Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reflecting on Cal Thomas' Reflection

Mr. Thomas begins his article by referencing the '70s comedian Flip Wilson who created a character for his NBC television program called "Reverend Leroy" of "The Church of What's Happenin' Now." The reference is meant to make a connection between contemporary culture and the Episcopal Church, suggesting that the Episcopal Church follows contemporary culture, rather than the mandate of the Gospel.

Mr. Thomas (rightly) says that like some contemporary "reverends," Reverend Leroy was a con artist. Without saying it, he manages to place clergy of the Episcopal Church with "con artists." Such an attack is properly called an ad hominem abusive. He further makes that connection by saying that the "Reverend Leroy would feel right at home in the modern Episcopal Church." Mr. Thomas never explains why clergy who are con artists would feel at home in the Episcopal Church. Mr. Thomas "name calls" then moves on. So far, his piece is without substance.

Mr. Thomas then erroneously says that the Episcopal Church "voted at its denominational meeting in Anaheim, Calif., to end the ban on the ordination of gay bishops". In this instance, he is simply inaccurate (see previous blog entry)

He goes on to say that the Episcopal Church voted to "permit marriage "blessings" for same-sex couples." Again, he is inaccurate. More precisely the Episcopal Church voted to ask its liturgists (the Standing Liturgical Commission) to compile resources for meeting the pastoral needs of same-sex couples. If the 2012 General Convention receives the resources, and if those resources contain a blessing for same-sex couples, it is still unlikely to act on them until 2015. At the earliest, the Episcopal Church is not apt to adopt any liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions for another six years. Mr. Thomas should have said: the "Episcopal Church" took the first step toward what may one day be an approved liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions" As it is, what he did say is inaccurate and misleading. Even at that one should always show some humility when predicting the future, just ask any meteorologist. The Episcopal Church may never adopt such a liturgy, or they may adopt one in 2012. Nobody knows.

So far, his article is either without substance or erroneous. So far, nothing in his article has any merit.

He sites un-named denominational leaders who supposedly explained they are attempting to stem the exodus from their church by embracing a new doctrine they call "inclusivity," which they hope will attract young people. (1) I need to see the actual quote. I doubt seriously any leader of the Episcopal Church would use a phrase like "new doctrine." The phrase sounds more like Cal Thomas than Katharine Jefforts-Schori. As to "doctrine" the Episcopal Church uses the two historic creeds in our worship (Nicene and Apostles) and we have an outline of the faith (a catechism) in the back of the prayer book. There are no other explicit officially authorized doctrines. All other "doctrines" are implied in the liturgy. Mr. Thomas simply does not know what he is talking about. (2) I doubt seriously if any leader of the Episcopal Church would believe (much less say) that the actions taken at General Convention were merely a means ("new doctrine") to an end ("to stem the exodus"). DO25 is about respecting the dignity of every human being--something Episcopalians vow to do at their baptisms. Hardly a means to an end.

Mr. Thomas' then says: "Apparently church leaders think that if they can reach people before they have fully matured in their faith, they can sidetrack them into beliefs that have nothing to do with the God that Episcopalians once claimed to worship and that they can be shaped into practical secularists who are willing to seek the approval of men, rather than God." The key word here is "Apparently." His alleged quote from an un-named source that is itself untrue is now morphed into his own conjecture as to motive. We learn more about Mr. Thomas in this line, than we do about the Episcopal Church. Again, there is no substance in his attack. He has created a "straw man."

If you are counting logical fallacies in his article, you will now need a second hand to keep track.

Beginning with faulty premises, Mr. Thomas then attempts to draw conclusions. As we have seen the whole notion of "inclusivity" in his article is a non sequitur, however, his statements manage to be factually wrong on top of being logically flawed, He says "Inclusivity has nothing to do with the foundational truths set forth in Scripture." Jesus, the Truth, seems to be all about inclusivity in his life and work and died to save the whole world (radically inclusive). Mr. Thomas' account of ecclesiology is also flawed. He says, "The church, which belongs to no denomination, but to its Founding Father and His Son, is about exclusivity for those who deny the faith." (1) Episcopalians are Trinitarians, the correct doctrinal formula is not "Founding Father and His Son" but "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Ironically, Mr. Thomas' way of naming the divine makes him a heretic. Something I feel sure he will wish to avoid being. (2) Rather than the "Body of Christ," Mr. Thomas seems to think the Church is a country club, denying membership to some who break the club rules. In short, his understanding of the Church is so theologically problematic that to address it adequately I would need to write at least another essay dedicated to that theme.

He misunderstands the theology of the Church ("The church is inclusive only for those who are adopted by faith into God's family"). His statement implies that faith is assent to intellectual propositions--a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of faith. The metaphor "adopted" is properly joined with "family of God." So one might correctly say something like: All are invited to God's banquet table. Those that accept the invitation are adopted into the family of God. Mr. Thomas has a habit of making "grammatical" mistakes when trying to speak the "language" of faith.

Once again, he commits the logical fallacy of ad hominem abusivee. He says, "There are more biblical references to this than there is room to cite here, but for the Episcopal leadership, biblical references no longer have the power to persuade, much less compel them to conform." To say that any group of Christians would not be persuaded by holy scripture is to "name call." In this particular case, with regard to Episcopalians, it is a false statement. The resolutions with which he is in disagreement are rooted in a faith informed by prayerful reading of holy scripture. Mr. Thomas should, more accurately say that he reads holy scripture differently--not that Episcopalians are not persuaded by holy scripture and fail to conform to its dictates. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that Episcopalians are not persuaded by Mr. Thomas' understanding or holy scripture and do not conform to Mr. Thomas' reading of the Bible.

Again, Mr. Thomas bases his conclusion on faulty premises. He says, "That's because Episcopal leadership has denied the teachings of Scripture..." The key words here are "That's because." He is attempting to make a logical inference. But in logic, true conclusions only necessarily follow from true premises. As has been shown, his premises are false.

He finishes that sentence with another wrong-headed assertion: "... in favor of, well, inclusivity, a word that appears nowhere in Scripture." Again, the ministry of Jesus was all about being inclusive. If Episcopalians are about inclusivity (and he has not shown that they are--he has just asserted it), then Episcopalians would be in conformity with the life and teachings of Jesus.

He then does more name calling: "Episcopal heretics — for that is what they are".

He supposes that Episcopalians would not want to use the word "inclusivity" but "would choose another word to make them feel more comfortable." While Episcopalians have not used the word "inclusivity" (at least not that Mr. Thomas has cited in his article), he has not shown that the concept is unbiblical or incongruous with the Christian faith. Even with all that said, he misses the point when he concludes "accommodation with the world seems to be a more important objective than the favor of God." Who exactly is making accommodation with the world is not self-evident. If the Episcopal Church did what he claims (and they did not), it is hard to see such an action as accommodating the world when the United States has enacted a "Defense of Marriage Act" and 20 states have amended their constitutions to ensure that marriage is unavailable to same-sex couples" In my own state the amendment passed with a 75% majority. A prima facia case can be made that those who are against same-sex couples being able to marry are following culture rather than the mandate of the Gospel.

Mr. Thomas then attacks President Carter, the most overtly religious of Presidents. President Carter attended Church regularly before, during and after taking office. In Georgia, he taught Sunday School. Even as President, Mr. Thomas correctly notes that he "occasionally taught a Sunday school class." President Carter does indeed claim to believe holy scripture and Mr. Thomas is correct that President Carter is convinced that a woman's right to choose to have an abortion is not incompatible with the teachings of scripture. And Mr. Thomas is correct that President Carter recently announced his support for same-sex "civil unions." And Mr. Thomas is correct when he says President Carter "says he sees nothing prohibitive in Scripture to such arrangements." While President Carter is not an Episcopalian (he is a Baptist), Mr. Thomas does demonstrate that someone who is committed to the authority of scripture and has been a student of holy scripture across a lifetime, can hold positions different from those held by Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas misses the point of his own example. Mr. Thomas then commits another ad hominem abusive by saying, "Carter must have gotten hold of a Reader's Digest condensed version [of the Bible]."

Mr. Thomas concludes his piece with another attack on Episcopalians, arguing that they have accommodated culture--rather than being faithful to Christianity. He says, "If the church — Episcopal, Baptist, or whatever — is to be a beacon to an increasingly dark world, it must know not only what it believes but in Whom it has placed its faith. For these Episcopalians and the kinds of Baptists admired by Jimmy Carter, it is a church that has made its bed in the world, and it has as much power to illuminate as a burned-out bulb." In so concluding, Mr. Thomas again fails to recognize that in so far as Episcopalians (or Carter) are guilty of believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires us to take certain actions that may be different from the actions Mr. Thomas has taken, it does not necessarily follow that Episcopalians are the one's simply accommodating culture. One could just as easily make the argument that it is Mr. Thomas who is the accomodationist.

Ultimately, Mr. Thomas' piece is obviously not about being logically sound or factually accurate. In fairness to him, it must be said that he probably did not intend the piece to be either. In the piece, he is acting as "cheerleader" to those readers who already agree with his politics (and/or to a lessor extent his theology). He most likely was not trying to write a substantive and carefully reasoned piece. Thus, the spiritual gift of discernment is therefore beyond the scope of his interests. If, however, he would wish to write a substantive reflection on the recent actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, then I would encourage him to give some thought to how communities of faith determine (that is discern) God's will in the midst of their own context--temporal and geographic. In the United States, in 2009, how should Christians respond to some states legalizing same-sex unions and many more ammending their constitutions to prohibit it?


Diana Church said...

THANK YOU for a cogent, well-written response! Any plans to publish it in the CJ or other (national?) paper? Please, this NEEDS to be read as widely as Mr. Thomas' original editorial.

Jim said...

Reflecting on your reflection

I am a bit surprised at the harshness of your response and your lack of sensitivity to the underlying issue that Cal Thomas was trying to express. Yes, Cal Thomas is vitriolic and mean spirited, but probably a thoughtful considerate response might be more effective.
He is not the first to suggest that the Episcopal Church currently expresses in its actions and sermons a religion that is very different than was expressed 50 years ago. And rather than try to explain the details of our policies, Cal tried to summarize the effects of them. The effect of the old gay Bishop policy was to stop confirmation of new gay bishops; the effect of the new policy is to let them go forward.

On same sex marriage. Cal says the Church now permits blessing of the marriages, you say they do not. You are technically correct. But the new policy gives Bishops leeway. It seems reasonable and likely that someplaces in the Church same sex marriages will be given some sort of locally developed ceremonial blessing as a result of this decision.
You say the only doctrines are the words spoken in the liturgy and that in the prayer book. It’s been many years since I’ve heard a sermon that reinforced any of those sources. Almost every week I hear sermons that contradict them. Moreover, the actions of the Church send a much better signal about what the church holds important than a Prayer Book (and most Episcopalians have never opened a prayer book. Yes that is based on the limited number of Episcopalians that I know.)
Certainly Cal's read of scripture is a perfectly valid way of reading scripture too. We can start by saying that we find great biblical support for our view of scripture – and if they want to hear it, I’m sure you could provide it for them. You can also admit that any reasonable person would say the Church seems to be more accepting of gay folks and less likely to find offense in their behavior. And you can say that Cal is wrong, most of us do not have ulterior motives, but honestly believe we are doing what is right. And finally, while we believe in a Church universal, we are not likely to change our position to make him feel more comfortable with our actions. But if he would like to hear a traditional, orthodox, liturgy, he is welcome to stop in anytime. Our liturgy would make even the more ultra-conservative Christian happy.