Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ecumenical Rules of Engagement

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.

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)
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.

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'.

22 comments:

Kim said...

Thanks for the advice, Thos. I am guilty of not staying the course in big blog discussions. I get sidetracked very easily and rabbit trails are so easy to go down. Some of these discussions are so huge and monstrous. I should probably just listen and learn. But sometimes I have questions I feel compelled to ask or statements I feel need to be made. Then there I am in the thick of it!

Thos said...

Kim,

To be clear, I don't think that asking side questions when commenting in a combox is the problem. (This is one of those posts that I'm afraid people will read thinking I'm speaking about them in particular - not so!) Let me think of an example of what I mean...

Suppose we had a blog about merchant ships. I wrote a post about how our ability to quickly build Victory Ships helped the Allies win WWII. You give a comment asking how I thought those shipyards built ships so quickly. That's not arguing for against my premise (that quick ship buidling helped win the war), so it's an aside. I don't see a problem with that.

But let's say that you ask your side question, and I engage you with an answer: that I think "X" helped build them so quickly. Now let's say that you're strongly of the opinion that it was actually "Y" that allowed such quick ship building. We go back and forth a bit to articulate our positions. In fact, you've studied this issue a lot and make a strong point of "Y". All this seems like productive, elucidating discourse.

But here, where my theory "X" has been challenged, I have two ways to violate, and one way to follow my 'ecumenical rule of engagement'. Violation One: I reply with a whole bunch of extraneous information on your view of ship building, none of which addresses the matter at issue (say, I tell you a bunch of things like 'Rosey the Riveter was inspired by a man who had communist inclinations later in life' -- so what?!). Violation Two: I ignore your final (& best) response to my answer, even though I had taken up your question, inviting you in to deeper discussion. Compliance with Rule: I explain why I disagree with "Y", or admit that "Y" seems better than "X", or I politely say that I'm not certain, and haven't studied the matter enough to speak any further on it.

That was a lot - pretty nerdy. I just mean to say that rabbit trails aren't the problem I perceive, so much as people confusing issues by ignoring valid arguments with unrelated shotgun rebuttals.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Rene'e said...

I like this post Tom. I am slowly learning the ropes of ecumencial dialogue. Any and all advice to me will always be helpful and appreciated.

The quote from the book I think is the most important for people to realize.

Once I stopped trying to prove my point to people from the start, without waiting to hear what they had to say, I have been able to listen to people, this has given me compassion for others and a willingness to learn others faiths. For me, it means that at end of discussions if both parties still disagree on points, at least we both have learned something of the other, which for me leads to understanding, which then leads me to charity and love of my neighbor, including my neighbors on the other side of river.

God Bless you and peace to you always.

Renee

Kim said...

Perhaps it's my own concern about how I influenced the discussion by sidetracking (a bit) about the baptism of infants. Although I think baptism of infants can relate to the justification discussion, I just wondered if I had been more of a rock in the road than anything. You and Bryan stay so focused on the subject at hand. I envy you. I'm working on it in myself. ;)

Devin Rose said...

Your exhortation is definitely the ideal to strive for; along with the other commenters I know I have struggled with this before.

One challenge with such dialogue that I have experienced in many prolonged discussions about Catholic-Protestant differences is that me and the other person will get so far deep into one particular topic that we then have trouble coming back up out of that topic to discuss other ones or to put that on in perspective.

It is somewhat of a conundrum: You want to go deep on a specific (or "narrow") topic, but once you do you can get lost in it, and then eventually both sides get tired and no real agreement is reached, even one to recognize clearly what your disagreements are.

Tom, do you or my fellow readers have any suggestions for the practicality of not getting lost in the trees?

Tim A. Troutman said...

And this is why I stopped visiting Stellman's blog. Bugay and company fire shotgun rebuttals to every single point and then repost books in the combox as if they expect us to read them.

I just have a lot of other things I could be spending my time doing.

Barrett Turner said...

Devin,
Perhaps there is a hermeneutical spiral involved in ecumenical relations predicated on listening to what other kinds of Christians say they believe. This would include both reading their texts and also listening to what they say their texts mean.

In my experience of talking with real life Catholics, for example, I've had to just sit on what they've said for a while before I can come back to discussion. Since what I've learned from listening to them is at odds with what I had thought Catholics believed or did, I needed time to change my impression before I could continue to dialogue.

What I'm suggesting is that focused discussions build our larger attitudes and impressions of other Christians. We should continue to have the focused discussions while given time for quiet synthesis by ourselves before we come back to talk to one another (assuming our impressions don't change in such a way as to keep us away from a "next time").

This is slower and more involved than I want because even an understanding of other Christians will not affect our practice immediately. Then again, so it is with reading the scriptures...

Thos said...

Dear Barrett,

I could not agree more with your observations, so thank you for sharing them. You've helped me to see (in hindsight) that it was in those times where I stepped back and reflected upon the point raised that I have had the best experience from a given discussion. Sometimes we need this time for *real* critical thinking. (Aside: I'm of the opinion that people rarely do real hard applied thinking, because it takes too much time and work.) It ends up being more time effecient and fruitful in the long run.

Thanks again.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Kim said...

I think it's not as easy to reflect because there is always something new to detract from our thoughts. I agree that we would all do well to back away and reflect. I know my mind is often in a tizzy trying to grasp these convo messes that often happen in the comboxes. A convo in person wouldn't be as hard to hold because the thoughts would flow from comment to comment. I often can't or won't read every comment in a long convo like the ones we've been participating in, so if I choose to comment I risk sidetracking. You almost have to print them out and read them away from the computer to really benefit from them.

School starts for us tomorrow, so my time on here will be much more limited. Maybe that will be a really good thing. I'd like to reflect on all that's been said so far.

Joseph said...

Thos,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that since I've been following your blog on and off for over a year (I think), you have had similar posts to this one.

Thos said...

Devin,

Avoiding the trees, when trying to view the proverbial forest, is certainly a challenge. I run into this in almost every conversation about the church, and also every time I mull the matter in my own mind (that is, I hit the trees even when talking only to myself).

In blogging, I think it is helpful to bear the topic of the post in mind, and relate a discussion to it where ever possible. For example, there's been some discussion with Rev. Bosco in my last Authority x3, part 3 post, and I've tried to get people to relate their comments back to my proposition of needing authority to act on behalf of the church. But some side discussions are fruitful, so I don't suppose I believe they should be impermissible (ref: what I said to Kim above).

I suppose this is why this post was aimed at staying on an issue until it's done. I don't think side discussions are harmful. Bounding, aimless discussions are harmful. Suppose: you challenge me on authority, I reply about Mary. You challenge me on Mary, I reply about the Eucharist. You challenge me on that, I reply about the Crusades. If I do all that, I'm wasting your time, and no one is closer to the Truth. That's all I'm saying. Now if a discussion on Mary spins off from an authority discussion, so be it, but we should be committed to address replies to propositions we raised, or to concede that they are flawed. That would be great.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Thos said...

Kim,

I really admire that you print and then reflect upon the comments people make. I'm sure that has a variety of positive effects, not least of which is to slow things down for critical thought. You make me rethink my theory that people don't really apply their minds much these days.

One thought on how to keep all the logs on the truck (so to speak), is that we could constantly ask ourselves what the fundamental dividing principle is. I believe that it is authority (and I invite correction), from my own experience. When I disagree with someone on something else, then, and we wander a bit, it helps me to consider that fundamental difference (our first things, if you will).

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Thos said...

Joseph,

Well, I certainly have a bad memory, so that is possible. And I both dislike novelty and claim no aptitude for it, so that makes it seem more possible. However, a quick search tells me this isn't a pure repeat. I've talked in comment boxes here and elsewhere about how important I think the process of the ecumenical dialogue is. I've talked about the litany of doubt before, in my reply to James White's '10 Questions'. I haven't, to my knowledge, used this masterful language from Gov. Burnett before though. I especially liked this part of his:

"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."

Would that I could have that disciplince and coherency of thought (I'd make a good lawyer, if nothing else)!

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Kim said...

(that is, I hit the trees even when talking only to myself).

Same here! All the time! lol

I believe that it is authority

I think you could be right, Tom. The Reformation appears to me to have been based on rebellion to authority, unless I'm mistaken. It's hard to know which historical accounts are closest to the truth. Any suggestions?

(Btw, I think I'll quit calling you Thos at this point, although it fits you in my mind's eye - don't know why, it just does.) :)

Joseph said...

Ah, yes... it must have been something you said in a few comboxes in the past. I hope you didn't think that I was bugged by a possible repeat, I just thought it was interesting and was wondering if a recent combox discussion led you to it or if it was purely because you recently read Burnett's (someone whom I've never heard of until now) book.

Hehe, the first thing I do is veer off topic! Sorry about that!

Kim said...

Tom, did you see Bryan's link here in one of his comboxes? Good article about what we've been talking about. Maybe you could blog about it?

Kim said...

Sorry, that should read "from one of his comboxes".

mel said...

Good to see you active in the discussions over at Bryan's blog. I respectfully accept your words, too, and have had instance where my own children were not invited to the Table at their grandparents' PCA church although they were already Believers at the time and already receiving the Lord's Supper (as we were worshipping in a military chapel). Again, I think it's one of those earthly things we try to make too much of....but not reducing I Cor. 11's warnings at all. Those are the main guidelines. Thanks for your comments.

Thos said...

Kim,

You can call me what you like. I used Thos. but for (only minor) anonymity, and because it's an old nickname.

As for blogging on justification, I've been thinking about your proposal this whole time. Right now, though, I can't bring myself to do it. I have a reluctance to "teach" the Bible, to exegete, and try to limit myself to expressing certain (simple) principles I see. I could give a summary of the respective teachings from the respective catechisms, I suppose. I'll think more about it. I think it might be over my head.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Thos said...

Mel,

Thanks for commenting. You seem to have taken my comment in the spirit in which it was meant, and for that I am thankful. You weren't the only one saying that about open communion, and I think yours is a *common* view in the PCA. I think people are often surprised by the PCA's more formal rules (not that they're bad, just not 'out there' for us to be exposed to on a regular basis).

Yours is an interesting perspective, that rules of exclusion from communion are 'earthly things' that we make too much of, 1 Cor 11 notwithstanding. I'll have to think more on that too. I was really surprised when we moved to a new town, and talked about church shopping an LCMS church, then learned we couldn't commune until we joined... But I try to respect what they think is going on at their Table.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Kim said...

Tom, I totally understand your reluctance to blog on justification. Even giving a comparison would be quite a headache, methinks.

In re-reading Romans for the umpteenth time (sometimes familiarity can be a disadvantage) I do see the Reformed view shining through. But am I missing nuances that are there because I am looking at it through Protestant eyes? I mean, if I were a Catholic, how would I read it? Would it say something different to me? Would I see a different emphasis?

Thos said...

Kim,

That's an interesting observation. I remember one time in particular where a read through Romans 7, 8 and 9 left me thinking the Catholics were off the deep end.

But then I read a book I often talk about (okay, I haven't even read the whole thing) - Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's "Predestination". It's not for the light-hearted. But the bottom line is that he presents Thomas Aquinas' view on Predestination that is thoroughly faithful to the Pauline letter and spirit of predestination in Romans. In this way, Aquinas and Calvin had great similarities, and the difference between them is both huge and simultaneously easy to miss (yes, it's that confusing to me).

All that to say that (I believe) you can be a flaming Papist and a stout-hearted reader of Romans at the same time.

Peace in Christ,
Tom