The First Step to Disagreement

*Posted from an earlier personal FB post*

[If you don’t want to read the entire thing, just read the last two lines. But this is why I am at Biola, and plan on staying]

It’s no secret that we often find out that something we disagree with isn’t all that we thought it to be. We often find ourselves seeing our opponent as something they are not. For example, I used to think that everyone who was pro-choice was pro-abortion, as if they thought abortion was a good thing. Obviously that’s not really the case.

In learning how to debate, one of the first steps I was told to take was to establish a value that I am trying to uphold. And of course the opponent was to do the same. If we think that to discuss a certain issue necessitates that we have identical or directly opposing values, then we get ourselves into a mindset that sets up a straw man for the opponent. If I think that my value on the abortion issue is life, and therefore my opponents value is death (directly opposing), then I’m claiming something absurd. These death advocates would not be protesting police brutality and the death penalty if they were really death advocates. Instead the values of a pro-life opponent are not directly opposite of life. Their value is choice, thus the title “pro-choice.” The assumption that just because they’re pro-choice means they’re “pro-abortion” or “pro-death” is not only absurd, it sets up a straw man that is easy to dismiss and thus logically fallacious.

One of the first steps in argumentation or critical thinking is to hear your opponent’s contention. And not just audibly hear it, but to let it stand as an objection that is to be answered. And not just to let it stand, but to interpret what they’re saying in the strongest possible sense. St. Thomas Aquinas is famous for his argumentation not because he could argue his point well, but because he could argue his opponents’ points well, and sometimes better than they could. It is in refuting strong arguments that strong arguments become relevant and significant. We sharpen iron with iron, not cheese.

The first step to disagreement is then to understand what you are disagreeing about. As a general rule, this understanding is not obtained by learning about an opponent from an ally of yours, except in the case of good reasoners i.e. Thomas Aquinas who could even make his opponent’s case better. But often times, in arguing against something, we paint them as disreputable, irrelevant, or crazy. This type of polemic is a complete disservice to those wanting to learn about a position other than their own. That is why I always say to go to the person you disagree with to figure out what you disagree about.

If we don’t confront an opponent head on, we can start to distort other positions while we fester in our own little bubbles and echo chambers. This is why gossip and slander is so dangerous. I don’t know if anyone remembers the Veggie Tales superhero LarryBoy, but one of the villains he faces is the Rumor Weed. He is eventually victorious because the rumor is cut off at the root by talking to the person that the rumor was about. Archibald was not actually a robot with batteries that needed to be recharged. SPOILERS!!!

What’s my point? I do have a point, I promise, and it relates to a systematic theology textbook that all of Biola uses. But to set this up, I will quote Fr. Fulton Sheen, “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing. These millions can hardly be blamed for hating Catholics because Catholics “adore statues”; because they “put the Blessed Mother on the same level with God”; because they say “indulgence is a permission to commit sin”; because the Pope “is a Fascist”; because the “Church is the defender of Capitalism.” If the Church taught or believed any one of these things it should be hated, but the fact is that the Church does not believe nor teach any one of them. It follows then that the hatred of the millions is directed against error and not against truth. As a matter of fact, if we Catholics believed all of the untruths and lies which were said against the Church, we probably would hate the Church a thousand times more than they do.” I experience this on a daily level being a convert to the Catholic Church. And typically I try to assume the best about where these misperceptions come from: the uneducated, wive’s tales, emotionally driven polemics, proselytization, and outrage mongering. Rarely do I find misrepresentations among the thoughtful people who can do their research (not to say that that means there’s no disagreement).

But unfortunately the venerated Wayne Grudem does give such a misperception. Not in a heated sermon or anything, no. His false witness comes in his Systematic Theology textbook. Further this grave error is not a negative spin of a Catholic doctrine or anything, it’s a complete ignorance of it. What I am speaking of is in chapter 24 of his Systematic Theology on Sin. In section 4 he addresses the Catholic division of sin into “venial” and “mortal” sin. True. Catholicism makes this divide. He then goes on to define as the Catholic teaching of sin as such, “a venial sin can be forgiven, but often after punishments in this life or in Purgatory (after death, but before entrance into heaven). A mortal sin is a sin that causes spiritual death and cannot be forgiven; it excludes people from the kingdom of God.” And he doesn’t just give a passing definition of mortal sin, he elaborates on this definition as a premise for his next few paragraphs and goes even deeper in his footnote (number 22 if you want to look it up). False. Catholicism teaches that the only sin that is unforgivable is the sin of impenitence. Don’t believe me? Let me take you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In paragraph 1855 of the CCC, the effectual nature of mortal and venial sin are defined as such: “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.” Nowhere here do we see anything about mortal sin being unforgivable, but one could extrapolate the “turns man away from God” as leading to “[excluding] people from the kingdom of God.” However this would mean that this person would have committed this mortal sin and continued in it without repenting, which would mean that a mortal sin on its own is not enough to merit eternal damnation. And that is why the CCC states in 1864 that, “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.”

I don’t know how to put this, but Grudem could have taken at least five minutes to check the Catholic teaching on sin. There’s no excuse for this given that the CCC is public domain on the internet and the section on sin is clearly labeled “THE GRAVITY OF SIN: MORTAL AND VENIAL SIN.” Such an overlooking might be understandably acceptable in a blog, live interview, or an impassioned sermon. But for this evangelical titan to bear false witness in his systematic theology textbook, it is not only shameful, but dangerous as well. It scares me to think of all the people who have read this book, as a Biola student or otherwise, and have come out thinking that their separated brethren limit the mercy of God and dam up the grace flowing from the crucifixion, and how much further this separates the church in its many divisions in a year that marks the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation.

The first step to disagreement is to know what you disagree with, not the why, the what. Once the what is understood, then we can move on to the why. 


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