Sunday, March 30, 2008

Holmes: What Is Anglicanism? (Ch. 2)

Holmes believed the reticence of what he called the Anglican sensibility to be compatible with there being--and our pursuit of--truth about how God is, truth not merely relative to or located within the space of a particular way of seeing God, but absolute truth. We should not be surprised to find ourselves faced with the question Holmes raises at the beginning of his second chapter: Is this experience true? That is, from within our way of experiencing God, it may seem clear that some theological proposition Q holds, for instance that an actively gay priest may be elected bishop; we should ask whether Q is true, or merely what seems true given the limited perspective of the relevant way of seeing God.

To figure out whether Q is true Holmes requires us to appeal to an authority. One might take a
single member of the church, like the Pope speaking ex cathedra on matters of the faith or morals, to be an infallible authority guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, or one might take any individual to be authoritative who reads Scripture and is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but Holmes would have us reject such sources of authority. He takes "the Puritans" to be his
principal target--people stressing the sufficiency of the individual, inspired reader of Scripture. On that view, Holmes thinks, Scripture can be read without regard for the tradition of its interpretation, and it yields a certainty beyond science-bound human reason.

Instead, Holmes holds out an ideal strategy of reasonable interpretation. Human reason, illuminated by grace, is capable of discerning truth inasmuch as the Creator is himself rational, and our reason is "seeded" by divine reason--our rationalilty "participates" in divine rationality. We should see nature and the supernatural not as really distinct, disjoint realms, but rather as complementary and "continuous" so that the "sincere pursuit of truth opens God's mind" to our understanding, whether in theology, math, biology, or any other field of inquiry. Holmes notes "heresy trials are alien to us" in that we may trust natural theology has a sufficient foundation for our confidence that the truth can come out with sincere inquiry.

I suppose his idea is basically Thomist in spirit: divine reason operates like a Platonic Form, serving as an exemplar modelling genuine rationality for us to imitate and reflect in partial, fragile ways which may be, via grace, enough like the model that truth may be accessible to us, though Holmes is careful to say saving knowledge requires revelation if we are to possess it. Anyhow, the likeness is one not of univocity but analogy. Being a scotist I'd contend for univocity instead, but nothing depends on the univocity/analogy distinction at this level of generality.

Reasonable interpretation cannot be carried out by the individual alone; it requires, Holmes claims, "collaboration." As we consult the text and see what others--and "others" here must be rather broadly conceived so as to include not just theologians & scholars in academia, but unschooled lay believers, secular scientists, et al--have said, we immerse ourselves in an interpreting community. For Holmes, human reason is social by nature, to the point where private interpretation would fall short of normative rationality, as he puts it: reflecting one's opinion as if with divine authority. Holmes locates the "origin of schism" here.

God's self-revelation is self-disclosure between "lovers"--apparently Holmes would grant the Song of Solomon high status as disclosing the type of relationship with us, suffused with eros, at which God aims. This revelation in Scriptural canon "confronts" the church with an essential norm--not only in terms of what is in it, but also in terms of what is not contrary to it. In short, his idea seems to be that while we may be obliged with regard to what may be shown from Scripture, we are not obliged with regard to what is not contrary to what may be shown from Scripture. If playing cards is not contrary to Scripture, one is not obliged qua Christian to forsake it.

Interestingly, Holmes holds that confrontation continues between God and the church after the formation of the canon in our own day as the concrete, historical church reflects on God disclosing himself in the context of its canon and tradition. How should the church reflect? In councils--but not because in them we shall find a happy infallibility. Holmes claims conciliar authority comes with the consent of its members to the council's findings: the findings must be received by those the council represents. But even received findings of a church council cannot properly claim infallibility though, and it is likely, Holmes notes, councils will be frustratingly vague. This vagueness is necessary, however. The alternative is "tyranny" as, given the fallibility of councils, only conciliar vagueness is consistent with our liberty as Anglicans.

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