Monday, December 05, 2005

Is epistemic humility useful?

Does it really get us anywhere? Clearly, we cannot employ EH about every proposition of the faith; some propositions are genuinely constitutive of any catholic, apostolic Christian community with Christ as its head:

(1) Jesus is lord and savior.
(2) Jesus was resurrected.

Giving up (1) puts a community beyond the catholic pale; I would argue denying (2) does so as well.

I.
But consider (3):

A priest may wear vestments.

Back in the day, (3) occasioned passionate division--but now? Do I need to argue that (3), whether true or false, is outside the core of Christian dogma? Being mistaken about (3) is a less urgent problem than being mistaken about (1) or (2). It may indeed be that Christ has decided in favor or against (3); the core of truths like (1) and (2) does not imply what Christ would say, and we have no way of knowing here below what he has decided in his current heavenly estate. Because we have no way of knowing Christ's mind on (3), and the core does not decide, we should be humble about (3). For the church has to take a stand on (3)--it has to decide in its common life whether to allow vestments. It must take stands in disputes that go
beyond its knowledge; how can it do so responsibly?

Here is one place humility is useful--a humble attitude to those stands which the church must take without knowledge seems proper; presuming infallibility or arrogating to ourselves the power of determining right and wrong when Christ already has decided seems immoral. We will have usurped God's role--hardly prudent in the the long term. By taking on humility in the face of such actions, we assume our proper position in relation to God, one where we do not pretend moral autonomy.

Not all propositions outside the core admit of such treatment, some will say:

(4)The church may bless gay unions.

They will say that even though the denial of (4) is not part of the core, we have excellent reason for thinking that in Scripture Christ has shared his mind with us on (4) in a way he has not with (3). The church neeed not go out on a limb in denying (4): in fact, humility toward the denial of (4) might seem like a vice--why qualify the denial of what Christ has so explicitly denounced?

Pace critics of humility with regard to (4)--we should not regard a denial of (4) as absolute. Long consensus around an interpretation of something outside the core, even with a consensus around the clarity of an interpretation, does not imply the interpretation is right. Admitting this seems to me a requirement of Christian realism: we do not make reality for ourselves, especially the moral reality. God does, and our yielding to his sovereignty is not optional. Thus, for instance, it is open to God to test our humility, even by decreeing X for a duration and then correcting us by decreeing the denial of X--will we yield the familiar to his will? We must remain receptive to possible correction, even in those beliefs outside the core that come to us with a long, impressive consensus among the faithful.

II.
There is another use of epistemic humility, one brought to mind recently by a post from Tobias Haller. No creature can express the full measure of God's perfection--we are not just exceeded by a bit, but by an infinite magnitude. The variety of creation serves to show God's glory by imitating him more fully than one kind could. The variety of creation is itself of value.

Might it be that God desires not a large, mushy, grey theological uniformity in worship, but a variety? Might variety in worship be of value in itself, the very variety better showing God's glory to the world? If so, then the means to worship with variety is useful. It seems evident epistemic humility is just such a means. For EH permits divergent parties like Anglo-catholics, evangelicals and modernists to come to the same altar--for each party, by maintaining humility, maintains that the other parties are as legitimate manifestations of human worship and thanksgiving to God--a necessary condition, it seems, of actually having them worship together, being one as Christ wished.

6 Comments:

At 12:40 PM, Blogger ruidh said...

Perhaps the most important virtue of EH is, IMHO, its usefulness in fight that which I describe as the "orthodox heresy". The Orthodox Heresy is the mistaken belief that salvation is available to those who believe correct doctrine and denied to those who believe incorrect doctrine.

We are led into this trap by the English langauge itself. We use the word "faith" in two ways which are really quite distinct. We speak about the "deposit of faith" and "apostolic faith" and we mean the orthodox doctrines which date to the early church and which satisfy the criteria of "believed everywhere and by all".

But we also use "faith" in a very different sense. Faith is trust in the absence of certainty. This is the sense in which St. Paul uses the word when he talks about Justification by Faith. he is not talking about Justification by Doctrine. He is, instead, talking about Justification through trust in God.

EH, supports the concept of Justification through Faith by recognizing that expressions of faith are needed to connect people posessing a worldview or a culture with an environment of faith which allows them to suspend their doubt and feel comfortable in faith in the presence of uncertainty.

If a particular culture expects that people in roles of authority will dress a certain way, it behooves us to have figures of authority in the church adopt culturally appropriate modes of dress that support their role of teacher. If that means a vestment, then that what is required of the church in that place and time.

 
At 5:21 PM, Anonymous D. C. said...

Ruidh writes of justification through trust in God. That's certainly the better reading of Romans.

 
At 11:56 PM, Anonymous J.C. Fisher said...

I have to admit you kind of lost me here, Scoty.

(4)The church may bless gay unions.

They will say that even though the denial of (4) is not part of the core, we have excellent reason for thinking that in Scripture Christ has shared his mind with us on (4) . . . The church neeed not go out on a limb in denying (4): in fact, humility toward the denial of (4) might seem like a vice--why qualify the denial of what Christ has so explicitly denounced?


Well, obviously Christ has said, in Scripture, NOTHING explicitly re (4). But, knowing the general thrust of Jesus---how even the most common of things he "took...blessed", we have far more reason to believe that Christ would AFFIRM (4) than deny it.

Or am I misunderstanding you?

I must return to an earlier point, however.

(2) Jesus was resurrected.

You say that to deny this puts one "beyond the catholic pale."

I can agree, but only to the extent that we think of the verb (participle) as "Jesus was 'Jesus-ed'".

That is, "resurrection" is ONLY to be understood in context that is specific to Jesus alone (and extends to anyone/everyone else only by analogy).

To do otherwise, it seems to me, invariably cheapens "resurrection"---by defining the divine down to the mortal (usually as some kind of resuscitation). Yes, in Christ the fully human/fully divine come together. But in the resurrection the Jesus of history becomes fully the Christ of faith (in turn, the Second Person of the Trinity). If ever there was a concept within the faith about which we need EH, it's this one! ;-p

 
At 12:17 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

JC Fisher,

Hi; and thanks for your comment.

Again and again ECUSA's right wing claims that Christ's mind on the question of gay unions is transparent to us in Scripture: they will say Christ sends a clear "Thou shalt not." Harmon, Kimel, Witt, Radner, and many others make such claims with varying degrees of furor and audacity.

That's what I'm getting at by saying they claim we have excellent Scriptural reason to deny (4).

Personally, I think there is a strong Scriptural argument in favor of outright gay marriage, so personally I am in favor of (4). I've given that argument a couple times here.

But I will not convince ECUSA's right wing to embrace gay marriage. The least I might be able to do is convince them they might be wrong, they could be wrong--that there is that chance, and as long as there is that chance, they should beware of bringing about schism.

 
At 12:24 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

On the resurrection point, since I deny the universe is merely a physical system closed under causation--that is not the sort of thing any science can be certain about, as it would then be a piece of metaphysics--I have no problem accepting miracles. It's not that Jesus got divine CPR or a heavenly jolt on the third day--it's rather he lives as a result of I-know-not-what, something sui generis, a miracle from outside the merely physical order. No creed should get much more specific than that--granted. Catholicity must live with a dose of vagueness.

Are we close to agreeing here?

 
At 1:43 AM, Anonymous J.C. Fisher said...

Yes, we are. ;-)

Again and again ECUSA's right wing claims that Christ's mind on the question of gay unions is transparent to us in Scripture: they will say Christ sends a clear "Thou shalt not." Harmon, Kimel, Witt, Radner, and many others make such claims with varying degrees of furor and audacity.

Bah: this is so transparently lame as to be unworthy of much consideration. (You could make a better case that Christ was saying "Thou shalt not" to ALL marriages, than that He was saying it only to same-sex ones!)

I don't know why we should be shy re (4).

Look, the Church is in the blessing business: OVERWHELMINGLY, those who would deny blessing *anything*, have the burden of proof (And I think a compelling case can be made . . . to not bless weapons systems, for example)

. . . which is still not saying that anyone/any church MUST bless something/some relationship. (Conscience must reign supreme, even if you and yours "have the perfect church picked out for the wedding"). However, it is just as much a violation of conscience to say that one Christian minister MUST NOT bless someone(s), as to order some other Christian that they must bless.

To deny (4)---containing the all-important word "may"---is to engage in that conscience-overriding "MUST NOT".

. . . and that's why it's categorically wrong.

 

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