Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Rocky and Apollo ... Oh, I mean Sally and Steve!

There they were – Sally and Steve – ready to lead this workshop as a part of the Missouri Annual Conference. Sally, who is well known around the Conference for her outspoken liberal viewpoint; and Steve, who is equally well known around the Conference for his outspoken conservative viewpoint; leading a workshop together. And they were going to talk about, or so it said on the agenda “how your congregation can learn to work with our Social Principles.”

“Oh, this ought to be good,” we thought! Better than Rocky and Apollo! They had pitched the workshop using the familiar “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things, charity” quote which has been attributed to just about everyone, it seems, but often is attributed to John Wesley. The presenters were asking if we could still follow this challenge, given the divisive contemporary cultural atmosphere, especially on social issues.

First off, it was hysterical! Steve and Sally were making all of the stereotypical “liberal” and “conservative” comments to one another. Hearing the stereotypes spoken out loud, face to face, in a room full of people, illuminated just how asinine they are. (I mean the stereotypes, not Steve and Sally.) Yes, Sally does love Jesus. Yes, Steve does have a heartbeat. Yes, Sally does read the Bible. Yes, Steve does think about people other than himself sometimes. And so forth. It was very fun on that level.

On another level, it was very healthy and liberating to have a conversation that was framed with the understanding that, in spite of our differences, we love one another. Neither presenter was out to prove the other one wrong. Neither presenter was trying to convince the other to change her/his mind. The starting point was their disagreement, and as such they “named the elephant in the room,” which freed them up to actually have a respectful conversation.

However, on yet another level, the workshop was a perpetuation of the myth that there are only two points of view in the world – liberal and conservative. The reality is that things are much less cut and dried than that, opinions and beliefs are way more diverse than either/or. But because there were two presenters, one from the “left” and one from the “right,” the workshop itself succumbed to the myth that it was, in a sense, trying to bust.

Another observation (which might get me in a bit of trouble, so please hold me accountable if I am mistaken here): Sally asked Steve if his friends who are on the conservative end of the spectrum would have issues with his participation in a dialogue like this. The question got a few chuckles, but was a serious one. Steve had to admit that, yes, some of the more conservative people out there would not agree with his decision to engage in a conversation like this. But Steve did not ask Sally the same question. I think that was because everyone in the room already knew what the answer would be.

In general (go with me here), liberals have no problem with a conversation like this, precisely because it is a part of being liberal to have conversations like this! That is, in part, what liberal means – freethinking, open minded, not limited to set patterns or ideas. So naturally this workshop is right up their [our] alley. If you don’t take great joy in a conversation like this, you’re probably not a liberal! But it may be a bit difficult for a more conservative person, favoring traditional values and ideas, resistant to change, and tending to go with the establishment, to enter into such a risky conversation.

Now, I’m sure all my conservative friends reading this are just chomping at the bit to comment, and I hope that you all do so with respect and love. But before you do, I just want to give out some big time thanks to Steve and Sally for taking a bold step out in faith to lead this workshop. It was a risk for both of them, I am sure. I vote with Sally more often than I vote with Steve, but what difference does that make? Steve is my brother, a valued colleague in ministry, and a fantastic pastor! I hope the conversation held here in Missouri will trickle up to Jurisdictional and General Conference and we can together remember the words of Wesley (or whoever it was): Unity – Liberty – Charity.

7 comments:

Larry B said...

Sounds like it was good time!

With a tagline like "Now, I’m sure all my conservative friends reading this are just chomping at the bit to comment," and "Another observation (which might get me in a bit of trouble, so please hold me accountable if I am mistaken here):" How could I resist?

Maybe I'll get in trouble here, but the only conservatives I know who would disapprove of participation in such a debate would be ones who haven't thought much about their own beliefs (ie weanies!! :) just kidding!!) . I'm very glad for my own debate training/competition background where I was forced to defend and attack both sides of the argument. It clarifies where in the the issue you really fall, if you can effectively articulate "both" sides of an argument. I love these kinds of presentations and wish there were a whole lot more in the church at all levels.

I wouldn't agree that two sided presentations perpetuate the myth that there are only two sides to an issue. For those who choose to sit somewhere in the middle or hold a more complex view of the issue, it can help to aggregate the points from both sides that make up their view and point to common ground among them and the "two sided" people. Let's face it, it's just not as entertaining to listen to someone who holds a middle ground view. (Not that the view shouldn't be heard or studied, but in the context of your workshop example here, I much prefer the polar opposite discussions).

The only thing that makes me cringe in your post is the "what liberal means – freethinking, open minded, not limited to set patterns or ideas." Could somebody please explain to me what that means? If I engage in a discussion, hear both sides or even argue both sides and settle on a "conservative" position am I closed minded? Is the liberal being closed minded by rejecting "conservative ideas"?

To me, that's common liberal hubris to believe they have captured the market on "open-mindedness" and "free thinking" and it's a prima fascia argument that's used a lot against any "conservative" opinion that they don't happen to agree with. Somebody has to set a standard by which to judge "open-mindedness and free thinking" and by doing so they engage in the conservative patterns they claim to despise.

Oh well. Great post!

Andy B. said...

Larry B, It is always good to read your comments - thanks.
I like your observation about people who haven't thought much about their beliefs. Right on target, and not just for conservative people. There are plenty of people who claim to hold liberal beliefs without any reflection on why they hold them. And they will tend to cling pretty fiercly to them, too - in a very closed-minded way. This illuminates how we get in trouble by throwing these labels around carelessly.
Question: can/should we use the terms liberal and conservative epistemologically? Or do they merely describe one's position on a given set of social issues?
Thinking, AB

adam mustoe said...

Hey, I agree great post. One point at which I took issue with the "liberal" side of Methodism was while reading "United Methodism @ Risk" which I have at home, and probably should quote directly from.....but it went something like this:

The right wing can no longer be considered as one voice among many.

Now to me, that was directly opposed to the spirit of open-mindedness.....its a problem when in the name of being "open-minded" you reject the validity of those opinion-holders who are "close-minded". Then you're no longer "open-minded"! I'll try and remember that book to post it directly.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether or not you should use the terms epistemologically, Andy. Even after looking up "epistemologically"
I have no idea what kind of words one would use in that way. ;-)

However, having been raised in one kind of extreme family and married into its opposite, anecdotally I would say that one's political views have nothing to do with how open-minded one is. It seems to me that the people I've encountered who are most willing to examine other viewpoints are either the ones who can see validity in multiple arguments and therefore cannot make up their minds or the ones who are certain of their views and are not threatened by discussing them. Or maybe I just need to meet more people! :-)

Beth B

Anonymous said...

"The only thing that makes me cringe in your post is the "what liberal means – freethinking, open minded, not limited to set patterns or ideas." Could somebody please explain to me what that means? If I engage in a discussion, hear both sides or even argue both sides and settle on a "conservative" position am I closed minded? Is the liberal being closed minded by rejecting "conservative ideas"?

To me, that's common liberal hubris to believe they have captured the market on "open-mindedness" and "free thinking" and it's a prima fascia argument that's used a lot against any "conservative" opinion that they don't happen to agree with. Somebody has to set a standard by which to judge "open-mindedness and free thinking" and by doing so they engage in the conservative patterns they claim to despise."
Larry B.

Well stated. I am an active member of a well known Methodist Church in Columbia, MO where "conservative" is a perjorative term and conservative points of view are dimly regarded. At least the doors remain "Open".

Larry B said...

"Question: can/should we use the terms liberal and conservative epistemologically? Or do they merely describe one's position on a given set of social issues?"

Actually, this is a great question for me in terms of what it surfaced. I think you're right, the terms conservative and liberal have begun to take on an epistemological sense for most people and ,after reflecting on that idea, conservative/liberal with their current meaning is a probably a gross distortion of how people actually come to know their faith.

Having learned a little about Judaism from Disciple bible study and readings about it I would make this observation: If St. Paul or Jesus were to come back today, one could argue that he would probably see the people we call "liberals" as the pharisees and the "conservatives" as the saducees. And I think most people would say, hey - I'm not either one of those. Remembering though that the saducess only believed in the written Torah (first five books of bible) and no re-interpretation of it, and the Pharisees believed in written Torah, Oral Torah, and the ability for educated Rabbis to interpret meaning differently, it's a pretty fair comparison.

How quickly we would stop using labels if we had to call each other pharisees and saducees. Knowing that Jesus rebuked both pretty harshly!

I think most peoples religious understandings aren't neatly categorized and the use of the conservative/liberal words really should be thought of as how one views social issues, not one's approach to religious understanding.

Maybe then we could have better discussions like you saw with Sally and Steve, because we wouldn't feel like our entire religious understanding is under attack because we are discussing social issues in the sphere of liberalism and conservatism.

Richard said...

I'm only in high school now, but I can't wait to have the oppurtunity to go to one of these Annual Conferences. They sound exciting.