In a couple of different ways and places, lately, I’ve expressed an opinion about what is wrong with current United Methodist debates and what is needed. My recent post about labels shared a personal experience illustrating the frustration of having people look past what I say and assigning a label that they then use to justify ignoring what I just said. I told a personal story. Many people, from every angle in our current controversies, can tell similar stories.
This is why simply sharing our experience is insufficient for making progress in our denominational struggle. We are tempted to think that our experience trumps somebody else’s. It is so easy to lapse into a kind of “can you top this” competition in our telling our stories. To be sure, sharing experiences has its value. It is a way of getting to know each other and, hopefully, in so doing we can empathize and recognize common humanity, even if we ultimately disagree. It surely would give us more opportunity to exercise Christian love. But beyond sharing our stories, we have to do the hard spade work of understanding each other’s methods. It takes a lot of listening. And some restraint, intellectual humility and charity.
So, let me try my hand at explaining how method works in our discussions. I claim no particular expertise. To use the language of the trades, I consider myself a journeyman in the craft. Every craft, trade, science, whatever, has methods for skillfully doing the work. In our case, we are talking about methods used in thinking about theological and ethical questions for the sake of living faithfully and effectively as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Within this framework, then, what is a method? A method is a patterned set of steps employed to understand statements, propositions, claims and arguments. (An argument is a sustained account or explanation aimed at showing the validity, strength, relevance and truth of a stated set of beliefs.) Good methods are tried and tested by a community of people who learn how to use the methods and can help each other hone skills. In this case, a community shares a set of beliefs and practices that gives them a starting point for method to interpret and to apply.
The goal of good method is to render meaning and truth. “Truth,” of course, is a contested term, but delving into that subject goes beyond my purpose here. Of course, some methods aim at simply helping us figure out what works. If I have ants infesting my lawn, I can try a number of differing methods for getting rid of the pests. The good one is the one that works. In Christian debates about true and false, good and evil, however, we need more than pragmatism. We certainly need much more than appeals to emotion, personal attacks and innuendo and inflammatory statements. We need careful thought. In other words, a good method avoids the temptation to skip argumentation and go for some shortcut, like labels or casting doubt on someone’s motive. (For a good set of examples of these problematic shortcuts, google “informal fallacies” and you’ll see why bad thinking does not – apart from blind, dumb luck – render good policies and practices. It will also help you understand what’s wrong with so many United Methodist debates.)
Behind and underneath the patterned steps we find assumptions or background beliefs. Assumptions can range from “close by” and fairly simple to deeper and broader views about reality. Assumptions help to determine the limits of what we conclude can be true and applicable. Here is another tricky point: ideological opponents can use the same steps of a method, but if they have different assumptions, their conclusions can vary wildly.
Furthermore, all of us draw on and combine sources and we recognize or assign weight (force, authority) in our attempts to understand. The Bible is a source, obviously. Depending on the question, an article on a scientific point might be a source, or a theological or philosophical treatise, or a piece of fiction or a song. Some people like some authors or teachers and others, others. When we use sources, we need to know what we’re doing. We need to know how this source supports what we’re trying to argue. And we need to be able to tell if we’re using sources in a honest, rational (i.e. legitimate) way. And yes, here’s another tricky point: we are tempted to stick with sources we find “trustworthy.” Sometimes this means that they reinforce what we already believe. But good method requires that I also look at sources that disagree with what I already believe. I must practice reading what is distasteful or difficult or disagreeable to my views in order to know (and be truly confident) in what I think.
Thus, to summarize: statements or claims (“X is true”) need to be supported by arguments (rational, logically consistent explanations or accounts). Assumptions need to be made visible to anyone interested in understanding our claims. In making our arguments, we need to show how we use sources and what kind of authority or weight they have.
And all of this is open for scrutiny by people who disagree with us and by people who agree, but who think we should sharpen our thinking. They can point out flaws in our thinking. They can tell us that they don’t share our assumptions. One of the most common difficulties in our present United Methodist debates on homosexuality, for example, is that opponents start with differing assumptions and simply talk past each other without attending to their divergent starting points. Can we see how futile conversations are if we don’t recognize this problem?
Doing the spadework of method is not very sexy or exciting. But it’s absolutely crucial. And you, perceptive reader, can sense the moral dimension of what I’ve just described. If I want to participate in productive conversation; if I want to help The United Methodist Church work toward unity of vision and mission; if I want to help calm the churning waters of angry dissent, then I am obligated to act in good faith by doing this hard work.