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‘Fundamentalism’ & ‘Dialogue’

Words as weapons used to destabilize the Church from within

Two of the most dodgy words in contemporary religious discourse are “fundamentalism” and “dialogue”. They don’t mean what they seem to mean; in fact, they are often used as a way to gain power.

To explain what I mean, consider that Marquette University, a Jesuit university, is holding a “Pride Prom” this weekend. When some outside the university angrily questioned what a Catholic university is doing sponsoring an LGBT dance, a university spokesman responded:

Notice the rhetoric here. Stolarski is justifying a Catholic university holding a dance for LGBT people by claiming that the university is actually being faithful to Catholic teaching by so doing. It’s like something from the Ministry of Truth. But that’s Catholic higher education for you in a lot of places today. You’ll recall the recent incident at which an orthodox Catholic undergraduate at the Dominican-run Providence College was made into a pariah for publicly agreeing with what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and sexuality.

How does a religious institution — a college, a church, and so forth — get to this point? It often starts with “dialogue”. Who could be against dialogue? Just talking about things, right?

The problem is that there’s dialogue, and then there’s dialogue. By this time, within churches, orthodox/conservative people should have learned that calls for “dialogue” are almost always a strategic move by heterodox/liberal people to establish a beachhead from which to dislodge and defeat orthodoxy.

It works like this:

Progressives propose a dialogue about the role of LGBTs in the church. That’s fine. It’s an important topic. But what is really being proposed is not a talk about “how can LGBTs live faithful to church teaching in this culture, and how can the rest of the church help them do so while integrating them more closely into the life of the church?” That would be an important talk to have, challenging to everybody, and faithful to church teaching. 

But again, that’s not what’s being proposed. The end game, from the progressive side, is to achieve the goal of having the progressive position normalized within the church or church organization — and ultimately to have it replace the orthodox belief. The game is over the first time the parties sit down together if the dialogue is framed in such a way that the orthodox belief is up for debate. To enter into dialogue with others in the church on those terms is to surrender in principle what cannot be surrendered.

The battle is mostly won at that point by progressives. It’s just a matter of time before their view becomes the new orthodoxy. Once they have power, they make their view the new orthodoxy, on the grounds that justice requires it. As Richard John Neuhaus once observed, wherever orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.

If someone undertook to do a history of how orthodox Catholic teaching about homosexuality became heterodoxy at the ostensibly Catholic Marquette and Providence College, they would surely find that it began years, even decades earlier, with calls for “dialogue.” Eventually you end up hosting Pride Proms and demonizing those Catholics who disagree.

In the Orthodox Church, there are a couple of Orthodox grad students agitating for the acceptance and normalization of homosexuality within the Orthodox Church. Their website’s name is — surprise! — Orthodoxy in Dialogue. To be clear, dialogue is no bad thing in and of itself. But in this case, the “dialogue” sought is not one that helps LGBT Orthodox live faithfully by church teaching, and helping non-LGBT Orthodox help them to do so with charity. The only acceptable end result of this “dialogue” will be to marginalize the orthodox Orthodox within Orthodox institutions, and to stigmatize them. By pursuing “dialogue” framed this way, they co-opt the orthodox into their own displacement and diminishment.

Sometimes the progressives let their masks slip. This happened recently on Orthodoxy In Dialogue when the site published a cri de coeur (“I Will Not Be Silenced”) by a gay European man who labels himself “Orthodox Provocateur”. This week, OID’s editors confessed: “We Made A Mistake”. Excerpt:

On February 10 we published Nik Jovčić-Sas’ “Orthodox Provocateur: I Will Not Be Silenced” in good faith. Mr. Jovčić-Sas is a young Serbian Orthodox man living in the UK who devotes considerable time, effort, and resources to LGBTQ activism in some of the historically Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe. He often partners in this endeavour with Moldovan seminarian Ion Andronache, a husband and father of three small children.

In an editorial note at the end of his article we explained our decision to publish in this way:

With the publication of this article Orthodoxy in Dialogue recognizes the need for a complementary two-pronged approach to questions of sexual and gender diversity in human life: the theological effort to understand its place in the divine image and likeness, and the activist effort to ensure that all of God’s children enjoy the safety to thrive in private and public life.

Today we were dismayed to find the author’s Facebook page, Orthodox Provocateur, promoting the so-called “Orthodox Calendar.” This annual production combines homoerotic soft porn with Orthodox icons, clerical vestments, liturgical objects, the interior of churches, etc.

In no way does Orthodoxy in Dialogue wish to be associated, directly or indirectly, with the perpetuation of this sort of blasphemy. Our position is to explore possibilities for the sanctification of same-sex love, not to promote the carnality of same-sex desire or to conflate sexual desire in its fallenness with sacred images.

Accordingly we have removed the content from Mr. Jovčić-Sas’ article.

Go to that Facebook page, and you’ll see images that can only be described as demonic. It’s where this stuff inevitably goes if you give it space within the church. I saw it over and over when I was writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Remember “St. Sebastian’s Angels”?  Because so many of the “arguments” in this “dialogue” are not arguments at all, but rather emotivist appeals, like this gay OID editor’s impassioned apologia for his transgender son. Excerpt:

Do I have all the theological answers? Ha, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. My own “transition” as the father of a transgender child is a never-ending journey of heart and soul in which I sometimes feel that I haven’t even taken the first step. Much less do I feel equipped to expatiate theologically or philosophically on why some persons simply must transition in order to go on living.

Let the full force of that sink in: In order to go on living.

But I do know this. Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, during His earthly life, reserved His condemnation for the following: the “moral” who judged others; the religiously self-righteous; those who thanked God for making them better than other people (you know what you can do with your “There, but for the grace of God…”); those who turned prayer and worship into a capitalist venture; and those who ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the foreigner, the lonely, the convict, the sick. In short, everyone whom the religious establishment deems “non-normative” comes to us as He Himself in disguise.

Beloved Masters, Fathers, monastics, brothers, sisters, theologians, and religious thinkers in the Orthodox Church: Until you have met my son face to face, looked into his eyes as through a window into his heart and soul, witnessed his love for the least of Christ’s brethren, listened—truly listened—to the story of his life, his need to be loved and welcomed by you, his reasons for transitioning to save his own life, you have nothing of value, or legitimacy, or authenticity, to say to him.

That is extremely manipulative language — but in a culture where emotivism has replaced rationality, it’s highly effective. The problem here is that if emotivism is the standard (“Do I have all the theological answers? Ha, I wouldn’t even know where to begin”), the only barrier to accepting anything is disgust. There would have been a time when the idea that Marquette would have sponsored a dance for LGBT students would have struck many Catholics involved in the dialogue as shocking, even disgusting. It no longer does. There would have been a time when laying a gay rights rainbow flag over an altar in a Catholic Church would have shocked and disgusted Catholics. Maybe it still does, but it happens here and there (for example). The Orthodoxy In Dialogue people may have been genuinely shocked and disgusted by what Orthodox Provocateur posted — I cannot know their minds — but it is certainly the case that OID having promoted the words and thoughts of this freak hurts the credibility of OID with the kind of unsuspecting conservatives and moderates they hope to draw into “dialogue”.

Mark my words: if OID gains traction within Orthodox institutions, and among Orthodox elites, it is simply a matter of time before the blasphemy of Orthodox Provocateur becomes if not mainstreamed, then moved within the category of the tolerable. All the necessary emotivist cant will be deployed to justify it. “Dialogue” is a tactic to move the Overton window — the frame of tolerable discourse — to the progressive side. Eventually those who profess what the Orthodox Church teaches to be true will be demonized as heretics, as the Providence College undergraduate discovered.

Let me be clear: there is an important dialogue to be had within the Orthodox Church about LGBT issues. But if actual moral-theological orthodoxy is up for debate, the dialogue is a trap, period. Orthodoxy In Dialogue said last fall that it has taken an editorial position to publish frequently about homosexuality, arguing for its normalization and affirmation within the Orthodox Church. It says:

Orthodoxy in Dialogue promotes true dialogue, not an echo chamber.Dialogue presupposes that the voice of the Church and the mind of Christ can be truly discerned over time only when many voices have the freedom to express themselves without fear. Endless charges and counter-charges of heresy, apostasy, “liberalism,” “conservatism,” and equally endless calls for the excommunication of anyone and everyone who disagrees with us on any topic whatever—these serve no purpose but to tear to shreds the seamless garment of love that characterizes Christ’s true disciples, His Church and Body and Bride.

Thus we welcome articles that take positions opposite from the ones that we have already published. We have proactively solicited submissions from authors who we know disagree with our articles. Yet only one has graciously responded to our overtures; with him we are in the process of working on a joint project to be published in November or December. We invite others to follow suit.

I don’t know why others haven’t taken them up on the invitation, but I know why I wouldn’t: because to join this “dialogue” is to participate in a process that will ultimately attempt to legitimize heterodoxy, plain and simple. Theological truth on a subject that both Scripture and the Church fathers have spoken very clearly about will not be determined through some sort of Hegelian dialectic. Again, the right dialogue to have is on how all Orthodox Christians, gays and straight, can live out the Church’s authentic teaching, and help each other to live it out in charity. Anything else is a potential trap. If you don’t see how this process has worked to destabilize Mainline Protestant churches, and the Catholic Church, you’re blind.

I suppose that makes me a “fundamentalist.” Some Orthodox liberal recently denounced me as a former Evangelical, even though I have never been Evangelical. They have this mindset that any Orthodox convert who doesn’t believe in embracing the LGBT agenda within the Church simply has to be some sort of fundagelical yokel who can’t leave his hickish morality behind. The word “fundamentalist” has almost no stable meaning in common discourse, other than to designate religious people that one do not like. You’ll remember this week’s post in which we looked at sociologist George Yancey’s 2011 survey data, in which he polled philosophy professors to ask which category of person they would be unwilling to hire. Here’s what he found:

Who is a “fundamentalist”? I doubt many, if any, of these surveyed profs could tell you what a Christian fundamentalist is, historically speaking. It’s one of those scare words that people like to use to marginalize and delegitimize conservative Christians they don’t like (the movement conservative version of this is to designate wobbly right-wingers as “RINOs”).

In the discourse of the respectable, nobody likes fundamentalists. If you can label their position as “fundamentalist,” then you don’t have to take them seriously. Within American Orthodoxy, one often sees liberal Orthodox who wish to take the church in a more modernist direction denouncing as “fundamentalist” other Orthodox who oppose them. It’s a slur that is often tied to criticizing Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy — as if their theological orthodoxy on sexuality is somehow foreign to Orthodoxy, even though they affirm what the Orthodox Church teaches!

So, there’s an academic Orthodox conference coming up:

It will be interesting to read the papers this conference produces. In my limited experience in international Orthodoxy, it is true that there are some monks, bishops, and others, who have an extremely rigid interpretation of Orthodoxy, one that you might call fundamentalist, though again, I think the term has been so corrupted by political usage that it’s meaningless. The thing to watch out for is precisely that: the use of the term not to advance understanding, but rather to obscure it by labeling anti-modernist views within Orthodoxy as “fundamentalist”.

In an e-mail this morning, an Orthodox philosopher pointed to the Yancey findings and said:

These are facts worth bearing in mind when people sling around the term fundamentalist. It’s not just a derogatory term (like, say, stupid or backwards) — it’s a weapon that’s highly effective in stigmatizing people, especially in academic and professional settings.

There’s a very sophisticated game being played here. And quite a few honest, faithful Orthodox people are setting themselves up to be played. This fight has been late coming to the Orthodox Church, but it’s here, and those who wish for the Church to be faithful to what it knows to be true had better wise up to the tactics and the strategy of the progressives, and learn from the bitter experience of the small-o orthodox within Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. Some of us converts came into Orthodoxy not from Evangelicalism, but from more established churches that have been hollowed out to some degree by progressivism. We have seen this all before. We know how it ends.

Ask yourself: when has one of these “dialogues” ever resulted in church progressives abandoning their positions and agreeing with the orthodox? And ask yourself: where are the churches whose abandonment of orthodox teaching on sexuality has led to flourishing?

It has never happened. They don’t exist.

UPDATE: The declining Episcopal church is tightening the screws on conservative dissenters, who at one point in the antediluvian age were invited to “dialogue.” This stuff only goes one way. A reader writes:

You Orthodox are so ’Nineties when it comes to Dialogue.

We conservative Anglicans were dialogued out of the Episcopal Church. Now the Archbishop of Canterbury has moved on to indaba and “good disagreement.”

The end result is the same:

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Reader REM writes:

Let me perhaps help to give a what I understand to be a traditional (I hesitate to say fundamentalist because it is such a loaded term, even though that is how it will be characterized by many) outline of an Orthodox take on the Faith. It might make RD’s take on dialogue more comprehensible to some.

1. All knowledge of God comes through God’s revelation of Himself to us. We do not figure it out; it is given to us. (As Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory once said, no philosopher or theologian would have come up with the doctrine of the Trinity– a Cross for the human mind if there ever was one–on his own. All they do is reflect on the Mystery which has been divinely revealed.)

2. The Church is composed of those persons who embrace this revealed Truth AS Truth, and who attempt to incarnate that Truth in their own lives. As such, they voluntarily place themselves in obedience to that Truth.

3. None of those persons in the Church are perfect. They all fall short of the mark in one way or another. Therefore the Christian life is a constant struggle. When we fall, it is our obligation to get up again, repent, and set out upon the struggle again. The Church offers spiritual remedies for these maladies in its role as a spiritual hospital, in its pastoral work. As any good therapy, it is personalized for the particular person, but the goal is the same for all: spiritual health.

4. If we find ourselves in disagreement with the teaching of the Faith our default position should be that I must be wrong and the Church must be right, and then try to clear up the (our) confusion and eventually accept once again the Faith as delivered.

5. If we insist that we are right and the Church is wrong on the disagreement, it is our duty to follow our conscience. In doing so we leave the Church, and we will be answerable to God for our action at the Judgment. He will be the final judge. But as it is an article of the Faith that the Church is the Pillar and Bulwark of Truth, we are far more likely to be wrong than the entire Church throughout history.

From all this, it should be clear that a dialogue where one side expects the Church to change its long-held beliefs on the basis of the latest fashion is out of the question for a believing Orthodox Christian. Since obedience to the Faith is incumbent upon all the Church’s members, seeking to change the faith is an act of rebellion which puts one outside the bounds of the Church.

We understand that the Truth of the Faith concerning articles of belief and basic morality is eternal and unchanging, because God is eternal and unchanging. How that Faith is transmitted to people at any particular time and place will vary with circumstances. How that Faith will be lived by each person will be personal as well. But it will inevitably be lived out as spiritual warfare with our own passions, lusts and sinful desires. If that struggle is to be successful, it must be carried out without quarter, without compromise with our fallenness. How the clergy and the faithful help each other in those personal struggles is pastoral and personal, and is often surprisingly tolerant as long as we each embrace our struggle and work out our salvation in fear and trembling. It is only when a person throws in the towel and instead insists that the Church accept those passions, lusts and desires as good and beneficial that there can be no “dialogue.”

Sorry for the long post, and I know many will not understand or agree. But do at least try to see what our framework of thought is, and why we think as we do.