Thursday, June 30, 2005

Christian Believing, Ch. 6

Ch. 6 fills in important detail of Westerhoff and Holmes' theology of religious experience, a theology which I believe informs the current actions of ECUSA's leadership. This chapter brings up the question: Is there a final core to Christian tradition? That question continues to haunt the debate over GC2003, as one could read ECUSa's right wing as adamant that a biblical prohibition on all homosexual activity is part of an unchanging, final core of Christian dogma. ECUSA's leadership, defending the acts of GC2003, denies any such prohibition is part of a final core, but also expresses reservations about the notion of a "final core." My primary task inreading Ch. 6 is to determine just what those resevations are; I take Westerhoff and Holmes to admit that there is, in fact, a final core,and confine their reservations to epistemology. I suspect even merely epistemic reservations of the "we cannot here below be certain that Q"-variety are toomuch for ECUSA's right wing to stomach. Thus, at this point in Christian Believing, we can clearly discern the fissure separating ECUSA's right wing from the leadership.

I. Westerhoff and Holmes' Ch. 6

Within a merely secular community, certain types of experience have the capacity to bring us to recognize the Ultimate, or God, such as the experience of severe illness or the anticipation of death. In response we recognize ourselves as alone and helpless. Filled with dread at our suffering and loss of control, we cry out--our cry may carry within itself a direction aimed beyond the world of mere beings. In each case, the experience does not contain in itself or produce an idea of God, the Being beyond beings, but our experience can be "illuminated" such as to lead those with the experiences to recognize and acknowledge God. Presumably there are stages here: (a) the secular person has an experience directed toward the Ultimate; (b) he/she recognizes that experience as having religious meaning--as an experience of God. (a) and (b) could occur together, at once, or with some duration between them. But the main point is that (a) does not imply (b): God may call out to us in our experience; that does not mean we will recognize God's call.

Illumination requires that the experience occur or be situated within a specific type of conceptual framework, within which the experience can be recollected with religious meaning.
The conceptual framework must already contain meaningful religious symbols--stories or myths, and ritual actions. Without such a framework, Westerhoff and Holmes admit we might be incapable of recognizing God in our experience; on our own, we become incapable of hearing or seeing God.

Our authors criticize contemporary American culture for decomposing the framework of religious symbols within which we receive experience: secularism, materialism, consumer culture, et al. can seed us with conceptual frameworks that make the experience of God unintelligible. E.g.: the myth of redemptive violence (see Wink, et al) can so permeate a society that the Cross, a revelation of redemptive non-violence, becomes unintelligible, even reversing its meaning altogether. At such a point, we would become incapable (on our own) even of being confronted by the Cross.

Thus, we should guard the repository of religious symbols contained in the Bible--should they be drained of meaning for us, we might lose the ability to respond to God in our experience. This "guarding" requires the symbols be ignited in memory. For instance, as they live in enacted ritual and myth, they can bring, in their very enactment, the experience of God. Indeed, this is genuine Christian tradition: passing on to others and our descendants the living symbolism through which God can be, and actually is, recognized in our experience. Through genuine tradition, one enters into a relationship with God, a relationship of trust and openness to God--this is faith.

Our authors stress the connection between faith, myth/ritual, and experience: this is the living heart of our relationship with God. Propositional content comes afterwards, as we reflect on the experience of this relationship. Indeed, propositional content adjusts to faith--our openness to God, essential to faith, holds the propositional expression of our experience continually open to correction.

I suppose the they might have in mind the following: (a) one enters into an experience of the Eucharist with Chalcedonian christology as the conceptual frame; (b) one has the experience of God in the Eucharist; (c) the experience leads one to question that christology. Maybe one looks back on the experience of Christ as of mode of divinity. Anyhow, such a sequence would be possible, and, if it is validated in the community, legitimate: the community's experience can call dogma into question.

But this leads to a question: Is there any "final core" to tradition, any dogma beyond the danger of correction? Might we be led by experience to throw out Nicea and Chalcedon, and accept Arianism? Or, more extreme, nondualist Hinduism? Our authors say: (X) the experience of the community can challenge any traditionally held proposition.

Alas! Our authors do not stop to clarify and disambiguate X; there are at least two ways to take it: (A) There is no final core to tradition; (B) There is a final core to tradition, but for most propositions P, for all we know P is not part of that final core. (A) is, to me, catastrophic; it seems to lead to a lamentable pluralism. On (A), any set of propositions could well go under the heading "Christianity" with equal legitimacy, whether they are equivalent to nondualist Hinduism, Newtonian mechanics, or even Stalinism. We need a core, we need for there to be truths about God that are unchanging and that can serve as a standard measuring our propositional belief.

Thus, I read our authors, with charity, to hold something like (B). There is a core; yet we, being imperfect, can only imperfectly receive it. Doubt and division over propositional content are ineradicibly concomitant to a living faith. In this state we will not be free from struggle over doctrine. Likewise, we take that content so seriously in part because we believe there is a final core (holding at least the belief in a final core beyond correction--hence the operator "most" in (B) above).

(B) calls for epistemic humility: we cannot be sure, for the most part, just which parts of our creeds and traditions are true. Yet in holding a creed or tradition to be true, we are doing our best to express at least part of the final core. We should not be surprised if the tradition changes in light of religious experience. Moreover, uniformity over tradition is not required for handing on the faith--what is required is that the relationship of faith in God be handed down, and that relationship is based in experience, not in dogma.

II. Reflections on Ch. 6
The experience of God in all cases requires on our part a suitable conceptual framework. The experience can come without the mediation of the church's liturgy, as when one faces impending death and cries out, or it can come with the mediation of the church's liturgy, as when one takes communion. Tentatively, I claim the liturgical experience of God expresses in myth and ritual a non-liturgical experience of God, just as the Passover expresses deliverance from Egypt or the Eucharist expresses the recognition of Jesus as God in the breaking of bread; dogma expresses in propositional form both types of experience.

Seemingly rendering dogma dependent on these types of experience, ECUSA has made its right-wing critics very nervous: they ask, "What goes next?" Perhaps they hear something like (X) above and think it means (A): There is no final core to tradition, rather than (B): there is a final core, but most of what we hold to be in that core now might in fact be false, for all we know.
But it does not follow, pace ECUSA's right wing, that anything goes, but rather that dogmatism around creed and tradition seals oneself off from correction grounded on the community's ongoing experienceof God.

The imperfect reception of a past age's experience of God--and that is the best that tradition can ever do here below, namely hand down an experience already imperfectly recceived in ritual and dogma--threatens to become elevated to the status of final core. Such an elevation is not just an error, but a moral mistake, an usurpation of the place of God in our lives, as God surely is permitted to act to correct what can only be an imperfect reception of what he wishes that we grasp, and we should continue to be open to correction.


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