The Art of Disagreement

The recent debates on the appropriate response to the women’s ordination controversy threw into sharper relief a set of issues that have regularly cropped up on this blog and others with which I find myself in conversation, and particularly so during the hullaballoo about the US election: how are we to disagree?  How can we resolutely oppose error where we are convinced it is error, while making charitable allowances for others who hold these errors in good faith?  How are we to resort to the forceful polemic that defense of the truth often requires without indulging in mere verbal brawling and power-plays?  In my historical research, I have become convinced that our inability to satisfactorily reconcile the needs of polemics and irenics in contemporary discourse undermines our ability to intelligently read and interpret the controversies of earlier ages, in which interlocutors rarely shared our commitments to “fair play” and objective detachment.  

Accordingly, although the recent discussions highlighted the importance of a more systematic inquiry into the women’s ordination question, from the standpoint of historic Protestantism, I have postponed my promised provision of such for a spell (though in the meantime, one can find some helpful hints, along with, obviously, some points I would disagree with, here), to first address more carefully the question of how to disagree—how to be simultaneously polemical irenicists and irenical polemicists.  As this is a question that has cropped up quite frequently in posts and comments here, this might be the obvious place to post it.  But Matthew Anderson has suggested that, as a natural follow-up to my earlier post at Mere Orthodoxy, and an elaboration of his notion of “intellectual empathy,” its proper home is there.  So, with little attempt at modesty, I invite you to go check it out.  Or, for those of you indisposed to wade through the great sea of words there disgorged, here’s a quick precís:

We must not conceive our task as one of determining when polemics (understood as resort to rhetorical violence) are necessary, versus when irenics (understood as commitment to peaceful dialogue) is necessary, but must recognize that our task, as one of justice oriented toward both truth and effectiveness, is one in which the end is always irenic, and the means will usually involve some degree of polemic.

As a potential child of God, we must perceive every opponent as someone not to be triumphed over, but to be won over; to be persuaded, not subjugated.  The end of all our discourse should be reconciliation and peace.  The Christian, accordingly, must reject any idea of polemics that is self-justifying, that has been unmoored from the objective of seeking peace.  Equally, however, the Christian must reject any irenicism that has been unmoored from the objective of truth, for any reconciliation that terminates in anything but truth will be illusory and destructive.”

In discerning what will be effective in winning over the opponent, the principles of charity, as described in 1 Cor. 13, are always relevant, and none more so than patience, which is where “intellectual empathy” comes in.  This empathy does not necessarily mean sympathy, but rather an imaginative act of seeing the world through the opponent’s eyes.  The result may be sympathy, or may be greater awareness of the nature of his error, and better insight into how to detach him from it.  

If committed to irenically-oriented polemics, and a disciplined practice of intellectual empathy, what rules may guide us in the appropriate way to respond to particular errors.  Rather than providing rules, I suggest a list of questions we might ask ourselves, questions that will include: How serious is the error in question?  What is at stake?  How much harm will this error do to my opponent, and to others whom she is persuading or influencing?  Does this argument deserve respectful consideration?  Does the person I am critiquing deserve respect?  Where is this person coming from?  Why is this argument being advanced? and How will my critique be perceived/received?

Of course, the answers to any of these questions may be far from clear; this does not mean we should be afraid to even attempt the task of irenical polemics, but that we must recognize that our attempts to do so must always be subject to judgment at the bar of truth as well as love.

In Which the Party Happens Elsewhere

There are a number of reasons for this blog’s sluggishness of late, but among them are the fact that some of my blogging energies have been redirected elsewhere.  I will now be serving as a Contributing Editor at the Political Theology blog, so look out for future contributions there, as well as for invisible traces of my editorial touch on other posts there (you’ll be able to tell that I’ve edited them if you find random intrusions of Hookerian style).  I’ve also just contributed a piece at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Anderson’s excellent site where I’ll be contributing occasionally in future, and my initial foray, on the recent kerfluffle over women bishops in the Church of England, has already set off some fireworks.  Matt had the audacity to title it as response to Doug Wilson (which, admittedly, a significant chunk of it was), something I’ve avoided doing for four years, and so Wilson was good enough to offer a rejoinder at Blog and Mablog within a few hours.  

Wilson helpfully clarifies some of his concerns in his response, though my own concerns remain largely unappeased.  The question, ultimately, is not over whether satire and peremptory dismissal is ever appropriate when confronted with scholarly tripe, but over whether it was appropriate in this particular case.  My argument is that such a posture should be the exception, not the rule, and that our normal posture toward those with whom we disagree should be that of “intellectual empathy,” as Matthew Anderson has recently described.  Particularly, there are those who by their Christian faithfulness, evangelical witness, and diligent scholarship have earned a title to our respect, so that our instinctive posture toward them, even when they seem to have seriously misstepped, should be one of “intellectual empathy,” seeking to understand carefully where they’re coming from even as we disagree, rather than merely laughing them out of court.  Wright, I think, certainly qualifies, and so while I have my own serious disagreements not only with his conclusions but with his arguments in his contribution to the women bishops debate, I think Wilson’s is the wrong way to approach this disagreement, and serves to widen the gap between American and British evangelicals, rather than helping to foster greater understanding.   

I hope to post further on the women bishops topic here at the S&P next week, suggesting a better way of arguing than Wright’s, and also hopefully offering a Hookerian perspective on Parliament’s attempted interference in the matter.  

Gleaning from Richard Bauckham

Readers of my old blog may recall that around two years ago I was wrestling for several months with how to understand and apply the Old Testament economic laws–their relative moral and judicial significance, in particular.  Well, the conclusions that took me six months and research and writing to haltingly articulate, Richard Bauckham, with disarming surefootedness, manages to establish in five splendid sentences of his book The Bible in Politics (which, by the way, I cannot recommend highly enough, and hope to be blogging frequently about over the next week or two).  I here quote most of the fantastic paragraph in which these five sentences appear:

“The law, as we have seen, is concerned with broad principles of social morality and with illustrating their specific application.  The specific examples include both laws enforceable in the courts and moral exhortations.  Leviticus 19:9-10 [the law of gleaning] is not in the form of judicial lw and, we may guess, would not normally have been enforced in the courts.  But on the other hand, it would have been open to the elders in any particular local community to choose to enforce it with legal sanctions.  In any case it had the force of social custom, which in small, close-knit communities like those of ancient Israel can be very effective. In such a society, social disapproval, which itself is inseparable from shared religious beliefs, can be as important a sanction as legal punishment.  Thus to insist that these verses envisage private charity rather than state welfare–or vice versa–is to introduce anachronistic distinctions.  Morevoer, as this example illustrates, the distinction between moral and civl law scarcely helps us with the problem of modern relevance.  Whether we consider it a moral or civil law, Leviticus 19:9-10 is a culturally specific* law.  It was an effective means of provision for the poor in the economic circumstances of ancient Israel, but would not be in modern Britain, where, on the one hand, most people are not farmers, and, on the other hand, the majority of the poor, who live in the inner cities, will not be much helped by the food they could gather on country rambles.  The relevance of this law for us can be discovered only by discerning the principles at work in it.  How far these principles can or should be embodied in social legislation in our society, rather than being matters of purely voluntary social morality, is something we have to decide in the concrete circumstances of our own society.  No attempt to distinguish between moral law and civil law in ancient Israel will help us there.


*all italics, except this phrase, are mine.

Depart in Peace, Be Warmed and Filled (Good of Affluence #9)

So we have seen that Schneider explains Amos’s attacks upon the unjust rich as first of all an attack on those who have direct responsibility for the poor and for unjust policies that are harming them, not as an attack on third parties who just happen to be rich.  His second line of argument is that what Amos is attacking is not the enjoyment of wealth per se, but a bad attitude toward wealth.  This is a very common sort of claim among divine right capitalists like Schneider–wealth isn’t evil; it’s a bad attitude toward wealth that is evil.  The implication is that their opponents disagree; they think that wealth itself is evil.  Generally, however, that’s not the case; their opponents rather insist that attitudes issue in actions, and so a good attitude toward wealth requires certain concrete just and charitable uses of that wealth, whereas a bad attitude toward wealth can be identified through certain greedy or unjust uses of that wealth.  So I can agree with Schneider’s general statement; however, I will then ask him to flesh out what this bad attitude looks like for us today, and what a corresponding good attitude would entail.  Unfortunately, he gives us little to go on–here, and in the rest of the book.

 So let’s dig in to this section a bit and see what he does have to say. 

He begins by reminding us that the ancient Hebrews had a very high view of creation, the goodness of the material world, and the godliness of rejoicing in it.  Therefore (quoting Gerhard von Rad), “it can only have been extreme indulgence which necessitated the raising of such complaints about the enjoyment of material things.”  “Extreme indulgence,” Schneider goes on, “is a very different spiritual and moral behaviour than merely having and enjoying prosperity in the extreme.  I propose that the important contrast is not between extreme wealth and some properly moderate level of enjoyment, but is between extreme indulgence on the one hand and true delight on the other.  But the question arises: when is the enjoyment of material affluence indulgence, and when is it delight?”

In other words, the problem is not quantitative, it’s qualitative.  Any amount of wealth, however exorbitant, can be delighted in in a godly manner, while even a very small amount can be indulged in an ungodly manner.  There is something to this, of course.  A godly posture towards wealth is not in unerring direct proportion to the amount one possesses.  One can clearly be a miserly pauper.  But I do think it is ethically risky to disclaim any quantitative judgments.  Attitudes exhibit themselves in actions, and I think it would be safe to say that a godly attitude toward wealth must entail some kind of quantitative moderation–even just for the sake of one’s own character, and even more so in the fact of indigence that one is in a position to help.  But let’s hear more about what Schneider thinks the qualitative difference is.

“The root of their [those who Amos condemns] evil is exposed by the second allusion in the last words: ‘but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.’…Their whole spirituality expresses a lack of proper, sacred grief for the suffering around and about them….They identify themselves with the majestic power and glory of King David.  But they know nothing of the passion and sacred grief for the nation and its poor, to which his songs and music attest.  They have lost touch with brokenness and so they have lost their own souls.  Their celebrations have become frivolous, disgusting, and pathetic displays of self-indulgence.”

What is the solution to this hard-hearted self-indulgence?

“Amos wisely does not fall into the trap of legalism, seeking to pinpoint some politically correct substance to use for bed making, or perhaps whether, in this world of need, beds might not be necessary at all.  For the prophet, it is a matter of finding one’s true humanity.  It is a matter of becoming a mature person with a vision from the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless.  The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and heart of the serpent….As Jesus knew, there must always be a certain sacred grief in the joy of God’s people: ‘Blessed are those who mourn.’  This, I think, is the starting point for affluent people in modern societies today: we cannot be righteous unless we have a proper sense of grief.  What exactly this entails is a matter we shall pursue in due course.”

Now, all of this might be pointing in a good direction.  Perhaps what Schneider is saying here is not unlike what I said in my previous post on him, where I called for mercy and generosity to be pursued not in a spirit of legalism, but in the freedom of the justification by faith, and by seeking to grow into a virtuous mind and heart that would guide us into the right uses of our wealth, instead of trying to lay down a priori rules for what we should do with it.  Of course, there I was assuming that this heart of compassion would entail some quantitative limits to our enjoyment of affluence, whereas Schneider does not seem to think so.  It might appear then that Schneider is actually saying that the difference between indulgence and delight is only internal.  The ungodly man thinks only of himself while eating his caviar, while godly man grieves in his heart for the poor while he eats it, but they both eat it just the same.  It would not be hard to give a cynical reading of Schneider’s “sacred grief” which sings hymns of compassion for the poor in church, prays for them, and “has a heart for them,” but never actually does anything for them, lest such sacrifice impede its delight in the affluence God has given.  We can easily imagine this affluent man characterised by “sacred grief” saying to a beggar on his doorstep, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled.”  

Perhaps this would be overly cynical.  No doubt, Schneider would protest that this is not what he means.  Of course this compassion must issue in actions, he would say, only these should not be actions of asceticism or legalism.  Very well–then what should they be?  This, he tells us, “is a matter we shall pursue in due course.”  If he did pursue it in due course, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  It’s fully legitimate for him to give the negative side of the argument (“not legalism”) at one point in the book, and the positive side (“true compassion”) later on.  However, on my reading of the book, he never actually does so.  He gestures vaguely at considerations of “moral proximity” and “vocation” and then ends the book without providing any real moral guidance.  This is perhaps inevitable in a book that is protesting what he sees as unhealthy and intrusive burdening of consciences by Christian leaders; he instinctively shies away from offering any real moral direction on the proper use of wealth, lest he should burden consciences.  The problem is that Scripture does not shy away from this.  The Bible clearly thinks that wealth, for all its goodness, is terribly dangerous, and we have to be warned against it over and over.  It is morally irresponsible to address a society that is more confronted with the idol of Mammon than any other in history and to persuade it not to take these warnings too seriously, but to just enjoy every bit of affluence with a dash of “sacred grief.”  


Schneider will have much more to say, much of it helpful, much of it unhelpful, in his chapters on the New Testament, and I will try to cover these as time allows over the coming weeks–but the gist is much the same.  We are told over and over that the problem is an ungodly attitude toward wealth, and the solution is a godly attitude, but then we are given precious little indication of what form this godly attitude should take.

How Much is Too Much? (Good of Affluence #8)

Before turning to consider the attitude that Amos is critiquing, and what this might mean for our attitude toward wealth, Schneider takes some time to critique what he considers to be irresponsible and unjustified uses of Amos-type rhetoric.  He complains that people like Ron Sider suggest that people’s eternal salvation is on the line if they enjoy too much of their wealth, instead of giving it to the poor.  Not only do they make such harsh accusations, but they do so on a hopelessly ambiguous basis.  For how much is “too much”?  Schneider suggests at first that Sider and others (he includes John Wesley here) appear to operate on a utilitarian basis, whereby we are to seek to maximize happiness for the greatest number, and so, presumably, to keep giving away any resources we don’t need as long as there are some people that are poorer than us.  But then he points to what seems like an inconsistency or hypocrisy in Sider’s approach, by which he equivocates on the meaning of the word “need.”  “‘Necessities,’ he writes, ‘is not to be understood a the minimum necessary to keep from starving.’  It rather means, he explains, what is ‘necessary’ for a standard of living that ‘would have been considered [in ancient Hebrew society] reasonable and acceptable, not embarrassingly minimal.” 

Schneider goes on to subject this new, relative definition of “necessity” to a withering cross-examination, seeking to reveal it as hopelessly relativistic, ambiguous, and self-serving to the point of uselessness.  Is having a car necessary?  Is flying trans-Atlantic necessary?  These are “reasonable and acceptable” within our society.  Couldn’t Bill Gates contend that his level of affluence is “reasonable and acceptable” in his immediate culture?  Any attempt to impose norms of “sufficient” and “too much” will thus become arbitrary and legalistic, says Schneider.  He goes so far as to mock a former student who

“had finally decided it was ‘all right to have a care, but not a big or very expensive one.’  So he judged for all of us.  But he did not like my next question, which was simply, ‘How big and how expensive a car will you let me have?’  Of course what seemed quite acceptable to me seemed morally reprehensible to him.  But on what grounds did he make this severe judgment (even as he drove around in his Ford Escort, as I believe it was, to and from activities linked with his Christian liberal arts degree at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars in the end)?”  

Now to this, at least three things must be said.  

First, I think Schneider is absolutely right to attack harshly judgmental or legalistic rhetoric.  The average American, while perhaps not wholly innocent in his wealth, is clearly not morally culpable in the same way that the rulers of Israel were.  Those directly responsible may need to hear dire warnings, but it is not constructive, I don’t think, to suggest to the average suburban churchgoer that they might go to hell if they don’t rev up their giving (that said, I’m not sure if Schneider isn’t distorting Sider’s approach here; certainly others I have read on similar themes, such as Shane Claiborne, don’t speak this way).  The doctrine of justification by faith should come to our aid here.  In dealing with these issues, we are speaking to justified people who ought to be looking for how best to share the gift they have been given, not wringing their hands in fear as to whether they’ve done enough to meet God’s standard.  


Second, Schneider uses the “utilitarian” slur against Sider and others repeatedly, but he’s always quite imprecise about it.  Utilitarianism is one of those things that is dangerous not because it’s the dead opposite of the truth, but because it’s so darn close to the truth.  Clearly, in very many circumstances, we should seek to maximize the greatest temporal happiness for the greatest number.  But utilitarianism breaks down because in some circumstances, this principle is overruled by other considerations, considerations that guide us to eternal happiness.  The fact that Sider thinks that those with more than enough ought to give their excess to those with less than enough does not make him a utilitarian, unless you want to call Thomas Aquinas a utilitarian too.  The use of this language is simply rhetorical bullying.

The third point is that Schneider’s attempt at a reductio is an example of the so-called “Beard Fallacy.”  The “Beard Fallacy” example imagines that you line up a bunch of guys in a row, the guy at the right clean-shaven, and the guy at the left with a full beard, with everyone in between in a spectrum, gradually becoming more stubbly and at last bearded.  If you asked someone to pinpoint where the first guy was who had a beard, you could critique any point he chose by saying, “Yeah, but what about the guy just to the right of him?  His facial hair is so close to that guy’s so as to be almost indistinguishable.”  And then, able to dismiss any attempt to distinguish where a beard began as arbitrary, you could triumphantly declare that the concept of “beard” is hopelessly relativistic, useless, and meaningless.  But clearly it’s not.  Clearly, you can recognize in most cases what counts as a beard and what doesn’t.  Same thing for “relative necessity.”  Schneider overplays his hand when he suggests that Bill Gates could justify his affluence as reasonable within his immediate culture and social setting, or as “necessary” for what it is he wants to do.  For Sider does not say that it’s one’s immediate culture that determines what is reasonable (e.g., the narrow country club high society within which you spend your time), but one’s broader society.   

Now clearly, what Sider is proposing is a very flexible standard, but he is on fairly firm ground in taking this approach.  Had Schneider cared to consult it, he might’ve found that this threefold distinction between “absolute necessity,” “relative necessity” and “superfluity” is deeply embedded in the Christian moral tradition.  It is, for instance, carefully spelled out by Aquinas and his scholastic followers.  The gist is this.  Absolute necessity is what’s needed to keep oneself and one’s family alive.  Relative necessity is roughly (I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have either Aquinas or Finnis in front of me) “that which is necessary to keep up one’s station in decency.”  Now, this obviously needs some unpacking and qualifying, because this does not mean simply conforming to social expectations.  You can be in a sub-culture with very questionable social expectations, that one should not try to conform to.  Rather, the idea is one of vocation.  If you are legitimately called by God to be, say, a lawyer in, say, Philadelphia, then you’re going to need a fair bit of money, even if you aren’t being extravagant.  You will need to be well-dressed, to have a good computer, perhaps a smartphone, a means of transportation–car if that’s most efficient; he will need to have access to lots of legal journals and books, to pay fairly high urban housing prices, etc.  Also, this second level of “necessity” allows for more substantial expenditures on food and housing so as to ensure not merely survival but robust health, hygiene, and reasonable comfort.  Resources beyond this are superflua.  Now, Aquinas would say that all superflua must be shared with anyone below “relative necessity,” but that resources necessary to maintain “relative necessity” only need to be shared when it’s a matter of life or death–that is to say, if one is in a position to help someone below the level of absolute necessity. 

Now, to be sure, there is a great deal of room for debate about precisely where these lines are drawn.  But this is only a problem if one is seeking to impose a legalistic condemnation on individuals.  This is where not merely justification by faith but virtue ethics can come to our aid.  To some extent, one can only figure out what is necessary and what is superfluous by seeking to live it out, by growing into a way of life characterized by shunning superfluity, by asking oneself, “Do I really need that?  Will I really use that?  Am I just coveting?  Am I just wanting to show off?  What else might I do with the money I save by not buying that?”  And this must be done in a spirit of Christian liberty–from the joyful standpoint of justification, not the fearful standpoint of trying to earn righteousness.  Done with this attitude, such a lifestyle need not result in asceticism–it will result in renunciation of some things, but as I have already suggested, this may make one more, not less, happy, since cluttering one’s life with ostentatious or wasteful things really does not bring “delight.”  In short, Schneider’s former student may have had the right idea.  Perhaps a car would have been very useful to him, but there would’ve been little point in buying a Lexus or Hummer.  Since this standard will be different for different people, and guilt-tripping legalism is not constructive, it generally will not make sense for me to decide for any other Christian just what sort of car they should buy, unless I’m called upon to give them guidance, or see them really going overboard.  But the existence of flexibility and ambiguity does not make this affluence morally irrelevant, anymore than the need for flexibility in other areas of moral debate implies the absence of relevant moral norms.