“Dialogue” is a happy word, along with other happy words like “inclusive”, “tolerance”, and “acceptance”. It is assumed by our culture that all reasonable people are open to dialogue—that is, open to hearing the other person’s point of view, and to a respectful exchange of views, and to possibly changing one’s own view in favour of the opposing viewpoint if the arguments of the other person are found to be compelling. Dialogue is good. We do not assume we are correct in all our views to such a degree that we will not even give an opposing viewpoint a respectful hearing. Our western civilization, I suggest, is based on a willingness to dialogue. One might even suggest that such openness to changing one’s mind is rooted in a Biblical world-view: God calls us to such dialogue when He says through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).
Given the importance of true dialogue to our civilization’s health, it is all the more distressing to find that willingness to dialogue is dying. People still talk and respond to each other, of course, but the exchanges are more like a boxing match than true dialogue. That is, people are not really open to hearing what the other person says, and then responding to it. Their mind is already made up, and the arguments of the other person are regarded more or less as mere room-noise. Their responses are simply attempts to land a verbal punch.
Take for example the current debate on homosexuality. In perusing Facebook exchanges, for example, I see that true debate rarely if ever occurs. The side speaking in favour of homosexuality holds to a number of dogmas, and nothing anyone says will cause them to question them. These dogmas are:
- Anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals and may properly be denounced as homophobic.
- The classic distinction between sin and sinner and any talk about hating the sin while loving the sinner is simply an attempt to mask one’s hatred of homosexuals.
- All homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation.
- Science has proved this conclusively.
- Since people were born this way, that is how God made them, and homosexuality must therefore be accepted as a legitimate lifestyle.
- Anyone quoting the verses from Leviticus denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every Levitical law into the American criminal code.
- There is no distinction between private peccadillo and public ideology. Thus, for example, if a baker would serve a customer who has what he considers a private peccadillo (such as homosexuality), he is bound also to serve at public function which promotes such a lifestyle or ideology (such as a gay wedding or a Gay Pride event).
These dogmas are fixed in their mind, and no amount of dialogue or argument will ever dislodge them. If someone attempts this and says that he actually does not hate homosexuals, but in fact has a number of close friends who are gay and they all get along just fine, this assertion is simply disallowed. It is judged an impossibility, because “anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals”. If someone quotes scientific opinions to the effect that at least some cases of homosexuality might not to innate, that also is simply disallowed, because “all homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation”. If someone cites the prohibitions of homosexuality in Leviticus, one is told that they then must logically push for stoning people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, since that also is in Leviticus. It is no use to attempt to distinguish between laws reflecting timeless morality (such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”; Leviticus 19:18), and those laws reflecting a time-bound theocratic state (such as the one about keeping the Sabbath). Such an attempt to nuance and distinguish in is simply disallowed, because “anyone quoting the verses from Leviticus denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every Levitical law into the American criminal code”. Those committed to legitimizing homosexuality rarely in my experience seem capable of true dialogue, and any attempt at it will inevitably result in a recitation of one or more of the dogmas outlined above. It is as if the mind has been caught in an endless loop, like a record stuck in the same groove which keeps on repeating. One does not need to refute the thoughtful arguments of others to win the debate; all that is required is a forceful recitation of one of the dogmas.
To be sure, there are plenty of people speaking against homosexuality who do the same thing and also cannot seem to engage in true dialogue. Their dogmas are:
- Homosexuals are all going to hell because the Bible condemns homosexuality.
- Because God hates homosexuality He would never make anyone a homosexual and so no one was born with a homosexual orientation.
- Any homosexual therefore could change his or her sexual orientation if they really wanted to.
- Faithful Christians may legitimately hate homosexuals.
Once again, it is no use arguing with anyone in this mindset. If you say that you think at least some homosexuals were born with such an orientation, this is simply disallowed. It cannot be, because "no one was born with a homosexual orientation". Again, real proof of the assertion is not required, simply the recitation of the dogma. One could go on, but you get the idea.
In this important debate there are plenty of folk on both sides who simply are not listening or responding to the arguments of the other side. What is needed, if civilization is to resist the current drift toward disallowing politically incorrect opinions, and toward draconian enforcement of politically ascendant norms, is more real listening and more true dialogue. Granted it is hard work to pay close attention to people we find irritating and whose opinions we abhor. But that hard work is essential if real civilization is to continue.
Currently it is all very discouraging. When thoughtful Christians try to argue their case for traditional sexual morality in the public forum, their argument doesn’t get very far. That is, I submit, because a dialogue is not actually occurring. The other side is not listening. They are simply talking to themselves. If this continues to be the case, it is best to recognize this sad fact and cope with it. What does coping with it involve? Well, in the early church it meant taking canonical action.
For there comes a time in some exchanges when further debate and dialogue are useless, for neither side in the debate share enough common presuppositions for them to reach an agreement. Sometimes, even after true debate and with all the good will in the world, the two sides share incompatible first principles, and so can never reach consensus no matter how long they talk. When that happened in (say) the first century with St. Paul and his Judaizing opponents, there was nothing for it but to agree to disagree. And since the debate was not over trifles but over something basic, this involved the Church drawing a canonical line in the sand and declaring the other side outside the Church.
This happened again in the fourth century. The debate over the nature of Christ—was He God Almighty in the flesh or not—raged on and on. Eventually it became apparent that continued debate with Arius and his supporters would not result in consensus, since they were following a different set of first principles. As this involved something basic to Christian discipleship there was nothing for it but to take canonical action and to anathematize Arianism. Note: this did not involve hating Arians or refusing them service when they walked into your Constantinopolitan barber shop. It just meant that the person confessing Arianism was no longer a part of the Church.
It seems that we may rapidly be reaching this now over the issue of homosexuality. The issue is not marginal, but basic to salvation and to what a life of Christian obedience to God looks like. Let us hope that the possibility of true dialogue is not really dead and that it is not quite time to throw in the towel. Our task is to remain faithful to our inherited apostolic Tradition, and to argue for it as irenically and persuasively as we can.
But if it at length it becomes apparent that there remains no possibility of convincing the other side with argument, the Church has little choice if it would remain faithful to its timeless Tradition. The time will have come to draw our canonical line in the sand over this and declare that we Orthodox no longer regard as fellow-Christians those who insist on contradicting the Tradition. Obviously we will continue to love them, as we love everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. But the line in the sand must be drawn.