Sometimes I hear folks who think that dissent is part of the Great American Tradition. We hear it in politics – whether the issue is taxes, abortion or war. If we stifle dissent for the sake of national security or to “support the troops” it is said that we’re letting the bad guys win (or that we’re becoming like them).
This disctinctive American attitude is also part of the American church. Bishop Sprague illustrates this with his dissent from many doctrinal positions long thought normative in the church. Dissent is good – it shows that one is truly rational and authentic, brave enough to stand against the (evil?) powers-that-be.
Part of this tradition of dissent seems to come from a reluctance to admit the existence of a truth or reality we have to submit to regardless of our personal likes or dislikes. Lawson Stone (in the midst of a series of posts on the literal meaning of Scripture) writes:
For now, let’s note that Augustine raises a caveat for both moderns and post-moderns. Both of these Spawn of Kant share a disquiet with.. Truth. Both want truth, especially the truth about God and salvation, to be…negotiable. Neither wants an inconvenient “meta-narrative” to bound their “meaning making.” Both prefer the truth to be inaccessible, valuing the lattitude for a multiplicity of “stories” afforded by Truth’s elusiveness. Kant’s modernist children show their stripes by marshalling the open-endedness of the historical quest to undermine any witness to…the Truth. It’s somewhat out of context, but I think Augustine exposes the mendacity of both when, in attacking those who quibble over his interpretation not being that of Moses, he says
Rather they are proud and know not Moses’s meaning, but love their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs (Confessions 12.25.34 emphasis added)
Neither wants to be held accountable to a Truth that simply sits there and demands allegiance. To both groups, I suspect–but I am no expert–Augustine would say “A pox on both your houses!” Those who love the Truth do not put that truth at risk when they confess the inadequacy of their historical quest for the inspired authors’ meanings because they are not seeking to escape anything. They are simply being humble. Likewise, those who love the Truth will not hold it hostage to a quest that inherently cannot end, and that might never return a final answer. They will pursue their quest, but realize that even as we pursue the truth we are embraced and sustained by “the Truth.”
Whether the issue is the sexuality, economics, or war & violence, we often let our feelings and desires trump scripture and the Christian tradition. We move from the fact of variety within the tradition of the church in each of these areas to assert the place of dissent against the tradition so that we can have our way. Sometimes this is in order to deny the tradition, sometimes to absolutize one option within the tradition.
Too often dissent is lifted up as an abstraction. Dissent is good, dogmatism (the oft-perceived contrary to dissent) is bad. But no one dissents (or can dissent) from everything. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to function in society.
So when it comes to dissent in the United Methodist Church, let’s drop the praise of dissent as if the abstraction has value in itself and seek instead to defend dissent only in particular instances.