Anglican Moderation: Alan Jones
I do not expect Alan Jones will change many minds with Common Prayer on Common Ground. It lacks the tone of aggressive apologetic; it lacks trenchant argument. In fact, it may seem on the surface to be a rather delicate read, a bubbling over of fine sentiment rather untimely in our age of raised voices and unashamed invective. But he has an important point to make, one strong enough to fend for itself once he lets it loose.
I. Seeking a Middle Way
Jones professes to be an Anglican moderate, neither liberal nor conservative, and he invites us to join him there, apart from either pole. The liberals "believe the church--with its stand on inclusion and its radical vision of hospitality--is becoming more prophetic" while the conservatives believe the church "has lost its way and the liberals mistake pathology for prophecy" (1-2); "both sides" says Jones "need to repent" (2).
Liberals, he is worried, mistakenly elevate human moral autonomy as a good and picture Christians as individual atoms (4). They are losing their sense of divine transcendence as well as their respect for Christian tradition (5). He warns them (31) "the opposite of absolutism is not open-mindedness but relativism," which will undermine the Christian life. He believes conservatives, not able in practice to reconcile certainty and tolerance, are vulnerable to an "unworkable and disastrous" temptation to bring back an idealized past (31). Anxious to anchor faith to the right set of propositions they tend to forget "We need poetry and metaphor to express these great mysteries" (28) of the Christian faith.
Both sides have been affected and indeed overly-impressed by what Jones calls "scientific rationalism," an orientation of basic trust in science's ability to meet human need, especially that for intelligibility in terms of discrete propositions. Scientific investigation delving further and deeper into the mechanisms behind our closed, merely material reality will "get to the bottom of things," and its standards are the standards for legitimate inquiry and knowledge (14-15, 18-19). Thus we find that conservatives seek a formulation, indeed the single legitimate formulation of the faith in terms of propositions while liberals take on board science's mistrust for religious mystery--each camp in its way has yielded too much to the spirit of the age, and that very fact contributes to our current unpleasantness.
II. Anglican Orthopraxis
But they should not have such trust in the standards of scientific rationalism--for one thing, science fails to deliver the intended goods, Jones notes, on its own grounds. There is simply no way to extricate myth from human life, even from scientific investigation. Science must always be carried on from within a "big picture" which in turn cannot be established by scientific method; this is true even in the case where one holds "there is no big picture". For then "The sory is that there is no big-picture story" (29). Thus, "A vision of the whole and communion within it is built into the fabric of things" including science (29). If we are not self-consciously critical about the big-picture within which we carry on, we will end up accepting one by default--e.g. refusing religious myth merely lands one firmly within the "market myth" of materialistic consumption. Moreover, the idea that scientific investigation can proceed from a stratum of neutral, uninterpreted facts is simply naive. No such items can serve as standards against which to falsify or verify human truth claims. Like it or not, we must leave room for myth, and the mystery that goes with it.
Christians should not be ashamed at beginning from "the awesome mystery of God, which cannot be put into words" (20). The creeds, referring to incarnation, redemption, and communion, do not attempt to pin down and comprehend the mystery of God and what God has done, but rather "initiate a never ending conversation, a journey into mystery" (20). Christians are drawn into relationship with the Person of Christ, not an abstract Idea (21)--the reality of that Person cannot be finally expressed in any collection of propositions. This insufficiency in the face of divine reality is what God's revelation as "transcendent mystery" implies (25).
The proper response to God so revealed is reverence, worship. Anglican tradition takes orthodoxy "as affirming a mystery that elicits worship..." (20); indeed, worship is part of "a moral response" that God's revelation to us demands. Thus, "Since we can say true things falsely, the test of anyone's orthodoxy lies in orthopraxis"--right belief will result "in the development of a certain kind of character" (20). Such development within teh context of worship is part of the Spirit's work (34-35), so we can affirm "the kind of orthodoxy that takes no account of the moral life but only of verbal assent is obscene" (19).
The community of Christian worship, united in the practice of worship and the formation of moral character that proceeds from worship, takes priority over the propositinal correctness of belief. Since propositional correctness will always elude us as a community, our worship must call us into continuing together in humility. Jones writes, "Anglican tentativeness before mystery--rooted not in muddle but in awe--is a sign of strength, not weakness" (16). We should "stay together patiently in love, resisting the urge to parade convictions and go off" to do our own things (8), each sude acknowledging to the other that in the questions currently dividing us "...we may be wrong. We are open to correction. We long for civil and, if need be, contentious conversation" (23).