies to things that begin to exist. As I pointed out, no one in the discussion—theist or atheist—thinks a self-existent Being came into being.[ix] The notion itself is nonsense.

This doesn’t prove God exists, of course. It only shows that the “Who created?” question is not a meaningful question to ask a theist regarding God, though it is an appropriate one to ask a naturalist regarding the universe.

There’s one final concern about this challenge I’ll mention briefly before we go to the sample dialogue, and maybe you noticed it. The question is flawed in yet another way. It’s similar to questions like “Do you still beat your wife?” The question itself presumes something that may not be true.

These are called “complex questions”[x] since any answer to the query implicitly affirms something else that may not be true. In this case, asking, “Who created God?” assumes God was created, which is a false move, as we’ve seen.[xi]

That said, here’s how I would approach this issue using Street Tactics.

“Who created God?”

“What do you mean?” [That basic first question again.]

“Well, you seem to think the universe needed a creator, so you believe in God. All I’m asking, then, is, ‘Who created God?’”

“You may not have realized it, but you’re assuming something when you ask that question. What do you think you’re assuming?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if I asked you if you’ve stopped beating your wife, what would I be assuming with that question?”

“That I had been beating my wife.”

“Right. So, what are you assuming now when you ask, ‘Who created God?’”

“Well, I guess I was assuming God was created.”

“Exactly. So why would you think if there was a God, he would need to be created?”

“Well, you think the universe was created.”

“Right, I do. I believe that because the universe came into being. Which, apparently, you believe, too. But let me ask you a question. Do you think that if the kind of God I am talking about actually existed, he would need to be created?”

“Maybe.”

“I’m confused. Why would a self-existent being need to be created? Wouldn’t that be a contradiction in terms? Why are you asking, ‘Who created God?’ when the kind of God both of us are talking about would never need to be created in the first place?”

If one of your children raises this issue, you might amend your dialogue this way: “If I asked you, ‘Are you still cheating on your tests in school?’ what would I be assuming?” Let them chew on it a bit until they get the right answer—about their tests and about God—maybe with a little help from you.

Next, you can ask them, “Okay, since your question assumes God was created, what makes you think he was created? Is that what the Bible teaches? [Interaction] No, the Bible teaches that God is eternal. Do you know what that means? [Interaction] It means God never had a beginning, and he will never have an end. Do you see that it doesn’t really make sense, then, to ask the question about the beginning of God if he had no beginning?”

You get the idea. Pursue an interactive conversation with them where you tease out these concepts with questions. I think they’ll catch on pretty quickly.

“That’s Just Your Interpretation”

This challenge is a parry that is difficult to counter because it’s both compelling and misleading at the same time.

First, there is a legitimate point to this charge. In one sense, everything is a matter of interpretation. How do we get thoughts from one person’s mind into the mind of another? Short of a Vulcan mind-meld, symbols of some sort are required—facial expressions, body language, and an occasional grunt or groan or growl do some of the work. Generally, though, words are the medium we use to convey an idea or communicate a flow of thought.

Language—both verbal and non-verbal—has its liabilities, of course. The recipient has to grasp the symbols and make sense of them, and this process has pitfalls. Communication can be a hazardous enterprise.

We learn to communicate reasonably effectively, though, because one simple rule guides the process, and normally it’s a rule we intuitively apply. On the receiving side, the goal is always to figure out what the author means. We achieve that by paying close attention to the words in the context of the sentences and the paragraphs they form.

The basic process is not really controversial since we employ it automatically in every act of communication we engage in. Curiously, the notion is only an issue when the Bible is brought into play. I said the “that’s just your interpretation” challenge was a “parry” because it’s almost always meant to deflect a biblical point rather than consider it. That is the “misleading” part.

Yes, in principle the point has merit. The challenge is almost always disingenuous in practice, though, because it rarely reflects a challenger’s honest desire to determine the precise truth of a text. Rather, it’s meant to illicitly dismiss or silence an opposing point of view.

Notice the wording: “That’s just your interpretation.” The word “just” is the giveaway. It signals an attempt to relativize your understanding of the verse’s meaning. “It’s merely your interpretation. It’s only your take on the text. My alternate view is just as legitimate as yours. You have your truth; I have mine.”

This maneuver, of course, violates the rules and, if followed consistently, destroys all communication. Legitimate interpretations are not based on what the listener thinks, but on what the author thinks.

Of course, when we use a text, it’s always possible we’ve misunderstood it or have distorted the meaning in some way, but this is not—in my experience, at least—what the challenger has in mind.

What’s the solution? There’s only one: Always go back to the words of the text.

At Stand to Reason, we have a rule: Never read a Bible verse. Our point is, we never determine the meaning of one verse in isolation from the rest of the verses around it that form the larger flow of thought that our passage is embedded within—the context, in other words.

So, here’s the basic strategy that will inform our tactical moves in a conversation when we face this criticism: Always drive the discussion back to the text. What can we learn about the author’s intent by focusing on the words and the sentences in a passage? Here’s the Street Tactics application of that strategy.

“That’s just your interpretation.”

“What do you mean, it’s just my interpretation?”

“Well, you have your interpretation and I have mine.”

“I agree. I have given you my take on the passage, but it sounds like you’re saying more than that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it sounds like you’re suggesting that one interpretation is just as good as another.”

“Right, it’s personal. It’s up to the individual. We all have our own interpretations of things. Who’s to say who’s right?”

“I’m curious, then, why do you hate homosexuals so much?”

“What! I never said that.”

“Well, that’s my interpretation of your words, and like you said, one person’s interpretation is just as good as another’s.”

“But I never said anything about gay people. You’re twisting my words!”

“But how can I ‘twist’ your words if there’s no right meaning to them?”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“You’re right. I am being ridiculous. But I’m following your rules, not mine.[xii] So it looks like every interpretation is not equally legitimate, then, is it?”

“Well, I still disagree with your view of what the Bible means in that verse.”

“Fair enough. How about if we go back to that passage and look at it together? If you think I’m misunderstanding the author’s meaning, you can tell me where you think I went wrong and why. Will that work for you?”

Street Tactics are not silver bullets. There’s no guaranteed way to persuade a person to your side of things. Having a clear idea of how certain objections go wrong, though, and having a few good questions at the ready to move you forward in a friendly conversation can put the odds in your favor.

 

[i] I provide a more comprehensive treatment of the tactical approach in Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 10th Anniversary Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

[ii] Find these articles archived at str.org.

[iii] Find the response in Barnett’s excellent “Red Pen Logic” series on YouTube.

[iv] I say “no direct evidence” because sometimes we can infer Jesus’ view on something he didn’t speak about based on his view on a related thing he did weigh in on. This insight does not help the pro-choice view, though.

[v] There are rare cases when an argument from silence is legitimate, but this is not one of them.

[vi] In Tactics, 10th Anniversary Ed., chapter 18, I go into some detail on how to legitimately employ this approach.

[vii] This form, popularized in recent times by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument

[viii] This move is called the tu quoque (“You too!”) fallacy.

[ix] This is another fallacy called a “straw man”—subtly misrepresenting another’s view, then finding fault with it.

[x] Another type of fallacy, by the way, where a question is based on an assumption that has not been established.

[xi] I go into more detail on the problem with the question “Who created God?” in chapter 7 of The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

[xii] This move is an example of the Taking the Roof Off tactic, detailed in Tactics, 10th Anniversary Ed., chapter 13.