Logic as the Lens of Faith: An Abductive Approach to Religious Conflict


By Gary Slater [1]

The logical method of abduction provides a constructive means of addressing religious disputes in public settings.  By allowing one to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate contexts in relation to the meaning of religious claims, such logic uncovers errant rules of reasoning among religious arguments without presuming to judge the truth of faith in general.  Logic thus helps clarify the place of faith in an open society, and is available to policy-makers as well as members of faith communities.

It appears there is something rotten in the United Methodist Church these days.

The issue of homosexuality has divided Methodists since as far back as its General Conference of 1972, and recent decades have seen the formation of such rival groups as the Confessing Movement, which opposes recognition of gays in the Church, and the Reconciling Ministries Network, which favors it.  At this year’s United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, reformers among both clergy and laity unsuccessfully lobbied to have the Church’s Book of Discipline amended to remove statements that prohibit clergy from performing same-sex marriages and condemn homosexual acts.  This resulted in such acrimony among everyone involved that the United Methodist Church of Arkansas has since called for a “series of sacred conversations on human sexuality,” affirming the commitment of Arkansas Methodists to mutual love and respect amidst disagreement on this issue.[2]  In spite of professions of unity from both sides, Methodists might find themselves agreeing with Ethan C. Nobles that no compromise on this issue is ultimately available and that United Methodists are headed for a split akin to that which affected the Presbyterian Church in 2011.[3]

Compelling as these events are on their own terms, the history of the dispute within Methodism over homosexuality is not the principal subject of this essay.  Nor is the intention to offer a theological polemic on behalf of either side.  Although Methodists wishing to avoid the outcome Nobles has forecasted will hopefully find it helpful, what follows is an attempt to place the controversy in broader context by (1) highlighting the public nature of religious conflict in an open society and (2) introducing a form of logic—abduction—that is uniquely suited for evaluating religious issues, as it operates on principles that allow faith its integrity within civil society without assuming the two to be either identical or unassailably separate.  The logic of abduction, which was pioneered by the American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce (1839-1914), was originally intended as a basic syllogistic form alongside deduction and induction,yet its applications extend far beyond formal logic.  If one accepts that it is precisely when questions of eternal importance are at stake that logic is of its greatest value, then the insights uncovered by an abductive approach are of public importance—even if the function of abduction is to clarify religious problems rather than solve them.

To point out that tensions like those facing the United Methodists represent a public issue is not a controversial view, nor is it a particularly interesting one.   Only when one tries to specify how religious belief ought to affect public policy do things become contentious, and leading thinkers have offered a variety of suggestions for how to proceed.  In an essay entitled “Religion as Conversation-Stopper,” philosopher Richard Rorty argued that religious claims, while perfectly admissible in private, have no place in public debate in democratic cultures, as they rely on foundations that are insupportable through reasonable argument, e.g., “God tells me to support [X].”[4]  Legal scholar Stephen L. Carter, on the other hand, argued in his book, Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, that one’s religious convictions both can and should affect one’s perspective on public issues, so long as the political commitments stem from religious belief rather than the other way around.[5] More recently, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have contended that, divisions among religious denominations notwithstanding, religious belief relative to society as a whole promotes behaviors associated with good citizenship such as membership in civic organizations, donations to charity, and voting rates, and American culture is a lot better off with high rates of religious participation than it would be otherwise.[6]

Without commenting on the relative strengths of these arguments, an abductive approach to religious conflict is unique in that it carries with it the following two assumptions.  First, it operates on an understanding of truth in which a given claim is true to the extent that it potentially explains its subject matter.  This is a sort of logical equivalent of the American Dream, which is to say that abduction sees where an idea comes from as less important than where it is (potentially) going, with an idea deserving of an equal chance to prove its worth regardless of the person whose child it is.  Peirce’s colleague in pragmatism William James summed up the forward reference of truth in a famous passage from 1907:

The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it.  Truth happens to an idea.  It becomes true, is made true by events.  Its verity is in fact an event, a process, namely, of its verifying itself.[7]

The pragmatic conception of truth thus places its dictates among concrete events without surrendering claims to objectivity, and at the same time opens the field of interpretation to anyone who has a plausible guess as to what those events mean.  In terms of faith in public life, abduction allows that a given religious dispute is open to comment from secular as well as religious citizens, layman as well as priest.  In a culture in which members of religious groups often claim their values are in direct opposition to society at large, such interpretive openness is an important point.

The second reason that an abductive approach is unique is that it is triadic rather than binary.  Rather than a proposition simply being true or false, as would be the case in binary logic, a proposition understood abductively is true with respect to a given context.  Context, like human bias, is inescapable: in carrying on a conversation, participants are exchanging linguistic signs that refer to various objects, and meaning is created through the relationship of these signs to the context in which the conversation takes place.  Context can mean anything from the language in which an argument is expressed to one’s location in space and time, as well as the identity of the person making the argument—in every case, it represents the third element that mediates between a proposition and its truth.  Understood logically, context takes the form of rules of reasoning, often unconscious, that shape the form a given argument takes, as well as the way it is received by its audience.  Contrary to popular belief, an argument can thus be biased and objective at the same time.

These two points—the forward reference of truth and its inseparability from context—combine in what is undoubtedly the most important feature of the abductive approach to religious conflict: the ability to identify (and possibly repair) errant logical binaries that are embedded in a given argument.  Considering its importance, the meaning of the term “logical binary” bears further explanation.  As used here, “binary” simply refers to a relation between two opposing concepts, in which, for the sake of advancing an argument, one of the concepts is held as preferable to the other.  Binaries occur all the time, and are often essential in formulating an argument.  An errant binary, however, is one in which the distinction it offers extends beyond its appropriate context.  For example, if one is a guest at the home of a friend, she might think, “I need to finish all my food at dinner, so as not to appear wasteful.”  This presents a binary between “finishing meal: not appearing wasteful” and “not finishing meal: appearing wasteful.”  In Arkansas, where social mores emphasize finishing one’s dinner as a sign of frugality, the binary is appropriate.  In China, however, where not finishing one’s dinner signifies frugality, the binary is errant, as its distinction is not borne out in the actual experience of that context.  In encountering what appears to be an errant binary, the next step is to look for the rule of reasoning that generated it, then imagine what would be the effect on the argument if the rule were other than it is.

As to how logical binaries function with regard to religious disputes, it helps at this point to dispense with abstractions and return to the issue of gays in the United Methodist Church.  As such, arguments from the controversy will serve to illustrate the difference between appropriate and errant binaries in religious debates.  The following passage comes from the official declaration of the 2005 Confessing Movement Conference, and is an example of an errant binary in favor of excluding gays from the United Methodist Church:

Genuine unity in the church is not secured by religious sentiment, sincere piety, tight property clauses, or appeals to institutional authority and loyalty . . . . Genuine unity, as a precious gift of the Holy Spirit, is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, witnessed to in the Holy Scripture, summarized in the ecumenical creeds, celebrated in worship and sacraments, demonstrated in common mission, articulated in our teaching, lived out in love, and contended for by the faithful.[8]

The binary embedded in this passage is between two definitions of unity, and the authors of this passage clearly intend for the reader to understand that unity based on “the gospel of Jesus Christ” and a “common mission” is superior to that based on “tight property clauses” or “appeals to institutional authority.”  Yet this binary is deeply flawed.  First, the criteria for what distinguishes the two forms of unity is unclear, as it is difficult to tell how unity based on “ecumenical creeds” or “the faithful” is not itself an appeal “to institutional authority and loyalty.”  Second, no rule is provided that explains how the criteria for “genuine unity” are to be interpreted in such a way that one might reasonably conclude that gays are not welcome in the United Methodist Church.  Third, and perhaps worst of all, since no explicit interpretive rule is provided, the binary implies that to oppose the Confessing Movement’s position on gays in the United Methodist Church is to oppose all the criteria given for unity, which is to be against Holy Spirit, against Jesus Christ, even against love.

An alternative example comes from the New England delegation to this year’s General Conference, and represents an errant binary on behalf of the Reconciling Ministries Network:

We will not be saved by our bishops, our polity, our structure, our metrics, our theology, our doctrine, our social principles…Our strength and our unity lie in our identity as a spiritual movement, grounded in the grace of God and linked by common practices of personal and social holiness.  Nothing more, nothing less.[9]

The binary here also bears on the question of unity in the Church, offering a choice between unity based on ecclesiastical structures and unity based on “the grace of God” and “personal and social holiness.”  Although arguably less provocative than the previous example, this binary likewise suffers n its lack of an explicit rule for interpretation.  Is spirituality always to be opposed to “structure” in the United Methodist Church?  Would someone wishing to uphold United Methodist unity with respect to a particular creed or doctrine therefore be arguing on behalf of divisiveness?  If United Methodist unity is a “spiritual movement,” and if movement implies direction, then in which direction does such unity point?  The binary offers no answer, and though it is clear that the unity envisioned here would be flexible enough to accommodate gays in the Church, the argument does not support its position through specific criteria so much as abandon the idea of criteria itself.

A final example, one whose argument displays an appropriate rather than errant binary, may be found in the following sermon from the Reverend Thompson Murray, senior pastor at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock.  The sermon, which was given on October 23, 2011, speaks out in favor of gays in the Church, but its argumentative distinction is highlighted because the binary on display is meaningful with respect to a clearly specified context:

It’s always dangerous for us to design processes that discern who is called by God to be leaders in the church…but when we declare a particular classification of people to be unqualified for professional ministry we have aligned ourselves with the worst form of religious tradition. By declaring that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are categorically unqualified for ordination I feel that we are standing with the legalistic Pharisees who couldn’t accept what God was doing through Jesus Christ – because Jesus didn’t fit their criteria for the One who would come in the Name of the Lord.[10]

The binary on display is between emulating either the “legalistic Pharisees” or “what God was doing through Jesus Christ.” Although this may appear to be an obverse of the Confessing Movement’s Statement on Unity in associating its preferred position with Jesus (what Christian, after all, would wish to go against the example of Jesus Christ?), the argument avoids an errant binarism for the following reasons.  First, it is based in a specific passage of Scripture (Matthew 22: 34-46), so to debate the terms of the argument is to be provided with a concrete text that may be interpreted, in which all participants can at least agree that Jesus and the Pharisees are in fact different entities.  Second, at issue in the Pharisees/Jesus distinction is a choice between two frameworks of interpretation, both of which are acknowledged as part of the Christian tradition: legal formalism on one hand, acknowledgement of concrete experience on the other.  Third, in recognizing a theme of “stupefying” love, the sermon adopts a principle in which the fallibility of human understanding remains open, and so inquiry is allowed to remain ongoing rather than closed through an unearned sense of certainty.

In understanding these examples, it is important to acknowledge a few points.  First, the presence of an errant binary in a theological argument is not to be equated with the falsity of that argument on the whole, just as the presence of errant arguments among both sides does not mean that “both sides are equally at fault”; an objectively correct position may exist, but identifying this position is impossible before the abductive method has performed its critical task.  Second, theological disputes often display problems that the abductive method is not designed to address.  Participants may simply refuse to speak to one another (or worse).  A given argument may be factually incorrect.  In the case of the Nestorian Controversy of AD 431, the Patriarch of Constantinople was exiled to the Egyptian desert in part because of an incorrect translation of the Greek term Theotokos![11]  The recognition of errant binaries solves none of these problems, though it may help identify them.  Third, certain general tendencies are common among religious disputes in contemporary American culture, which are worth bearing in mind in understanding the following examples as symptoms of deeper problems.  These include the tendency to argue on behalf of “unity” while attributing extremism to one’s opponents (much like politicians employ “bipartisanship” as a screen for a given agenda), as well as the tendency to claim one’s own view as representative of the “true faith” in contrast to the “secular values” of one’s opponents.  This last point speaks to what is perhaps the deepest errant binary of all among contemporary religious debates: the view that religious and secular values are diametrically opposed.  This is an error that is not limited to fundamentalists; in their respective ways, both the atheist Richard Rorty and the liberal Stephen Carter commit the same mistake, the former by assuming that religious values are inadmissible in public, the latter by assuming that religious values cannot extend from social or political causes.

It must be emphasized that this method does not pretend to offer a definitive answer to religious conflict.  Philosophy often flatters itself that its problems are the world’s problems, and so makes the mistake of attributing outsized importance to its own answers.  Yet one must remember that abductive logic as demonstrated above represents the beginning of inquiry, not the end.  Given the time and means, the next step would be to undertake sustained research on the history of Methodist faith and interpretive practices, as well as its stance toward society at large and homosexuality in particular.  The critical method offered here is best understood as a sort of clearing of rhetorical debris before the real work can begin.   Perhaps the best way to understand abductive logic as applied to religious conflict is as a publicly available response to genuine suffering.  There is no reason, for instance, to doubt that the pain expressed by members of both the Confessing Movement or the Reconciling Ministries Network in the debate over homosexuality in the United Methodist Church is real, and as such any attempt to correct that suffering—through logic or otherwise—is an exercise in healing.

[1] Gary Slater is pursuing a doctorate in theology at the University of Oxford, St. Cross College.  His research concerns the theological implications of a philosophy of history derived from the writings of C.S. Peirce.

[2] The Conference Board of Church and Society. The Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, June 12, 2012.  URL: http://www.arumc.org/ac2012.php.

[3 Nobles, Ethan C. “Between a rock and a hard place….” First Arkansas News, May 13, 2012. URL: http://firstarkansasnews.net/2012/05/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place/.

[4] Rorty, Richard. “Religion as Conversation-Stopper.” Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

[5] Carter, Stephen L. Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

[6]  Putnam, Robert and David Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

[7] James, William. “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.” The Pragmatism Reader. Eds. Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 80.

[8] The Confessing Movement Conference. “Unity in Christ, That the World May Believe.” September 24, 2005. The Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.  URL: http://confessingumc.org/our-story/2005-unity-statement/.

[9] New England Delegation to the United Methodist 2012 General Conference. “New England delegation: UMC’s identity and unity must be spiritual, not structural.” The United Methodist Reporter. June 11, 2012. URL: http://www.unitedmethodistreporter.com/2012/06/new-england-conference-delegation-no-common-identity-for-umc/.

[10] Murray, Thompson. “Indiscriminate Stupifying Love.” Thompson’s Blog. Transcribed October 24, 2011.  Originally spoken October 23, 2011. URL: http://twmurray.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/thompsons-sermon-from-oct-23-2011/.

[11] The Patriarch Nestorius (386-451) had suggested that the Virgin Mary be referred to as Christotokos, meaning “bearer of Christ,” instead of the more conventional Theotokos, meaning “bearer of God,” which was taken by the Latin speakers in Rome, as well as Nestorius’s political enemies, to mean that he had denied the divinity of Jesus.




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