Over the last couple of days we’ve been thinking about the idea that what we call rationality is actually, in part, cultural, and so different cultures will have different rationalities. One example of the difference between rationalities came across starkly in a public Christian-Islam debate I attended recently in Melbourne. It was done well. It was set up as an irenic dialogue about the differences in our ideas of God. The two participants were allowed to speak freely, and each responded respectfully to the other side. But in the end it was most valuable as an exercise in how difficult cross-cultural communication can be sometimes. I don’t pretend to be a dispassionate observer, but for my part I was impressed with the way the Christian debater engaged. He was soft-spoken and difficult to provoke. His arguments were careful, they relied on firm evidence, and he was very measured in his statements. If he didn’t know something, he said so. He committed only to say what he could demonstrate. And he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that his opponents made good points from time to time. For the most part, I found his case compelling.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that these were all qualities we value in debate as westerners. We find these kinds of arguments compelling, because that’s what rationality means to us. Just looking around the room at the many Muslims in the audience was enough to see that every time the Christian debater acknowledged ignorance, he strengthened his opponent’s argument in their eyes. Each time he complemented his opponent on a point well made, he honoured his opponent, and shamed himself. The same thing that came across as compelling to me came across as a weak argument to many. The Muslim debater never did these things. In my eyes the Muslim argued bullishly at times; sometimes overstated his case without (what I considered) sufficient justification, and spoke with a confidence that his argument didn’t appear to me to warrant. In reality he was presenting an argument through which Muhammad and Allah would be honoured. Allah had to win and be seen to be clearly superior. It had to be emphatically asserted. It was the same kind of argument I find in a great deal of the Islamic apologetic literature that I’ve come across. Personally, I found it unconvincing. But then I’m western, and it isn’t my rationality.
The ironic thing about the night is that both sides came away thinking they had clearly won the debate. The nature of the differing underlying rationalities meant that the two sides had completely spoken past each other. The Christian, in doing the very things western people value in debate, had made an argument that had appeared to be timid and weak to the Muslims in the room. The Muslim had done the same thing. In debating the way Islamic people value, he had made an argument that appeared to be overconfident and brash to the Christians. Yet neither side could see it from the opposite viewpoint, and so both thought they had won. At least everyone was happy!
Well, not quite everyone. The question time at the end revealed a small group of Egyptian Christians in the audience. Even though they were Christian, their culture was shame-based, and so they saw the debate in a very different light to the western Christians in the room. Their comments made it very clear that they felt Christ had been dishonoured. They cared very little for irenic dialogue. They yelled insults, and in the most provocative way possible they spoke of being freed from the bondage of Allah and his false prophet. The adjective “Satanic” may have made an appearance. Their goal wasn’t to persuade by appeal to careful, measured, justifiable arguments. Their goal was to honour Christ, and if that meant upsetting the Muslims in the room, so be it. That’s what any rational person would do. Right?
Given this phenomenon: that people from other cultures think differently, and find different sorts of arguments persuasive, we’ll return next week to think about how we might commend Christ.