Feeling mislabeled

Timothy Tennent argues that we have in the United Methodist Church two groups:

What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.

As you might imagine, his terms have provoked applause and disagreement. Those who find themselves described as orthodox appreciate that someone is describing their sense of things well. Those described as heterodox are less enthusiastic about his categories.

This happens the other way, too. Some of us are called bigots over doctrine. Others engage in a more subtle kind of labeling that goes like this. “When I was young, I believed what the church taught, but now that I am older and have thought about it more …” Or another variation: “Many thoughtful/intelligent Christians look at these questions and …” These constructions appear to suggest only immature or non-thoughtful people take the opposite position.

Even when all we are trying to do is describe out own position in positive ways, we end up labeling people who disagree with us in negative ways.

Perhaps this is just the price of trying to think and speak clearly.

I suppose the Donatists and Pelagians did not like be called heretics, either. Church of England stalwarts did not like John Wesley going around defining “real” Christians in terms that eliminated most of them from the term.

But is interesting to me that nearly everyone feels that they are being described in inaccurate terms and in ways that are not honoring what they are trying to say. I wonder if this is just the way it is or if there is something that can be done about it.

Death to straw men

United Methodist Internet conversation is plagued by many logical fallacies. We invoke the slippery slope. We appeal to authority. We roll out the band wagon. The one that always comes to my mind first, though, is our rampant use of straw man arguments.

This is so common that it almost appears to be required, as if the Book of Discipline mandated its use.

The moves are simple. First you over simplify or mischaracterize a competing argument. This is setting up the straw man. Then you knock the straw man down, leading to the conclusion that your alternative must be the better argument.

The only solution I know for this problem comes from the counsels of active listening. When we want to describe the position or argument of a person with whom we disagree, we must first ask that person if the argument as we have described it fairly represents what they are trying to argue or say.

Only once we can construct our opponent’s argument in a manner that strikes them as fair should we critique it.

Now, of course, it often happens on the Internet that we cannot engage in the kind of back-and-forth that would allow us to get that kind of acknowledgment. But that should be a goal in all we do.

It is not as fun as knocking down straw men, but it is certainly more in keeping with the law of love.

Getting to yes in the UMC

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

I’ve been thinking lately of Fisher and Ury’s classic book on negotiation Getting to Yes. It is a book about reaching successful agreements, success being defined in part as an agreement that all parties to the agreement observe. (Here is a summary of the book’s main ideas.)

I know the very thought of negotiation and compromise on the matters that threaten to split our denomination is anathema to many. To both sides of the conflict, it is tantamount to turning away from God’s righteousness.

I understand that. I am exploring these questions, however, as one who is not persuaded that splintering is either God’s desire or the cure for what ails us.

Here is the book summary on the difference between positional and principled bargaining. Which one sounds like us?

Negotiations often take the form of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining each part opens with their position on an issue. The parties then bargain from their separate opening positions to agree on one position. Haggling over a price is a typical example of positional bargaining. Fisher and Ury argue that positional bargaining does not tend to produce good agreements. It is an inefficient means of reaching agreements, and the agreements tend to neglect the parties’ interests. It encourages stubbornness and so tends to harm the parties’ relationship.

Fisher and Ury argue that principled bargaining requires four steps:

  1. separate the people from the problem
  2. focus on interests rather than positions
  3. generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
  4. insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria

Let’s look briefly at a few parts of that first step: separating people from the problem.

Fisher and Ury argue that a large problem in any negotiation is that people tend identify personally with their position, and so experience any non-favorable response to their issue as a personal attack. This tends to make it very hard to see the issues clearly and to speak about them rationally.

Fisher and Ury highlight three kinds of people problems: perception, emotion, and communication. (Read the summary of the book for a quick take on these.) The bottom line on the first step in the process is summed up nicely on the web page:

Generally the best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising. People problems are less likely to come up if the parties have a good relationship, and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

And so, the impasse emerges. Are the two sides in our denominational crisis willing to come together as peacemakers seeking an agreement that speaks to the interests of everyone? Or are we locked in a struggle that both sides can cast only as a competition between angels of light and angels of darkness?

I know and greatly admire individuals on both sides of this conflict. I also am aware of people on both sides who would never be interested in unity. They see unity as a rag of shame when it requires compromise on the principles they hold most dear.

I understand that. But I still want to explore whether it is possible to be peacemakers in the midst of our conflict. Can we enter into a process — if not all of us then some of us — that does not seek to destroy each other but to make peace in the midst of our conflict?

A failure to communicate?

David Watson looks at the United Methodist Church’s main web site. If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he asks, why is that mission so hard to discern from the web site?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Is this how Christians should disagree?

I found this an interesting interview between former United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer and a critic. Of course, the host big-footed the interview some, but the tone and exchange was much better than most of our conversations. It is about 45 minutes in length. The two end with expressions of mutual respect that is not common in our vitriolic discourse.

‘The’ gospel vs. their gospel

Craig Adams shares a guest post by William Birch about the gospel. Birch outlines nicely a genre of “gospel-ology” that has gained a significant following and has been popularized by writers such as Scot McKnight and NT Wright.

The short version is that traditional and contemporary evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel. They put too much stress on salvation and soteriology and neglect the bigger story of creation, Israel, Jesus, and the New Heaven and Earth.

Birch sums up the conclusion of the storied gospel critique of the plan-of-salvation gospel this way:

Whenever we deconstruct the gospel to a mere formula, ignoring the story of Israel and how Jesus “fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s story,” we then “permit the gospel to collapse into the abstract, de-storified points in the Plan of Salvation.” The blight of such a bankrupt gospel is reduced to what the late Dallas Willard called “sin management,” which presumes “a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind . . .” and that which fosters “vampire Christians,” who “only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven.” That is a scathing critique of modern evangelicalism, and it is true.

What interests me is the rhetorical move being made by McKnight, Wright, Birch, and others. It sounds very similar to the rhetoric of those who they critique. The form goes this way: “Those people are wrong or only partly right. Here is the full gospel and what it means.”

What such folks do not often give me — and what I long for — is advice on how to read or receive the wisdom of all those who have come before who they view as carrying around a deficient gospel. What do I do with the sadly lacking “soterian” gospel of John Wesley, for instance? We are long on critique and replacement, but short on appreciation and thankfulness for the gifts that these others bring.

It seems like we all do this. Wesley did it, too. I’m sure people will say I do it. Paul in Galatians certainly did it. We all proclaim the gospel as we understand it. Since it is the gospel, we want to make sure that people understand it for what it really is. But this leaves us discounting the gospel that others proclaim, often in terms that suggest those others are ignorant, self-interested, or worse.

How do we talk about the gospel while respecting the fact that we all see only darkly now?