In the previous post, I outlined a narrative which exercises a powerful, and politically guiding, influence in the Diocese. It’s connected to a history of some US colleges and universities, and traces the drift from conservatism to liberalism via what it calls soft or open conservatism. And the key moment, according to this narrative, is the move from hard to soft conservatism. That is the moment when all is lost. Why? Because, so the story goes, the move from soft conservatism to liberalism is perfectly predictable, and in fact inevitable and inexorable.
And like all stories, it leads to action. In this case, the action is exclusion. The only way to preserve the purity of the gospel in the life of an institution is to exclude soft conservatives, as though they were in fact liberals.
At the end of the last post, I indicated that I thought this narrative, and the way that it is used, was deeply flawed, and now it’s time to explain why.
There are 3 reasons, which build on each other.
- In terms of its logic, it rests on a common logical fallacy.
- In terms of historical precedent, it claims far too much.
- And in terms of the way it’s used, it has more to do with political power than theological purity.
I’ll look at each of these in successive posts.
The logic of the argument hinges specifically on the claim of the inevitable and unstoppable drift from soft conservative to liberalism. Put formally, it runs like this.
All institutions that go liberal allowed soft conservative leadership.
Institution X is considering person Y (regarded as a soft conservative)
Therefore Institution X will go liberal.
Conclusion: Don’t vote for Y!
This is the same argument as:
All cats have 4 legs, Fido the dog has 4 legs, therefore Fido is a cat (with adjustments for the predictive factor in the narrative). The fallacy is called ‘affirming the consequent’, and as soon as it’s pointed out to you, it becomes obvious.
The major premise of the valid form of the argument would be: ‘All institutions that have allowed soft conservative leadership have gone liberal’. In which case, given the same minor premise (Institution X is considering person Y (regarded as a soft conservative)), the conclusion would follow.
But do you see the problem? That revised major premise, which would make the argument logically valid, is much, much more difficult to prove! In fact, it seems to me to be patently false. Is anyone really prepared to argue for it? The way you can check this is to ask someone who agrees with this narrative to identify, say 10, people currently in the Diocese they regard as soft conservatives, and see just how liberal the institutions / churches they lead have gone. (You’ll have to do that in private – no name-calling allowed on this blog!)
Which leads to the second part of the the illogic of the argument.
It is simplistic to the point of failure to think that people can be divided up into 2 categories like this, especially over something as fine grained as ‘softness’ or ‘openness’. As instruments for understanding the world, these categories are blunt to the point of useless.
The fact is that even the hardest of the hard tolerate some level of diversity, otherwise they would only exist in a church of 1! Or another way to put it: not all hard conservatives are schismatic fundamentalists (even if all schismatic fundamentalists are hard conservatives – see the previous point for the significance of this difference)!
Likewise, even the most open of open conservatives will draw the line somewhere, and, in the Diocese that will often enough be at the same point that the hard conservative does, but will just do it a little more slowly. In fact, typically, the soft conservative understands that softness as nothing other than Christian virtue, taking the possibility of their own sin and the work of the Spirit in others a little more seriously, and so engaging in a little more Christian conversation, because of what is called epistemic humility – that is, not assuming they understand the other person’s position without talking to them, and so talking to them!
In other words, we’re all to some extent soft and open in being hard and closed, and hard and closed in being soft and open, and if someone’s going to identify a person in terms of the narrative as a soft / open conservative, they will have to really do their homework; they’ll have to be really clear that the person’s openness does in fact draw boundary lines at different places from them – sub-evangelical places – and back that up with substantive evidence, not just rumour.
Otherwise, you might be slandering a Christian sister or brother who is simply different in personality from you, or even worse, just not part of your tribe!
And that would be a lousy way to conduct ourselves.