Friday, April 17, 2015

The Death of Dialogue

“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:

  1. Anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals and may properly be denounced as homophobic.
  2. 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.
  3. All homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation.
  4. Science has proved this conclusively.
  5. Since people were born this way, that is how God made them, and homosexuality must therefore be accepted as a legitimate lifestyle.
  6. Anyone quoting the verses from Leviticus denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every Levitical law into the American criminal code.
  7. 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:

  1. Homosexuals are all going to hell because the Bible condemns homosexuality.
  2. Because God hates homosexuality He would never make anyone a homosexual and so no one was born with a homosexual orientation.
  3. Any homosexual therefore could change his or her sexual orientation if they really wanted to.
  4. 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.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Longest Week

What is the message for us on Paschal Eve, when the churches celebrate Paschal Vespers?  When we read the story of Thomas’ doubt and anguish, we want to jump ahead to finish the tale, and reflect on how Christ at length came to Thomas to resolve his doubts, fill him with joy, and elicit the saving cry, “My Lord and my God!”  But that story belongs not to Paschal Vespers, but to Thomas Sunday, a week later.  The message for Paschal Vespers is not “Christ is risen!”  It is a much harder message and a more difficult lesson.  And it can be summed up in one word:  “Wait”.
            It is not a very happy word.  Try using it on a child who wants something badly, and take notes on their reaction.  We don’t like to wait, even if we suspect there may be a good result at the end of our waiting, or even if we are promised a good result.  Waiting is hard.
            It was even harder for Thomas.  Thomas, I have always said, did not speak as he did because he was a hard-hearted doubter, but rather because he was a soft-hearted lover.  He loved Jesus deeply, profoundly, and heroically.  If we turn back a few pages in John’s Gospel, we see that he was even prepared to go and die with Jesus when he thought that Jesus’ trip to Judea to see Lazarus would end in His death (John 11:16).   Jesus was his whole life, and his whole life therefore fell apart when he saw Jesus betrayed, abandoned, condemned, tortured to death, and buried.  Harder still, Thomas knew that he had a part in that abandonment, when like all the others he forsook Him and fled during His arrest.  Thomas’ poor battered old heart could stand withstand another blow, another crushing disappointment.  He had to get off the emotional roller-coaster.  And so it was that when his companions reported that they had seen Jesus, Thomas had to draw the line in the emotional sand:  “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails,” (we can almost hear Thomas’ voice rising), “and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe!” (John 20:25).  That was how the first Paschal eve ended—not with a joyful revelation, but with a desperate cry of pain and despair.
            And then the wait.  For Thomas, what we call “Bright Week” was the longest week of his life, and possibly the worst.  How many times did he burst into tears that week, or find himself unable to eat or drink or converse?  How many times did depression smother him like a black blanket so that he had trouble even getting out of bed?  We may never know for sure.  But we may be sure that his mind played and re-played the horrible events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion over and over and over, and when he closed his eyes, he could see the cross.
            At last, of course, the week was over, and we know how joyfully it ended.  The true lesson for us therefore is that if we wait for Jesus, it will all end in joy.  Waiting is still hard.  Like Thomas during his longest week, we may have to endure pain.  We may have to endure bereavement, sickness, and a thousand other tragedies which pierce our hearts and wring tears from our eyes.  But at the end of it all, at the end of our earthly existence, Jesus will be there, to make it all right, and to wipe away every tear.  Then like Thomas we too can fall down before Him, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”  It is okay to wait.  It’s hard, but it’s okay.  Christ is risen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Targeting Christians

          Yet another massacre at the hands of an Islamic group has been reported, this time in the country of Kenya.  According to news reports, Al-Shabab militants wearing masks stormed into the dormitories of Garissa University College in Kenya early in the morning, shooting people at random and taking hostages.  When the carnage was finally over fifteen hours later, all four gunmen lay dead, and at least 147 others were slain.  One newswoman reported, “Students say the attackers were going from dorm to dorm, targeting Christians.”  If the student was a Muslim, that student was released.  If the student were a Christian, that student was killed.
            It is, of course, impossible to get into the minds of such men and to understand their motivation.  One thinks of the Lord’s words about the persecution of His apostles:  “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2).  It seems that similarly these men thought that they were doing the will of Allah and furthering Allah’s cause.  Were they thinking that this massacre was some kind of pay-back for American foreign policy?  Or pay-back for western support of Israel?  Or pay-back for the Crusades?  It is difficult enough to sort out tangled and multi-faceted motivations, even when the person is alive and willing to share.  Sorting out the motivation of the dead gunmen along with all the complications of American foreign policy and African politics is well beyond our ability to understand—or anyway, beyond mine.  I therefore have no advice whatsoever to offer regarding what our political response should be.  But of the spiritual dynamics involved, things are rather more clear.
            It seems that for the gunmen, the students did not exist as persons—that is, as individuals with names and stories and families and sins and joys and sorrows.  In their world, everything was one-dimensional:  one was either Muslim or kafir, an unbeliever.  The victims scarcely existed for the gunmen at all beyond being simply the bearers of such labels.  Their training taught them to regard everyone simply as members of one tribe or another, either as believers or infidels.  In this worldview, gradations of faith, shades of gray, or any other nuance or distinction simply didn’t exist.  It didn’t matter that the Christians in the dorms might not have approved of American foreign policy or of the State of Israel or even of the west’s “war on terror”.  Their actual views and opinions on these topics and a host of others didn’t matter.  All that mattered was their label—they were Christians, kafir, the Other, the Enemy, members of the wrong tribe.  And all the hatred that their religious training taught them was due to (for example) American foreign policy could be justly aimed at them. 
            What is the lesson for us here at home?  In a word, not to be like them.  It is a valid question what part Islam played in the gunmen’s worldview and whether or not the violence found in the Qur’an and the in the life of Muhammad are contributing factors in the rise of Jihadism worldwide.  But this is a separate question, and whatever answer we ultimately give to it does not change the fact that many Muslims are good and peace-loving people.  It could be that such people are peace-loving not because of Islam, but in spite of it.  The question, involving the human heart, is a difficult one, and defies easy analysis.  But we must not include all Muslims under one label and treat them all the same as the gunmen included all Christians under one label.  Not all Muslims are the same.  The first and fundamental fact about anyone is not their religion or their label, but that he or she is our neighbour, and that we are commanded by Christ to love that person.  Jesus loves everyone, and shed His Blood on the Cross for everyone—for Christians, Jews, Muslims, even violent mask-wearing, murdering Jihadists.  Each person has a name and a history and struggles and fears and hopes, and we must relate to each person separately and by name.  Labels, though easy to use and comforting, do not really help us make sense of the world. The world is a scary, complicated place, full of nuance, mystery, shades of gray, and even contradictory motivations, and it resists easy labelling. These deluded men did not see the world as it really was.  That was how they could go from room to room, targeting Christians.  We must not live like them, and go from year to year, targeting Muslims.  We must see each person before us as they really are.