Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Slippery Slope of Cal Thomas

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?

7 comments:

Amy said...

I think what gets to me about Thomas (and others) arguments against expansive language the most is that the images they rail against also come directly from Scripture. The Trinity paper is an exploration of biblical interpretation; it is rooted deeply in our scripture. Each of the images presented is paired with the verse that it comes from. These same people who accuse liberals of "choosing their own canon" from within the scripture by ignoring verses we don't like (which most of us don't do anyway), and yet they cannot handle the same biblical inspiration they claim to hold in highest regard!

That's my rant for today. Thanks!

Brian Cubbage said...

Sandalstraps, I never shared your sense that Cal Thomas was capable of arguing well and in good faith. He must have had a brief fit of rationality since the last idiotic columns of his that I read back in the Clinton years. Of course, that goes to an explanation of Thomas' hysteria: Like agriculture and the company of women, rationality for Thomas seems to be a luxury, something to enjoy in peacetime but to be left back on the farm when our boys go off to (literal or cultural) war.

You are to be commended for trudging through Thomas' rhetorical sewage. Like other people who trudge through sewage to repair things and diagnose problems, you have done us a real service.

One point I would like to add to your remarks on the theological substance of Thomas' remarks (such as it is) has to do with the idea of "naming" God. I've never been quite clear on what I should think about this. Medievals like Aquinas, and even ancients like Pseudo-Dionysius, would have been comfortable calling designations like "Father" and "Son" names of God. All of the other designations of God that the Presbyterians are contemplating-- designations that, as Amy reminds us, come straight out of Scripture-- could be considered "names," too. The phenomenon isn't limited to Christianity; I've heard Moslems say that the Qu'ran contains 99 names of God, where "name" is taken to include more general designations such as "the Merciful."

I think, though, that these folks have a more flexible notion of what counts as a name than most of us (except Cal Thomas, apparently) have. Certainly "Father" wouldn't be a proper name, something meant to designate God uniquely in distinction from everything else in the universe or outside it; there are more fathers in the world than God. So "Father" wouldn't be a proper name for God, but it would still be a kind of name.

Does God have a proper name, then? Is it Jesus? Is it the Tetragrammaton? Is it G-d? I wonder. Your response to Thomas leads me to think that maybe we lack a proper name for God, or at least that any proper name for God is about as good as any other.

Liam said...

Sandalstraps, good work. While it is true that the Limbaughs, O'Reilys & Thomases of the world should be generally ignored, it's not a bad idea to occasionally show how poorly reasoned their arguments are.

I share Brian's feeling about Thomas. I have rarely read him, but I never recall reading a column of his that seemed to any attempt to use reason and not bombast. Of course, I could be wrong.

Troy said...

Chris,

I just got back from two weeks of vacation...too much sun, food, and drink...I'm beat and am supposed to be napping.

However...I just had to bip into your blog.

I am an Episcopalian, and I spent years prior in churches which talk about homosexuality, and the bible, the same way Thomas does here. Even in our own denomination many hold Thomas' view still, entire dioceses take this position (from the top at least). E's are far from consensus on this issue; there's vastly varied opinion and levels of passion with which those opinions are held.

Your post is too good to need much response, but let me echo:

There are two issues here at this time. If psychology can show us, someday, that homosexuality is in fact a neurosis like all the other neuroses most Christians have, perhaps the discussion will expand a little. Not much, though.

The first issue is that many Christians who believe they mean well are in fact bigoted. They fear what is different, what they do not know, the strangeness of the other, believe openly gay couples in the church will lead their children, otherwise straight, to be gay, etc. As a straight male I cannot pretend to undertstand homosexuality. When I saw Brokeback I found how true this was...what stuck out to me was the hotness of the hetero sex scene; I found myself wondering if the blonde character was truly gay or was 'made' that way by his early experience in the mountains. I saw the confusion and pain and wondered how much of that might be part of homosexual experience regardless of how homosexuality is accepted by culture.

In short, I experienced the film essentially different from my gay colleagues. I can't escape my own orientation, which, as spiritual and intimate as it may be at times, is deeply hormonal, blatantly biological, riddled throughout with lust for women's bodies I don't even know (think if I got rid of all sexual desire how pure my thought life would suddenly become). Testosterone causes desire to make love with my wife but also aggression, unhealthy fantasy...anyway, us straights are far from perfect.

Aside: Dang it's hot in the mountains right now. Two weeks on the coast and I forget what summer is like.

To sum up (sort of) point one, much of what causes Christians to find what they're looking for in the scripture is in fact fear of people so fundmanetally different, ignorance, hate and bigotry.

The second thing is that we all need to be honest how we read and use the bible. Sure there are verses, clear at least in my English translation, which condemn homosexual sex. If I believe God in fact wrote the entire bible, my position should be clear. But the problems is, even if I do believe God wrote the entire bible (and at this time, I don't) things are still far from clear! The 66 protestant books DO NOT present a perfect and unified ethical vision. Jesus, though, does, when he talks about loving our neighbor, about love of others and God as the point on which all the law and prophets hang.

In truth, all of us, every person and denomination, the Pharisees and Jesus included, pick and choose our verses. Fundamentalists have discarded almost all of the Levitical law, but will use Leviticus to look for proof of their position on this issue. Same with Paul's epistles. Very, very few churches make women wear head coverings. And the number of evangelical churches which permit heterosexual remarriage after divorce has grown exponentially in the last thirty years in spite of Jesus' strong words on the topic. Why? Because we've seen that remarriage is spiritually and emotionally healthy.

Do we really want to go back to the centuries when divorce was nearly impossible, or if obtained even for abuse or abandonment, did not qualify one for remarriage? (Read Milton on this for a radical 17th century view. Or for that matter, look at C.S. Lewis' recent experience). Only decades ago suicide was considered a mortal sin and those who suffered depression and lost their battle to the disease could not be given a church funeral, or buried on church grounds. Don't forget make-up. Tattoos. Shellfish. Ten dollar poker night. All sin. Heck, from Paul's point of view, marriage of any kind was a distraction. Women couldn't speak in church. Don't forget, Eve sinned first...And on.

I believe I understand Thomas because I used to talk and think just like him. I am surely no theological expert, but I believe grace, accomodation for love, tolerance and loving action are the critical components of our gospel. Does God disapprove of gay love? I don't actually know at this point. But I do know Jesus disapproves of judging others, imposing excessive burdens, excluding the outcast.

Of course churches say they welcome gays in their services, but what they really want is the gays to go hetero and, in short, be just like them.

I gotta go.

t

Sandalstraps said...

Of course churches say they welcome gays in their services, but what they really want is the gays to go hetero and, in short, be just like them.

Well put, Troy. Many churches that claim to welcome homosexuals welcome them as a sort of unique class of sinners, in need of a special kind of conversion. Never mind that - if they are gay and yet still interested in going to church, despite all of the rhetoric which comes from evangelical Christians - they are almost certainly already deeply committed Christians, who have already had a meaningful conversion experience, and have experienced the grace of God in their own lives.

Sorry to let such good comments from Amy, Brian, Liam and Troy sit for so long. I've been out of town for a family reunion, and just returned. Good points, all. It seems that the consensus is that, having started reading Cal Thomas as a conservative evangelical, I'm just now realizing what a blowhard he is, and probably always has been.

I'll get to the rest of the comments - especially Brian's insight into the notion of names for God, after I wake up a little bit more. I'm still recovering from a wonderful vacation!

Brian Cubbage said...

To your final point, Troy, I don't think that all churches are like that. (Perhaps the vast majority.) My wife and I were members of a church in State College, PA that in our view actually succeeded in welcoming and embracing GLBT persons as full members. They had many, many GLBT members, and the rest of the congregation didn't try to make them into carbon copies of the hetero members. They also didn't make a big show of their openness-- they didn't fly rainbow flags out front or put forward their GLBT members as tokens-- yet another way in which churches can implicitly exclude them. They were simply regular, ordinary members in every sense of the word-- they weren't disqualified from any position of leadership or service within the church.

I won't say that the church didn't have occasional issues, mostly deriving from the public reputation their open and affirming attitude got them in the wider community. But they were (and still are, I suspect) a great example of a church basically doing things right.

Anonymous said...

Chris,

No, I don't think you're imagining things: I used to grudgingly respect Cal Thomas' columns, because they never seemed to stoop to the rhetorical lows of columnists such as Michelle Malkin (man, would I love to see an opinion piece on here about that...woman).

But lately, I've not been impressed with Thomas's writing. Especially one of his latest columns, in which he calls the New York Times "Al Qaeda's favorite newspaper" for reporting on the government practice of bank record tapping.

Where were all the indignant conservative columnists when Valerie Plame got outed as a CIA agent just for spite?

P.S. Chris, can you call me? My new cell phone was supposed to have all the old numbers on my contact list transferred over, but yours didn't make it for some reason.

--H.