Maybe the question for Bishop Schori and her fellow heretics should be: if homosexual practice is not sin, what is? And how do we know? Or is it a matter of "thus saith the opinion polls" and lobbying groups, rather than "thus saith the Lord"? With the bishop's "doctrine" of inclusion, why exclude anyone? How about applying the religious equivalent of "open borders" and let everyone into the church, including unrepentant prostitutes, murderers, liars, thieves and atheists. If the Episcopal Church denies what is clearly taught in scripture about important matters like sexual behavior, why expect its leaders to have any convictions about anything, including directions to Heaven? How can anyone be sure, if the guidebook is so full of errors?
The quote above is from a syndicated op-ed piece by Cal Thomas, published this Thursday. I'd like to thank my twin brother Tom for calling my attention to it, and insisting that I write some sort of a response.
In the same piece Thomas says
The Episcopal Church isn't the only denomination having trouble deciding what it believes. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted to "receive" a policy paper on sex-inclusive language for the Trinity. Instead of the traditional (and biblical) Father, Son and Holy Spirit, these liberal Presbyterians will consider using "Mother, Child and Womb," or "Rock, Redeemer, Friend," among others. Never mind what God calls Himself. These people want a name change without asking permission.
These two incendiary quotes are designed to fan the flames of the culture war, and my first impulse was to simply let them sit. Rather than being dragged into a fight with someone who willfully makes bad arguments, the dignified thing to do, I thought, was to let culture warriors like Thomas shout themselves hoarse. But Thomas and his ilk are quite experienced shouters, whose literary voices have at this point been well conditioned to withstand far more argumentative abuse than this. So, against my better judgment, here I am writing in response to someone who will
a.) never notice that someone like me has responded, and
b.) never deal with the substance of my or anyone else's arguments.
The first quote, concerning the Episcopal position on homosexuality, is a series of dishonest questions. An honest question is an appeal for information. A dishonest question - often in the form of the logical fallacy called a complex question - is not a question at all, but rather an attempt to lead a rhetorical opponent into an untenable position. When Thomas asks
[I]f homosexual practice is not sin, what is?
he is not asking for a comprehensive theology of human sinfulness. Rather, he is saying that the Episcopalians have so diluted the concept of sin that it is no longer recognizable. But, by asking it in question form he avoids having to actually build an argument himself. Instead he asks a leading question which is designed to dominate the moral conversation.
Consider this hypothetical dialogue, which is the sort of thing which I think Thomas is trying to do:
"Liberal" Episcopalian: I don't think that homosexuality is inherently sinful.
Cal Thomas: (Shouting, and spewing self-righteous spit) If homosexuality isn't a sin, then nothing is! You no longer have any concept of sin!
"Liberal" Episcopalian: Don't be ridiculous, of course we have a concept of sin, we just don't think that homosexuality is inherently sinful.
Cal Thomas: You're the one who's being ridiculous! If you think that homosexuality isn't sinful, then tell me what is! What do you even mean by "sin"?
Where can the conversation go from here? Of course the Episcopalian could explain exactly what it is that they mean by sin, offering up some sort of comprehensive theology of sin, and explaining exactly why it is that homosexuality isn't inherently sinful. But, to what end? Would such a response even be heard? Thomas is not entering into the conversation in good faith, and has no intention of actually listening when he is offered up a comprehensive theology of sin. He's just dropping a rhetorical grenade masquerading as a question.
Worse than this, however, is where Thomas goes from here. According to Thomas, the church's acceptance of homosexuals paves the way for accepting "unrepentant prostitutes, murderers, liars, thieves and atheists." Of course he doesn't bother to mention how exactly consentual, monogamous homosexual relationships are morally equivalent to prostitution, murder, stealing and the like. He doesn't mention how exactly homosexual behavior is related to atheism. In fact, he offers no reasons whatsoever for his position, making no argument at all.
Finally, Thomas asks
If the Episcopal Church denies what is clearly taught in scripture about important matters like sexual behavior, why expect its leaders to have any convictions about anything, including directions to Heaven? How can anyone be sure, if the guidebook is so full of errors?
Nevermind that the scriptural position on sexual behavior is not entirely clear, nor is it always applicable to modern society. Also nevermind that it is by no means a given that the Episcopal Church, just because it disagrees with the moral intuitions of one Cal Thomas, in any way "denies what is clearly taught in scripture."
[note: to see what I mean by this, check out the last section of The Culture War and Homosexuality: A Different Sort of Quagmire, which deals with scriptural arguments against homosexuality.]
The Episcopal Church has not tossed their Bibles aside and declared a moral free-for-all, and neither have those (like me) who agree with their position on homosexuality. Rather, they have searched the scriptures diligently, and have found that in many cases passages from those scripture have been yanked out of context to defend the moral intuitions of small-minded people.
As far as I know, no one in the Episcopal Church is denying that there is such a thing as human sinfulness, nor are they denying that the Bible is at the foundation of our shared Christian faith. Instead they are denying that only people who think like Cal Thomas are qualified to say what the Bible says.
Cal Thomas, in his series of dishonest question which are really not questions at all, is, instead of building a good argument about why the Episcopal Church is wrong about homosexuality, actually using two different logical fallacies as a rhetorical device. He is simultaneously engaging in a Slippery Slope fallacy (that is, if we accept gays then we have to accept prostitutes, murders, thieves, and the like - this is similar to those who say that if we allow a man to marry a man and a woman to marry a women, then we have no reason not to allow a man to marry a horse and a woman to marry a gerbil) and a Strawman fallacy (attacking his version of the Episcopal Church's position rather than dealing with the actual arguments they are making).
Worse than this, he is smart enough to know that this is exactly what he's doing. He is more than capable of making a good argument, though he does it less and less these days. But he is trading good reason for a flamethrower, which is not only intellectually dishonest, but morally reprehensible.
Not content with his attack on the Episcopalians (and, in his defense, in parts of the piece not quoted here he makes some good points, which we will probably address in the comments section of this post), Thomas also has to attack a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) decision which has been praised here. After his ridiculous portrayal of the Presbyterian decision, he says
These people want a name change without asking permission.
If Thomas were being honest, then I would say that this is the most poorly conceived line of his piece (which is really saying something). But Thomas is once again being dishonest. He knows full well that this line won't stand up to the criticism it is about to receive, but he uses it anyway, because accurate or not, it is quite incendiary. One again, he trades argument for rhetoric as he dials up the culture war heat.
To the substance of Thomas' dishonest line, I have this to say:
1. The Presbyterians are not trying to change God's name. Trinitarian formulations have nothing to do with God's name, unless you think that God's name is literally "Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
And, as Amy has pointed out, they are by no means getting rid of the traditional Trinitarian formula. They are merely adding to the list of acceptable metaphoric descriptions of God, something which is done all the time, anyway.
2. They are also doing absolutely nothing "without asking for permission," a point which should be obvious to Thomas unless he really believes that liberal Christians don't pray and don't try their best to follow the direction of the Holy Spirit. Thomas may disagree with the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Church about where it is that the Holy Spirit is leading, but I hope he is not so morally and spiritually arrogant as to believe that this great church isn't trying to do God's will, and isn't constantly seeking that will through prayer.
I used to consider Cal Thomas to be one of the more thoughtful conservatives in syndication. I used to consider him a sort of Christian George Will. I've rarely agreed with him, but I used to read him almost religiously, to test my ideas out against his. Have I been wrong all this time? Was there some hallucinogenic substance in my drinking water that I didn't know about? Have I always been too charitable with people who disagree with me? Or, has he changed as the culture war heated up - becoming more concerned with "winning" than with arguing fairly and honestly?
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