One night last month I neglected student papers and settled in for a riveting night of entertainment. It was fight night, and I, like most men, enjoy a good ol' fashion brawl. I had the television queued up, my bowl of pretzels, and a six back of wonderful Stone IPA chilling. (By the by, if anybody from Stone finds their way to this blog, I am open to sponsorship negotiations. God knows I do a good bit of fundraising and donation to that fine brewery.)
The venue was a live-streamed debate (2/4/14) between Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, and Bill Nye of television fame, Bill Nye the Science Guy (1992-1998). The debate was about young-earth creationism as a viable scientific model. I realize that this is not your standard gladiatorial event, however, such events get nerd blood flowing faster than a thirteen year old with unrestricted access to the Internet.
Much like the 2014 Superbowl, the debate itself was lackluster and utterly predictable. However, one aspect of the debate struck me as worthy of commentary; the way Mr. Ham presented himself as a Christian intellectual. Mr. Ham’s ethos, I believe, is characteristic of much Christendom, regardless of the topic of discussion. Christians have developed a nasty habit toward intellectual arrogance. Let me explain.
During the question and answer period, an audience participant asked a very good question of Mr. Ham, “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Mr. Ham's response? Nothing. Mr. Nye’s response? Evidence. The problem: Mr. Ham’s response alerted the entire non-Christian viewership that he was not interested in real debate. Honest debate requires that the interlocutors, at least in principle, are willing to be wrong.
An unwillingness to conceive the possibility of wrongness is the height of hubris, or what we call arrogance. It may be an intellectual arrogance, but it is arrogance nonetheless. This intellectual arrogance, or unwillingness for honest debate, is readily recognized by the outsider. What the outsider sees is not a Christian searching, perhaps struggling for truth, but a preacher looking to transform the entire cognitive life of the outsider. What they are thinking is, “I don’t need another mother!” (And in my case, "Please pass the ham!")
Notice how the intellectual arrogance leads to an expression of moral arrogance, or lack of care for the individual. Mr. Ham was not actually listening or responding to Mr. Nye. Nothing Mr. Nye could say would be counted as evidence against his position. This uncaring attitude toward Mr. Nye and the outsider ought to remind us of the parable of the good Samaritan.
A last attempt to get at what I saw in the debate. Christian intellectual arrogance presents itself like a parent scolding a misbehaving child. Your child weaves a tale about how the cookies disappeared off the counter. As a parent you dutifully listen, correct the child’s fib, then discipline. The parent is not really listening or giving the child a voice in the debate. This mentality is appropriate for dealing with naughty children, but not mature conversation.
I fear that many Christians, my own denomination chief of sinners, feel this is an adequate way to engage the world. We do not need more preachers in the public square, we need thinkers. We must do better than this, in our public debates, in our education of the laity, and in our private conversations if we truly desire to engage the culture. At least the night was not a total loss—the beer was cold.