How do you conduct a disputation?

Disagreements are often… disagreeable. Some people seem to like conflict too much and others avoid it at all costs. Jesus was a master of handling those that tried to trap him in speech (e.g. the question on paying the tribute to Caesar, Matthew 22:15-21). I thought today we might look at some tips on handling disputations ourselves.

I want to take St Thomas Aquinas as a model to examine. He studied/taught at the University of Paris in the 13th Century, where “disputation” was a technical term for a form of debate. He used this as the structure for his main writing, the Summa Theologiae (a summary of theology). A disputation would begin by stating a question (e.g. “Whether baptism is a sacrament”). Objections would be raised, and then responses given—a statement of authority, the author’s own reply, and then responses to the individual objections.

This structure makes reading his work a little different from something written in prose, but is very helpful for working through a problem. It pursues truth while maintaining charity and fairness to the opponent. Many of these points may strike us as common sense, but it’s good to review them from time to time! Let’s break down his steps and see what can be gained from them:

  1. A disputation remains focused on a single question. A common problem in arguments is to continue to raise more and more points and not allow the other side to respond. This stops being a search for truth and instead becomes an attempt to bury the opponent in words. Stay on topic!
  2. Second, by examining objections, it takes the time to understand the other person. Listing the objections is not supposed to be an exercise in distorting them! Aquinas would seek to put himself in the shoes of his objectors and be fair to their argument. Again, this is an extremely common mistake that ruins discussions. We need to understand what others are saying and not turn their statement into a “straw man” (the term for misrepresenting the opponent to weaken their argument). Aquinas studied pagan, Jewish, and Muslim authors as part of his philosophical/theological investigations as well. He wanted to seek truth and to think clearly about the places of disagreement. Otherwise, the step of listing objections will not bear any fruit.
  3. Third, Aquinas would quote a text that he held as an authority (usually Scripture or another saint). Citing an authority isn’t always convincing (e.g. your interlocutor may not accept the same authorities), but it does remind us of the importance of doing our research. Sometimes the better answer is to pause the discussion and say, “I do not know” or “I’ll look that up” rather than to just make something up that sounds good!
  4. Fourth, Aquinas would give his own answer to the question in a simple, logical fashion. He didn’t rely upon emotional pressure or insulting attacks. This might be another time where we defer to a later time so that we have a chance to get our thoughts in order before offering an immediate response.
  5. Finally, he went back and responded to the specific concerns of his interlocutor. Like before, there is a temptation here to lose track of the actual point of the conversation. We might give an answer to an imaginary objection rather than the concerns of the person we are actually speaking with. Even if we do respond to them, it may be the case that they still aren’t convinced of our point. We need to have patience and not feel like every conversation is a matter of life or death. We can’t forget to leave time for thought, reflection, and future discussions. Our goal isn’t just to “win” a disagreement but to be faithful to truth and charity, and to leave the rest to God.

I know that I myself don’t always put this into practice perfectly, but studying Aquinas certainly helped! I highly encourage anyone who wants to think clearly (and dispute charitably) to spend some time studying his work. God bless!

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