Wednesday, June 4, 2014

For Want of a Nail...

This week I found myself in conversation with a dear friend on questions of what “Church” should be. Naturally the conversation turned to discussion of various beliefs and practices and how they relate to our respective traditions. While this discussion was a wonderful time of fellowship, understanding, and brotherly love, I couldn't help but notice a few trends beginning to form across various interactions that I've had, especially in dialogue with Evangelical Christians. These trends can be typified by a question and two statements that I have heard many times: 1) Okay, I don’t have a problem with that, but why is it necessary? (Usually referring to specific requests for the intersession of the Saints) 2) If I can’t have it, I don’t want it. (In reference to closed communion) 3) But what really matters is that we are all part of the spiritual body of Christ and the temporal things that divide us are inconsequential because we are united by a higher spiritual connection. While I don’t wish to pick fights or point fingers, I simply find such statements to be unhelpful. I don’t deny that you can think such things, however, what bugs me is that usually these are usually rather final statements because I usually have no idea how to respond to such statements and questions in the moment.

The reason I find these statements so difficult to deal with is that I don’t think they really are individual problems in their own right. Sure, each of these statements engage specific surface issues, but ultimately they are not the root of the problem. We can dicker all we want over the symptoms, but it will never bring us anywhere near to fixing or resolving or even truly understanding the deeper issues they represent. Don’t get me wrong, the symptoms are important, but they cannot be truthfully and fully tackled without addressing the disconnect that is causing the more obvious disagreement.

Theological dialogue is fraught with such issues but the thing that worries me the most is that such discussions very rarely move beyond the surface issues, and often there really is very little thought given to what are the concerns of each side. For example, I once heard a discussion between a Catholic and Protestant theologian regarding the place of Holy Scripture. The Catholic theologian said from the beginning: “this is about Tradition” While the Protestant theologian stated very clearly: “For us, this is about Authority” Here we have two completely different discussions going on, however, because there is the common language of “Scripture” this disconnect is not necessarily noticed. While I don’t necessarily hold these two men responsible for or guilty of such an oversight, the fact remains that the oversight exists and the individual concerns of each side need to be addressed individually before any real progress can be made. In short the problem is not a “high” or “low” view of Holy Scripture, but rather reasons behind such views.

In a recent conflict management training session that I was required to attend for my summer job, the presenter introduced a concept that he referred to as the “5 Why’s.” In short this refers to the idea that in order to find the root of the problem, one must ask “Why” at least five times. To illustrate this concept he used the anonymous poem “For Want of a Nail”

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This poem wonderfully illustrates how small things have big consequences. I think it can also illustrate how complex and deeply rooted surface issues can be. I really don’t think that the statements I referred to at the beginning of this post are even close to the root issues at hand and while they can serve to point towards deeper issues, conflicts, misunderstandings, and dysfunctions, they also serve to shut down further discussion. I have found that such statements have a tendency to signal that the discussion is over and often emphasize the opinion that the issues and concerns that the other side may have are null and are really not issues at all.

I must be quick to emphasize that I DO NOT blame people who say such things. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are sincere in their engagement. I often wish that things could be as simple as they are to some interlocutors with whom I have the privilege of interacting. However, I am struck by how baffled I am by their questions and statements at times. I simply have a hard time understanding where such statements come from, and this leads me to wonder if the issues really are the necessity of Holy Tradition, the Divine Eucharist, and One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Or, is the issue something much more simple: A conflict of worldview. At least for me, this is something helpful. With this understanding, I can begin to make headway, not by simply addressing issues and answering questions to the best of my ability, but rather by seeking to paint a picture of how I see the world so that maybe someone else can understand where I come from. Of course, this also requires that I be willing and able to encourage the other to do the same and have an open mind to hear and understand. Until we understand each other’s world views, there is no way that we can begin to understand each other on the more complex levels of theology and practice.

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