Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Speech has a moral texture, an ethical dimension. Speech involves more than giving voice to words and thoughts, it is also the act of a moral agent. Most obviously, to lie is to act immorally, but to equivocate is unethical in most contexts (think of an ordinand equivocating on his ordination vows - it happens) and to evade an honest question is to respond unjustly to the questioner. Yet we are most likely all guilty of these sins to some extent, such is the disordering impact of original sin upon the human psyche. Most people, one would like to think, catch themselves when they use the divine gift of speech immorally in this way; the lie may escape their lips but their conscience immediately accuses them. Then there are those who seem to be compulsive liars or who apparently believe that their occupation gives them a license to use speech immorally - no, I'm not referring to the military but to politicians, who routinely equivocate, evade and even lie to the press and consequently to their constituents. The public reads this behaviour as disdain, both for truth itself and for them as electors. Is it any wonder that public discourse is becoming increasingly toxic? Immoral speech is an acid dissolving the bonds of the civil society.
Even theologians are not above using speech unethically or even immorally, and by doing so publicly they are failing to provide a model of communication different from the world's. Evasion and equivocation are rife among theologians, and unfortunately the ad hominem attack seems to be the usual parry when they seek to block or deflect a difficult question (so, instead of dealing with an opposing argument, the proponent of the opposing position is personally denigrated). I've witnessed this on occasions more numerous to count in seminary lectures and pastors' conferences, and I've even been on the receiving end. Why should theologians be different, after all (that's an open, not a rhetorical question)? But it does, or should, disappoint their readers/fans when they behave in this way habitually. Click on the post title to read an analysis by a philosopher of a recent example of the unethical use of speech by a well-known theologian.