Michael A. King's Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality is an important book for Christians concerned with how we might better deal with differences and conflicts. It belongs in church, church college, and seminary libraries. It would be appropriate for courses in hermeneutics and congregational practice. And it deserves serious attention from church leaders at all levels.
Although Fractured Dance began as King's dissertation and contributes significantly to Gadamer scholarship, it is quite readable. It is, primarily, a case study in conflict, the case being the Franconia Conference of the Mennonite Church deciding in 1997 whether or not to excommunicate Germantown Mennonite Church because of that congregation's position on membership for non-celibate homosexual people. King's theoretical filter for studying the Franconia-Germantown case is Hans-Georg Gadamer's theory of philosophical hermeneutics.
Fractured Dance, then, is not about homosexuality. It is about how some Mennonites once talked about homosexuality. Much more so, it evaluates, from a Gadamerian perspective, how one Mennonite conference processed an intense conflict, which in this case had to do with differences over membership for homosexual people. To do so, it spends substantial time describing and critiquing Gadamerian theory as a valuative perspective on such discernment processes.
On this basis, it offers Mennonites specifically – and people of other faiths – perspective on how we process conflicts based on faith and biblical understandings, personally and institutionally. Fractured Dance's potential to provide such perspective is its basis for inclusion in Pandora Press's C. Henry Smith series, whose agenda, J. Denny Weaver, the series editor, writes, is "to show how an assumption of nonviolence can impact the discussion in virtually any academic discipline." Weaver continues, describing Fractured Dance as "a fine example of scholarship in the service of the church" (18).
King chose Gadamerian theory because of the affinities he sees between it and Mennonite tradition. King cites Willard Swartley's assertion "that the ‘believing community is an interpreting community' which . .[as a] ‘community of faith'. . .tests interpretations of individuals" (42-43). King also sees in Gadamer's thought a connection to Paul's idea of the church as Christ's body (I Cor. 13), "which must learn to love its many different parts as all contributing to one body" (30).
Using Gadamerian theory, King reveals how we can fail to live up to pacifist ideals and the standard of Christian love – which is what makes Fractured Dance important. It provides an attitude we might cultivate to bring us closer to achieving such ideals. King acknowledges that achieving such ideals may seem unrealistic. But by the same token, Christians are idealistic people, used to striving toward goals we can't achieve by human power and skill alone. So perhaps a Gadamerian attitude and approach to discernment, one that embraces difference, even opposition, as productive is right up our alley.
The goal is to be enlarged by coming to understand each other. No two people are quite the same, so this is always possible. But in Gadamer's way of thinking, potential growth is greater when difference is greater. The different other is not an opponent or enemy to be defeated, but someone who can broaden a person's horizons, if the person can bring him- or herself to understand the other.
We come to such understanding through genuine conversation, according to Gadamer. King characterizes genuine conversation in his first two chapters. In keeping with contemporary thought, Gadamer begins from the premise that human understanding cannot be objective. It is filtered through people's culturally influenced sensibilities. Gadamer would say that effective histories (shared backgrounds) condition people's prejudices, the productive perspectives that shape the way each comes to understand his or her particular set of experiences.
When the one and the other (or people in whatever number) engage in a conversation with a spirit of openness to the subject and each other, the potential for enlarged understanding exists. The parties gathered open themselves to the subject as it appears to and confronts them from their initial perspectives. Then, in conversation, they put their prejudices and understandings at risk by opening themselves to each others' understandings. This risky/courageous openness involves granting the validity of the other's understanding from the other's perspective and even exploring the possible superior validity of the other's understanding.
This doesn't finally require that we accept the other's understanding. However, opening ourselves to others this way enlarges us by virtue of expanding our horizons of mutual understanding, by fusing horizons, in Gadamer's terms. We may deepen each other's ways of thinking or persuade each other too. But participating in genuine conversation ensures that we won't ignorantly reject what we haven't understood, either the idea or the person.
In this way, striving for genuine conversation potentially upholds pacifist ideals. We strive to give each other open, hospitable hearings – in faith, humbly confessing that our own may not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If ours is not the whole story, then, like different parts of a body, we need and complete each other.
Gadamer would not be our primary resource, but we Christians who would live peacefully with each other and all people might do well to cultivate, even institute a Gadamerian approach to discernment as a counterweight to other cultural influences. Western culture glorifies victory. It idolizes majority rule, sometimes to the point of demonizing and silencing dissent. Judicial procedures thrive on and Roberts' Rules of Order cast us into adversarial roles that are difficult not to play once the context is set.
If we read other writers descriptions of Mennonite hermeneutic traditions, we will understand King's reason for selecting Gadamer to reflect on Mennonites' attitudes and discernment practices. If we reflect on how "listening committees" have been used by our denominations and conferences, we will recognize how important we know listening carefully to each other in the midst of conflict to be. But when we read King, I hope we also realize that honest and courageous listening cannot be the business of a select few. It is the responsibility of every member of the body.
Bradley G. Siebert