Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry displays some sleazy ethics in his lecture on Christian ethics

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry displays some sleazy ethics in his lecture on Christian ethics October 8, 2014

“From the start, Christians embodied a different way of life,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes for The Week.

And the hallmarks of this “different way of life,” according to Gobry’s article, are sleazy insinuation, unsupported allegations, and a refusal to listen to anyone else.

Those aren’t the “keystone” traits of the Christian life that Gobry argues for, but they are the traits Gobry demonstrates in his article. Allow me to do what Gobry himself does not — provide specific examples:

In many urban and progressive circles, it’s beyond impolitic to oppose gay marriage. Indeed, there’s a movement underfoot to make opposition to same-sex marriage akin to support for racism. That is to say, anyone who expresses opposition to same-sex marriage would be ostracized, with many progressives hoping to employ a variety of social and governmental means of coercion to force gay-marriage opponents to the margins of society. …

Today, many gay-marriage proponents don’t just want a live-and-let-live relationship with Christianity — they want to force Christianity to affirm same-sex marriage.

He goes on to say that this nefariously “urban and progressive” movement “is based on a misreading of history,” and then launches into what he regards as a corrective lecture on the proper understanding of history.

Count me as a bit skeptical about Gobry’s ability to provide a correct understanding of history. He’s just now characterized racism as something confined to the “margins of society” and a relic of the dusty past. (And he did so in the same paragraph in which he also employed “urban” as an adjective intended to connote something suspicious, alien and dangerous.)

But before we get to Gobry’s history lesson, let’s first examine all of the specific examples he provides of the “variety of social and governmental means of coercion to force gay-marriage opponents to the margins of society” and “to force Christianity to affirm same-sex marriage.”

Let’s see … um

Oh. He doesn’t provide even a single example of this nasty coercive, shoving-down-the-throat, manipulative forcing to obey that has him so upset.

That’s interesting.

It almost seems as though he’s chosen to mischaracterize efforts to persuade through argument and moral suasion as something else — as “governmental … coercion.” It almost seems like he’s offering a bad-faith argument based on baseless insinuation and a dick-ish refusal to listen to others or to engage what they are actually saying. Hmmm.

That’s a rather harsh assessment, so let’s not rush to judgment. Is there any other evidence in this article of this aforementioned dick-ish refusal to listen?

Alas, yes. Yes there is:

The false premise goes something like this: Christianity, as a historical social phenomenon, basically adjusts its moral doctrines depending on the prevailing social conditions. Christianity, after all, gets its doctrines from “the Bible,” a self-contradictory grab bag of miscellany. When some readings from the Bible fall into social disfavor, Christianity adjusts them accordingly. There are verses in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but there are also verses that condemn wearing clothes made of two threads, and verses that allow slavery. Christians today find ways to lawyer their way out of those. Therefore, the implicit argument seems to go, if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality, and all will be well. 

That is a steaming pile of passive-aggressive insinuation. Gobry’s preferred method of argument appears to be to avoid lying by direct assertion, opting instead to lie by passing reference to assumed “facts” that are actually fabrications containing nasty accusations.

To save time, I’ll only highlight three such lies from that paragraph.

1. All criticism of the condemnation of “homosexuality” comes from outside Christianity. That paragraph purports to be a summary of the argument of this criticism, and look at every use of the word “Christianity” there. It’s all coming from the outside — from people and perspectives that are not a part of the “Christianity” Gobry is discussing. His argument will not allow him to admit that there is disagreement within Christianity, so he characterizes all such disagreement as between “Christianity” and some nefarious group of unnamed others.

The claim that there is no disagreement among Christians is objectively, demonstrably false. It’s so obviously false that Gobry doesn’t dare state it outright, so he presumes it indirectly by insinuation. That trick serves two functions. First, it characterizes such criticism as a threat and a danger to Christianity — barbarians at the gates. And secondly it suggests that anyone offering or even thoughtfully considering such criticism is therefore someone outside of Christianity.

That backhanded effort to delegitimize all Christians who disagree with him about this is a nasty insult, but that’s not why he’s forced to do it indirectly. The indirection is necessary to cloak the absurdity of the circular argument he’s making: Suggesting that his view is affirmed by the unanimity among insiders, a unanimity achieved by redefining all insiders who disagree with him as outsiders.

2. Any questioning, qualification or criticism of the views of Christianity as defined by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is tantamount to “bullying.” In keeping with his passive-aggressive method, Gobry doesn’t directly call anyone a bully, he just makes reference to the presumed “fact” that anyone who disagrees with him must think of themselves as bullies and must think of what they are doing as “bullying Christianity” into submission.

Exegetical questions about the meaning of specific texts in Leviticus or Romans? Bullying. A hermeneutic based on the ongoing work begun at Pentecost? Bullying. A pauline appeal to the gospel of reconciliation? Bullying. Making any distinction between sectarian ethics and the establishment of sectarian ethics as civil law applied to everyone? Bullying. Asking for any shred of evidence that civil rights for LGBT people harms anyone, anywhere, in any way? Bullying.

Look at how much work this saves for Gobry. He doesn’t need to provide any evidence or argument, he can simple boldly proclaim that he will not be bullied by bullies.

He doesn’t need to provide any rationale for why his sexual ethics should be imposed on the whole of society, enforced by law even for those who do not share his sectarian perspective. That would be hard to do, given that much of his history lecture is a passionate argument for the distinctive, peculiar and pervasively sectarian nature of those sexual ethics. So instead he just says he won’t be bullied by bullies.

He doesn’t need to respond to biblical arguments for an inclusive, boundary-shattering, difference-reconciling faith. That would be letting the bullies win.

Urban progressives who let themselves be bullied into conformity with the prevailing social conditions.

3. Hermeneutics are at best, irrelevant, and at worst an evasive, lawyerly attempt to escape the self-evident meaning of the Bible, which is an anthology of clear commandments given for all of history (and mostly regarding sex).

This is the slipperiest bit in Gobry’s hagfish of an essay. It’s also where his strategy of insinuation backfires most dramatically. The central thrust of Gobry’s article is that Christian ethics cannot change because Christian ethics are unchanging, yet here he tries to contend with the accusation that Christian ethics, in fact, have changed — sometimes in very large ways.

Gobry concedes that such changes have occurred, but doesn’t offer any explanation for those changes other than the “false premise” argument he attributes to those urban progressive outsiders — that Christians were “bullied” by the “prevailing social conditions” into finding ways “to lawyer their way out of” what they had previously regarded as clear biblical mandates. This “lawyering,” to be clear, involves a betrayal of bedrock principles — an illegitimate seeking after technicalities and loopholes. This explanation of past change is presented as part of what he intends to be a defiant stand against any such future caving in to bullying by the prevailing winds of culture.

And that’s where Gobry seems to lose track of his game of insinuation. His call to defy such bullying and to resist a repetition of such shameful cultural accommodation requires that he affirm and confirm the explanation he attributes to those outsiders. The argument he accuses them of making becomes his own argument, and he winds up suggesting that “Christians today” shamefully  “find ways to lawyer their way out of  … verses in the Bible … that allow slavery.”

I don’t think this is where Gobry wanted to end up, yet this is where he arrives — telling us that “Christians won’t back down on gay marriage” the way they once allowed outsiders to bully them into backing down on slavery.

Gobry paints himself into that corner because he is unable to acknowledge the centuries-long argument within Christianity over the morality of slavery. To acknowledge that would be to accept that in a massive debate between scripture-citing traditionalists and “progressive” innovators, the innovators were right. And it would involve accepting a fatal blow of Gobry’s thesis — the fact that those innovators were not all outsiders bullying Christianity into cultural conformity, but that this argument also occurred among Christians on Christian terms. The fact that his defiant traditionalism was opposed by other Christians who argued for a better way of interpreting the Bible and a better way of understanding Christian ethics.

And those better ways, by the way, were as utterly out-of-step with “the prevailing social conditions” as they were with the religious traditionalism championed by Gobry.

Browse Our Archives