Ecumenical Rules of Engagement

Feb 26th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The introduction to the late Peter H. Burnett’s The Path which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church contains something that resonates with me regarding the discernment of the proper constitution of Christ’s Church:

To form a clear, accurate, and just conception of a subject is the legitimate end of all fair and honest investigation. And no end can be attained, without the use of proper means, and no correct solution of any question arrived at, but by adopting the proper method. . . . [Because] of our limited [intellectual] capacity, it is only by confining our attention to one particular at a time, and carefully estimating its force, and then passing to others in succession, that we can arrive at any clear conception of a subject. The mechanic who constructs a chain, makes each link separately. (emphases added)

But it is not only absolutely necessary to use the proper means, and pursue the proper method, but we should carefully remove all obstacles that may weaken the legitimate force of any argument that may be presented to the mind. And nothing is more important for this purpose than calm impartiality. All prejudices should be manfully cast aside, and no one should enter upon the investigation of any subject with any preconceived antipathies against it. He had better not investigate at all, for then he will at least save his labor.

Peter H. Burnett, 1st Governor of California, Lawyer and Catholic Convert

In other words, it takes a lot of hard work from all parties to a discussion to agree on even a narrow proposition and, depending on the work committed, ecumenical discussion can either be a labor of love or a waste of time. Much of the hardest work, the real nitty-gritty of discourse, is dedicated to coming to agreement on language and the meaning behind language. This process is far less glamorous than scoring points upon one’s adversary.

Too often in online ecumenical discussions, I see people respond to a challenging narrow proposition (i.e., a matter at issue) with a broad “shotgun” critique of their interlocutor’s overall position. This dodging of a narrow issue with a ‘litany of doubt‘ does not help anyone in the truth-seeking process. Instead, explicitly or implicitly, it “seeks to pick off the intellectually lethargic before they get sucked in by what the litanizer perceives to be error” (as I said here).

Could you imagine if our courts allowed such tactics? It might look like this: suppose a defendant attempts to vindicate himself by demonstrating that the bloody glove from the crime scene does not fit him very well. Then suppose that the prosecutor replies that the defendant had stolen gloves and socks in his house, that the defendant has poor tastes in clothing, and that his hands are really quite soft, like he hasn’t worked much manual labor in life. This reply does not address the matter at issue, but to an inattentive juror, a valid case could be lost because of it. Such prejudice to the court’s essential truth-finding function would never be permissible.

Because our ecumenical truth-seeking efforts should similarly demand a rigorous process of discussion, I encourage my brothers and sisters to respond only in kind, concluding each narrow issue raised in turn. Also, if you take someone up on one point, have the moral commitment to stay with them on that point until you both are in agreement, or can agree on what it is that causes your disagreement. Finally, as one Barrett Turner previously observed, we may need to include, in addition to the hard work of dialogue, “time for quiet synthesis by ourselves before we come back to talk to one another . . . ”

I intend to hold myself to these standards, and hope that other Christians would also, both on this site and ‘abroad’ (especially in real live discussions!).


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  1. These are some excellent considerations and, in my estimation, completely accurate. I maintained a religion blog for several years and eventually turned off commenting altogether because of issues just like you mention. I would post what I intended to be a thought-provoking article (and hoping for some intelligent but gracious dialogue) only to be slammed with hate mail. The worst of it was that the worst offenders always called themselves Christians. I finally gave up on allowing comments and very nearly gave up on writing on religious topics at all because of the nastiness and unwillingness to discuss a single issue.

    Thanks for your insights and excellent articulation of a critical issue in Christianity today!

  2. Dear Robert,

    Thanks so much for commenting.

    It’s reassuring to hear that you have shared the same experience with contributors to internet discussions who are not necessarily engaged in the pursuit of truth. I’ve been slammed with those comments too. They are hard on me. (One–a long while back–made me quit blogging for several months, I was so upset.) I’ve been trying to reorient my perspective to see these insults and cries of “fool” as a way for me to pick up and carry my cross for Jesus. I expect this site will generate a fair amount of uncharitable criticisms, and hope that I am prepared for them.

    You said, “The worst of it was that the worst offenders always called themselves Christians.” I agree that the problem is made far worse because it is people carrying Christ’s name who act in such uncharitable ways. No wonder we are such a divided lot, and the light of Christ is diminished from the world’s sight. I would note, though, that I consider these people (who engage in uncharitable dialogue) to be Christian, and not just people who call themselves Christian. That makes it “worst.” It’s not wolves in sheep’s clothing making a bad name for the lot of us, but it’s our own acting in hostility — it’s intellectual fratricide.

    Peace in Christ,

  3. Tom,

    It takes courage to do what Burnnett says. It takes intellectual courage to investigate other positions fairly, and with an open mind, not only because we fear that we might currently be wrong, but also because we fear we might not presently know enough to keep ourselves from being deceived if we openly consider other positions. Intellectually stepping outside of one’s own tradition, and sincerely considering other traditions, takes courage and a kind of faith that truth is there to be found. Refusing to consider other traditions allows one to preserve the security of one’s own tradition. But for the truth-lover, the risk of being deceived is worth taking, because one might presently be deceived, and the only way to find out is to start digging. That act of digging is like Peter’s act of stepping out on the water; it is uncertain, but it is willing to allow itself to be insecure and uncertain, in order that it might be lifted up by the truth.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. Dear Bryan,

    “not only because we fear that we might currently be wrong, but also because we fear we might not presently know enough to keep ourselves from being deceived if we openly consider other positions.”
    “the risk of being deceived is worth taking, because one might presently be deceived, and the only way to find out is to start digging.”

    I agree. The practice of protecting one’s present paradigm at all cost violates Kant’s categorical imperative.

    But I wonder what you think of Burnett’s view of our limited intellectual capacity. If we have the gift of reason as image bearer’s of God, how limited is our limited intellect? Certainly we don’t have God’s intellect, and you would not say that we have a completely damaged (worthless) intellect. (Am I even right to equate intellect with the capacity of reason?) If we have a somewhat (but not completely) damaged intellect, how do we know our intellect is still well enough to avoid being deceived when considering a competing truth-claim? Are some people well enough to avoid error, while others aren’t?

    Peace in Christ,

  5. Dear Tom,

    I agree with what Burnett says about our need to focus our attention on one particular at a time, instead of trying to evaluate a system as a whole without first understanding it in its particular details. Your question about the damaged intellect deserves its own article, because this is something I encounter in the Catholic-Reformed dialogue, namely, references to the “noetic effect of sin”. But, to answer your question, we don’t have a back-up intellect. We’ve only got the one we’ve got. So, we have to do our best with what we have. Our intellect doesn’t come with an up-front guarantee that we will avoid deception and error, or that we aren’t presently in deception and error. When I was a child we would joke about this old song: “It was good for our fathers (3x), and it’s good enough for me. It was good for our mothers (3x), and it’s good enough for me.” My brother would rightly point out that any religion could sing the same song. So we can’t just sit back and assume that staying with what we grew up with (or what we’re in now) is the best way to avoid error. If everyone whom we think is wrong adopted that same methodology (of simply staying with what they presently believe), we recognize that it would keep them in error. Therefore, we can’t rationally assume that adopting this methodology ourselves will protect us from error. So, we don’t know that our intellect is well enough to avoid being deceived. But keeping our blinders on, because we don’t want to be deceived, is like an ostrich burying its hand in the ground, so that its predators won’t see it. Nor can we circumvent the ‘fallen intellect’ problem by turning to Scripture, because we cannot understand Scripture without using that ‘fallen intellect’. So if our intellect is untrustworthy, then our interpretation of Scripture by means of that intellect is likewise untrustworthy. That deep distrust of our intellect leaves us in a skeptical hole, unable to know anything at all. As for your last question, I don’t think anyone is well enough to avoid error absolutely, but some people are better at avoiding error than others. When we work together as a community, we can help each other out, those with strengths in an area helping those with weaknesses in that area. So by jumping into the discussion, whether we are weak or strong, we can grow. That’s part of the beauty of the communion of saints in the Body of Christ.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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