December 17, 2011

Calling Out

I was very pleased to see a letter in the December 18, 2011 issue of The Living Church, rebutting the misrepresentations and straw-man arguments which the Rev. Dr. Philip Turner raised in response to the "liberal" or "expansionist" authors of the House of Bishops Theology Committee report on sexuality, published in the Winter 2011 ATR. As the Rev. Robert MacSwain, the author of the letter, demonstrates, Turner assailed the gay-marriage-urging authors for a position they explicitly rejected. The argument he attacked is that gay and lesbian marriage is a move towards personal self-satisfaction and sexual happiness. The argument actually made in the papers is about the hard discipline of marriage as a form of sanctification towards holiness — just as for mixed-sex couples. Careful readers will note the resonance of this argument with my own work on the subject.

But why is it that someone as bright as Turner feels the need to concoct such a misrepresentation? Does he truly not perceive the difference? I begin to think that some "conservatives" may in fact have such a blind spot.

That is in part because I have been experiencing something similar over the last few weeks. An obviously intelligent and well-read anonymous blogger posting in the comments section of Peter Carrell's Anglican Down Under criticized me for adopting arguments in defense of same-sex marriage which I have not made, and persistently attempted to paint a picture of a kind of liberal modernism that is very far from my work (as any who have read it know). Let me hasten to add that I do not find Peter himself to be guilty of this sort of reaction, and regard him as a model interlocutor!

Then, over at Titus One Nine, another anonymous commenter declared that I was responsible for leading the charge in trying to depose Bishop Mark Lawrence, and that in a "raging and fulminating" way. That really surprised me, as I was not aware of any rage or fulmination, or even much by way of comment or interest, in or on the subject. When challenged, this person proudly produced three shorter than 50-words each comments separated by over a year — one from the House of Bishops / Deputies list-serve and two from blogs. None of these three line comments called for action against Bishop Lawrence, and the two most recent merely noted, as a point of canon law, that were action to take place it would likely be because of property concerns. As far as I know, and I've done the Google search, these are the only things I've said in reference to the good Bishop of South Carolina in the past year. I assured this irate denizen of Kendall Harmon's comment stream that were I intent on pressing a case against the Bishop I would certainly do more than make three three-line comments over the course of a year!

The point in all this is, What is it with "conservatives?" (Not all, just some.) Does their own upset with how they perceive things to be going blind them to what is actually happening? Is it simply a want of charity that takes everything someone dubbed "liberal" says at its worst possible, and often wrong, interpretation? Is it perceptual set, or a form of neuralgia and heightened sensitivity?

In this season, I plead for better understanding and calm. There are sane and sober "conservatives" out there, able to converse across even strong disagreement. I have had many such conversations so I know this to be true. The key, of course, is listening, and being able to describe to someone with whom you disagree their own position in ways they can recognize and affirm, and especially not telling them what they "must have meant" when they explain that they didn't. Kendall always espoused that, and I admire him for it; and I wish some of the folks who populate the comment-streams at his blog would follow his example. As to Turner, I hope he will re-read the essays which he misrepresented with newly opened eyes and attempt to wrestle inwardly with the arguments as they are actually made. He may still not agree with them but at least then be able to do them the courtesy of responding to them on their own terms. And that may advance the discussion.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

Tobias, I laughed out loud when I read that you were accused of leading the charge against Bp. Lawrence. I must have missed all three of your comments, because I don't remember that you ever said anything about him.

At least you are only 'raging and fulminating'. I am a 'raving revisionist', who was banned at Stand Firm rather quickly after I quoted the Gospel.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi. It really was rather astounding. I don't mind being critiqued for positions I've actually taken, but having to cut through the fog of misunderstanding is wearying!

Erika Baker said...

This is not a rational debate. At the core of it, there are very few, if any people, who are looking for reasoned argument to make up their minds about same sex relationships.
We can’t. We’re either lgbt ourselves or have lgbt friends and families and our thinking is shaped by our experience. And those who oppose same sex relationships do so from an equally emotional basis. The underlying fears and yuck factors may vary and be complex, but rational they are not. And by that I don’t mean that they should be dismissed but that they are not based on reason.

Using reason and theology you and others have clearly shown that there are no valid objections against same sex relationships. So if people are absolutely desperate to hang on to their objections they can only do so by misrepresenting or caricaturing what you say.
Once you have a reputation for being on the “wrong” side, the same people will claim to know what you think about everything and will dismiss it whether you’ve actually said it or not.

The only way to break through the cycle is to talk to people face to face so that the complexity of each one of us can shine through and stereotypes are harder to hold on to.

We’re observing this at present in a completely different sphere in a marriage break-down in our close family. The more you listen to the one closest to you, the more you absorb their hurt, their fears, their sense of being treated unjustly, and the more you’re willing to criticise the other for every real and imagined failing. I’m astonished at the deep emotions this is causing at times against someone we’ve all rather liked in the past! But the minute we get together with that person, see the pain in their eyes, hear their story… we’re much more able to calm down, to be more balanced, to accept and love both of them despite both their obvious faults and their obvious appalling treatment of each other.

It’s the joy of the internet that relationships can be forged across distances and among people who have never met, but it is also the danger of the internet that they can turn swiftly into supposedly rational criticism and dislike.

I have been fascinated to discover that I can be locked in real disagreement with someone on a blog and end up almost despising that person for their views and the way they express them. And then I meet the same person on Facebook in a different context and I discover shared interests, shared views on other topics, and unexpected sense of humour…. and it puts everything into a new perspective and makes genuine disagreement without maligning and misrepresenting people’s views possible.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, I think you are spot on about the psychology and the dynamics. Still, I think it important to continue the rational side of discussion -- with those willing to do so. Whether the argument or the personal encounter is the catalyst to the other, or both work together in a synergy, I think both are helpful. Naturally there are some who will not alter their opinions either on the basis of personal encounter or reason. There are some who have said they will not meet with gay and lesbian people because it might "undermine their faith" -- and others who roundly critiqued Rowan some years back for meeting with gay clergy -- all this in spite of the mandate in their beloved Lambeth 1998.1.10!

So it is true that "there is no reasoning with some people" but also that "there is no engagement at all with some people." That the Anglican Covenant is based on formalizing these sorts of disengagement as a "solution" is perhaps the most tragic -- and unChristlike -- thing about it.

Whit said...

Just my experience, but I have found that those who take a conservative position on same-sex relationships, but who have remained in TEC, are careful not to assume that all "liberals" agree on all issues, and are willing to be in dialogue with those they disagree with. Those who have left for ACNA are inevitably bitter and angry, and universally confilate progressive Christians like you and ex-Christians like Bishop Spong. Those who have left for the RCC or Orthodoxy are a mixed bag- the amount of charity they have seems directly proportional to the degree to which they have renounced an Anglican identity.

Laity, OTOH are rather more of a mixed bag- some quite polite and reasonable people attend ACNA churches because they could not find a TEC parish they liked in their area, and there are some people in TEC parishes like St. John's in Lancaster, OH, who really hate "the liberals" with a passion. They are in this parish only because there are no Continuing or ACNA churches within reasonable driving distance. (The rector of St. John's, Fr. Bill Pursley, is, BTW, is quite courteous and charitable, and quite often participates in multi-church events with much more progressive parishes and clergy).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Whit. That mirrors my experience fairly exactly. I've maintained very good working relationships, and have had rational discussions, with a number of Episcopalians from the "conservative" side; and I do get the sense that the most oblique of my interlocutors (such as the one at Kendall's place) are actually ex-Episcopalians of one sort or another (he referred to "your" Presiding Bishop at one point...). And I would be very foolish, and unfair, to say that all of the intolerance or misrepresentation is on that side of the issue -- it's just that's where I encounter it.

Anonymous said...

john 2007 writes:
"Using reason and theology you and others have clearly shown that there are no valid objections against same sex relationships. So if people are absolutely desperate to hang on to their objections they can only do so by misrepresenting or caricaturing what you say. "

Well, no. There are many rational people, without axes to grind, who think the cumulative witness of Scripture, reason, anatomy, tradition, biology, along with the fact of pyschosexual development (which can be in varying degrees healthy or less so), and other things, lead to at least a "well-I-am-not-convinced position" about the sexual ethic Tobias, just to use him as a point of reference,and others promote, and allow, pastorally and theologically, lots of room for LGBT people and positions, though think, as I do, that when electing a bishop there are certain things that must be virtually unanimous in the church to uphold the integrity of being a bishop. Many of us in the various evangelical study groups that I have been is have said to one another, to many others, "we may be wrong" and we have redoubled our efforts to serve and love, but we can't honestly give intellectual assent to to the proposals that have been made.

I might add that the number of evangelicals (of the best, thinking kind, if I can say that) that have chosen to remain celibate and single for the sake of the gospel, in their eyes, plays into my view of things here. I know many of them who do not feel or think the mainline voice, so to speak, of LGBT speak for them.

There is a subculture, alive to singleness (so greater glory might be displayed, as they see it) that is larger, I think, in some of the evangelical culture/subculture than we know generally in ECUSA--and by evangleical I don't mean fndamentalist but more like Church of the Redeemer in NYC, All Souls London, too.

I also think that Rowan Williams and Oliver O'Donovan, who have each written considerable pieces on the issue, are hardly irrational or guilty of mischaracterization intentionally. So to think that this is a slam dunk in terms of clairy seems not to be the case to me.

I often think FWIW that God's smackdown of Job "Where you there when I create the world?" can be put to both far left and far right on this one to the extent that each extreme forgets that none of us has seen all factors in the pyschosexual-social developmemnt of anyone and cannot, therefore, have a God's eye view of things.

A rambling post, I know, but simply to say there are a lot of thoughtful people out there who take different views on the matter and do not fit in the Procrustean bed (as Tobias acknowledges).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

John, I agree with you, which is why I was (I hope) careful to acknowledge that this is not a one size fits all accusation. The thing that perplexes me, again as I was trying to express, is the apparent inability of otherwise demonstrably intelligent people, like Phil Turner, not to engage with the real arguments, or even examine his own presuppositions to any depth.

I am (mentally at least -- and I hope to put fingers to keyboard soon) working on a longer post on the subject of one particular stream of what I would call "conservative irrationalism" and hope that will make my conern clearer.

G said...

There are many rational people, without axes to grind, who think the cumulative witness of Scripture, reason, anatomy, tradition, biology, along with the fact of pyschosexual development (which can be in varying degrees healthy or less so), and other things, lead to at least a "well-I-am-not-convinced position" about the sexual ethic Tobias, just to use him as a point of reference,and others promote

"I'm just not convinced" seems to be about all that the contras can say. I have yet to see anyone point to anything in particular in R&H which does not convince them, or take issue with any of its premises without resorting to special pleading or self-refuting ideas. I suspect that's because Tobias' premises are by and large simply the orthodox doctrines of Christianity. Anti-SSM advocates want to affirm those premises while avoiding the conclusion they lead to. So they end up giving a kind of noncognitivist (boo/yay) morality.

This is very different from an objective condemnation to the moral content of same-sex relationships in general. For that, there would need to be some feature of only and all SSRs that are absent from only and all "traditional" unions. (After all, if gay couples are "sinning" they must be committing some sin if we are anywhere above the level of boo/yay morality). Since, logically (as opposed to an opinion which must "convince") the only possible candidate for such a sin place celibates and the infertile (whom the contras do not wish to impugn) in an equally uncomfortable position, the contras have forged for themselves an impossible task.

If you can read the cumulative witness of Scripture, reason, and science and insulate yourself from those portions that contradict the view you started off espousing, I don't know what to call that other than having an axe to grind. Otherwise, why should anyone care so damn much if others seek the same sacramental graces their families do?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Geoff. Your experience matches mine. I can affirm that "I am not convinced" seems to be a final refuge of those who cannot budge from the traditional position. Which is why I've referred to it as a kind of "moral fideism" -- it is a matter of belief not of logical argument.

I am willing, however, to grant that his may not come from "homophobia" at least as a personal characteristic, but rather from a need for a certain kind of belief system about the nature of authority, scriptural or ecclesiastical. Why this issue? It may not be due to psychology, but to the circumstance that this happens to be the issue on the table, and "traditionalists" just don't like change in anything. On the same ground, opposition to OOW may not always be based by sexism as such (though I think that is at its root in the very conception of the ordained ministry as male, coming from sexist cultures.) I think that this is what John 2007 is getting at. It is possible to oppose OOW and SSM on "credential" bases. The fact that this places the matters to some extent off the table of debate is problematical only for the continued defense of the position.