Because this is a penitential season, I thought it might be a good thing to look at how my own tendencies and personality traits sometimes get in the way of communicating clearly and positively what I am thinking and trigger anxiety and reaction rather than conversation and deeper listening.
I am thinking in regard especially to my post on the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. As I have pondered it, I do not think that my underlying supposition was without merit. However, I should have taken a step back and realized that this was not a piece for debate but a pastoral letter. That does not mean that it is not subject to critique but that it is designed to do something different than a statement of doctrine.
I think I could have reacted to the letter from the point of talking through its pastoral implications rather than its theological merits. I think that I did a better job of that in a follow up piece – but the initial response could have been more carefully crafted so as to respond to underlying questions I had about its overall effectiveness.
In looking at a chart about INTP personality types, it was interesting to see how my personality type tendencies were directly revealed in the piece and, moreover, how those who responded with either vigorous assent or vehement disagreement may have been operating out of their own type inclinations as well.
INTPs tend to be
- Analysts and abstract thinkers
- May be condescending
- Loathe rules and guidelines
I approached the Presiding Bishop’s message as something to be analyzed rather than engaged. I was straightforward in communicating that analysis and insensitive to her intent and those who found meaning in it. The piece definitely held elements of condescension and a loathing of rules and guidelines made it unlikely that I would hold my opinion in check despite the rather wide gap in our respective ecclesiastical standing.
While I do not doubt the underlying validity of my critique, both the writing and the response it generated have reminded me that people will run with whatever you put out there and impose upon you and what you write all that they wish to – and we bear some responsibility for putting out there things that will enliven and yet create space for dialogue.
Opprobrium and Reaction
Once, I had the pleasure of engendering “conservative” opprobrium. In a conservative journal, I was asked, “What, are you high?” and “Have you been smoking crack?” and fun things like “And where has this silly man been? One can only feel pity. I have no respect for him” were said.
And when I offered a criticism of Communion regardless of Baptism another piped up “You’re OK with pervert priests marrying their paramours, with celebrations of abortion, and THIS is what bugs you?”
Over the course of the day yesterday and today though the indignation and personal attack from those on the liberalish part of the Episcopal Church has, frankly, been just as heated.
One of the more heated remarks went, “Idiots suspicious of interpretive language who enforce their own parched ecclesiology on the rest of us born out of their limited christology may be a binding phenomenon across the Communion.”
This whole episode has demonstrated for me two things.
The first is that there is a passionate debate to be had about what it means to share the Good News in a changing culture.
The second is that there is a need for us to create space for those conversations to happen in which “smoking crack” and “idiots” are not the terms we use in those discussions.
I wrote not long ago on my distaste for using the phrase “You don’t have to leave your brain at the door” to describe Episcopal churches. This whole debate has solidified my conviction that there is a deeper issue here – we don’t know how to have a lively discussion without often resorting to invective and questioning the intellectual capacity of those with whom we disagree.
My criticism was sharp and pointed – and it focused on the Presiding Bishop’s message. I did not call her a heretic, tyrant, or an ice queen or any of the other foul things I have seen her called. Neither did I say she was an idiot or smoking crack. I questioned her message’s ability to reach those who are unchurched or those yearning for a strong articulation of the promise and person of Christ.
We have this interesting phenomenon going on – we are addicted to politeness and niceness so long as they are being used to ignore difficult topics. That is until we are not.
Then the gloves are off and there is open season on those with whom we disagree. The quickest way, of course, for a good Episcopal argument to be settled is by questioning the intellectual ability of those with whom we disagree and dismissing them.
What I am longing for is a passionate, evangelical, catholic articulation of the faith that helps lay out what it means to be a faithful person who belongs to a Church that has taken progressive positions on a host of issues. This is where we can learn from the Oxford Movement – there was a theological core that made them fierce advocates for social and economic justice.
I am committed in coming posts to exercise as much charity and kindness as possible and to offer positive articulations on faith and hope. I too don’t want to get caught in the trap of responding out of habit, reactiveness, or personality quirks and to make sure that I am helping to create a space for the honest and open exchange of ideas.
We are trapped in a culture of reactivity and primed to be offended. I think this has less to do with any one person’s failures than it does with our deep seated desire to find a safe home in which we know who we are. Whether it is “liberals” (for lack of a better word) who have found a safe haven or “conservatives” who found a place that was a place of disciplined prayer and theological rigor – it is too easy for us to forget that this Church is a home for the wayward and the lost. It is a home for those struggling to make meaning in a confusing time.
There might be heated disagreement but we are all, ultimately, wanderers who have stumbled in one way or another into this place of grace. We will have heated discussions about its future and direction because this is a place where our identity is being crafted and new life is being found – it is a place we love because it let us know that we were loved in return.
I am not hoping to quiet or avoid fierce and passionate discussion – I am longing for it. The Episcopal Church needs a renewed passion and focus. I just hope we can do so without needing to throw our brothers and sisters under the bus as idiots along the way.
Jesse Zink said:
Excellent post. I think we need to see the current state of “debate” in the Episcopal Church in light of the current state of “debate” in the country at large, particularly in our politics. The church, too often, mirrors the world around us—and you describe it rightly: falsely polite, too prone to take offense / be outraged at the drop of a hat—when it should be doing precisely the opposite. (Plus, outrage is such a boring emotion when resorted to so quickly.)
Perhaps the way church members disagree with one another could be part of our witness to the world.
Fr. David said:
It seems our culture in the West is unable to ‘discuss’ issues without falling into ad hominum argument. I wonder why that now occurs? Time and again I see issues presented and the writer is attacked and the actual point of discussion by-passed!
This is a terrific piece, and the points you raise deserve wide consideration when it comes to church debates. In these moments, I wonder whether we have forgotten the second great commandment, which you, in your post, commit to obey. One doesn’t see a great deal of Christian charity (or humility) in these conversations.
I also wonder about the ability to have conversation in a time when the very substance of theological and ecclesiological orthodoxy is, it seems, at the foundation of the debate. There is really no referee, as opposing camps will seldom recognize any common authority other than, to each, its own interpretation of whatever matter is at hand. Small wonder, then, at the prevalence of ad hominem attacks.
In such a climate, I suppose that charity and humility are that much more important if we have any hope of reaching consensus (or even truce).