Tag Archives: dialogue

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

Unprofitable Conversation

Don't cast your pearls before swine, friends.
Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to converse with people who are allergic to insight.  This is hard for me, as I enjoy conversation, dialogue, and argument.  But we all know people who seek conversation not out of a genuine search for truth or honest curiosity, but rather out of a desire for power, influence, and self-aggrandizement.  These temptations are there for me also, of course. Only the holiest of saints are totally immune.  But I try to admit when I’m wrong, when I’ve said something poorly or ill-thought.  “Whoever hates correction is stupid,” says Proverbs 12:1.  I’ve learned much from Henry Cloud on how to handle the foolish and the evil (though I’m sometimes better at it in theory than in practice).

So, after wading into conversation with evil fools who despise correction, after giving too much of my attention and energy to those whose only truth is power, whose only language is manipulation, I found these words from John Wesley helpful.  Perhaps you need these words today as well.  And I thank you, dear readers, for correcting me when I am wrong, for offering critique when I could be more clear, and for joining your own reflections to mine that we all might grow in the knowledge and love of God.

From Sermon 81, In What Sense We Are to Leave the World (emphasis added):

8. Here is the sum of this prohibition to have any more intercourse with unholy men than is absolutely necessary. There can be no profitable fellowship between the righteous and the unrighteous; as there can be no communion between light and darkness, — whether you understand this of natural or of spiritual darkness. As Christ can have no concord with Belial; so a believer in him can have no concord with an unbeliever. It is absurd to imagine that any true union or concord should be between two persons, while one of them remains in darkness, and the other walks in the light. They are subjects, not only of two separate, but of two opposite kingdoms. They act upon quite different principles; they aim at quite different ends. It will necessarily follow, that frequently, if not always, they will walk in different paths. How can they walk together, till they are agreed? — until they both serve either Christ or Belial?

9. And what are the consequences of our not obeying this direction? Of our not coming out from among unholy men? Of not being separate from them, but contracting or continuing a familiar intercourse with them? It is probable it will not immediately have any apparent, visible ill consequences. It is hardly to be expected, that it will immediately lead us into any outward sin. Perhaps it may not presently occasion our neglect of any outward duty. It will first sap the foundations of our religion: It will, by little and little damp our zeal for God; it will gently cool that fervency of spirit which attended our first love. If they do not openly oppose anything we say or do, yet their very spirit will, by insensible degrees, affect our spirit, and transfuse into it the same lukewarmness and indifference toward God and the things of God. It will weaken all the springs of our soul, destroy the vigour of our spirit, and cause us more and more to slacken our pace in running the race that is set before us.

10. By the same degrees all needless intercourse with unholy men will weaken our divine evidence and conviction of things unseen: It will dim the eyes of the soul whereby we see Him that is invisible, and weaken our confidence in him. It will gradually abate our “taste of the powers of the world to come;” and deaden that hope which before made us “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.” It will imperceptibly cool that flame of love which before enabled us to say, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!” Thus it strikes at the root of all vital religion; of our fellowship with the Father and with the Son.

Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
Pastor
West ____ United Methodist Church