“Every subject which contains in itself any controversy existing either in language or in disputation, contains a question either about a fact, or about a name, or about a class, or about an action.”
— Cicero, On Invention
Adam Hamilton wrote recently about a meeting he had with other leaders across the United Methodist Church to discuss face-to-face the crisis over sexual morality. His post about the meetings and his reflection are interesting, but I was struck by the comments as well. In them, Hamilton was taken to task by a couple of people for reducing “people” to “issues” because he wrote about the way disagreement over sexual morality has become an issue in the church.
The comments highlight the basic incoherence of all our “conversations” regarding the morality of same-sex sex.We cannot even agree what it is that we are talking about.
Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote that every controversy could be thought of as centering around one of four questions. (His analysis may be flawed, but for the moment I am using it as a tool to help me think through our recurrent failures to communicate.)
The first is a question of fact. What, in fact, has happened or is happening or will happen. I do not see this much in dispute among us. To take the ordination debate as the point of conversation, no one disagrees with the fact that the United Methodist Church has written law that says certain actions disqualify a person for ordained ministry or appointment. In particular cases, establishing the facts of those actions has become difficult and contentious, as the Amy DeLong trial demonstrated.
Where we agree on the facts, we might instead have a question of proper naming. Cicero uses the example of someone who steals sacred objects from a temple. Is that person merely a thief or should we call them sacrilegious?
In our disputes, this question of naming appears to come up quite a bit. Is what we are discussing a matter of discipline or a case of bigotry? Is it about love or about holiness? If about love, what do we mean by that word? And on and on. The problem here, of course, is that we never actually engage in actual conversation to settle this question or at least try to test it. Instead, we use whatever name each side finds most useful or apt. The name we use becomes a flag to rally support rather than a point of honest inquiry and debate among us.
If our dispute is over naming, then responsible rhetoric would require us to make the case for the name we wish to use. Bishop Talbert says it is bigotry for the church to say those who engage in anal sex are not fit for ordination. Okay, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the meaning of bigotry. Let’s talk about the meaning of ordination and the standards that the church should use in determining who is and who is not fit to be ordained or appointed. Let’s talk about what God desires that we do with our bodies and how those desires shape our understanding of ordination. Let us seek to determine if “bigotry” really is the proper name for what the church has decided. As history has shown, the church has done unholy things and called them holy before. Let’s examine this and see what it should be properly called. Let’s do this at General Conference.
Or, if we want to construct the question from the other side, let those of us who argue that ordination and anal sex are incompatible put forth this argument in a careful and rational way. To do so, we would have to articulate a theology of ordination that I am not certain we can claim to possess at the moment. As a licensed local pastor myself, I am aware that our practice makes our theologizing about ordination a risky proposition. But if we would be both devout and reasonable, perhaps we should be prepared to face these difficulties.
However we set the question, not everyone will be persuaded at first, but right now we are leap-frogging the conversation and resorting to sloganism rather than rational and deliberative and — I would argue — loving inquiry. We do not trust that men and women can be rational, so we resort to the tools of unreason, passion, and naked power. And, of course, in doing so accuse each other of being interested in nothing but unreason, passion, and naked power.
Cicero’s third distinction are disputes about a class or kind. The question here is not over what happened or what to name it but over the importance of the thing itself. In our current debates, some argue on this ground. Their characteristic argument goes like this: “We have more important things to be giving our attention to.”
Most who argue this are not actually following Cicero (not that any of them claim to), because they have not actually stopped to settle the question of naming. They go to the issue of importance to try to side step the raging controversy over the naming of what it is that unsettles us.
Cicero’s fourth distinction — action — has to do with legal standing and whether an issue or debate if properly under consideration. I do not see clear application here to our discussions.
Again, I do not mean to argue that Cicero is binding on us in any way or that his own thoughts — which evolved over time — are the only way to describe the challenge of practical rationality. I merely wish to use his thought to help me reflect on the pathetic state of our own discourse.
Of course, Cicero’s analysis does not get past the fact that some folks find little use for this kind of reasoned discourse. Some are suspicious of the entire enterprise of reasoned debate. It is just power masking itself behind privilege, they say. Others find the time for reasoned discussion past. We have talked about these things for 40 years, they say. Further debate — no matter how reasonable — will change nothing.
It is worth noting that Cicero’s life was lived in the midst of the Roman Republic’s death throes as men intent on seizing power resorted to demagoguery and violence to take what they wanted. Cicero was eventually branded an enemy of the state and killed. Cicero’s reflections on proper practical reasoning had little influence when armies were on the march.
The United Methodist Church — for better or worse — is a small “r” republican form of polity. It is quite correct to note that our polity owes a huge debt to the republicanism at the heart of the American revolution and the best ideals of the American form of government. The founders of the American experiment in governance were admirers of Cicero, too, and suspicious of both anarchy and tyrants. Some of us — in our times of chaos — are calling for a Caesar to set right what has gone so wrong. We read and hear open admiration of a polity with a Pope who can rule and judge alone. Or conversely, we read and hear open admiration for a disintegration of the denomination into individual congregations, in which every church is its own polity. By and large, we have lost faith in the very form of our polity and the notion of rationality that informs it.
Our republic is dysfunctional. There is no doubt about that. Perhaps it is too late to hope that a commitment to rational and practical discourse among us would restore the legitimacy of our polity. Perhaps the Rubicon has been passed and the die has been cast.