Christian Believing, Ch.s 2-4
In sections I and II, I summarize the high points of chapters 2-4 of Westerhoff and Holmes' "Christian Believing." I remain convinced that a grasp of this work goes a long way to explain the thinking behind the ECUSA's leadership; we shall see that Griffiss is not as explicitly focused on epistemology, he retains the premises set out here. Critics of the ECUSA's leadership abound, but serious engagement with the leadership should involve taking up and evaluating such works as this.
I. Our Basic Epistemic Predicament: Being Cut Off
We have a natural capacity for experiencing meaning, i.e. for taking items as means for understanding our lives; indeed, we long for this understanding, and are disturbed by its absence. Humans are distinguished both by their second-order epistemic awareness--e.g. by nature, we can know that we know--and their epistemic need for meaning, carrying them beyond merely biological desires.
However, X's being meaningful for us does not imply X's truth. Belief tends to require the appearance of reasonableness, but being reasonable does not imply truth. Nevertheless, we are tempted to infer truth from meaningfulness, as life without truth claims would be beyond our bearing. Making truth claims reveals confidence in our mode of life--being reluctant to make truth claims would imply a lack of confidence, an anxiety about our mode of life. Thus, we are led to ask questions about the ultimate in relation to our lives. Still, the being of objects is beyond our reckoning; i.e. we cannot know the ultimate truth about them.
Worse: we naturally develop, without explicit conscious awareness or choice, a structure that filters the chaotic data of our experience, directing what we can perceive in that data. We use this structure to "fill out" incomplete data from experience--the structure is like a theory of reality. Without consciously choosing, we may find our selves committed to a framework. This commitment is a faith, "a natural orientation" to what is ultimate and to life's meaning.
Thus we are beset by two problems: (1) our need for meaning and truth pushes us beyond the capacity to know we have on our own, and (2) what we consciously experience is already shaped by a default conceptual framework. In theory, that framework may preclude, without our awareness, knowledge. For all we know, we are systematically misled by our framework; we should be humble in our claims to know.
Moreover, religious people in particular are living through a crisis of faith. Being unable to believe as their ancestors did, who did not live with the contemporary success of secular science, consumer-based materialism, etc, they do not have their ancestor's confidence in the content of their faith.
II. Religious Knowing
How is religious knowledge even possible? On our own, we cannot build a "bridge" to God; God must build the bridge to us. Otherwise, knowledge of God would be impossible. Calling on the Song of Solomon, Westerhoff and Holmes take God to be the Lover, while we are his Beloved; his Love reaches out to us, it is the bridge God builds down to us. In that Love, we may experience God as a person. That is, we may respond by falling in love with him, and once this happens, we are converted (or better, we begin the process of conversion).
In conversion, our experience of God as a person (1) confronts us with a new conceptual framework in conflict with our default framework, and (2) we choose to adopt the new conceptual framework. In stage (1), confrontation is important--the conflict can be suppressed; e.g. we can live with contradictory beliefs without choosing to adopt the new framework. We must have the courage to face an internal crisis about how to lead our lives (in which framework), and the courage to leave our old framework behind.
But conversion does not happen all at once--the person of God is infinitely rich. There is always more to know of God, and as we live with the experience of him as a person, we learn more about him--adjusting our framework accordingly. That is, we must always be open to "transforming experience" in our personal relationship to God. Again, both humility to be open to change, and courage to make the change, are required of us. The changes are always risky. We do not deduce or demonstrate the ultimate truth, which is beyond our capacity anyhow, but take risks guided by hunches or "intuition" based on our experience; we may later have to turn around and admit being wrong. Still, fidelity to God requires our acting on our personal experience of him. The best we can do to make sure we "get it right" is test our conviction: it must be measured against yet more experience, both of God and the world, and against our best knowledge of the intent of Scripture. Thus, we never finally comprehend God; our knowledge of him is always a process, in which we may come to know more or to correction of previous belief.
At least some of the language of religious knowing is symbolic, rather than merely consisting in signs. Symbols, like the bread of the eucharist or the cross, are not merely arbitrary signifiers adopted by consensus, but bear a natural relation to what they are about. Their meaning is partially constituted by items outside our conscious intent. Thus, religious symbols are open to truth beyond our comprehension, and even consciousness. We can retain a symbolic discourse while coming to understand its meaning differently.
You might think Westerhoff and Holmes are just too abstract for their own good--by Chapter 4, they haven't even narrowed their discussion down to Christ and the Church. They are still talking about religion (esp. theistic religion) in general terms. But note their emphasis on having a personal relationship with God: doesn't that sound more like something from the evangelicals?
A rector could read their work and come away convinced that above all, even above traditional dogma, he or she must bring the flock to a personal relationship with Christ. That is the first task of preaching--to assist in bringing a personal relationship culminating in conversion. Dogma comes second, and we can expect the dogma to be in flux to some degree. However, the relationship with God should always hold. Gentle reader, did you realize ECUSA was so deeply commited in its theology to such evangelism? Yet here it is.
And indeed, we see the dogma in flux. Apparently, some in the ECUSA have had personal experience in their relationship to God and the world sufficient to call old dogma around homosexuality into question. That dogma just didn't "test out;" it must be thrown out, on pains of our remaining Christians "in good faith." But this sort of thing is just what an evangelical church based on a personal experience between God and its believers will do. It is risky and done without demonstration or deduction--that Westerhoff and Holmes would acknowledge--but fidelity requires it of us.