The Death of Dialogue

FMLGEDNF4IX6H0Q.MEDIUM“Dialogue” is a happy word, along with other happy words like “inclusive”, “tolerance”, and “acceptance”. It is assumed by our culture that all reasonable people are open to dialogue—that is, open to hearing the other person’s point of view, and to a respectful exchange of views, and to possibly changing one’s own view in favour of the opposing viewpoint if the arguments of the other person are found to be compelling. Dialogue is good. We do not assume we are correct in all our views to such a degree that we will not even give an opposing viewpoint a respectful hearing. Our western civilization, I suggest, is based on a willingness to dialogue. One might even suggest that such openness to changing one’s mind is rooted in a Biblical world-view: God calls us to such dialogue when He says through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).

Given the importance of true dialogue to our civilization’s health, it is all the more distressing to find that willingness to dialogue is dying. People still talk and respond to each other, of course, but the exchanges are more like a boxing match than true dialogue. That is, people are not really open to hearing what the other person says, and then responding to it. Their mind is already made up, and the arguments of the other person are regarded more or less as mere room-noise. Their responses are simply attempts to land a verbal punch.

Take for example the current debate on homosexuality. In perusing Facebook exchanges, for example, I see that true debate rarely if ever occurs. The side speaking in favour of homosexuality holds to a number of dogmas, and nothing anyone says will cause them to question them. These dogmas are:

  1. Anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals and may properly be denounced as homophobic.
  2. The classic distinction between sin and sinner and any talk about hating the sin while loving the sinner is simply an attempt to mask one’s hatred of homosexuals.
  3. All homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation.
  4. Science has proved this conclusively.
  5. Since people were born this way, that is how God made them, and homosexuality must therefore be accepted as a legitimate lifestyle.
  6. Anyone quoting the verses from the Mosaic Law denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every such law into the American criminal code.
  7. There is no distinction between private peccadillo and public ideology. Thus, for example, if a baker would serve a customer who has what he considers a private peccadillo (such as homosexuality), he is bound also to serve at a public function which promotes such a lifestyle or ideology (such as a gay wedding or a Gay Pride event).

These dogmas are fixed in their mind, and no amount of dialogue or argument will ever dislodge them. If someone attempts this and says that he actually does not hate homosexuals, but in fact has a number of close friends who are gay and they all get along just fine, this assertion is simply disallowed. It is judged an impossibility, because “anyone who asserts that homosexual practice is sinful hates homosexuals”. If someone quotes scientific opinions to the effect that at least some cases of homosexuality might not be innate, that also is simply disallowed, because “all homosexuals were born with that innate and inalterable orientation”. If someone cites the prohibitions of homosexuality in Leviticus, one is told that they then must logically push for stoning people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, since that also is in the Mosaic Law. It is no use to attempt to distinguish between laws reflecting timeless morality (such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”; Leviticus 19:18), and those laws reflecting a time-bound theocratic state (such as the one about keeping the Sabbath). Such an attempt to nuance and distinguish in is simply disallowed, because “anyone quoting the verses from the Mosaic Law denouncing homosexuality are logically committed to putting every such law into the American criminal code”. Those committed to legitimizing homosexuality rarely in my experience seem capable of true dialogue, and any attempt at it will inevitably result in a recitation of one or more of the dogmas outlined above. It is as if the mind has been caught in an endless loop, like a record stuck in the same groove which keeps on repeating. One does not need to refute the thoughtful arguments of others to win the debate; all that is required is a forceful recitation of one of the dogmas.  It is much easier to resort to ad hominem attacks (“You only say that because you were a conservative Protestant”), than to actually deal with the presented arguments.

To be sure, there are plenty of people speaking against homosexuality who do the same thing and also cannot seem to engage in true dialogue. Their dogmas are:

  1. Homosexuals are all going to hell because the Bible condemns homosexuality.
  2. Because God hates homosexuality He would never make anyone a homosexual and so no one was born with a homosexual orientation.
  3. Any homosexual therefore could change his or her sexual orientation if they really wanted to.
  4. Christ therefore does not love homosexuals.

Once again, it is no use arguing with anyone in this mindset. If you say that you think at least some homosexuals were born with such an orientation, this is simply disallowed. It cannot be, because “no one was born with a homosexual orientation”. Again, real proof of the assertion is not required, simply the recitation of the dogma.

One could go on, but you get the idea. In this important debate there are plenty of folk on both sides who simply are not listening or responding to the arguments of the other side. What is needed, if civilization is to resist the current drift toward disallowing politically incorrect opinions, and toward draconian enforcement of politically ascendant norms, is more real listening and more true dialogue. Granted it is hard work to pay close attention to people we find irritating and whose opinions we abhor. But that hard work is essential if real civilization is to continue.

Currently it is all very discouraging. When thoughtful Christians try to argue their case for traditional sexual morality in the public forum, their argument doesn’t get very far. That is, I submit, because a dialogue is not actually occurring. The other side is not listening. They are simply talking to themselves. If this continues to be the case, it is best to recognize this sad fact and cope with it. What does coping with it involve? Well, in the early church it meant taking canonical action.

For there comes a time in some exchanges when further debate and dialogue are useless, for neither side in the debate share enough common presuppositions for them to reach an agreement.   Sometimes, even after true debate and with all the good will in the world, the two sides share incompatible first principles, and so can never reach consensus no matter how long they talk. When that happened in (say) the first century with St. Paul and his Judaizing opponents, there was nothing for it but to agree to disagree. And since the debate was not over trifles but over something basic, this involved the Church drawing a canonical line in the sand and declaring the other side outside the Church.

This happened again in the fourth century. The debate over the nature of Christ—was He God Almighty in the flesh or not—raged on and on. Eventually it became apparent that continued debate with Arius and his supporters would not result in consensus, since they were following a different set of first principles. As this involved something basic to Christian discipleship there was nothing for it but to take canonical action and to anathematize Arianism. Note: this did not involve hating Arians or refusing them service when they walked into your Constantinopolitan barber shop. It just meant that the person confessing Arianism was no longer a part of the Church.

It seems that we may be rapidly reaching this now over the issue of homosexuality. The issue is not marginal, but basic to salvation and to what a life of Christian obedience to God looks like. Let us hope that the possibility of true dialogue is not really dead and that it is not quite time to throw in the towel.  Our task is to remain faithful to our inherited apostolic Tradition, and to argue for it as irenically and persuasively as we can.  But if it at length becomes apparent that there is no possibility of convincing the other side with reasoned argument, the Church has little choice if it would remain faithful to its timeless Tradition. The time will have come to draw our canonical line in the sand over this and declare that those who insist on contradicting the Tradition are outside the Church.  Obviously we will continue to love them, as we love everyone else who is outside the Church.  But the line in the sand must be drawn.



  1. The author writes: If someone cites the prohibitions of homosexuality in Leviticus, one is told that they then must logically push for stoning people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, since that also is in the Mosaic Law. It is no use to attempt to distinguish between laws reflecting timeless morality (such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”; Leviticus 19:18).

    As you well know, the issue of whether or not Christians are to follow the Mosaic law was dealt with in the 1st century. They are not and so the sexual prohibitions in the Law do not apply. One does not have to go to Leviticus to fin support for laws reflecting timeless morality such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” because his command was given by Christ Himself, who, for a Christian, is the highest authority.

    To determine sexual teachings for Christians one would naturally start with the words of Christ as given in the Gospels. He gave two teachings that I can recall. Do not get divorced, and don’t stone adulterers. Both conservative Protestants and Orthodox seem to have abandoned the prohibition against divorce (although they don’t stone adulterers so maybe 1 out of 2 is good enough). Apparently even the words of Jesus are not for the final authority for modern day conservative Christians.

    Jesus said nothing about homosexuality its self. Those who claim homosexuality as a greater sin than adultery (divorce) have to go to a handful of teaching from Paul and Acts. But these mostly refer to “sexual immorality”, not homosexuality itself. And in Romans when homosexuality comes up in English translation, it is included along with sexuality immorality in a list of sins, implying that “sexual immorality” does not necessarily include homosexuality.

    So it comes down to a small number of verse in which the English word homosexual appears. here we have to note that Paul did not write in English, but in Greek. But he did not use the Greek word for homosexual in his writing, but rather a word that he apparently coined. The word translates to men+bed, so it certainly implied some sort of homosexual activity, but perhaps not gay sex in general because then presumable Paul would have used that word rather than coining his own terminology.

    So when it comes down to homosexuality, the guidance obtained directly from the Christian scriptures is not as clear-cut as it is made to be. And when compared to the proscription of divorce or incompatibility of capitalism with Christianity, much less so.

    So I guess the question those on the other side of the issue would make is, if the church could somehow accommodate divorce and capitalism and learn to live with it, why draw the line at homosexuality?

    How is homosexuality within marriage more incompatible with Christianity as defined by Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus than is divorce or capitalism?

    1. Mark 7:21-23 ” For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

      When Jesus spoke these words, His audience understood these sins in the context of the Mosaic Law. As a Jewish rabbi, He would have spoken within the context of that Law. The sin (or thought) of “sexual immorality” included all of the sins of that nature as outlined in Mosaic Law. He didn’t have to enumerate all that this term included. People knew what He was talking about. He didn’t have to specifically mention homosexuality, just like He didn’t have to mention the sin of bestiality. The mistake we make is when we take our own modern views of sex and ascribe them to the words of Christ.

      Let us not forget that Christ took the Law and brought it to a an even higher and stronger level, not a weaker one. Instead of adultery, one should not even lust. Instead of stoning, He offered life through repentance. He strongly reprimanded those who didn’t recognize the sin in themselves. He held up as examples those who repented in tears.

      Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. “

    2. Dear Mike: Thank you for your comments. I think however you are misreading the NT material regarding the Law. What was resolved in the 1st century was not the issue of whether Christians should follow the Mosaic Law, but whether Gentiles converting to Christ had to become Jews through circumcision. It was assumed by both the Lord and St. Paul that what we call the moral precepts of the Law applied to all–thus Christ spoke about not coming to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Mt. 5:17-20) and St. Paul wrote that Christians uphold the Law (Rom. 3:31). It is unlikely that such a moral commitment to the Law on their part would ever translate into saying that “the sexual prohibitions in the Law do not apply”, especially since both Christ and St. Paul referred to the creation stories in Genesis as paradigmatic for marriage/ sexuality. When one refers to “the words of Christ as given in the Gospels” one must include that teaching from Genesis as well.
      Regarding divorce, the matter is less clear-cut than with the issue of homosexuality, in that Paul allows a Christian to be divorced by the non-Christian partner, whereas homosexual activity is not allowed at all. In the Church’s canonical tradition, both divorce and homosexuality are penanced as sinful, and both may be forgiven, provided of course the sinner repent. It is not true that Orthodoxy “accommodates divorce”, since it both forbids it to Christian partners and penances those who divorce.

  2. Fr. Lawrence,

    I came here via Rod Dreher’s blog. I’m not Orthodox, so forgive the ignorance, but I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind here. Isn’t anyone living in unrepentant sin already considered “outside the Church” (as in laid out 1 Corinthians 5)? The parallel to the early-church situations you mention would seem to be if there were some Orthodox priests continually being allowed to preach in favour of same-sex unions – is that the case now? Or are you suggesting a declaration of some sort that non-Orthodox Christians are not considered truly Christian by the Orthodox church if they endorse same-sex unions? Just wondering exactly what it was you were thinking of, and what you mean when you talk about the “line in the sand.”

    1. Dear Coleman: Thank you for your comments and for the opportunity to clarify. If an Orthodox were living in unrepentant sin (be it homosexual or heterosexual fornication), that would indeed call for excommunication until the person repented. The as yet undrawn line in the sand to which I referred was the official declaration that non-Orthodox denominations which officially bless gay marriage should be regarded by us Orthodox as non-Christian denominations, in the same way that we regard Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as non-Christian. We are not thereby declaring they will not be saved–such decisions lie entirely with God. We are simply saying that we do not recognize the faith they proclaim as the historic Christian Faith.

  3. Reading the comments section of a post by Rod Dreher (“When Dialogue is Pointless”) which linked to my own post, I see that I have mis-spoken myself when I wrote that we Orthodox must draw the line in the sand and declare that denominations blessing gay marriage should be declared “outside the Church”. One commenter said, “to my knowledge, the Orthodox church already considers lots of ‘churches’ to not be part of the Church, doctrinally speaking”. Quite so, and I appreciate the opportunity to correct myself. What I should have said is that we Orthodox should declare that denominations blessing gay marriage are non-Christian, not just outside the Orthodox Church. Protestant denominations which refuse to bless gay marriage are indeed considered by the Orthodox to be in schism (i.e. “outside the Church”), but they are still rightly regarded as Christian denominations, and that is why the Orthodox are in official ecumenical dialogue with them. The denominations which bless gay marriage should be regarded not only as schismatic/ outside the Church, but also as non-Christian, in the same way as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are. (Please allow me to repeat, by saying the denominations are non-Christian, we make no pronouncement on whether or not they will be saved. I believe that many non-Christians will be saved. Exactly who remains God’s business alone.)

  4. How do you suppose someone would respond to dogma #5 if asked, “Why do you think God made you this way? What purpose has He in mind?”
    It is a question each of us might ask about ourselves, and perhaps its universal nature would incite thoughtfulness.

    1. Dear Kerry: The question requires a longer response than can be given in a comments section, but I would begin by questioning the assumption that every fact, characteristic, or defect we were born with somehow represents the divinely-ordained norm. If indeed one is born with an innate predisposition to same-sex attraction (which I suspect is much rarer than commonly supposed), it would be no different in principle from being born with any other handicap. No one would argue that the innate blindness of the man born blind in John 9, for example, proves that being born sighted is not the norm. Similarly being born with same-sex attraction should not be used to prove that heterosexual relationships are not the norm. Same-sex attraction is a handicap, not a sin. The sin is acting upon it. Striving against the temptation brings its own unique grace and its own reward on the Last Day. The way forward is not to focus on largely unanswerable questions like “Why did God allow this?”, but to focus on the question “How can dealing with this bring me closer to God?” It is the same path which everyone must tread, for everyone has a handicap or weakness of some sort. We must let our handicaps become the incentive to draw near to God.

      1. To be sure, it’s a question needing a long answer. But the question implies another, “Does God want you to indulge this attraction?” If the answer is yes, one wants to know to what extent. Bogie, “Aw mam, have a heart. It’s my nature…” Kate Hepburn, “Nature, Mr. Olnaught, is what we were put on earth to rise above.”

        1. Great quote (from a great film). I’m with Kate on this one. We have many innate desires, some healthy, some not, and merely because we have an innate desire does not mean it is “natural” or that it should be indulged. Most heterosexual men, for example, have an innate desire to sleep with as many women as they possible, but this innate desire must be resisted.

  5. Thank you, Fr. Lawrence, for this carefully argued, balanced, and gracious articulation of the state of this debate and the traditional stance of the church on this sometimes messy subject. I hope we can strive for better dialogue on this issue in the church and in the world.

  6. So, if i may sum it up— “You gays haven’t come around to saying what we traditionalists want, so we’re just going to stop this charade of ‘dialogue’ and excommunicate the lot of you!”

    I’m thinking it wasn’t ever a dialogue on your part, except in the sense that you initially had some hope that maybe people were going to convert. But now that you see they won’t— well, why bother? Go to hell, queers— you’re destined for it anyway!

    The interesting thing is that gays don’t have the power to “excommunicate” or “draw lines in the sand”. But they will defend themselves and their right to live in peace with the people they love. For you, it’s all about “sin”. For them, it’s all about “love”.

    Who do you think will lose this argument?

    1. Argument, what argument? A few queries follow. (Note the ironic sound of that word. Is it inchoate slander?)
      What do you think human beings are, pleasure seeking meat packages or something higher?
      Are sexual relations just another indoor sport ?
      Who is God? Was Christ, pace C.S. Lewis, lying, crazy, or who He said He was?
      Are you familiar with Pascal’s wager?
      And, somewhat per Aquinas, as our ability to reflect shows that we are not entirely material beings, but also ensouled creatures, (cats come closest, but even they cannot reflect on their catness), our non-material essence will exist for eternity, just not in or on the physical earth, therefore…..
      Who do you think will win that argument? (Hint, see Dante.)

      1. Kerry, this is not the dialogue that john is talking about (and john, forgive me for presuming).
        John, as an Orthodox Christian, I believe that any church has the right to say it will not join same sex people together in holy matrimony. My gay daughter agrees with me on this; she’s not looking for approval or blessing from a community to which she does not belong.
        However, as an Orthodox Christian, I am also uncomfortable with Christians who believe it’s OK to discriminate and refuse to serve gay customers. I want to live as our dear Lord Jesus Christ did, taking care of people who came to see Him. If he could eat dinner with tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees, I can show love to people I don’t understand: whether they are gay…or right-wing Republicans.
        By dialogue, we need to show respect for each others’ beliefs, especially when we don’t agree. All sides need to LISTEN.

        1. Laura says:

          “I am also uncomfortable with Christians who believe it’s OK to discriminate and refuse to serve gay customers…. If he could eat dinner with tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees”

          It is not only “OK” to discriminate (a much abused term) but it is absolutely necessary. Christ did indeed eat with these sinners, but these sinners were open to Christ (God) and did not affirm their sin as a positive good. In other words, they were repentant. We have nothing in the Tradition of the Church which affirms that Christ approved of robbing a persons neighbor (tax collecting), or having sex in exchange for money (prostitution), or creating an Idol of the Law or hypocritically observing it (Pharisaism). We have no record of anyone eating with Christ while doggedly holding to their own false and demonic philosophy – quite the opposite, they all appear to be somehow following Christ.

          It all hinges on what you mean when you say “refuse to serve gay customers”. IF you mean that a Christian business owner has to “bake a cake” for or photograph a “gay” wedding”, what you really mean (whether you realize it or not) by “serve” is that you want the Christian business owner to directly participate in a religious rite that affirms homosexualism as a good. You want the Christian business owner be a part of an unholy “celebration” that is Symbolic and religious in nature.

          Up until the day before yesterday, we had enough Classical Liberalism left in our culture that we understood that to force a person of conscious into a religious rite by the power of the gun (that is, government coercion through “non-discrimitation” laws) ran against the very foundation of religious liberty. Today, we are no longer Classical Liberals, instead we are modernist zealots who want to force every non modern religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, among others) into its own religious rites…

          1. Not to get off topic, but both Jesus and St. Paul told us to pay our taxes. Never, in the history of Christianity, has taxation been considered robbery.

          2. Teena says:

            “both Jesus and St. Paul told us to pay our taxes. Never, in the history of Christianity, has taxation been considered robbery.”

            Hum, I am not we can say that in that way, at least not without qualifications. ” Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” implies that some things are not in fact Ceasar’s, which is of course the very next sentence Jesus utters. Indeed, as I understand it, the “tax collectors” of the day would sometimes tax too much out of greed (thus the “robbery”), and in any case the Jews of the day did not necessarily recognize the Romans as a just and legitimate authority. Certainly we have examples in history where everything is taken from a person/people in the name of “taxation”. I think it is safe to say that Paul would not approve of a blanket statement that put forward the idea that any and all taxes by anyone in power over another are an unqualified good. There has to be something of “justice” in it…

    2. Dear John Burnett: The conversation is not about sin versus love. What we are talking about is genital contact. Sexual activity. That may be with or without love. Love does not equal sex and sex does not equal love. Also, you don’t actually have to be homosexual to engage in homosexual activity or sodomy. Let’s at least be clear about that. And also, just to show you how fair I am, I will say this: The reason given by those supporting homosexual behaviour is that God made them that way and the purpose is to provide care for the abandoned and orphaned children of the world. “Normally” speaking heterosexual couples are too busy caring for their own children [prior to birth control] leaving too few heterosexual couples to properly care for the needy children.

  7. Thank you Fr. Lawrence for these important thoughts. I want to address of “drawing canonical lines in the sand”, which I am in complete agreement with you will have to happen (in fact, I suspect it should have happened a while ago). You say:

    “The as yet undrawn line in the sand to which I referred was the official declaration that non-Orthodox denominations which officially bless gay marriage should be regarded by us Orthodox as non-Christian denominations, in the same way that we regard Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as non-Christian.”

    A few thoughts come to mind:

    1) From where would theological and ecclesiastical thought, justification, and (most importantly) will come from to do such a thing? When I think of men like the V. Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the OCA (and the bishops that back him), or Bishop Kallistos Ware, or the whole program of the EP, I think it is apparent that none of them have ever come across an “ecumenical dialog” they did not think was worth doing and was not an obvious good. They seem to admit no limits, and certainly entertain no criticism, to what they do and how they do it. Sure, Metropolitan Phillip eventually had enough of the circus that is the NCC/WCC to pull the NA Antiochians out (only the NCC as it’s all he had the power to do), but what other bishop of any jurisdiction or Mother Church has shown such insight in the last 25 years or so? I can’t think of one (though I have read some things coming from Moscow that seems to display they are questioning things).

    2) As the supposed question of “womens ordination” has shown us, the Orthodox, at least in the english speaking world, are not nearly as confident in classical, Christian, Orthodox anthropology as what you suggest would require (and as myself would hope). Look at the difference in just the tone between Fr. Hopko’s first edition of “Women in the Priesthood” and the revised, second edition. Take a look (if you have never) at Bishop Kallistos’ essay in the revised edition. He basically deconstructs every theological argument ever put forward and says in the end (I suppose he sounds convincing to some) “BUT, no Orthodox Church as ever ordained women to the priesthood and probably never will”. Really, with the leading lights of the modern Orthodox world providing such sand for us to stand on, why would it be the outside influence of the culture that leads us into apostasy – why would it not instead be an internal movement from the next generation of “theologians” and seminary professionals (spearheaded by the english speaking world)?

    3) If we are so willing to entertain doubt about ordination, why would we not on the normative Moral Tradition on homosexualism in all its forms? As the Fr. Robert Arida incident proved recently (well, let us be honest, it is still ongoing), there seems to be a willingness to entertain a “rethink” on certain aspects of the Tradition on the part of some, perhaps most importantly at the ecclesiastical level. They can only point to “position papers” while they duck for cover for so long. That said, Met. Joseph (Antiochian) seems willing to stand up and speak clearly for Christian Anthropology:

    However, where are his brother bishops in NA? Their silence (and willingness to obfuscate when some event forces them to speak) is the thing that strikes me.

    Still, you are on to something important in all this. The term “christian” is so elastic these days it is all but meaningless, and Orthodox participation in some of the worst forms of ecumenism does nothing to clarify matters…

  8. Thank you very much, Father Lawrence for clarifying this point. If the Lord says he has not come to abolish the Law then that is what he means. A lord is like that . His followers and hangers on need to shape up and do what he says or they are outside the court. We don’t need to give our assent before we obey , maybe we will know in the future if that is his will. Perhaps young people don’t read enough history or have been flattered into thinking everyone must earn their approval before they will condescend to go along as fellow travellers. There must have been many like that in Palestine who sort of followed him just so far but gave up when it was too difficult.

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