Friday, March 04, 2005

The Dangers of Discourse

If ideas have consequences, then discourse can be dangerous.

I am a teacher in the church of Jesus the Messiah. As such, I am held to a higher standard (Jas 3:1-12) because of the broader influence of my words. Most teachers in the church know the first line of this paragraph in James, but I think we forget that the whole section following, on the tongue, is connected to this first sentence. We often quote the section on the tongue as if it applied to anyone’s tongue, which in some sense it may, but we need to note that it primarily amplifies the first line, and is discussing the leverage of a teacher’s tongue. We should be reluctant to become teachers, “for we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.” Then James elaborates on the leverage of the teacher’s tongue, how it acts like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or like the rudder on a ship. How much damage is done if that directive force is applied incorrectly, and how hard it is to not stumble!

As I contemplate pursuing a discussion on the Biblical view of abortion and other beginning- and end-of-life issues, I must consider the dangers involved. The Christian church is currently mostly aligned against abortion and against euthanasia, as I believe it should be. The average Christian on the street simply equates abortion and euthanasia with murder, and is motivated thereby to act politically to curtail, if not completely outlaw, these practices. Likewise with the homosexual agenda to legally endorse that lifestyle as an equally moral option against which no individual can speak or discriminate: the average Christian simply sees homosexual practice as wrong and hence will vote against it. In moving people to act, simple enthymemes are best. Long and nuanced arguments are hard to hold in the mind, and people tire of them easily.

The danger of engaging in nuanced arguments in public places is that the overhearing church may become confused. Specifically, there is the danger that upon hearing long and esoteric discussions about fine distinctions in meaning, they will come away with the impression that the issue is not established even in its overarching form, that there is no sense in having a position on the subject because “no-one can agree anyway.” If the church is already acting correctly, but based on a simplistic understanding that may not be correct in all its applications, should one leave well enough alone, or risk replacing action with muddled apathy?

If an alternative Christian understanding of the issues surrounding the beginning of life turns out to remove the simple abortion-equals-murder paradigm, will all the steam go out of the church’s opposition to this practice? If so, is it worth going there? Is it patronizing to avoid difficult subjects in the public sphere, or responsible?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, worthwhile questions. Many bits & starts toward suggestions in answer, and/or some glib rejoinders, come to mind here – too much to pursue. I hope you'll continue to pursue this line of thought.

    Worth dwelling, it seems to me, on the fact that those in the teaching role are never simply teachers; they share essentially in all the weakness & subjection of the rest who are followers but aren't also leaders. In a way that's obvious, but what jumps out at me is that 'the danger of engaging in nuanced arguments' isn't merely potential danger for somebody else; whatever calling there may be by virtue of position & responsibility to engage in increasingly careful argument in pursuit of truth & right is to some extent necessarily a calling to being the more at risk oneself of becoming confused or losing the sense of importance in the work of argument. Double trouble.