Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Examining "Claiming our Anglican Identity," Part III

I ended Pt. II with this:
Scriptural clarity appears not to the scholar as individual with a neutral standpoint, but only from within the view of a committed community. That's a clever move in the right direction, but it fails. Homework assignment: why so?
Now I have to deliver--what is the answer? What is wrong with the exegesis of Claiming?

I. A brief bit on Anglican authority
We should begin making our case--whether for or against blessing gay unions--from Scripture, as even that wonderful wax nose, the Windsor Report, suggests. Anglicans have claimed for Scripture primarily, and secondarily for tradition and reason, the authority others claim for a magisterium of some sort, or a universal primate, or councils of primates. In truth, I believe Scripture, tradition, and reason in the relevant senses interpenetrate--to isolate reason from Scripture, (or Scripture from reason), for instance, would be to invalidate its authority. That is not to say the Anglican three or four-leggesd stool should be reconceived as a block.

Rather, for instance, when we do natural theology (starting from reason), our reasoning should be informed by Faith. Informed by Faith how? We need not start reasoning from premises inimical to the Faith, adopting premises that rule out miracles, say, or that conceive of the universe as closed under merely physical causation. When faced with a choice between premises that are inimical to the Faith and those which are not, we should choose the latter. That is not to say we should bring the Faith explicitly in as a reason as a part of our natural theology; natural theology has to start somewhere, whether for the faithful or the faithless, and a starting point consistent with Faith in natural theology is as legitimate as one inconsistent with Faith. To put the point differently, there is no use pretending reason alone can provide a neutral starting point for thinking about God, but that fact does not invalidate natural theology, or remove its necessity for us here below.

Likewise, when we start from Scripture, our readings should be informed by reason: not a reason sealed off from the Faith, or a reason with starting points inimical to the Faith, but a reason that takes up experience and scientific endeavor while holding to premises consistent with the Faith. For instance, we should read Genesis with the principle "Evolution is probably true" in mind, and our interpretation of Genesis should seek consistency with what we know by reason. Of course, behind that principle is a tacit, prior judgement "Evolution is consistent with the Faith" insofar as the reason which recognizes evolution here is one already informed by Faith--no matter, not a real problem. We are always already locked into a web, or constellation--or circle--of epistemic commitments, whether faithful or faithless. The relevant question should be: Will our circle take account of the Faith or not? And there is no reason (pardon me) why it should not.

II. Application to Claiming our Anglican Identity
And so, dear lectores, be not surprised when I call on your Scripture reading to be informed by reason. In particular, I presume on the basis of reason-informed-by-the-Faith that meaning is not merely in the head. What a proposition P means is not simply a matter of what is present to an individual consciousness. Nota bene, that is not to say P lacks definite meaning, or that we must remain in ignorance of P's meaning. Whatever P means is a matter not only of its standing in a relationship with a community but also with the world. P's meaning depends in part on its relationship to a world external to the narrative or canon of any community. Here, crucially, I part company with narrative theology et al which informs so much right wing Anglican thought, including the thought behind Claiming. Thus, for instance, what Genesis means may be tied up with whether evolution is true, evolution involving something external to the mere narrative in which Genesis was, for a very long time, caught up. We should not be surprised then to learn that what Genesis means exceeded the conscious grasp of its human author(s), inasmuch as they did not know whether evotion was true, or probably true--they most likely had no such concept.

A moments reflection reveals how all this might apply to blessing gay unions. Here is one application, for instance (you can come up with others, no doubt):

We do not know whether being gay is simply natural or even has a natural component--for all we know it does, but the scientific data neither rules it in nor rules it out. I am taking "natural" crudely as meaning something like being biologically based. A rationally informed reading of Scripture takes this into account. Thus, when we read Romans 1:26-7, our reading should be made with the principle "Homosexuality could be a natural condition." That will affect the meaning of the passage, as we will not read it in such a way as to make homosexuality necessarily unnatural. Our reading, on pains of consistency with reason, will make room for the possibility of homosexuality being a natural condition, one intended by God for human beings.

Suppose one objects: Paul could in some possible world, say, point to this and that and say Whatever it ultimately means to say that they are male (or female), they are male (or female) and may not marry. What does it matter that what he means exceeds what he is conscious of, so long as he refers? Sure, soncede that we should not presume that what consciously came to mind for those who read it in the past exhausts the significant meaning it actually has. More: it will remain unsettled or open, inasmuch as its meaning depends on data that we cannot rationally close off. We have to live with that open texture--will that compel us to change our understanding of Paul's proscriptions?

Well, to stick with the line of reasoning I used in the italicized paragraph above, our understanding of "female" is not merely Paul's, but more besides, including scientific information of which he was completely ignorant. If there are, say we discover, females naturally gay, or to be more precise, biologically disposed to being gay, that would be part of an understanding of "female" Paul did not have. Yet, if we discovered such a fact, that would affect the permissibility of blessing lesbian unions. Thus, if we discover "female" means certain things, then the permissibility of blessing lesbian unions, or even performing lesbian marriages, comes into play.
Hence, we could distinguish Paul saying, for example "Whatever 'female' ultimately means, no female unions may be blessed" from "Whatever 'female' ultimately means, no heterosexual female unions may be blessed"--the latter being considerably weaker, leaving room for blessing gay female unions.

Regardless of whether a scientific consensus emerges around there being a biological basis for homosexuality, the mere possibility of such a basis is beyond Paul's knowing. Indeed, science being incapable of delivering apodictic utterances on there being--or there not being--such a basis, our theology should adjust to reality accordingly. We should not compel readers of Paul to adopt readings of him that court inconsistency. To rule out the possibility of a biological basis a priori (reason and Scripture interpenetrating, I suspect many on the right will be so tempted) is to cut off contact with reality on this question. Surely that is too high a price to demand for a tendentious rendition of orthodoxy.


At 10:14 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Hmmm. You seem to make "meaning" something of an expansive black box here. I could argue that, no, Paul's intention in writing Romans is clear: he thought homosexuality to be a sin. That is a meaning and, being the author's own, is an important--though not necessarily the definitive or only-- meaning. Now, you can read the passage and find a different sense. I.e., that Paul is not familiar with long-term homosexual relationships characterized by loving mutuality and therefor he starts with a faulty premise. Is this a different meaning or is it a decision about the meaning that you have found? I would suggest the latter. The question is not just what we find but also what we do with what we find. It seems to me--and I'm certainly open to correction if I mis-state your views--that you find the same meaning as the "right wing" Anglican but that you choose to do something different with it.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Christ, I suppose, was way ahead of the curve, and knew all about Mendelian genetics in the first century. But Paul? Nah. So he had no knowledge of X and Y chromosomes when he wrote Romans. Yet, unknown to him, the meaning of what he wrote is all tied up with those Xs and Ys--unless you abandon realism for idealism (like jumping off a cliff). So obviously, what Romans really means cannot be a matter of what was in Paul's head, whatever that was--right?

Now your hypothetical reader--not Paul--make the claim that Paul's meaning around 1:26 is clear, plain. But there in referring to homosexuality he referred to the sexes; to male and female. Did he really know what he was talking about in making such reference? Does your hypothetical reader? I doubt it. Now the moral problem your hypothetical reader, Radner, and many others have--not Paul so far as we can tell here--is why y'all, like Euthyphro et al--have such an awfully hard time admitting ignorance. What's up with your hypothetical reader? Who knows; back into the Cave, the darkness, as John and
Plato before him predicted. Awake, and make straight the paths of the Lord....

We know better what being male comes to, and for us what Paul means must come to something different from what he thought he meant--isn't this "plain"? We are facing up to a type of historicism here. And we still do not know what being male comes to, but that is not to say we cannot know better.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

So obviously, what Romans really means cannot be a matter of what was in Paul's head, whatever that was--right?

?? I have no idea what you're trying to say here. Are you suggesting that Paul's intention in writing is purely incidental? I'm suggesting that Paul had first-century views of science and culture. As did Jesus (though arguably Jacob in Gen 30-31 did have a decent understanding of Mendelian genetics... ;-)).

Now the moral problem your hypothetical reader, Radner, and many others have--not Paul so far as we can tell here--is why y'all, like Euthyphro et al--have such an awfully hard time admitting ignorance.
Radner et al. would probably take serious issue with you for lumping me in with them.

We know better what being male comes to, and for us what Paul means must come to something different from what he thought he meant--isn't this "plain"?
I guess my fundamental question to you is this: in determining the meaning of a first-century text do we use the scientific and cultural understand of that time to deterime what the physical, human author intended or do we use our own current scientific and cultural knowledge to determine what the divine author intended--knowing that this will be proven incorrect and/or changed every few scientific generations? It makes far more sense to me as a biblical scholar to identify the first-century sense, then to determine how we react to that. (I.e., whether we accept it or understand it and respectfully disagree.)

At 5:32 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Heavens forfend! Not lumping you in with Radner--but the hypothetical reader of your first post, the one who claims the meaning of Romans 1:26-7 is plain and, moreover, whatever Paul meant it to be.

My apologies: you said "?? I have no idea what you're trying to say here"--permit me to try again.

When Paul wrote, I presume he had something in his mind that he wanted to communicate in his letter--call this content of which he was consciously aware "C". The content, C, is what he meant and what was in his head when he wrote.

I am contending that the meaning of the text exceeds C--there is more to the meaning of what Paul wrote than that of which Paul was aware.

Why? In part, because Paul referred to things in the real world whose nature, in scientific terms, he did not entirely understand. We know better, in scientific terms, than he did.

Fundamentally, I presume Paul did not mean what he said to be taken as merely relativized to his understanding--taking him in that way, I believe, would betray what he wrote. I am implying the first century sense of what he wrote can only be the beginning of our determining what his writing means. Or: the inspired Paul in Romans 1-2 was trying to get something in reality right, and not merely something in his consciousness/ the meaning in his head right.

I think as a result we should read Paul's writing as "in submission" to later knowledge of reality, such that what it means may adjust over time--and perhaps adjust in a way Paul did not, and even we do not, foresee.

Not everything can so adjust, inasmuch as not everything in Christian dogma is similarly vulnerable to our scientific understanding of reality--i.e. the Trinity.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Okay. I don't fundamentally disagree with what you're saying but I do think that you are finding one meaning--Paul's--and at least one other--one informed by modern reasoning--then doing something with the meaning that's been found. I think it's too simplistic to lump the various acts of interpretation then decisions about what meanings to prefer all into one term. Parsing it out gives it more precision and can thus help us understand where we and folks like Radner et al disagree.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

What you are describing is quite interesting, I think.

That is, there are terms whose varied meanings we are left to parse out, without arriving at a definitive, single, correct meaning. We may arrive at meanings correct-for-X, i.e. correct-according to-Paul's understnding, correct-according to-Radner's understanding, and we may ask about the degree to which these correspond and diverge. But for the most part, operating as if the text has a single meaning, continually adjusting or not, is just wrong.

Is that an accurate description of what you would call for?

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Um, perhaps I'm thinking more about clarity in the hermeneutical process. Thus:
I. Determine meaning-according-to-Paul
II. Assess meaning-according-to-[x strands of tradition] (e.g. Chrysostom, Augustine, Scotus, etc.)
III. Assess meaning-according-to-self
IV. Weigh and sort meanings with sufficient prayer and discernment.
V. Engage alternate meaning-making decisions

Of course, the stages are rather artificial but they at least help in profitably identifying divergences better than acrimonious asserts and inflammatory rhetoric. ;-)

At 2:11 AM, Anonymous Scott said...


The possibility that Paul may have relied on a partially incorrect 1st century background assumption re: homosexual nature, in making a statement must be ruled out on an infalliblist view of inspiration. If Paul's moral judgement was vitiated through culturally inherited theoretical error, then the practical normative conclusion i.e., Gay sex is contra-nature was false. Inspirational infallibilism is not compatable with theoretically erroneous background assumptions.

Let me know what you think.



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