For a person with such strong opinions about, well, almost everything, I have an incredibly thin skin when it comes to criticism. I could have set that sentence in quotation marks, changed the “I” to a “you,” and attributed it to one of the scores of people who have said that to me over the years. I didn’t do that, because I want to make it clear I know it is true.
I can deal with certain kinds of criticism. (I won’t like it, but I can deal with it.) For example, people sometimes point out what they believe are logical inconsistencies or non sequiturs in my writing. I can deal with that because, most of the time, I can explain my thinking to show that the perceived gap in consistency was more misperception than reality. Moreover, when the critique is sound, and my logic really has been faulty, I can show genuine, if sometimes grudging, appreciation.
I have greater difficulty with the more subjective criticism of my character or my motives. In the first place, it is almost impossible to defend oneself against a critique that points up a flaw in character or motivation, whether or not the critique is true and accurate. In the second place, the critique is far too often both true and accurate.
And so it is with significant discomfort that I admit that, when it comes to my advocacy for almost any subject I might choose to write or speak about, I am, at best, a flawed messenger. Anyone who wants to undermine the credibility of any perspective I might offer or the effectiveness of any argument I might make will not have far to go to find something from my past—something I’ve written, something I’ve done or not done—that seems inconsistent, if not hypocritical, when measured against my current beliefs and pronouncements.
For example, I have written and spoken a lot about the horrible practice of “mountaintop removal,” a method for extracting coal from the hills of West Virginia—my home state—that is destroying the pristine beauty of some of God’s grandest creation. It could be said, I suppose, that if I really feel that strongly about the matter, I should move back to West Virginia—where I have not lived for more than forty years—and devote the rest of my life to some form of protest. I’ve thought about that, really, but I’ve not done it. In that regard, I am a flawed messenger.
The list of examples could go on—universal health care, income inequality, saner gun control legislation, the injustice and greed inherent in contemporary forms of capitalism, global warming and climate change, my respect for President Obama and his family, my disdain for the American political process and its current manifestations in particular. My strong opinions on these topics, and many more, will always be affected—and generally weakened—by the fact that I am a flawed messenger. And while this list is mainly social and political in nature, I have equally strong opinions about matters related to faith and Christian discipleship and the church and spirituality in general.
It is, in fact, with regard to topics in these latter categories that I was prompted to write this post. In recent days, Facebook friends and readers of this blog have written to remind me of inconsistencies in both my logic and my character which, they believe, weaken both my argument and my role as an advocate for my position. Most of their concern focuses on the areas where my thinking has changed so that I no longer believe some things I used to believe—things which, in most cases, they still believe—new beliefs, ideas, and perspectives which I have introduced, explained, and defended using many of the digital and print platforms available to me.
Here are a few examples of their reasoning. If I have come to believe that there is no single, undisputed “Christian” position on any issue, with the possible exception of the existence of God, why then do I argue for the positions I have lately embraced and suggest that they might be superior to the ones I have now abandoned? If I now believe strongly that divisions exist between Christians because of an unwarranted “us vs. them” or “we’re right, you’re wrong” way of thinking, why do I advocate for my new beliefs in ways that seem to exhibit that very mindset? Why do I call for more openness and acceptance toward those with whom I now identify on matters of faith and discipleship (progressives, LGBTQ advocates, etc.) while seemingly intolerant of those who differ with me on this very principle?
At first blush, those questions appear substantive. In another forum I might unpack them more carefully and address both their valid concerns and their misperceptions. For now, it must suffice for me to say that I understand the point their questions pose, I grant its merit, at least in part, and I will take it more seriously in the future than I may have in the past. At the same time, I will also continue to press the arguments I have been making and to advocate on behalf of the issues and principles I now embrace, even when so doing risks the charge of inconsistency or hypocrisy.
I recognize in my critics a tendency of my own in the past. It used to be that, when I would encounter a position or a belief by someone on the opposite side of the theological or political spectrum, especially a position that pricked my conscience or made me feel a bit uncomfortable, I would look for some point of logical inconsistency in the argument. If the proponent was not scrupulously consistent as an example of the position—didn’t always practice what he preached, for example—so much the better. Those points of inconsistency—especially if they reached the level of full-blown hypocrisy—made it possible for me to reject the argument without actually weighing its merits objectively.
Many of my critics are people I know, more than a few of them former students. I do not accuse them of dishonesty or superficiality in their criticism of me and my convictions. I respect them, and I believe they are sincere. But so am I, even when I am inconsistent. All I am asking is that what I say be examined and evaluated on its merits with due consideration of the presuppositions upon which it is founded. Those too have changed in recent years and must not be overlooked in the assessment of my beliefs and arguments.
I’ve written many times that, in some people’s minds, I was a prophet right up to the moment I became a heretic. I regret such a dramatic change in the way I am no perceived by some, but my convictions have been forged on the anvil of painful experience and difficult circumstances. I’m not right about everything I believe, and whenever I conclude that I am in error, I will admit that and do what I can to make amends.
That is precisely what I have been doing of late, and it has provoked my critics. I don’t like criticism, but I guess it goes with the territory for one whose vocation involves the publication of opinion. And my critics are right about one thing: I am a flawed messenger. But a flawed messenger is a messenger still.