A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pastors, Theology, Politics, and Controversy #2

How Not to Have the Controversial Discussion

We live in a culture where it is very difficult to have a meaningful discussion on controversial issues. We certainly see this in politics where screaming and yelling and hurling insults at the other side appear to be the norm. If one wants to listen to the politically conservative and angry spin, all one has to do is watch the evening lineup over at FOX News. If one wants to see the same thing, but on the liberal end, the evening angry spin over at MSNBC will do quite nicely. In both of these contexts, truth does not matter nearly as much as forwarding one's own agenda, in order to keep or put their own political party in power. The persons facilitating these talking-head soap operas are really nothing more than groupies following their political saviors into the conservative or liberal Promised Land. Thus, conquest and not truth is the order of the day. So, if one wants to learn how to have a controversial discussion, these media outlets are not the place.

Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to find controversial discussion modeled in the church, and for the most part, I believe it is the fault of those of us who lead the ecclesial community. Too often, we who lead are obnoxious when we give our views; we are surly and insulting, and we insult or demeaningly dismiss those who disagree with us. There is no doubt that this is due in part to the passion we feel when it comes to what we believe, but when we finally blurt out how we truly feel about those who dissent from us, we reveal that down deep we think we are much more intelligent than those "idiots" who think differently. And let all of us in church leadership confess right now-- at one time or another, all of us have engaged in this kind of demagoguery. I have... and I repent in humility.

The recent debate over hell that has been generated by Rob Bell's new book is a case in point. Those who are more theologically conservative are, once again, casually throwing around the word "heresy," which is quite a serious charge. As John Byron writes in a post on his blog,
That word is thrown around too often without caution. When we label someone a “heretic” so quickly and easily we cheapen the word and gut it of its meaning. A similar example is found in the way some people throw around the labels "Nazi," or "Hitler." These are serious labels that are encoded with historical meaning and significance that should, by their very nature, be used sparingly. Those who are using this book as an opportunity to declare the end of Rob Bell and are gathering firewood for his pyre look more like the witch burners in Monty Python's Holy Grail than serious inquisitors who want to interact honestly with hard questions.
But theological liberals are not to be outdone in this discussion. If the conservatives employ the "heretic card" far too often, liberals continue to play the "phobia card" infinitum ad nauseum. Thus, it is no surprise that they have played it again on the debate over hell-- "You believe in hell and exclude those outside your narrow circle because you are afraid of people who do not share your faith!" Chad Holtz, who was the motivation for this series of posts writes in a recent post on his blog,
It's very easy to sit from behind a computer screen and say how you or I would/should/could have handled a situation. We all become Armchair Theologians eager to toss our stones from the cheap seats. The irony in all this is that many of the people applauding me for taking a stand for "Love Wins" end up being the people who are the most judgmental towards those they perceive to be less enlightened. In such cases, No One Wins.
We would do well to heed Chad's wisdom.

I do not deny that there is something called heresy, and neither do I disagree that there are people who reject certain ideas because they are afraid of what it will mean for their cherished beliefs. But to continue to resort to the charges of heresy and phobia is not to deal with the substance of the discussion, but to simply dismiss those with whom we disagree.

My point here is that if we who lead the church, and who often initiate these difficult and important discussions (as we should), act like the theological versions of Sean Hannity and Ed Schultz, why should we be surprised when the laity respond in the way that they do when we express our views?

I would like to entreat my theologically conservative colleagues to refrain from playing the heresy card nearly every time someone pushes the theological and doctrinal envelope. Historically, it has been part of the theological task to push and probe for the wider implications of the doctrines of our faith. I would also like to adjure my theologically liberal friends not to assume that everyone who takes a different view from theirs, especially on social issues, has a phobia. Historically, defending the received tradition is also part of the theological task.

Of course, such insulting and name calling will continue, I am sure. But I am to the place in my life where confronting the controversies is too important to endure such demagoguery. I will no longer sit at the theological table where such toxic fare is being served.

So, how do we have the controversial discussion? I will attempt to wade through those waters in my next post.


Bruce said...

Thank you Allan. I am struggling with the ongoing debate over sexuality and ordination. I simply do not want to have this debate again at General Conference. We end up saying a doing terrible things to one another.

Daniel said...

Good post Allan. You are right that we sometimes come across to intensely when we feel strongly about an issue. Politics are tough. Too many blogs in which anonymous posters unload and vent their spleen.

I have been trying to take a more measured approach. I find that I need to resist the impulse to fire off an immediate response when online. I find that if I wait and reflect more I calm down and offer posts for which I am not embarrassed.