How Do You Debate the Saggy Baggy Elephant?
When I was in college in the 90s, I and some other religion majors went with one of our professors to a debate on the question of gay ordination at a presbytery meeting in Iowa. (Our professor was a member of the Presbyterian Church [USA], which conducts its business largely at a regional level, called the presbytery.) He was to defend the traditional position. A professor of English at Grinnell College,
whose name I forget, Sylvia Thoreson Smith, was to promote the ordination of practicing homosexuals.
It was very interesting watching the debate. My professor made solid and compelling exegetical and theological arguments, explaining the Greek and Hebrew of controverted passages, and synthesizing them theologically. Good stuff, I thought.
His opponent did two things: First, she played an emotionally-charged recording of some of her lesbian friends lamenting their exclusion from the possibility of ordination under Presbyterian discipline. Second, she read a children’s book, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, a story which tells of an elephant whom no one likes because of his saggy baggy skin.
It came to that.
When each presenter had an opportunity for rebuttal, my professor responded, “Are we going to base our theology on The Saggy Baggy Elephant, or Scripture?” For me at the time — college — that nailed it.
But it’s not that simple. To be sure, there’s a lot to be discussed regarding sources of theological authority — the nature of Scripture, tradition, reason, culture, experience, and their complex relationships. The traditional Christian generally begins with Scripture, tradition, and a theologically-informed reason and uses them to interpret culture and experience. The liberal Christian generally begins with a sort of reason grounded in the Enlightenment as well as culture and experience and uses them to interpret Scripture and tradition.
But once you decide which sources with which to begin (and one could also discuss whether that should be a prior decision in any event), then it becomes a matter of hermeneutics: With what interpretive category will we approach Scripture, or tradition, or any of these sources?
In his classic work The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, George Lindbeck delineated three potential ways of conceiving of religion:
(1) Religion as cognitive-propositional content: Here religion is conceived of as a system of rational doctrines that function as first-order truth claims. This is the category into which one should place old-school Protestant orthodoxy, or perhaps pre-Vatican II Catholicism. (Indeed, it was this sort of ideal, doctrinal Catholicism abstracted from history that many at the Council wished to counteract.)
(2) Religion as experiential-expressivism. Here religion is not a matter of doctrine but experience. It has its roots in Scheiermacher’s concepts of God-consciousness and “feeling of absolute dependence.” Here the particulars of various religions are regarded as dispensable, being only particular expressions of the one same core experience of God, the Real, the Ultimate. (It’s hard to come up for a name for whatever we’re talking about here, because the experience of this God, this Real, this Ultimate, this Other is ultimately beyond language.) Religions express this core experience in different ways, but ultimately we’re all talking about the same thing.
(3) Religion as a cultural-linguistic system. Here Lindbeck envisions religion as a culture with its own language, its own grammar, its own way of speaking. The particulars of any given religion cannot be dispensed with as mere expressions of something else; they are irreducible. A religion’s particular practices and beliefs are the religion, not symbols whose ultimate referent is something else (à la Bultmann or especially Tillich). An example: For Bultmann, the resurrection isn’t really about Jesus’ body being raised physically from the dead. It’s really about something else: the overcoming of existential estrangement between oneself and God and neighbor. (One of my teachers, Ed Sanders, used to joke that Bultmann knew that because Heidegger whispered it in his ear.)
The fundamental category here is story, or narrative: each religion is a bona-fide culture with its own narrative which constitutes the community’s identity and provides the lenses through which the community reads the world. But, according to Lindbeck, in this model a religion does not make first-order truth claims, for to do so would mean the referents of the symbols would then refer to something else (à la the category of experiential-expressivism).
Although Lindbeck didn’t intend to found a theological movement but rather to provide a typology of conceptions of religion, Lindbeck’s little book helped launch the movement called narrative theology associated with the so-called “Yale-Duke School,” Stanley Hauerwas being its most well-known representative, and Richard Hays’ influential Moral Vision of the New Testament is an exercise in narrative theology.
Unfortunately, narrative theology has been abused in its appropriation by certain “emergent” Christians, wherein the idea of story seems to function as a warrant for whatever someone wants to do or believe. It’s about their subjective stories. For narrative theology proper, the story is something objective (even as interpreters strive to determine its precise contours) that determines our identity and praxis.
Which brings me to Tony Campolo. He used to be a very popular speaker on the youth and college circuit, a prophetic evangelical, an East Coast Italian Baptism. Some people love him; others don’t like him very much. For my part, two talks he gave at the 1997 Youth Specialties Youth Worker Convention in San Diego were especially formative for me. One was largely on liturgy. The other, which I’ll discuss here, was entitled “Postmodernism and Your Kids.”
In the talk, Campolo basically said that in the postmodern world, old-school fundamentalist/evangelical apologetics wouldn’t cut it. “Our whole approach to evangelism will have to change!” Tony thundered. Instead of trying to explain how Jonah could survive in the belly of a whale for three days and nights, the better thing to do (Campolo said) is simply tell the gospel story, and tell our stories, and actually practice the faith — signs and wonders accompanying us.
What we’re left with, I think, and I find it inviting, is a situation in which we simply live and tell our stories, rooted, God willing, in the Story, and we let the chips fall where they may. Like the Sower in the parable, we cast seed far and wide, letting it fall where it may, and letting it sprout forth and thrive if it will.
We just don’t see Bulverism discussed enough. But it may be impossible to *show* (=convince) a person that he’s wrong if the error is held so deeply due to some fundamental psychological characteristic, that the first step to correcting the error is to dismantle the psychological structure that supports the error. E.g., one may well be ardently prochoice because one had a direct experience with abortion and can not deal with the guilt, or needed abortion to be available as a backup plan rather than be virtuously chaste; similarly, it is virtually impossible to argue against gay marriage with committed homosexuals because all the arguments from natural law fail to engage the psychological reality of their lived experience.
I think in many ways that’s dead-on, and we should note it’s deeply Augustinian, especially the later Augustine. Having a dark view of human nature and possibility, the Augustinian tradition is somewhat skeptical about the competence of the intellect to perceive natural law and the desire of the will to act on it. (See this great piece by Paul Griffiths to get a grip on the problems.)
Thus, whether one is a premodern Augustinian or a postmodern believer, perhaps the category of story is more effective, more useful, than reason. That’s why, I think, stories like these from SSA/gay Christians like Melinda Selmys and Joshua Gonnerman and Daniel Mattson need to be told as stories.
But I’m not sold that reason and story, nature and story, must be exclusive. The problem with competing stories is that it’s hard to choose between them, especially when it comes to matters of public policy. (On that note, I also think one of the reasons the Left has succeeded so well in shaping cultural and political debates over the last century is that they’re better storytellers, and indeed the best American storytellers — here I mean novelists, writers of short stories, filmakers, dramatists — are more often than not men and women of the left. Exceptions abound, of course: Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor come to mind. They’re certainly not of the Right, mind you.) And it’s not as if we have a level playing field; sometimes, I think, the story approach assumes people living on some politically neutral turf encountering each other’s stories, and then the chips fall where they may. But it’s not really like that; story might be a postmodern category (I think it’d be better to recognize it as a postliberal category), but a hallmark of postmodernity is suspicion towards all master narratives. Why? Because master narratives get enforced by State power and precipitate great violence.
And thus my concern: If stories are just stories, and what’s compelling to one person is nonsense to another, how do we talk to each other?
My tentative solution: Overcome the divorce between reason and rhetoric, proposition and story, by going back to the tradition that held them together. It means overcoming our assumed Platonism, suspicious of rhetoric and story, metaphysical to the core, and reprobated by postmodernity, and finding our way to the Aristotelian tradition.
In Aristotle, reason, reality, and rhetoric function together. Aristotle valued reason and empiricism, put forth a metaphysic, wrote the Poetics on narrative, and composed On Rhetoric. In the latter, logos, ethos, and pathos function together: the speech itself as something coherent and rational, the speaker’s presentation of himself, and the effect precipitated in the audience. Here Truth and Passion function interpersonally.
If Aristotle’s not your cup of tea, consider Jesus. I know, I know, we Catholics love Aristotle and Thomas and Nature more than Jesus Paul and Grace. So here you go: Are not the parables stories, many of which also make cognitive-propositional claims?
We can’t simply repristinate Aristotle, or the great St. Thomas Aquinas. But we could stand in their tradition, appropriating it critically and fruitfully. For my money — and Walker Percy’s, by the way — the best exponent of that tradition that will prove most fruitful for Catholic faith is Charles Sanders Peirce, whose triadic semiotics allow for a robust and integrated conception of reality, rhetoric, reason, and the human person. For a crash-course, best to read the middle section of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Or wait until I get around to unpacking “triadic semiotics” for you.
(Cross-posted at First Things.)