Why is Dialogue so Difficult? Part I

Determined leaders of The Episcopal Church who have read their Family Systems, albeit in a superficial way, and have learned to be “non-anxious” in the face of crisis and learned to “reframe” the current crisis as “a fantastic opportunity” speak endlessly of the need to hang together and keep talking and of the healing potential of dialogue. There are endless exchanges in the blogosphere and some notable irenic voices who make a real effort to visit the cyber-world of the opposition and engage in civil argument and exchange. Yet, it is hard to deny that the church is more polarized than ever and poised for some kind of major realignment. Why is it that talking works so poorly and especially among church people? The exchanges seem to harden people in their appraisal of the other side and seem to produce despair rather than hope. After the election of Gene Robinson my diocese held a series of public forums so that the bishop and the delegates could explain their votes. My experience of this effort was that people on both sides of the issue went in angry and came out furious and appalled. My experience of debate on my own blog over the last several years makes me quite despairing of the possibility of genuine argument. Why is it so hard to really have an exchange which produces, if not conciliation or agreement, at least increased understanding?

It is obvious by now that the debate over sexuality as important as it is, is a stalking horse for a disagreement over the nature of truth itself and therefore over the way in which Christian dogma and Christian scripture can be thought of as true and authoritative. The argument is so irresolvable because there are simply no common criteria to which both parties can appeal. Clearly one cannot appeal to scripture and tradition for the meaning of these things is profoundly in dispute and likewise one cannot appeal to polity for the nature of the polity is clearly and profoundly in dispute. I believe that The Episcopal Church is in a kind of hyper-constitutional crisis for it is being seriously disputed whether the constitution of the church can have any adjudicating role at all. The reasserters play the trump of scripture and the reappraisers play the trump of experience and both assert in different ways that the stakes are too high to be tried synodically at least at synods that appear to be hostile to their various interests. Reason is brought in as a traditional Anglican authority mostly by the reappraising side to mean vague results of unnamed “scholars and experts”. (By the way I have not yet received a reply to my now years old challenge for the citation of a single scientific paper in a peer reviewed journal which holds that same-sex attraction is only or primarily biologically determined. But never mind because it is profoundly disputed by both sides that science could ever be determinative in either direction.) The dispute is at heart a dispute about the nature of truth and therefore about the nature of reality and the nature of the rational. The dispute in The Episcopal Church and in the other Western Churches including the Roman Catholic Church ( it has more intellectual and institutional ballast but by no means immunity) is an echo, a reflection of the paralysis of Western Civilization in the throws of an utter loss of confidence in the very idea of truth while it stands toe to toe with a fierce, committed and determined enemy in the ideology of Islamism.

I can find nothing to add to the analysis of Lesslie Newbigin. Depending on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi, Newbigin analyzed the problem in the culture and in the churches as an accommodation to an antinomy between belief and knowledge. Based on a spurious quest for “certain knowledge” of the sort that the hard sciences were thought to give the world has been divided into things we can know and things we can only believe. Religion is in the second category. People are entitled to their beliefs as long as they do not impinge on the freedom and beliefs of others but belief and knowledge are two separate things and to assert for instance that Jesus Christ is the one and only eternal son of God as though it were something that could be known as a fact with a claim to universal validity is to pretend to a certainty that cannot be had. The only things that can be known with certainty are those things that can survive the most stringent application of doubt. Polanyi showed that this paradigm of knowledge cannot account for science itself and especially for the scientific act of discovery. Belief and even tradition handed on as authoritative in an authoritative community are shown convincingly by Polanyi to be indispensable for all knowing and especially scientific knowledge. Doubt is important but doubt is always based on belief. Polanyi thought his analysis of scientific discovery endorsed Augustine that belief is the foundation of all knowing. There is no way to escape making personal commitments which of necessity claim to grasp an independent reality and which claim universal validity.

Newbigin thought that both so called liberals and fundamentalists had succumbed to the privatization of religious truth in different ways. Liberals eschew making any public or historical claims for faith. The resurrection of Jesus is for instance in this scheme a metaphor or something that expresses an inchoate inner experience. Fundamentalists make the public and historical claims but in an obscurantist way insisting on the young earth against the fossil evidence and so on. There are theological conservatives that are not pre-critical. I am continually bemused by the posts of reappraisers on my blog that assume that I am not aware of “the best scholarship,” and who assume that my big problem is a kind of pre-critical haze. But in general conservatives are committed to a paradigm of reality and an understanding of the nature of truth which is easily and quickly dismissed by Liberals or reappraisers or whatever the right term is. Likewise the arguments of the Liberals seem thin, impious and at times willfully deceptive and intellectually dishonest to the conservative side. I put up a commentary of “To Set Our Hope on Christ”, the official brief of The Episcopal Church for the consecration of Gene Robinson, on my blog. I did it as a discipline so that I would have to read the document in its entirety and carefully. I found it mind numbing and nearly impossible to do so because the starting premises seemed to me so implausible.

Now here is the problem; two competing views of reality giving rise to two different rationalities. As Polanyi pointed out when studying the rational stability of scientific theories, different paradigms give rise to different systems of reasoning which have a stability which is very difficult to break. Thomas Kuhn famously developed this aspect of Polanyi’s thought with his discussion of “paradigm shifts.” The great example is the shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican cosmology. It is possible to argue rigorously and rationally and consistently within each paradigm but it is impossible to reason from one paradigm to the other. Something must happen which will cause a paradigm shift.

In Western Culture today there is a great divide. On the one side is the majority of the intellectual elite including the leaders of the mainline churches and many of the leaders of American Roman Catholicism and American Judaism. There are moderns and post-moderns but all on this side of the divide share a deep epistemological pessimism. The difference between modernism and post-modernism is the depth of pessimism about whether what can be known with confidence is small or non existent. All in this camp agree that there is very little that can been known with certainty. Religious truth is not by its nature something that can rightly claim universal validity even as something to be adjudicated by the trial of history. Religious beliefs can have a role as personal truth and a source of moral energy. To the extent they can be validated they will be validated by their contribution to the general human good and especially their contribution to the autonomy of the individual. True religion is that which leads people to be charitable and empowering toward their neighbors. Religion which makes claims to universal validity is guilty prima facie of being an oppressive force. The mission of the church in this scheme emphasizes good works and the sharing of religious experience in dialogues which do not seek conversion because such would be oppressive. The universities and the seminaries are in the hands of the epistemological pessimists as are many of the public schools. The clergy corps of the mainline churches and especially those in positions of authority and power are massively in the pessimist camp. Whenever one hears clergy referring to “the divine” or the need to get on with mission, meaning anti-poverty work and public health work one is hearing a spokesperson of this paradigm.

On the other side of the divide there are people who are epistemological optimists when it comes to religious truth. They believe in revelation as the trustworthy basis of a truth which can appropriately claim universal validity and which makes public truth claims about history past and history to come. On this side of the divide there are the pre-critical and the post-critical. There are believers in the young earth and those like Michael Polanyi who believe in evolution but doubt spontaneous natural selection as a reasonable explanation of the origin of sentient life. There are people who take the Bible as authoritative in a pre-critical way and there are those who have taken on board the critical method but have also seen its limits and its own coded claims for its faith commitments behind its pretended objectivity. In the intellectual elites this is a minority position. For those on this side of the divide mission is the sharing of truth about public and historical realities about who God has revealed himself to be by what God has done and that aims at a conversion of commitment away from falsehood and to the truth. Jesus is not merely my Lord which I claim for no more than myself lest I put God in too small a box but Jesus is The Lord to which every knee shall in the end bow and obey. This belief is put forward as a truth with universal validity with an invitation to put the case to a trial by committing to it. Of course mission must show a care and concern for the poor but mission which does not carry with it confident proclamation about the universal validity of the Gospel for all people is simple a betrayal of the command to “go into all nations and make disciples.”

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