Monday, November 10, 2014

Part Two of Sewell v. Metzger – The Tolerance of Intolerance meets The Intolerance of Tolerance

Those of others are at least as dangerous as our own.
For the sake of clarity and brevity, please understand that I am focusing on the details of a blog post, “Saying Goodbye to Tolerance” by a Unitarian Universalist minister and writer, Marilyn Sewell. My reasons for doing so, as well as links to her post and Paul Louis Metzger’s response to it are discussed in Part One, found here:

Specifically, Dr. Sewell’s conclusions are based on specific assumptions and stereotypes. The resulting beliefs about her subject (conservative Evangelical Christianity) lead her to behavior she admits as being inconsistent with one of her most deeply held beliefs: to “respect all religious beliefs.” In hopes that those behaviors may become more consistent as a result of greater clarity in her beliefs, I hope to point out, as graciously and humbly as possible, what I see as being some assumptions, stereotypes, and logical inconsistencies.

Dr. Sewell notes that she has been a guest-lecturer in seminary courses. Therefore, her perceptions of certain failures to meet her expectations of the institution as well as its students are based on personal observation. But while there are graduate schools in which “students open themselves to new ideas (and) question received beliefs,” many, if not most, are considered to be professional schools. In these, the goal is to develop students’ skills in applying their beliefs and knowledge to practical applications, usually in ministerial careers. To the extent that students’ beliefs are broadened, the professional orientation of many seminaries is designed so that their convictions are simultaneously deepened.

Better a leap of faith than a leap of logic.
Dr. Sewell objects that the students she encountered “were not confrontative in the least,” much less fulfilling her desire for “passionate discussion, even a reasoned rejection.” Their polite assimilation of the information she presented left her, she writes, to presume of one student’s comment that it belied being “concerned even for my soul, which she no doubt thought would be burning in hell upon my demise.” The doubt that arises, then, is how little compassion it would show if that were the position a seminary student held, and yet could not bring themselves to articulate that concern. Might there be some other explanation? Is the clarity with which Dr. Sewell understands her position necessarily the same clarity she was able to convey to the particular student she quotes? Does this episode represent a conflict between the student’s belief and behavior, or between Dr. Sewell’s assumptions and expectations?

Dr. Sewell also describes a conflict between her two nephews. She identifies both as handsome and talented, with one who is also funny and warm, “who happens to be gay.” His brother “is a jock sports star and business man – and…a conservative Christian who lives in the Deep South.” The “alienation” she describes occurs, in part, “presumably because (the jock’s children) might be adversely influenced.” Her source of information is “my sister, the boys’ mother,” and the attitudes portrayed, she admits, “are culturally influenced” regionally as well as religiously. Is it possible, though that there are other factors at work here? Even if the representations of the conflict being presented to Dr. Sewell are accurately understood, are the representations themselves accurate? (To be more direct about it: Are the boys telling Mom the whole story? And is Mom getting all the details clear for Aunt Marilyn?)

Having expressed her personal concerns, Dr. Sewell turns to the alarming prevalence of “hate crimes.” She asks, “Is it fair to blame these crimes on conservative Christianity?” Her answer, “Not directly” leads her to presume again that there is “No doubt” that not even the majority of hate crimes are committed by Christians. And yet, despite clearly representing the objections most Christians would have to violently assaulting any group or individual, she states as though it were unquestionable fact: “They contribute immensely to the cultural ground out of which prejudice grows and flourishes,” because they “support and perpetuate the milieu in which hate crimes take place.” How is it that those she quotes as claiming to “‘hate the sin and love the sinner,’” especially since they consider themselves “‘sinners saved by grace,’” are culpable for behavior contradicting those beliefs? If it is not (and it is not) inconsistency of which Dr. Sewell is accusing conservative Christians, then what is the logical link through which Christians who condemn hate crimes are simultaneously culpable for hate crimes?

Dr. Sewell addresses those whose “faith in Jesus as your personal savior” results in “doing great harm,” and with whom “(she) in no way wish(es) to be an ally.” Having noted their overt condemnation of hate, not to mention hate crimes, she condemns Christians for the “covert permission…being given to those inclined to act violently on their prejudices.” My inability to follow her logic may stem from my limited perspective. I frequently work among those who welcome “a more inclusive society” promoting the overt permission to construct their own beliefs and behaviors. As I understand her, Dr. Sewell would support those beliefs (so long as they are outside of conservative Christian doctrine). But there are also profound consequences to accepting all other beliefs, especially when those beliefs result in behaviors that, I would presume, Dr. Sewell would find as unacceptable as conservative Christians’ “singularity.” In my experience, however, the general pattern seems to begin with a determination to engage in particular behaviors, and only subsequently involve the construction whatever beliefs are necessary to justify them.

The logical link of Christians’ culpability that Dr. Sewell offers, which I will address in part three, is not found in the hypocrisy of practicing hate crimes while condemning hate crimes. It is, instead, found in the integrity of holding “their theology of singularity.” She claims it is that “conservative evangelicals believe there is but one way to salvation” which is at the root of the “milieu in which hate crimes take place.” Affected though it may be by my limited perspective in proximity to such crimes, you will find that my conclusions differ from hers. 
Be sure to tune in next time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for being willing to devote time to the discussion, in contrast to the seminary students who were too quiet and too unengaged with Marilyn in the past. Both of you are tremendously intellectual, and both of you find respite and relaxation in staggeringly profound thought and expression. Still, it feels odd, speaking about Marilyn like she is not in the room. What is a relational way to reach out to her to invite her to the table?
blessings to you
cohort jp

Wm. Darius Myers said...

You bring up an excellent point, JP. It is one that I wrestled with a great deal, even considering the possibility of composing these two posts and the third to follow as an open letter to Dr. Sewell. But as I noted in the first of the series, I feel entirely out of my league in this discussion, and only undertook this on the basis of the assignment. In retrospect, however, I am second-guessing that possibility. The challenge in pointing out what I take to be Dr. Sewell's misunderstandings of conservative Christianity, especially with regard to our mutual friend, includes the serious probability of my having misunderstood Dr. Sewell's position(s). But, to your point, who would be better to advise me on that matter than Dr. Sewell herself. Hmm...more to consider. In the meantime, thanks so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. I will say that I think the two of us would have a wonderful time in face-to-face conversation. Maybe that's one possibility...and a better option than posting about it, too.

nschaak said...

Bill thanks for providing this thoughtful response to Dr. Sewell's article. I do agree with JP that it is important to try and interact with Dr. Sewell personally, but I also see the benefits of providing thoughtful written responses for those who read the blog posts. I specifically liked your discussion of hate crimes. It seems to me that arguing that Christian beliefs are partially responsible for hate crimes is not much different than arguing that believing there is no absolute truth is responsible for those same hate crimes because the offenders could think that morality is subjective. Of course, the danger of responding to others' views in writing is that people often see the response as defensive and misunderstand motives. However, I do believe that providing articulate responses to common misconceptions about who Christians are and what they believe is a challenging but relevant exercise.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks for the comment, Noel. You bring up exactly the point I do in post number three. My biggest concern in choosing not to address Dr. Sewell more directly (in an "open letter" format) is that I have, instead, held her up as a "straw-man" for my argument against her positions. I still haven't determined my next step and, given my travel schedule over the next three weeks, I'm afraid that following the course I'm on out of simple expedience is very tempting. Ironically, that means I would be echoing those who determine what their preferred behaviors are and subsequently justify them by manufacturing their beliefs. (Although the calendar IS incredibly full at the moment.)

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