Yesterday I had the chance to talk before and after services with the gentleman who gave the sermon, who happens to be a friend of mine and occasional host of friendly dinners. The subject matter of his message was a look at the birth of Jesus Christ–an appropriate topic as we approach the Feast of Trumpets, and a second chance on a debate about Christmas that he had undertaken with a former coworker some decades ago. As someone who tends to relive conversations and debates, and as someone who is frequently engaged in debates, including about the subject matter of Christmas and the birth of Christ , this was definitely a message I could relate to and that was of practical use to me. What I found most striking is that in looking over his previous debate where he and someone defending Christmas had talked past each other, the speaker gave a message that provided a worthwhile better way to debate with people who share some aspect of worldview with us. In that light, I thought it worthwhile to briefly look at this three-step approach and comment on it.
The first step is to find common ground with one’s debate partner. This ought to seem obvious but is not always done in debates. Certainly I can think in many of my own debates that the effort to find common ground has not always been done. Sometimes common ground has been assumed, to be sure, but it is not always deliberately sought. If common ground can be found in a debate, it is likely the best possible outcome of keeping a debate within bounds. Elements of common ground would include a common understanding of the terms in discussion, common authorities that can be appealed to, and common ends in mind despite whatever differences exist. Putting focus on common ground puts a debate in a given context that keeps civility high and that encourages reasonableness in one’s discussion. This is something that can be all too hard to find in most debates that fail to establish common ground that puts boundaries around a discussion and that shows the existence of a great deal of territory outside of what is in dispute and disagreement.
It is only after establishing common ground that one goes to the second step of criticizing the opposite viewpoint. Looking at Christmas and other festivals like Halloween, May Day (Socialist Labor Day), Easter, and Valentine’s Day, the paganism of such festivals makes for easy criticism. There are some of us, myself included, who tend to revel in this particular aspect of a debate, and this is where there are two aspects in tension that must be kept in mind. The first is that the critical nature of many debates has a tendency of going very far and perhaps even too far, leading to enduring hostility because we and others may not be willing to accept criticism. The second point, though, is that there are genuine differences that need to be debated and brought to light so that people can address them. This life is full of difficult truths that people simply do not want to realize and that talking points fail to address. An open and honest discussion of what is really in disagreement and what is really at stake is necessary for us to come to grips with the often unpleasant areas of division that exist within groups as well as within society at large.
This is where one pivots to the third step. After having established common ground and then made some serious criticisms about alternatives, one ends back on a positive note by providing alternatives that better address the concerns of one’s debate partner or the audience one is debating to than the alternative. For example, the sermon speaker was dealing with someone who had a great deal of respect for the Bible as an authority but also wished to honor the birth of Jesus Christ, something that the Church of God has been rather wary about as a whole. That said, both the festivals of Passover and especially the Feast of Trumpets provide a worthwhile way to honor the birth of Christ. Passover allows us to set the birth of the Messiah in contrast to His sacrifice on our behalf. The Feast of Trumpets, on the other hand, looks at the contrast between the first and second comings, which makes all the more sense given that Yeshua was born on or very close to the Feast of Trumpets given the temporal references in the Gospels. When it is possible to take the needs and longings and desires of an audience seriously, and to come up with a better solution to those concerns than they themselves or those who presume to speak in their interests do, one has a great chance of changing the grounds of debate from the stale talking points of our times and situations.
What is the method of these steps in debate? We begin with common ground in order to demonstrate that there is far more that is agreed upon than disagreed upon, keeping the rancor and unhappiness of the debate to a manageable level. We then engage in criticism that avoids causing permanent breaches but that demonstrates the seriousness of what is at stake, a task of considerable delicacy. Then, alternatives are provided that break through the rigid and stale conventional thinking that often rules in the disagreements of our lives and that answer the real interests of people in ways that they may not be aware of. I happen to find this to be an immensely agreeable way to deal with debates and disagreements. That said, there may be cases where one is dealing with limited common ground and where the interests of the people one is debating with aren’t really worth appealing to. In such situations, one is likely to find debates and arguments unprofitable, with people talking at cross purposes rather than communicating in the ideal fashion. Where this can be avoided, it should be avoided.
 See, for example: