Seeing Black and White in Gray World

Reviewed by Walter Fenton –

It is now commonplace to bemoan political polarization, to complain of gridlock, and to protest that radicals on the left and right have hijacked debates, leaving no ground in the middle for the rational and the sane. For years church leaders have implored liberals and conservatives to “come to the table for dialogue,” compelled them to engage in “deep-listening,” and pushed them to join one another at the “radical center.” Surely, the reasonable have reasoned, there must be a “middle-way.”

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, popular pastor at the Church of the Resurrection in Leadwood, Kansas, has, in recent years, volunteered to help United Methodists find their own “middle-way.” At the 2012 General Conference he and the Rev. Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg, Ohio tried to rally support for a middle-way on the homosexuality debate with a petition that went under the innocuous name of “agree-to-disagree.” Their proposal was indicative of Hamilton’s approach to a host of controversial issues he outlined in his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White (Abingdon 2008).

According to Hamilton, the church would be better served if its members were more open to finding “middle way” solutions to the controversies that divide us. In fact, he claims “Christianity’s next reformation . . . will be led by people who are able to see the gray in a world of black and white.” This sounds very reasonable, and of course coming from someone as appreciated as Hamilton, it sounds even more so. Who could be opposed to finding a middle way solutions and learning to compromise on contentious issues?

As it happens, Dr. Bill Arnold could. He responded to Hamilton earlier this year with a book of his own: Seeing Black & White in a Gray World (Seedbed). Although not opposed per se to compromise and finding middle way solutions, Arnold does manage to deliver a gracious, well-reasoned and justifiable critique of Hamilton’s proposal for how to use them. Arnold is professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and an ordained elder in the Kentucky Annual Conference.

Arnold is effusive in his praise for Hamilton, writing that he is a “remarkable leader” and a “gift to our denomination.” As he prepared to attend the 2012 General Conference as a delegate, Arnold says he regarded reading Hamilton’s book as important preparation for the quadrennial gathering. However, the more he read Seeing Gray, the more he recognized fundamental flaws in the book’s reasoning behind solutions for controversial issues. There was, Arnold writes, a “tendency to make assertions as true statements that do not flow naturally from established premises.”

It is important to note that Arnold is not primarily interested in taking the opposing position to every controversial issue Hamilton raises in his book; he actually finds himself in agreement with him more often than not. What troubles Arnold is that the book’s arguments are undermined by a number of logical fallacies that mar both the good and the bad solutions offered. For instance, at the outset of his book Hamilton strongly implies that a “middle-way” solution can be found for nearly all of the controversies that bedevil us. According to Arnold, this is to engage in the logical fallacy of ambiguity, which is to believe that because something is applicable in one case it must therefore be applicable in all other cases. Only some debates, Arnolds says, will yield to a “middle-way” approach, not all of them, and therefore it is simplistic and futile to think they will.

False as well, Arnold maintains, is the book’s assertion that the practice of humility is the key to finding solutions to controversies. Arnold gladly affirms the virtue of humility, but he notes that unduly prioritizing it leads into another logical fallacy. Humility too easily becomes a “red-herring” – a distraction from the issue at hand – when trying to find the right answer to a difficult moral or theological problem. Whether we like to admit it or not, people exhibiting humility can be wrong, and arrogant people can be right. Furthermore, Arnold points out, boldness and courage might be just as important as humility, or even more so, when striving for answers to moral and ethical dilemmas. Arnold challenges the logic “that humility on all sides will lead to compromise that is healthy and helpful.”

Hamilton, like many pastors, is concerned the UM Church is failing to reach younger people. And so he cites that failure as another reason why we must find “middle-way” solutions to controversial issues. According to Hamilton, and a number of polls back him up, a large number of young adults are not interested in attending church because they find Christians to be judgmental and narrow-minded. Therefore, if we want to reach them, Hamilton argues we must demonstrate a spirit of compromise, particularly on those issues where young adults would be inclined to depart from traditional church teachings.

As is so often the case, arguments like this sound right on an initial reading, but are actually fraught with serious problems upon further consideration. Arnold’s critique of this argument is that it is rooted in pragmatism and that a pragmatic approach is in danger of reducing matters of major import to the results of polling data. We cannot merely adopt “middle-way” solutions simply because such solutions are appealing to a certain segment of the population that the UM Church would like to attract. Ultimately, Arnold finds the proposal for “middle way” solutions lacking in the kind of rigor necessary for reaching sound conclusions.

Arnold proposes that the UM Church already has sufficient means available for reaching good answers to controversial issues. He points to the church’s reliance upon Scripture, tradition, reason and experience for discerning God’s will for the community of faith. The church’s approach has the benefit of prioritizing Scripture, but also hearing the interplay between tradition, reason and experience as it seeks to discern God’s truth for our communal and personal lives. As Arnold puts it, the UM Church already has a “balanced and healthy third way alternative.” Namely, it is a third-way that “is achieved through discerning and teaching the black-and-white truths of Christian faith rather than trying to find gray that isn’t there.”

It is often a joy when we get more than we bargained for, and that is certainly the case with Arnold’s book. Given its title, we are not surprised he makes a vigorous case for a church that is committed to see black and white truths in a gray world. Nor are we surprised that a UM seminary professor and ordained elder would argue that John Wesley and the UM Church’s Book of Discipline offer time honored and effective ways for finding answers to controversial issues. However, it is pleasantly surprising, and worth the price of the book, to be treated to Arnold’s lucid explanations of logical fallacies and how they imperceptibly slip into arguments that sound attractive, but ultimately undermine them.

In the end, Arnold deftly helps us see that the “middle-way” approach and the admonition to learn to see more gray in the world are probably not the most effective means for finding solutions to the debates confronting us. In fact, they are not only problematic for the church, but for our culture as well.

“The world has no need,” Arnold writes, “of a church that sees as much gray at it sees. That may be precisely what the world wants: the church as mirror, reflecting the values of the world back upon itself and confirming those values. [The church’s] calling is not to be a mirror but a window, offering a view of life and reality made possible by God’s grace and revelation.”

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.

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