This post is lightly connected to an earlier discussion of how swapping intensive and extensive statements illegitimately can undermine a conversation and make plain truths seem obscure. The similarity is that, in both cases, responses that are in some sense true are organized into a one-two punch that leaves many people who want to affirm the truth feeling that they are being irrational or stubborn, perhaps missing the point.
When used as a strategy for derailing arguments, of course, these are perverse. It also happens, though, that people see what truth there is in each “step” of the argument and, applying them separately but without adequate reflection, find themselves unable to defend truths that they have learned. For both of these reasons, it is important that we actually learn to think more clearly than that.
The challenge I want to point to, today, deals specifically with authoritative moral teachings and the need to have them expressed with clarity.
The setup for this Catch-22 goes like this:
First, those who affirm an inconvenient truth are offered hard cases and unusual situations, usually with no acknowledgement of the relative frequency of such situations or of any factors that distinguish them from the rule. Attempts to distinguish cases, to show how a sensible application of the teaching or rule improves situations, are consistently treated as evidence the truth is “too complicated” and those who explain the rule are “legalistic.” To insist on such teaching is called “arrogant” or “selfish,” signs of people who are more interested in defending their own status or attainments than in loving service to others; to adhere to it is treated as the privilege of those who find it easy, or who have been given support that they are denying to others.
As a response to this, many of us try to remind others that we adhere to such teachings precisely for the reasons that generations of Christians have handed them down to us–that they promise to make us whole, to make us available to the grace that transforms us. We hold on to these truths, that is, not only because we believe they are necessary for the good of others, but because we need them ourselves. We are not asking for teaching to be clear, laws just, disciplines lovingly but firmly maintained, because we think that helps us control others; we know that without the help of others, and especially without instructions and patterns of living together that push us in the right direction, we ourselves will wander in confusion. Sometimes through excess, sometimes through defect, sometimes through blind spots we don’t notice, sometimes by sheer failure of will with regard to the good that we are called to embrace–but we recognize ourselves in that old hymn lyric that says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love; / Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, / Seal it for thy courts above.” We trust in the mercy and the grace of God, and we do not want to be told that what we can live up to now is all we’re meant for; we know it is not.
And that is what triggers the second half of this Catch-22, this perverse and unjust equivocation.
Second, admitting that we need external assistance, that we are called together in a body because I need others to maintain expectations and discipline, to cooperate with me in cooperating with grace, is interpreted as a weakness that invalidates my adherence to truth.
Sometimes this is just another iteration of hand-waving. Sometimes this is akin to the long-exploded Freudian slander that an excess of repression of sexual drives accounts for insistence on moral norms, and that denying this confirms it.
Sometimes this abuse of honest conversation comes in the form of an unutterably offensive claim of “hypocrisy” that turns the meaning of the term on its head. Where a hypocrite would pretend to be better than he is in order to seem credible, most of us who are called “hypocrites” are just being honest about who we are: sinners being saved by grace, not perfectly-formed Christians trying to prevent others from joining us. In fact, people who discredit fallible witnesses in order to avoid their responsibility to infallible truth are pushing all of us to actually be hypocrites.
If the only way to be taken seriously in speaking for truth is to have miraculous perfection in that truth already, then we are all incapable of learning from each other; and if anyone who claims to have learned something is to be dismissed for “not struggling” enough, then we will never be able to listen to each other.
When you see this one-two punch, then, be sure you are witnessing an effort of Satan to conceal the truth and shame those who bear fallible witness to that truth. When you see those who speak reasonably about truth called “unsympathetic” or “rigid,” while at the same time those who admit they need the help of sound teaching and concrete discipline to achieve personal holiness are dismissed as weak or hypocritical, you may be sure that you are witnessing a perversion of discourse, the very “smoke of Satan” rising in what ought to be the Temple of God.
So don’t do this. Pray harder. Be holier, but do not act holier than you are. And do not confuse the worth of the witness with the worth of the truth.
After all, the Truth Himself relied on the claims of one of whom it was said, “He was not the Light, but was come to bear witness to the Light.”
May we be counted worthy to bear witness, and may we not cloud that witness with the gobbledygook of our Enemy and Accuser.