Dialogue of Dissent

Originally Posted 12-31-06

Ever have those days when life gets in the way of studying? This has been my experience the last couple of days, but I should have expected this in the midst of the holidays. So I feel like I have slowed up a bit, but hopefully after this last festival (New Year’s Eve), I can get back to the routine.

I have recently finished Michele Dillon’s work, Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith, and Power. Dillon is looking at “pro-change” groups in the American Catholic context, and they ways in which they stay connected with, interact with, and try to differentiate from the greater Catholic tradition. All of the groups are more progressive, groups (gay rights, women’s ordination, and reproductive choice). What Dillon concludes is that it is not reason which allows small groups to stay connected and to continue to push for change (contra Habermas). Nor are groups relegated to silence, or risk being undermined in attempting to forge new ideas and practices while staying connected to a larger institutional tradition (contra Foucault). Dillon concludes that faith and power along with reason fuel, drive, and keep the efforts of these groups alive.

I found the work to be well research and well done, but with a noticeable progressive bias. Dillon makes it seem like there are not any pro-change conservative groups. It is as if the Catholic tradition is so monolithic in its conservative leanings, that never would a less progressive individual want to push for change. Granted, the issues that Dillon is considering have been controlled by the conservatives, yet one could not argue that they are completely satisfied with change. Since Vatican II, many conservative thinking individuals have been pushing for a change in doctrine, liturgy, and hierarchy. Perhaps the most recent Pope, and his predecessor have pushed for much of that change, yet not all are satisfied.

A strength of Dillon’s work is that one could apply similar questions and conclusions to pro-change conservative groups (to a degree).

Now for a Baptist reflection. There are many point that have caused me to wonder. Dillon looks at the use of doctrine to counter doctrine among groups. I suppose Baptists do that with scripture, and to a lesser degree with our distinctives. The problem with using scripture is the variety of hermeneutics. Unless all are reading scripture in the same way, one cannot compare different passages, readings, or ideas. A literalist may quote a scripture, while a non-literalist would speak of the overall ethos and focus of the gospel. This is comparing apples to oranges.

The problem with the dinstictives is that they do not hold an authoritative place in the Baptist movement. They are guiding, and telling. They tell who we have been and where we have come from, and they can guide where we are going. Yet one does not often hold up church autonomy with the same doctrinal weight as a Catholic might. Clearly we need to continue the conversation among Baptist concern who we are and how we can understand and identify ourselves.

Finally, I hold up the idea of dissent. The dissenters in Dillon’s book (the pro-change group) are not willing to leave the church. They love Catholicism enough to put themselves through the strain and the challenges to try to change the institution. As Baptists we claim to tolerate dissent (I use the word “tolerate” deliberately). Ideas will prevail, but we will always tolerate the dissenting voice. I criticize those who claim to be Baptist, but will not continue in the dialogue of dissent. I question if they truly love the history and the ideals found within the Baptist movement. I also criticize the denomination that does not create a true platform where a dialogue of dissent can occur. Unity is important, but not at the expense of the whole body. Dissent is also important, but not at the expense of the whole body. We must find a way to give those who dissent full voice and a place at the table. We must continue to stay committed to the movement and the church enough to stay in dialogue with our dissent. So many of us have failed in so many ways.