Monday, July 28, 2014

Showing your work.

One of the flurry of books published around the time that Gene Robinson was elected bishop in the Episcopal Church was a collection of Methodist essays called Staying the Course. I don't remember that much about it--it was a pretty standard re-hashing of already worn arguments--but one small piece has stuck with me to this day. One author plaintively insisted that reformers who wished to appeal to knowledge found outside of the Bible needed to specify what sources were going to be newly authoritative: the Journal of the American Medical Association? Something else?

At the time, I thought it was just a sad example of missing the point entirely, an attempt to cling to the idea that all the right answers are written down somewhere. Theology was maybe negotiable. Epistemology wasn't. Recently I've been wondering, though, if there isn't actually an important point buried among the mess.

Liberal American Protestants, for the most part, aren't going to point at the Bible and tell you to stop doing something because the Bible says not to. They may tell you that the Bible says to do something, like love your neighbor, and therefore you shouldn't do something else, like use them solely for your own sexual gratification. They may appeal to holiness, but rarely to purity.

So that means there needs to be evidence of harm connected to a prohibited activity in order for the prohibition to be credible. And evidence, as Wikipedia has made a matter of popular cultural knowledge, must have its sources cited. Opponents of egalitarian polyamorous families have not, to my knowledge, bothered to do so.

(It's called a lit review! Your local public library can help you find one, or even to make your own! Of course, then you might encounter the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sheff, who hasn't found evidence that outcomes for kids in poly families are worse than in monogamous ones.)

Which leaves me with an appreciation for that conservative Methodist's frustration. This post has actually taken me twice as long as it usually does,  because I have had to keep walking away from it when my blood pressure gets too high. Engaging conservative arguments is fairly straightforward. There are rules about what counts and what doesn't, and conservatives have to stick to those rules or else admit that that the entire foundation of their worldview and ethical systems is as full of sinkholes as Florida. Not that such admissions are a common occurrence, but there's a certain peace of mind that comes from watching someone reduced to saying "Nuh-UH" or "la la la I can't hear you."

Liberals, though. Liberals! So used to being reasoned and reasonable. So complacent and self-satisfied. They base their opinions on critical thinking and empirical evidence, thus, if they have an opinion about something, it is only natural that the lines of thought and empirical evidence must be out there somewhere. Why go through the bother of actually confirming them? So redundant.

I exaggerate. A bit. Maybe. But for religious communities that don't look to tradition, written revelation or a designated authority to provide definitive answers to uncomfortable questions, it is not only irritating but a failure of religious obligation when the conversations that could lead to answers are anything less than deliberate and comprehensive.

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