Peter H. Burnett, 1st Governor of California, Lawyer and Catholic Convert
The introduction to the late Peter H. Burnett's The Path which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church contains something that resonates with me, regarding the discernment of the proper constitution of Christ's Church:
To form a clear, accurate, and just conception of a subject is the legitimate end of all fair and honest investigation. And no end can be attained, without the use of proper means, and no correct solution of any question arrived at, but by adopting the proper method. "The human mind is so limited," says Dr. Johnson, " that it cannot take in all the parts of a subject ; so that there may be objections raised against any thing." This being true of our limited capacity, it is only by confining our attention to one particular at a time, and carefully estimating its force, and then passing to others in succession, that we can arrive at any clear conception of a subject. The mechanic who constructs a chain, makes each link separately.I recently said in a discussion at De Regnis Duobus that "I believe that it takes a lot of hard work from all parties to a discussion to agree on even a narrow proposition -- much of that work being dedicated to coming to agreement on language and meaning behind language. This makes ecumenical discussions either a labor of love, or a waste of time." I believe this sentiment is similar to what Mr. Burnett was expressing.
But it is not only absolutely necessary to use the proper means, and pursue the proper method, but we should carefully remove all obstacles that may weaken the legitimate force of any argument that may be presented to the mind. And nothing is more important for this purpose than calm impartiality. All prejudices should be manfully cast aside, and no one should enter upon the investigation of any subject with any preconceived antipathies against it. He had better not investigate at all, for then he will at least save his labor. (emphases added)
Too often in online ecumenical discussions, I see people respond to a challenging narrow proposition (i.e., a matter at issue) with a broad "shotgun" critique of their interlocutor's overall position. This dodging of a narrow issue with a 'litany of doubt' does not help anyone in the truth-seeking function. Instead, explicitly or implicitly, it "seeks to pick off the intellectually lethargic, before they get sucked in by what the litanizer perceives to be error" (as I said here).
Could you imagine if our courts allowed such tactics? It might look like this: suppose a defendant attempts to vindicate himself by demonstrating that the bloody glove from the crime scene does not fit him very well. Then suppose that the prosecutor replies that the defendant had stolen gloves and socks in his house, that the defendant has poor tastes in clothing, and that his hands are really quite soft, like he hasn't worked much manual labor in life. This reply does not address the matter at issue, but to a lazy, inattentive, or incompetent jury, a valid defense could be lost because of it. Such prejudice to the court's essential truth-finding function would not be permitted.
Because our ecumenical truth-seeking efforts should similarly demand a rigorous process of discussion, I encourage my brothers and sisters to respond only in kind, concluding each narrow issue raised in turn. Also, if you take someone up on one point, have the moral commitment to stay with them on that point until you both are in agreement, or can agree on what it is that causes your disagreement. I intend to hold myself to this standard, and hope that other Christians would also, both on this blog and 'abroad'.