From the Letter to Titus:
There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Titus 1:10-13b (NRSV) – February 14, 2013.)
Well, Happy Valentine’s Day! Doesn’t Paul strike a pleasant note in his admonitions to the young bishop Titus? The ad hominem attack enshrined in Holy Scripture, mixed with a health dose of antisemitism to boot! An ad hominem is considered a logical fallacy because an otherwise potentially valid claim is rejected on the basis of an irrelevant fact about the person presenting the claim. Typically, it involves two steps, both of which Paul demonstrates in this bit of his letter to Titus. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim: “Cretans are always liars.” Second, this personal attack is used as evidence against the argument the person is making. In other words, the ad hominem argument has the following form:
- Person A makes claim X: “Rebellious people are teaching things.”
- Person B makes an attack on person A: “They are liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons.”
- Therefore A’s claim is false: “Their teachings are ‘Jewish myths’.”
However, the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not have any bearing on the truth or falsehood of the claim they may be making or the quality of the argument they may be advancing: this is why the ad hominem attack is, itself, a fallacy.
Reading these words in the letter to Titus this morning hit me with particularly force because of discussions yesterday of the innovation of “Ashes to Go” – a new practice offered by some in the Episcopal Church (and other traditions, I suppose) of going to public places (street corners, coffee houses, college campuses) and offering the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday outside of the context of the full penitential liturgy. Personally, I don’t approve of the practice, but I do appreciate the arguments of those who champion it.
In some of the discussions, both online and in person, arguments were advanced that those on the con side of “Ashes to Go” were “older clergy” whose only concern (apparently because of their age and concern for their pensions) is preservation of a dying institution while those on the pro side were “younger clergy” who (apparently because of their youth) are open to the Holy Spirit doing something new. On the other side, those “younger clergy” were portrayed as killing the church because they fail to appreciate and respect its traditions and by their actions rob them of meaning, while the “older clergy” are the Spirit-filled defenders of the faith.
Hmmm . . . . . . . The division of the church into “older” and “younger” groups (clergy or otherwise) whose age bracket somehow validates or invalidates their positions feels a lot like an ad hominem sort of argument. In the spirit of Paul’s words to Titus, I could almost hear the disputants saying, “Older clergy are always . . . .” and “Younger clergy are always . . . .”
I don’t know whether “Ashes to Go” is a movement of the Holy Spirit or whether it is simply yet another straw being grasped at by a church striving to be “relevant”. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. I do know that, to me, it feels like what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Whether it is that or not, however, is not dependent on whether the practice is advanced by “younger clergy” or opposed by “older clergy” (and, for the record, there are proponents and opponents on both sides of the age divide, wherever one draws the line).
This Valentine’s Day – this Lent – let’s make the effort to move away from ad hominem arguments, even if they are enshrined in the Pauline text. Let’s listen to one another carefully and address the issues, not the persons.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.