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The silliness of our arguments

Dr. Seuss tells the story of two creatures known as Zax.  There is a south-going Zax and a north going Zax who happen to cross paths in the dessert of Prax.  This creates quite a confrontation between the two creatures, for neither is willing to alter their course in order to accommodate the other.  For each creature, to step to the right or left would be a denial of their solely north-going or south-going nature.  For these two creatures, then, the conflict entails deeply held understandings of identity and mission.  With an inability to budge, the two are locked in an unsolvable battle.

The story concludes with the south-going Zax ranting that he will stay unmoved even if the world stands still.  To that statement, Seuss concludes the tale:

“Well . . . Of course the world didn’t stand still.  The world grew.  In a couple  of years, the new highway came through and they built it right over those two stubborn Zax.  And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks. “

I find this ending incredibly frightening.  Seuss ends the story with a depiction of a world that simply side-steps these two arrogant and insular looking creatures. The world moves on and literally by-passes the Zax.   I wonder if they ever looked up and wondered why nobody seemed to pay them any attention anymore.

How often do we in the church assume that the world stands still in the midst of our arguments and disagreements? We dig our heels in; we draw our lines in the sand; we firmly resolve to remain unmoved in light of what we view to be important matters – such as traditional vs. contemporary; BAS vs. BCP; hymns vs. praise songs, organ vs. guitar. . . . the list could go on and on.  Sadly the list does go on and on.

To us, our disagreements make sense.  They are about the very nature of our identity and mission.  What is more, there are deeply theological, ethical and moral issues that the church is called to navigate.  Yet it wasn’t their individual positions that stopped the two Zax in their tracks, it was their inability to value, honour, and care for the other.  The silliness of our arguments is not about the positions we hold but the manner in which we refuse to allow others to hold their positions as well.

Our Epistle reading from last Sunday said as much: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”  And the head cannot say to the feet, I don’t need you.”  I wonder what the church look like if Liberals said to Evangelicals “We need you!”, and Evangelicals said to Liberals “We honour you.”  When we view the other side of theological spectrum, the other style in worship musicality, or the other person in ministry as a mere obstacle to get around, we are essentially saying “I don’t need you.”  When both sides fail to listen and love the other then the church can go no where.  What is more, as we remain motionless, the world finds creative ways to bypass us.

I’m sure each Zax firmly believed their position was the best. Yet their dedication to proving the supremacy of their position actually stopped their movement.  No longer was the north-going Zax north going, or the south-going Zax south-going. They were stagnant in their identity and motionless in their mission. Their inability to accommodate the other stopped them from being the very people they were created to be.  That silly little argument actually stopped them living out the very convictions that they were arguing about!

We all have convictions and beliefs.  Making allowances for others isn’t a denial of those things. Basing our identity on where we stand in these arguments, however, only isolates us from the world around us and creates barriers and obstacles to interactions and relationships.  Being able to allow space for another person, made in the image of God, may actually allow us to fully live out our identity and mission. Furthermore, the dismantling of our silly arguments just may allow the church to re-claim its space in this world, and begin to re-engage the people around us.

What are the silly little arguments that you have found?  How has accommodating the other helped you understand more fully your own identity and mission?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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22 Responses to The silliness of our arguments

  1. I shared this post on my facebook page, and within a minute, a friend left the response, “A big reason why I don’t go to church!”

    Here endeth the lesson.

  2. This is true of many arguments indeed. But when the problem is people denying the legitimacy of women priests and bishops, or condemning loving same-sex couples, how can that be honoured and reconciled?

  3. Different rules apply when you are talking to two children who can’t or won’t get along, because they both want the same toy or one is getting a bigger popsicle, than apply when disagreements of theology and practice divide people in churches.

    The point you are trying to make doesn’t reduce the way you have reduced it. People who are operating out of hermeneutics and faithful experience that draw them into conflict with others should not give ground, necessarily. Nor should they learn to value the other opinion, when they do not believe it is authentic to the tradition, sensible to the mind, or led by the Holy Spirit.

    Often the faithful response is to continue to be who you are. You can’t make space for someone who is so wrong that their very existence in your fellowship threatens its integrity, and perhaps their insistence that you do so is not a mark of their maturity in the faith.

    But it’s all empty language until you are the one who has to withdraw because the God you worship is no longer reflected in the practices of the fellowship that your conscience is calling you to leave. And when the fight goes out of you, and all that’s left is sorrow at seeing what was so good become so wrong, what is God saying then? What would the prophets do? Stay and fight? Withdraw and start again? Divide into sects?

    I find that the way you have reduced this fails to honour its complexity. When I was a boy we learned our Catechism out of The Book of Common Prayer. We knew exactly what words were to be said, and when to say them. Uniformity was a grace, a blessing. Marriage was normative for non-celibate adults. Differences of piety and theological emphasis were reflected in the way we dressed our buildings and clergy, and the hymns we would or would not sing because of the section of The Book of Common Praise from which they came.

    It’s not about liberal or conservative, low, broad or high churchmanship, evangelical or anglo-catholic, and it never was. Because all of these terms are foreign to the Jesus of all four gospels. It’s about unity or fragmentation, fractiousness, schism. If you are of one body, you’ll fight for that body. In love. And that’s not silly.

  4. I rest my case.

  5. I preached last Sunday afternoon at the local service of Prayer for Christian Unity. I began with a quote from Thomas Merton:

    My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one;
    but we imagine that we are not.
    And what we have to recover is our original unity.
    What we have to be is what we are
    .

    The full text of the homily is at
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jS91IUv0hTB4RMd1C4FQ3RSDDZEgS7dZ0QPU88Gteso/edit

  6. Hmm… a call to baptism: “God has united you to Christ; now be who you are…”

  7. The key line in Kyle’s post is, I believe: “Yet it wasn’t their individual positions that stopped the two Zax in their tracks, it was their inability to value, honour, and care for the other.”  We can have firm theological convictions, but that doesn’t give us licence to treat other people as theological abstractions.  For an example of the kind of gracious interaction that remains possible between two people with opposing convictions, see  this story.

     

  8. Kyle Norman

    Thanks for all the great comments.  It struck me as I was reading through the comments that it  seems that both Vincent and Andrew would probably make the same arguments, albeit from different sides of the theological spectrum.  I think that’s quite a wonderful picture of the complexity of the arguments of the church, but also the call to respect and care.

    I am obviously not suggesting it is easy, or that the church doesn’t have serious issues that it needs to figure out.  But still, this doesn’t mean that we do not care for the people who believe oposite we do on these matters – or that we decalre that they are no ‘real christians’ or ‘really of the body’.

    Andrew, I noticed that you talked about not valuing positions or points that do not reflect authentic tradition.  I would actually agree with you.  There are certain positions regarding church practice and polity that I don’t agree with.  Because I don’t agree with them, or find legitimacy in them, there is a sense by which I do not value them.

    However that is not what I am talking about.  I’m talking about valuing people.  The problem of the Zax wasn’t their positions – or desire to be North-going or South-going. It was in the stringent attitude that made them believe that they had to force the other Zax out of the way.

    I believe we have spent too much time in the church trying to decide who is on the left or the right that we have forgotten that we are all under the cross of Christ.  When the labels of ‘Homophobic’, ‘intolerant’, ‘exclusive’ are lobbed against conservative/evangelicals in a blast of moral superiority, it is not the thelogical position that is devalued – it is the individual. When Liberals are deemed to be using a faulty hermeneutic, or ‘don’t really love the bible in the first place’ it is not theology that is demeaned, it is the person.  If I cannot take communion beside a brother or sister in the faith who holds opposing views than I, then the church can move no where.

    I think this is what Paul was getting at in 1st Corinthians chapter 12.  It is this that I think the church is called to  – and that the world would like to see.

  9. I don’t believe there are silly arguments in the church. I’m taking issue with your premise.

    I believe that sane and mature people come to conflict in the church because they have deeply held convictions; values and meanings that they believe represent their Deity, and that are irreconcilable with the deeply held convictions and values of others.

    There will come a time when fighting for those values inevitably leads to — at least — schism. But those values were never silly, on either side. Likewise, there are some things that you don’t make peace with. St. Paul in the small and new communities he planted had to develop protocols and tests for how to let go of people whose manner of behaving was too disruptive to the health of the body.

    When you attack peoples’ deeply held values (and calling them silly is a form of attack) you attack what gives meaning to their lives. When you attack what makes their lives meaningful, you are saying their lives are meaningless.

    When I read your article, it looks to me like the tears and sorrows I carried for this church from my birth into it in 1962 until now have been dismissed through the lens of your historical revisionism as silliness. And I’m offended. But that’s not the point.

    My point at the outset was that deeply held values are what gives life meaning. If we are in conflict with one another about deeply held values, then beseeching people to change won’t have any effect except to make the one doing the beseeching feel superior, and the ones being beseeched to feel judged.

    I’m coming back to this because a couple of the previous comments make it clear to me that I failed to make myself understood.  I got the impression that people think I don’t care about people enough.

    Which could not be further from the truth.

     

  10. There is no question in my mind that the answer to deeply held religious disagreement is respectful schism. Nothing else actually works. And there is no question in my mind that the people on the other side of the divide are still Christians. Because religion is not very much about specific beliefs, and it certainly isn’t about political positions.

  11. Kyle Norman

    Andrew I can definately feel the anguish and pain in your response.  It can’t imagine the hurt that is felt when someone is made to believe that their desires, belief’s, passions for the church are no longer ‘relevant.’  This brings to my mind the verse that says ‘if one part suffers, every part suffers with it;’  I think part of moving forward as a church, for all our arguments, is being able to respectfully hear the sense of loss and mourning that many people are experiencing. 

    As someone who has his first degree in Philosophy, I find it really easy to slide into the mode of attacking positions.  Your post helps remind me that what underlies any theological position is deeply held emotions.  Perhaps this forum isn’t the place for a deeper-level discussion, but I would love to continue the conversation regarding discerning what arguments can be classified as ‘silly’ and what demands a more bold resistance.  Please message me if that seems good to you.

    Blessings.

  12. Kyle Norman

    Vincent,

    can a schism be respeful?  Is that even found in the very definition of the word? It makes it sounds like we are no longer playing in the same sandbox.  Internally, I have a sickening feeling that something about being the body of Chrsit together is lost in that. I think we can be called to a loving and respectful disagreement and still remain playing in the same box.

  13. Matthew Griffin

    If we step away from some labels, and focus on the nub of Kyle’s argument, I see a strong piece which argues that we need to learn how to better live with disagreements, and that we need to consider how they affect evangelism and claims to be welcoming or forgiving.

    We do need to get better at living with our conflicts in ways that make space for people who hold different views — remembering that many will hold them passionately, because they pertain to our faith. I want to play my role in being part of communities that care not just about getting it ‘right’, but about loving even and especially when we disagree. I have stuck in my head a line from James K.A. Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom : that church is where we learn to love even the people we might not actually like that much.

    My corollary would be that, as we get better at living with disagreements, we will be examples to the world of how Christ reconciles. What more amazing witness than that? And we can’t get there unless we live in and care for community, recognising that doing so makes us vulnerable to being hurt, too.

    If, however, the ultimate response to disagreements that we struggle to resolve is schism, well, we wound the body of Christ and one another. We fail one another, and we fail God. There are times indeed when it is that much harder to remain in close relationship when we disagree about important and substantive aspects of our faith and its expression, but it seems to me that those are precisely the times when we need humility and one another to see Christ’s presence in our midst.

     

  14. I think schism can be polite, at least. I’ll happily worship using the BAS or the BCP, sing anything you care to throw at me, listen to the organ or to the guitar. I get that some people have strong disagreements about these, but I can’t imagine minding much one way or the other myself, so in such matters, I’ll totally defer to the person who does mind.

    Some disagreements, however, are inherently about wanting to have the right to be _unkind_ and use the Bible to feel righteous about it.

    Faced with this, politeness is pretty much all that’s left. That and leading by example, I guess. 🙂

     

  15. “Some disagreements, however, are inherently about wanting to have the right to be _unkind_ and use the Bible to feel righteous about it.”

    Yes. And at other times it is appropriate to be unkind. When a neo-Nazi young woman started attending a downtown Toronto church that was pastored by someone I love and deeply respect, and the neo-Nazi started recruiting at coffee hour, and would not rethink her behaviour, and started using unkind language about non-whites in the parish, my friend the pastor had to ask the bishop for permission to excommunicate her and make her feel unwelcome.

    That was unkind. And righteous.

     

  16. I agree, though that’s points scoring. 🙂

    I specifically referred to women priests, and same-sex issues, though. Those are the flashpoints in the ACC today. I don’t think your example is analogous to these, to be honest.

  17. Vincent:

    I’m married to a priest who happens to be a woman. People who know me know what my commitments are in the area of equality before God for people who are attracted to members of the same sex.

    With respect, this topic is about conflict. Not about any specific conflicted issue, but about conflict in general. And everything I have written in this thread I have written about conflict in general.

    I believe conflict is healthy, and productive, when healthy and productive people are engaging in it. Near the beginning of this, someone on Jesse’s facebook page offered the opinion that the silliness of church arguments is why she doesn’t go to church. Kyle things the arguments are silly too. All the way along I have been lobbying for respect for the conflicts we have, and on Jesse’s wall I delivered the words that I think set people off:

    “If you are looking for a community, Heather, where people care so little about getting it right that they would rather be wrong and get along, then I’m kind of glad we don’t have one for you.”

    People in churches struggle with one another. That is not a weakness: it’s a strength. We refine our thinking by challenging one another. We come to agreements by learning from one another. We learn to love by continuing to relate even though we disagree. The parish or other christian community that has no conflict is dead. You might as well bury it. And kicking ourselves for having conflict because someone who wants a church without it won’t come to the ones we have the way they are … that’s not missional transformation we need to do. It’s a faulty theological anthropology that needs addressing, on the part of the person for whom our churches aren’t good enough.

    Nice to meet you. You’re a no-bull kind of guy. Me too.

  18. Kyle Norman

    Andrew, I’m glad that you brought up the notion of  healthy conflicts. I think that is important.  When I do marriage prep with couples, we talk about conflict managament.   I always tell them that conflict is a part of healthy marriage – because it means that each party loves, cares for, and is invested in the future of the marraige.  However, there is healthy and unhealthy ways in which we manage conflict.  I tell them to see a conflict not as ‘You vs. Me’ but as “Us. vs. It” 

    The depiction of the Zax, and what I tried to represent through my feature image, is conflict being handled in a “You vs. Me”  manner. Neither character was listening, learning, loving, or growing in that conflict.  They were just stagnant as they refused to listen to the other. And sadly the world, (dare we say heather?) simply decided to sidestep the two creatures.

    I respect that you may disagree with me, but i fear that we as a church have done this.  When we term someone has having a “faulty theological anthropology” what we are saying in that moment is that “you are the problem!” And if you or I are the problem, then the way forward is for you and I to not be you or I.   I think it is healthier, and more respectful to say “we disagree about x – let’s find a way to talk about this so we both can feel valued and cared for.”

    Respectfully Andrew, you seem to put a lot of emphasis on my use of the word ‘silly.’  Please understand that I am not claiming that differences of opinon are not important. Nor am I claiming that we need not care about what we believe.  The sillines of the arguments is that manner in which we use our arguments as weapons to demean, hurt, discredit, and de-value other members of the church.  I am sorry if that was unclear.  If there are other points of my post that are unclear, I invite you to ask me a question about it, and not just assume you know the entirety of what I intend to mean.

    God bless you.

  19. Thanks Kyle, I’ll get past your use of the word “silly”.

    What I actually think about the Zax image is that you should build a church around the two of them, slap a cross on the side and call it home.

  20. Not every argument in the church is silly, but some clearly are.  Otherwise why would the Epistles be full of warnings against quarrels, dissensions and factions (cf. Galatians 5:21), telling us to avoid “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law” (Titus 3:9), and repeatedly exhorting us to humility, upbuilding and mutual love in the unity of Christ?

    To give an example: when I was living and studying at Wycliffe, there was a non-theological resident, who, though a cradle Episcopalian who attended an Anglican church every Sunday she was in Toronto, nonetheless refused point-blank to enter the Wycliffe chapel, because the old pews had been removed and replaced with kneeler chairs and she had vowed never to go back into the chapel unless the pews were re-installed. I am not making this up.  One Advent a hapless Sacristan (who had never known the chapel before the chairs) invited her to do one of the readings at our Advent service, which (as it was followed by our college Christmas dinner and party) was always open to the entire Wycliffe community, both theological students and non-theologue residents.  She practically spat in his face in her refusal to do it. She let her passion for the chapel furnishings obscure her connection to the community of Christ.

    It may seem like an extreme example, but it actually happened.

  21. Vincent: Absolutely. I find that the only viable way for people with significant differences in their values to stay in relationship is to create distance. Distance and division are not the same thing necessarily. But they can be.

    I cannot judge those who have left the Anglican Church of Canada harshly. I understand too well what their pain is about. And I will not use language like “wounding the body of Christ”, because the foot isn’t supposed to be anywhere near the head, except for those special times when you want to kick yourself, and we are not supposed to be in relationship with one another if it brings so much pain that the spirit within us is quenched by it.

    I think anyone who talks organic unity, but is not working for mending of ties with Methodists, Presbyterians, penultimately Rome and ultimately the Eastern Patriarchs is indulging in hypocrisy. And I dislike speech that does not proceed from action.

    I get Christmas cards from members of my family who are now happy in ANiC. God bless them for remembering me. I once was a member of an Anglican Church that dearly held the values they still hold.

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