Defending Epistemic Humility
I. Harding's Case
Filling the time between now and GC2006, I came across this piece from Rev. Harding's site. He criticizes a crucial piece of the theology belonging to ECUSA's leadership, namely their acceptance of epistemic humility (EH). On EH, Christians cannot have absolute certainty about anything in their dogma outside a minimal core, the kerygma. On everything else, they must always remain open to correction and reversal--in particular correction that so far as they know is intended by God. So, as the ban on gay unions is outside the kerygma, despite centuries of tradition behind the ban, we must remain open to eliminating the ban. We could not have imposed it on our own authority alone with certainty, and God may now, say, intend us to eliminate it. This is the best I can make of the doctrine, EH, that Harding attacks.
To begin with, Harding writes [A] that epistemic humility
must be decoded as the ultimate play for power by a completely unaccountable autonomous self. It is a position that rules all certainties save its own certainity that no authority can be asserted against its preferences invalid apriori [sic].
I suppose he means what might have appeared to other people as a debate about a philosophical or ethical principle is really just a contest of power between selves, where some selves, practicing autonomy (moral autonomy?) sought power through pushing a clever epistemological strategy. Sounds a little abstract, no? I shall take the liberty of filling it in for him.
Maybe he just means to claim ECUSA's leadership insincerely adopted a pose of epistemic humilty in order to seize power in ECUSA from conservatives and moderates, and undo ECUSA's moral traditions in the face of ineffective conservative opposition. Conservative objections are met by the leadership with the charge "Epistemic hubris!"--a charge never applied by the leadership to liberal assertions. That is, the leadership operates with and exploits a double standard.
Thus, Harding infers the leadership is not sincere in holding to epistemic humility; they are not interested in the truth of such humility, but in a contest of power in ECUSA; they are confident of victory precisely because, being rich and powerful, they will prevail in such a conflict. Thus, Harding says [B]:
One must suspect that such a position has more to do with adavancing the interests of the rich and powerful than advancing the search for truth. It is the rich and powerful who prefer a contest of wills in which they inevitably have the advantage. F.D. Maurice was famous for saying that the only protection of the poor is the creed of the church. If in the spirit of Casa Blanca one were to say let us round up the usual suspects for a major revision of the doctrine of the church, it would usually be members of the affluent and privileged classes.
Well, points [A] and [B] are merely polemic. They do not touch the issue of whether EH is true or false. Worse, Harding should explain what is wrong with anyone, even the rich and powerful, seizing power IF they seize power in the name of what is true and good. And should he be so sure that the leadership really is insincere? Harding's focus on power issues detracts from the cogency of his argument; the question should be Is EH true? not
Why do these guys adopt EH?.
Moreover, Harding does nothing to show that ECUSA really does hold what he thinks it holds. He seems to think ECUSA holds (1):
Absolutely, gay unions are permissible
when it might well be true that ECUSA holds (2) instead:
For all we know, absolutely, gay unions are permissible.
(1) might make ECUSA guilty of epistemic hubris, as Harding contends in his piece, and would make ECUSA guilty of a double standard--but if ECUSA holds (2) instead, it is not guilty on both counts. Here we see the imprecision of Harding's argument opens it to objection--he should be much more circumspect in characterizing his opponent's case.
More to the point, Harding claims conservatives are not guilty of epistemic hubris, contrary to liberal claims [C]:
The claim of reasserters is not to have a privately privileged apprehension of the truth but to be the inheritors of a dependable tradition of revelation. It is a claim to a public form of knowledge. I do not claim that “I” know with certainity God’s truth but I do claim that there is dependable though not exhaustive knowledge of God to be had through the universal church’s teaching tradition based on scripture and tradition.
This is much more substantial, and merits a more cautious refutation. Harding here, and elsewhere in his piece, attributes ECUSA's acts at GC2003 to claims made on behalf of so-called private "revelation" to individuals about the intent of God or the Spirit.
II. ECUSA's basis for moral reflection: a brief review
ECUSA's theological leaders, late and present, such as Holmes, Griffiss, and Westerhoff, believe that there is a core to revealed truth that is beyond revision, but that core is minimal and there is not enough to it for us to infer or deduce truths that are equally beyond revision about such urgently pressing issues as gay unions.
Thus, for instance, "Christ is our Lord and Savior" is part of the core, and beyond revision. However, "Gay unions are forbidden" is not part of the core, and is not immune to revision by being part of that core.
Nevertheless, ECUSA must take a stand on such issues as gay marriage, and the stand it takes ought to come out of, they would say, our relationship with God. Harding claims the relationship at issue for ECUSA is one of private indivisuals to God; I disagree. Although mystical experience is part of the hyuman relationship with God, for the most part Episcopalians maintain a relationship to God through liturgy, through acts of worship. These are not entirely inward, but are for the most part at least partially accessible to observers: one hears the chant, smells the incense, sees the vestments, shakes the hands, tastes the wine, etc. Even when liturgy spills outside the confines of the building, it retains--how shall we say it?--a measure of externality: one takes up prayers from the BCP, one recites them, one lights candles, kneels, takes up beads, etc.
In short, the relationship that is the basis for Episcopal moral reflection is objective. Even rule-governed. That is not to say it is without aberration, but rather that aberrations can be measured against rubrics et al. Nor am I implying Episcopal worship is merely external and objective; even so, it is not clear that worship includes any merely inward parts. Who knows how far things hidden from my brothers and sisters in the pews are open to others: the Father, Son, Spirit, even hosts of angels if such there be, or separated souls of saints, etc.
Moreover, Episcopalians still hold to an objective presence of God in the sacraments for those properly receptive--even though that presence cannot be seen or apprehended by the five senses. Surely it might be felt inwardly, but that does not render the experience of a relationship with God in a sacrament non-objective. And not merely because of the heavenly communion, but also because the experience as a whole includes an objectively present relatum: Christ in the sacrament.
Anyhow, worship is one thing, and moral reflection another. The one is the basis, and the other, the reflection, takes the basis as its starting point. Because worship and reflection on worship are distinct, reflection can be uncertain without worship being uncertain. The uncertainty of reflection need not invalidate the certainty of our experience of Christ in the Eucharist, or in Baptism. There is no contradiction there, or at least there need be no contradiction there.
III. Contrary to Harding
Where am I going? Section II should have been rather obvious; if so, then you will agree with me that Harding is obviously wrong. Contra Harding, ECUSA does not take the hidden experience of the ego or "I" as its epistemic starting point--it takes communal worship as its starting point.
But then, given the communal nature of ECUSA's reflection base, Harding's claim that epistemic humility is "the ultimate play for power by a completely unaccountable autonomous self" should be given up as well, a claim he makes above in comment [A], section 1. Why the fantasy of Cartesian or Lockean selves run amuck? ECUSA's leaders have a pretty communitarian epistemology, rather anti-individualist about the mental. And I think ECUSA's leaders are correct in that communitarian epistemology--but Harding seems completely ignorant of it. I suspect very many on the right are similarly ignorant--here, vice is its own punishment.