Dishonest Dialogue

The term “dialogue” (along with its synonyms, “conversation” and “discussion” and “engagement”) seems to have taken its place alongside the proverbial terms “motherhood”, “apple pie”, and “the flag” as sacred and untouchable. It used to be that no one in their right mind would speak against this Trinity of American values, and now no one is allowed to suggest that anything bearing the sacred word “dialogue” should be viewed with suspicion. A commitment to dialogue is considered an essential part of civilization, and a sign of one’s tolerance, reasonableness, and open-mindedness. Anyone lacking a sufficient commitment to these modern virtues (the new Trinity of American values) is a fitting candidate for denunciation and insult. If you think this last sentiment is too strong, you probably do not own a computer or go online very much.

One could almost formulate a spiritual law that any site or online contribution which contains the D-word or its synonyms is pushing the same basic agenda. Take for example the site, “Orthodoxy in Dialogue” (with D-word prominently displayed) or the site “Public Orthodoxy” (which says that it “seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity”).  Like other liberal sites these are dedicated to the destruction of traditional Orthodox belief and praxis. Obviously no site hoping to gain traction among fellow-Orthodox will advertise this agenda and goal. Like all deconstructionist movements, other softer terms must be found—usually using multi-syllabic words, which is almost always a bad sign.

In the same way the Orthodox deconstructionists usually fudge or hide their actual agenda. I have seen this at work for quite a while. Take for example the work of the late and brilliant feminist Elizabeth Behr-Sigel. Like other Orthodox feminists of her vintage, she rarely came out and declared that her goal was the ordination of women priests. No. She was just asking questions, having a dialogue, promoting a conversation about a certain topic, engaging the modern world. In a paper given in 1976 entitled, “The Meaning of the Participation of Women in the Life of the Church” she ended with the plaintive cry, “[These] are questions on which some of us have already reflected deeply, while others are dimly aware of them, and they are questions which we Orthodox women gathered here wish to put before the Church, praying that the Spirit will guide her and will guide us in the right way. In the words of the psalmist we say, ‘Show us the way we must take!’” What humility and openness! She is not pushing towards a predetermined goal, only trying to discern the right way forward. Or consider her essay, “The Place of Women in the Church”: she ends her essay with the words, “On a problem like the ordination of women, might we not imagine different ‘helpful things’ that the local Churches could determine for themselves?…Would not such a pluralism of discipline [wherein some Orthodox churches ordained women and others did not] be compatible with the unity of faith and ecclesial communion?” She is just asking a question, after all, asking us to “imagine” certain things, not promoting an agenda.

From all this one might conclude that for Ms. Behr-Sigel the question was an open one. It is not so. She was as sure of her conviction that women should be ordained priests as I am sure (and as St. Paul was sure) that women should not. This is apparent from the rest of her writing, such as the place in the same essay in which she denounced St. Paul’s counsel in 1 Timothy 2 as “rabbinical exegesis”, and the Church’s “patriarchal” conceptions as “infecting Christian thinking”. The passages in St. Paul that meet with her approval (such as Galatians 3:28) she applauds (with exclamation marks) as “the Spirit clearing a new path through the thick forest of human prejudices!” Clearly Behr-Sigel had already made up her mind as to “the way we must take”, her disingenuous tentativeness notwithstanding. The posture of tentative questioning was not sincere or honest, nor was the proffered dialogue genuine. In this dialogue, all the retreat and reconsideration was to flow one way. Those holding to the historic Orthodox position would retreat from it, while those holding to the new reconstructed position would not retreat. The deconstructionists had no doubt of the truth of their convictions; the only question was how to advance their agenda. One is reminded of the aphorism of JFK: “You cannot negotiate with those who say ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable’”. As far as those committed to the reconstructed and revised order are concerned, their own convictions are not negotiable. It is the traditional Orthodox that are being invited to negotiate and to be willing to retreat from their positions.

One detects a certain common vocabulary in those inviting the retreat. Certain buzz-words recur: they speak of “patriarchy”, “sexism”, of the necessity of a “creative reimagining”. They speak (in the multi-syllabic terms mentioned above) of “an awareness of the multifaceted nature of truth that continues to be discovered and implemented over time through a process of prayer, creative reflection, and debate”, of “a pluralistic era which presents Christianity with new and unique challenges”, and attempt to “discern God’s hand in contemporary life”—as if the authors were not already sure of where God’s hand in contemporary life was to be found and were still trying to “discern” it. When one reduces the multi-syllabic rhetoric to words that a child could understand it translates as: “You must change your teaching to conform to ours. Our modern secular culture no longer accepts your views so you must change them to fit in with that secular culture”.

All this dialogue and open-mindedness to the secular values at odds with Orthodoxy is comparatively new. The Fathers did not open such dialogues with pagans or heretics. They did engage “the pluralistic era which presented them with new and unique challenges” of course, and the people who were in the forefront of this engagement are known by the name “the Apologists”. The Church did not withdraw from the secular society into a safe and holy huddle with the drawbridge pulled up behind them, but met the new and unique challenges head on, trying to convince and convert the world. They talked to pagans and even acknowledged that the pagans had got some things right. These things they were happy to claim as their own (one author called the process “plundering Egypt”). But the coincidence of agreement in some areas between Christian and pagan or between Christian and heretic did not make the Church open to learning from pagans or heretics. The Church was confident that (in the words of our contemporary Orthodox Liturgy) it had “found the true faith”, so that its task was to correct the world, not learn from it.   When Justin Martyr used the term “dialogue” (such as his “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew”) he was not investigating to see what he could learn from Judaism, but trying to convert his Jewish friend to Christianity. For Justin and for the Fathers generally, “dialogue” involved not openness to changing or abandoning one’s convictions, but civil and respectful debate in an attempt to help someone else change theirs.

The essential dishonesty of the contemporary dialogues can be seen in their choice of dialogue partners. The deconstructionists are happy to dialogue with the LGBQT community, and with feminists keen to denounce patriarchy and to ordain women. I am not aware of any enthusiasm for dialogue with, say, White Supremacists. That is because our liberal friends agree with the agendas of the gay and feminist communities and (quite properly) abhor that of the White Supremacists. I suggest that this consistent choice of dialogue partners reveals that the true goal of the liberal Orthodox proffering dialogue is not real give and take, but simple capitulation on the part of the conservatives. And ask yourself: has our decades-long dialogue with the liberal Protestant WCC resulted in a substantial shift of the member churches towards Orthodoxy or slowed their accelerating drift into greater theological liberalism? Has the dialogue with the feminists resulted in the reduction of any of their cherished anti-patriarchal convictions or in a greater appreciation of the Church’s traditional praxis? Not a bit, which proves the wisdom of JFK aphorism quoted above. Those inviting us to dialogue are not interested in “discerning God’s hand in contemporary life”, but simply in changing our minds. That is quite acceptable; I am happy to enter into civil debate with anyone. But honesty should compel us to make our true intentions and goals known.

 

 

18 comments:

  1. +Lawrence.
    I agree with much of what you say about dialogue. Dialogue should at best be a way that people learn to appreciate “the other”. Dialogue should seek not so much to change the “other’s” opinion or belief, but to understand it.

    The Woman at the Well entered into dialogue with a stranger, someone outside her faith tradition. Their theological conversation inspired her community to think about the possibility of the stranger she spoke with as being the Messiah. One can imagine the discussion and the dialogue of those opposed to that possibility.

    Today, if a renowned Orthodox teacher came to Vancouver and met with a United Church woman alone at Noon and or at 6 in the evening and they had a theological discussion, what do you think they would be talking about? Would she be eager to convert to Orthodoxy?

    In John’s Gospel, the Woman recognizes the Teacher she meets “face to face” with as a prophet. The Teacher is very sure of himself. He tells her “You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” The disciples were astonished that he was speaking with her, but no one asked him why he was speaking with her.

    The Woman leaves her water pot and goes goes back into the city and says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They leave the city and make their way to him.

    Many Samaritan Jews believed in him because of the Woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” When the people hear him speak, they say to the Woman. “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this it truly the Saviour of the world.”

    This thing called dialogue can cause divisions among believers. It can also bring people together if there is honesty and mutual respect and appreciation for the “other’s view point.” When one’s agenda is to convert the “other” divisions arise.

    John’s Gospel Woman was a lay person who was grounded in the 5 Five Books of Moses and she knew the man she was with and was speaking with “face to face” was not her husband. Yet, because she testified that he had always known her and knew everything she had ever done, people believed in them. She didn’t have to seek ordination to prove it to him or to the people in her faith community.

    However in modern times, many people are insisting the Woman speaking with the Teacher in Sa Maria was a “loose” woman whose testimony merely proves the Teacher was a prophet with an agenda to convert her and her people.

    Peace making through dialogue is a difficult process. Bringing polarized view points together is not easy, especially if both parties are insisting they are right and the other is wrong. 50 years ago, Dr. Alexandros Papaderos co-founded an academy dedicated to Peace. Their purpose was to reconcile Germans and Cretans after World War II who vowed they would never stop hating the “other”.

    People can read about Dr. Papaderos’ “face to face” program designed to further respectful dialogue in Robert Fulghum’s book “It Was on Fire When I Laid Down on It.” Or people can simply “Google” The Mirror Story and Alexandros Papaderos. And they can go to Dr. Papaderos’ web site and download a copy of the “Face to Face” project and a copy of the Mirror Story. http://alexandros.papaderos.org/

    I’m not arguing for the Ordination of Women or against.

    1. As I said in the piece, true dialogue is good, and I am happy to enter into civil debate with anyone. My point was that dialogue must be honest if it is to be true dialogue, and much that advertises itself as dialogue is nothing of the sort.

      1. Father, I might suggest that Photini’s leaving of the water pot at the well is highly suggestive: She was done with the old water! And Jesus’ agenda was EXACTLY to convert her, not to learn interesting things about worshipping at wells.

      2. yes…dialogue with people whom you disagree with and with whom you may feel called to seek to correct their view can be helpful too, if it is conducted with honesty and respect for the other.

        1. “yes…dialogue with people whom you disagree with and with whom you may feel called to seek to correct their view can be helpful too, if it is conducted with honesty and respect for the other.”

          Truisms linked, but then not really what Fr. Lawrence’s essay is about. He is pointing the reality of a so called “dialogue” (i.e. the one centered theological anthropology in general and male/female ontology in relation to ordination in particular) that has as its central aspect a certain dishonesty. This dishonesty may be conscious, unconscious (or a mix) but is real nonetheless.

          1. Thank you, Christopher, for pointing this out. I never ceased to be surprised how many comments never actually engage and comment on the piece to which they are supposedly responding. I usually publish all comments so long as they are civil, but ones that have nothing to do with the piece and simply promote the author’s own idiosyncratic ideas I consign to the spam file–especially if the ideas are bizarre.

          2. Interesting. This morning I happened to come across a brief note on the meaning of the word “dialogue”. In Acts 17:2, St. Paul is said to have ” reasoned with them [The Jews] from the Scriptures.” The OSB notes the following:
            Reasoned (Gr. dialegomai) does not mean engaging in rational debate, for the proclamation of the gospel is not about winning intellectual arguments. Rather, this term indicates speaking or conversing about truths, ideas, or things that have been witnessed….the English word “dialogue” comes from the same root….”

            When engaging in dialogue that is intimately connected with Scripture and Tradition, we speak about truths that have been witnessed. According to this definition, the purpose of dialogue is not to come to an “agreement” or to “tolerate”. To say that one must speak respectfully is beside the point. To speak respectfully is a given. But, that “respect” (or its lack) is frequently emphasized implies that some people can not tolerate (!) any opposition that indicates they are being mislead, and therefore wrong. It is here where offense is taken, and communication breaks down. So in order to avoid this offense, we must either avoid dialogue altogether or realize engagement in dialogue is not going to completely bridge all the gaps. We will have to agree to disagree, hopefully without offense, and in a spirit of peace.

    2. “I’m not arguing for the Ordination of Women or against.”

      Linda,

      I am curious, what exactly are you arguing for? You say:

      “Dialogue should seek not so much to change the “other’s” opinion or belief, but to understand it.”

      What does it mean to “understand” something in your view? To under-stand, to stand-under something (in other words to experience and thus “know” it), can not and should not imply “respect” necessarily – do we “understand” the Devils point of view, granting it some kind of “respect”? This would be to recognize the God would it not (who is “the Spirit of Truth”)? Are you saying the God is in the Devil’s “point of view”?

      Too many load dialogue with a kind of existential and ontological weight that it does not actually have.

  2. Father Lawrence,
    I love these essays where you expose the needle in the haystack. Those offended by Tradition blend in so very well among those offended by any tradition.
    We really must be careful these days to preserve rather than perverse historical tradition. Thank you for your contribution to its preservation, Father Lawrence.

  3. The old country saying springs to mind. There’s none so blind as them that will not see. They don’t want to discern.

  4. Paula’s post above has me further reflecting. I co-taught an adult education class on the “Benedict Option” loosely based on Rod Dreher’s book in our parish about a year ago. Much time was spent on what “dialogue” is and is not, when it is effective and when it is not, what the ground and “conditions” are necessary for dialogue to take place, etc. There was much anxiety, even from the “traditionalists” in the room about the optics of dialogue and not appearing “closed”. Those who in the room who were past a certain threshold on the secularism scale simply could not grasp the idea that “dialogue” is not always and everywhere an unquestioned good that is somehow key not only peace on earth, but is indeed *what* we are. Some of the theologizing in the last 100 years or so that is “existential” in orientation (e.g. Met. John Zizioulas) appears to make “dialogue” an essential ontological aspect of communion between Persons. Some orthodox writers (I hesitate to post links) explicitly argue that human beings are some sort of “dialogum hominum” (thinking of Wile E. Coyote here), and there is a certain truth to this. They invariably claim that “traditionalists”, “fundamentalists”, “Neo-Patrastics”, and of course Evangelical converts are somehow distorting the Fathers who were always “in dialogue” with the culture of the world of their time. Again, a kind of half-truth exaggerated into an untruth.

    In my opinion, Stanley Fish’s dialogue with Richard John Neuhaus about “dialogue” (now over 20 years old) is a good place to start when thinking about this subject:

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/02/001-why-we-cant-all-just-get-along

    1. Quite so. Dialogue can never be an end in itself. I am reminded of the aphorism of GK Chesterton who said that we open our minds for the same reason that we open our mouths–to close them on something solid. After a while, when it has become apparent that continuing dialogue is futile or unneeded, dialogue must be suspended. Christ did not dialogue interminably with the Pharisees. He told His disciples that they were blind leaders of the blind, destined to fall into a pit. He advised His disciples not to dialogue, but to leave them alone.

    2. Christopher,
      I would only ask, if some people are “distorting the Fathers who were always “in dialogue” with the culture of the world of their time”, and if this dialogue is the key to peace, then why were so many of those Fathers martyred…no, tortured first, then martyred?? BTW, I mentioned that we would have to agree to disagree “hopefully in a spirit of peace”….but that peace may obviously be not with our opponents, but with God. Just saying….

      And this is an aside, Christopher….I notice once before your mention of Met. Zizioulas. Just for the record…his book “In Communion” I would rate as one of my top 10…maybe even 5. Online I have read some of his work as well. And yes, I am very aware that my “rating” wouldn’t be on the same level of consideration than one who has been Orthodox for many years. I am just surprised at your criticism…same as I was with Met. Ware. No matter, though. I actually welcome opposing views because I get to learn about something from another angle. In the end it is very helpful…and yet it doesn’t prevent me from holding my own view. BTW, I am not necessarily looking for your defense, as that would be way off topic for this post!

      And finally, your comment on Wile E. Coyote is just too funny!!!

      1. Paula,

        Met. Zizioulas is a real heavy weight in Orthodox theology, along with Met. Hierotheos, Met. Ware, Yannaras, etc. My bias is toward Met. Heirotheos *overall* take on THE issues of the day (i.e. theological anthropology, ecclesiology/Church/ecumenical relations, etc.), but while I say that I think Met. Zizioulas is the better “dialectical philosopher” if I can put it that way. For example, I don’t know if anyone has a better grasp of St. Maximos’ very technical theology of interrelationship between will (nature, gnomic, etc.), nature, and Person(s) than Met Zizioulas. What does this matter? It goes to the heart of the contemporary wrestling and debate about Hell that has in part been played out in part right here on Ancient Faith, and which Fr. Lawrence has written an excellent book on.

        So keep reading these books! At the same time, keep in mind that these are just men and they have real limitations. Each one of them, just like the rest of us can sometimes exaggerate a truth too much, miss a bit of this or that, or choose one thing over another because of their *desires* and *passions*. The thing about really smart people is that while they are very smart and can “peel the onion” for the rest of us, they are also really good at *justifying* their preferences and desires in a dialectic of “reasoning” that is very compelling. Keeping this in mind then we can dialogue (yep, I just said that 😉 ) with them when we read them, asking questions, cross checking, looking for alternative views even if sometimes these views come from sources we would not normally consider or even trust.

        1. Christopher,
          Met. Hierotheos…yep, him too! My Priest, in one of our first discussions, directed me to several of his books. I got the distinct impression he held him in high regard. Needless to say, I read the books!
          Christopher, thank you for explaining your outlook. And too, what to consider when reading “the smart people”, and the importance to check and cross-check. Along the same lines, I always thought it wise to learn from the many *reputable* teachers we have, rather than stick to just one or two. You stick to one or two, you’ll find yourself out there in the fringe. So your advice makes perfect sense to me.
          I especially thank you for your encouragement to continue my studies. That really goes a long way Christopher. Sometimes I feel like I’m out on a limb…so your words are very encouraging. Gracias!

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