03 November 2008

The Debacle of "All or Nothing"

I was finally able to watch the movie, "Expelled," last night with my wife on DVD (the movie was on DVD; my wife was on the couch next to me). She's been wanting me to see this ever since it came out; because she and some friends saw it while I was in Novosibirsk last spring, and it really made an impression on her and them. I can understand why. It's interesting, eye-opening and thought-provoking. It's also a bit scary and disheartening; not because I ever expect the world to be receptive to any of the works of God (I don't), but because the suppression of freedom is tyrannical and destructive. Surely the freedom that we have in Christ remains, by faith in His Gospel, which shall not be shaken or removed by any might of man. But the temporal freedom that we enjoy in this country is also a precious gift from God, which we rightly prize and hold dear.

As a Christian, I believe, teach and confess that the one true God, the Father almighty, is the Maker of the heavens and the earth. But just at the moment, that is not my main point of concern. I'm obviously not surprised that there are atheists who deny and reject their own Creator. When has that not been the case? I am rather shocked and dismayed, however, by the vehemence with which discussion and debate of alternative theories is suppressed. That does not bode well for education in this country; nor for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as Ben Stein points out rather effectively in his movie. The denial of any true academic freedom in certain areas, as when it comes to intelligent design vs. evolution, is deadly to the rational pursuit of genuine scientific knowledge.

It's not only in academia, and not only with respect to the origins of life, the universe and everything, that discussion and debate are thwarted and avoided. I've not spoken to or heard from anyone who was impressed by the so-called presidential "debates." They were tedious and pointless, but they really weren't "debates" in any proper sense of that term. Not only did the candidates generally not answer the questions they were asked; they did not address each other. They did not engage one another with substantive arguments. They did not deal with their disagreements in any kind of mutual dialogue or discussion of the particular points at hand. They mainly took turns repeating their slogans and soundbites, their campaign clichés (which few people seem at all inclined to believe), and their allegations against each other (without any opportunity for rebuttal). How was any of this helpful? It wasn't even entertaining. It made me tired and sad, and I have gathered I was not alone in those reactions.

Ultimately, I'm less concerned about the dismal state of American politics and higher education than I am about the lack of public discourse and honest debate among Christians, and especially among the pastors and theologians of the Church. This has been increasingly disturbing to me over the past few years, growing in part out of my experience at the 2004 and 2007 synodical conventions. It's not strictly speaking a problem with church politics, so much as it is a spiritual problem that seems to run rampant across the board. There are bright spots here and there, but they are the rare exception in my experience. The atmosphere, in general, is analogous to the lack of academic freedom that Ben Stein exposes in "Expelled." It's not quite the same thing, but, left unchecked, it is perhaps even more tyrannical and destructive, because it impedes the preaching of repentance and the free course of the Gospel.

What I'm talking about is the way we talk and listen to each other; or, the way we don't talk and listen to each other. We categorize ourselves and characterize others along various lines, whether political, theological, confessional, liturgical, or what have you, and then we relate and communicate to one another according to those predetermined prejudices. Sometimes it isn't even that substantive; it may hinge more upon personality, power and position, or prestige. So we listen to our friends and kindred spirits, while we turn a deaf ear to the opposition. We assume the best of our comrades, but presume the worst of those we have defined as the "others." I've sensed this in myself, and I have observed it in my colleagues. We immediately jump to conclusions when it comes to certain people; we know they are going to be wrong before they have spoken, so we either listen with our negative filters in place, or we do not listen at all. With our friends, however, we will bend over backwards to be agreeable and affirm whatever they may say. The same statement we would instantly condemn from our "opponent," we find a way to support and defend on the lips of our closest companions. We are respecters of persons. We show great deference and charity to some, defiance and cynicism toward others.

Consequently, there is seldom any real theological debate. And that is scary, indeed. If we are never challenged or corrected; if we are never put to the test; if we are never called to repentance for theological fuzziness or error, then we shall become increasingly poor theologians, unfaithful pastors, and sluggish Christians. We decry political correctness in the civil realm, but there is this similar unhealthiness among us in the very place where bold confession with a spirit of gentleness is always required. If we are called on the carpet by someone who has previously been "on our side," then there is this proclivity to get defensive, or to "mark and avoid," rather than to discuss and debate. Or, if we for our part call a brother into question, even one who has been a good friend, we shall not be surprised if our phone calls are not returned and our e-mails are not answered. Lines of fellowship seem to be drawn on the basis of mutual admiration, affirmation and agreement, rather than a common confession of the catholic faith. It's all or nothing. You either agree with me on everything, or we must be on opposite sides of the fence altogether, and there's nothing more to discuss. This "agreeing to agree," no matter what, is as perverse in its own way as the ecumaniacal "agreeing to disagree."

If any man speaks, he must speak as the oracles of God. We must learn to speak with clarity and confidence what God has spoken. Charity requires that we speak with gentleness; not that we refrain from speaking. With friend and foe alike, we confess the truth in love. And we must be ready to receive the counsel and correction of both friends and foes, as well. If we harden our hearts against the word that would call us to repentance, we harden ourselves against both God and man; we sin against both faith and love. Speaking too quickly and too critically of enemies (even thinking of an erring brother as an "enemy" to begin with), is destructive, not only of those neighbors but of ourselves and of the body of Christ. So, too, refusing to speak what must be spoken, when it would require the reproving of friends, is likewise harmful to the body. We need less defensiveness and ad hominem, and more real arguments over matters that matter. Otherwise, we shall be like those false prophets who cry, "Peace, Peace," when their bellies are full, but who declare a holy war against anyone who does not feed their hungry mouths.

1 comment:

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

I completely agree with you on this post, and couldn't have said it better myself.