Thursday, June 30, 2005

Christian Believing, Ch. 6

Ch. 6 fills in important detail of Westerhoff and Holmes' theology of religious experience, a theology which I believe informs the current actions of ECUSA's leadership. This chapter brings up the question: Is there a final core to Christian tradition? That question continues to haunt the debate over GC2003, as one could read ECUSa's right wing as adamant that a biblical prohibition on all homosexual activity is part of an unchanging, final core of Christian dogma. ECUSA's leadership, defending the acts of GC2003, denies any such prohibition is part of a final core, but also expresses reservations about the notion of a "final core." My primary task inreading Ch. 6 is to determine just what those resevations are; I take Westerhoff and Holmes to admit that there is, in fact, a final core,and confine their reservations to epistemology. I suspect even merely epistemic reservations of the "we cannot here below be certain that Q"-variety are toomuch for ECUSA's right wing to stomach. Thus, at this point in Christian Believing, we can clearly discern the fissure separating ECUSA's right wing from the leadership.

I. Westerhoff and Holmes' Ch. 6

Within a merely secular community, certain types of experience have the capacity to bring us to recognize the Ultimate, or God, such as the experience of severe illness or the anticipation of death. In response we recognize ourselves as alone and helpless. Filled with dread at our suffering and loss of control, we cry out--our cry may carry within itself a direction aimed beyond the world of mere beings. In each case, the experience does not contain in itself or produce an idea of God, the Being beyond beings, but our experience can be "illuminated" such as to lead those with the experiences to recognize and acknowledge God. Presumably there are stages here: (a) the secular person has an experience directed toward the Ultimate; (b) he/she recognizes that experience as having religious meaning--as an experience of God. (a) and (b) could occur together, at once, or with some duration between them. But the main point is that (a) does not imply (b): God may call out to us in our experience; that does not mean we will recognize God's call.

Illumination requires that the experience occur or be situated within a specific type of conceptual framework, within which the experience can be recollected with religious meaning.
The conceptual framework must already contain meaningful religious symbols--stories or myths, and ritual actions. Without such a framework, Westerhoff and Holmes admit we might be incapable of recognizing God in our experience; on our own, we become incapable of hearing or seeing God.

Our authors criticize contemporary American culture for decomposing the framework of religious symbols within which we receive experience: secularism, materialism, consumer culture, et al. can seed us with conceptual frameworks that make the experience of God unintelligible. E.g.: the myth of redemptive violence (see Wink, et al) can so permeate a society that the Cross, a revelation of redemptive non-violence, becomes unintelligible, even reversing its meaning altogether. At such a point, we would become incapable (on our own) even of being confronted by the Cross.

Thus, we should guard the repository of religious symbols contained in the Bible--should they be drained of meaning for us, we might lose the ability to respond to God in our experience. This "guarding" requires the symbols be ignited in memory. For instance, as they live in enacted ritual and myth, they can bring, in their very enactment, the experience of God. Indeed, this is genuine Christian tradition: passing on to others and our descendants the living symbolism through which God can be, and actually is, recognized in our experience. Through genuine tradition, one enters into a relationship with God, a relationship of trust and openness to God--this is faith.

Our authors stress the connection between faith, myth/ritual, and experience: this is the living heart of our relationship with God. Propositional content comes afterwards, as we reflect on the experience of this relationship. Indeed, propositional content adjusts to faith--our openness to God, essential to faith, holds the propositional expression of our experience continually open to correction.

I suppose the they might have in mind the following: (a) one enters into an experience of the Eucharist with Chalcedonian christology as the conceptual frame; (b) one has the experience of God in the Eucharist; (c) the experience leads one to question that christology. Maybe one looks back on the experience of Christ as of mode of divinity. Anyhow, such a sequence would be possible, and, if it is validated in the community, legitimate: the community's experience can call dogma into question.

But this leads to a question: Is there any "final core" to tradition, any dogma beyond the danger of correction? Might we be led by experience to throw out Nicea and Chalcedon, and accept Arianism? Or, more extreme, nondualist Hinduism? Our authors say: (X) the experience of the community can challenge any traditionally held proposition.

Alas! Our authors do not stop to clarify and disambiguate X; there are at least two ways to take it: (A) There is no final core to tradition; (B) There is a final core to tradition, but for most propositions P, for all we know P is not part of that final core. (A) is, to me, catastrophic; it seems to lead to a lamentable pluralism. On (A), any set of propositions could well go under the heading "Christianity" with equal legitimacy, whether they are equivalent to nondualist Hinduism, Newtonian mechanics, or even Stalinism. We need a core, we need for there to be truths about God that are unchanging and that can serve as a standard measuring our propositional belief.

Thus, I read our authors, with charity, to hold something like (B). There is a core; yet we, being imperfect, can only imperfectly receive it. Doubt and division over propositional content are ineradicibly concomitant to a living faith. In this state we will not be free from struggle over doctrine. Likewise, we take that content so seriously in part because we believe there is a final core (holding at least the belief in a final core beyond correction--hence the operator "most" in (B) above).

(B) calls for epistemic humility: we cannot be sure, for the most part, just which parts of our creeds and traditions are true. Yet in holding a creed or tradition to be true, we are doing our best to express at least part of the final core. We should not be surprised if the tradition changes in light of religious experience. Moreover, uniformity over tradition is not required for handing on the faith--what is required is that the relationship of faith in God be handed down, and that relationship is based in experience, not in dogma.

II. Reflections on Ch. 6
The experience of God in all cases requires on our part a suitable conceptual framework. The experience can come without the mediation of the church's liturgy, as when one faces impending death and cries out, or it can come with the mediation of the church's liturgy, as when one takes communion. Tentatively, I claim the liturgical experience of God expresses in myth and ritual a non-liturgical experience of God, just as the Passover expresses deliverance from Egypt or the Eucharist expresses the recognition of Jesus as God in the breaking of bread; dogma expresses in propositional form both types of experience.

Seemingly rendering dogma dependent on these types of experience, ECUSA has made its right-wing critics very nervous: they ask, "What goes next?" Perhaps they hear something like (X) above and think it means (A): There is no final core to tradition, rather than (B): there is a final core, but most of what we hold to be in that core now might in fact be false, for all we know.
But it does not follow, pace ECUSA's right wing, that anything goes, but rather that dogmatism around creed and tradition seals oneself off from correction grounded on the community's ongoing experienceof God.

The imperfect reception of a past age's experience of God--and that is the best that tradition can ever do here below, namely hand down an experience already imperfectly recceived in ritual and dogma--threatens to become elevated to the status of final core. Such an elevation is not just an error, but a moral mistake, an usurpation of the place of God in our lives, as God surely is permitted to act to correct what can only be an imperfect reception of what he wishes that we grasp, and we should continue to be open to correction.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Christian Believing, Ch. 5

The recent ACC meeting at Nottingham confirms the centrality of the ideas of Christian Believing in the theology of ECUSA's leadership. Note how ECUSA's presentation refers to the primacy of our relationship with Christ and how that relationship colors our experience of love between same-sex couples in the Christian community. Critics of that argumentative strategy from the Anglican right (think "Noll on Nottingham" from CaNN, June 25) often seem to miss what the issue is, with the result that we are talking past each other. Is the experience of God prior to Scripture? And is that experience prior even once the canon of Scripture is given? "Yes," and "yes." We see with Westerhoff and Holmes an argument for the ongoing primacy of the experience of God in the Christian community. If W&H are right, we would have gone some way toward vindicating ECUSA's presentation.

I. Ch. 5: Removing the Veil
Westerhoff and Holmes begin with what should be a trivial point: God is not his self-disclosure in any revelation or reported revelation. The reported revelation, oral or written, always bears defects. The Bible and the Creeds of the catholic Church exhibit the culture and historical period in which they were received, just as later translations of them exhibit the culture and historical period of the translators.

Even more troubling: the Bible itself attempts to describe various direct revelations. The revelations themselves are experiences of God as a person, not experiences of propositions or clusters of dogma. It is not that text is experienced as revealed; God reveals himself, not propositions and statements about himself. These revelations of God as a person are not immediate, but take time, being constituted over a period of historical intimacy between God and the recipient. God communicates his revelation to the recipients via his acts; we receive them primarily by embedding them in myth/narrative and ritual. For instance, God liberated the Israelites from Egypt; they understand this historical act by means of rituals like Passover. God's mighty acts in history are received as "turning points" by us, moments in our lives that illuminate the rest of our lives, providing the context in which our lives attain meaning. Thus, not only is the experience of God prior to dogma--so is the body of myth and ritual that come out of the experience.

Myth and ritual are not propositional dogma--they are primarily symbolic. Effective myth and ritual express our desire via primordial symbols (eating, washing, burying, et al), desire that outruns any satisfaction we can attain for ourselves by our own action. The ritual act, for instance, mobilizes desire that refers to a satisfaction beyond the ritual act, indeed, any merely human act. By appealing to our intuition, myth and ritual manage to point in history to the transcendent God while leaving us open to the personal experience of revelation. That last bit is extremely important. For instance, throughout the Eucharist, a ritual act, although we are eating and drinking in a way, we remain achingly incomplete, oriented toward and receptive to God, to personal experience of God.

One may try to capture and exhaust the meaning of the Eucharist in propositions, writing out the definitive Dogma of the Eucharist--such doctrine is tertiary. First, God is revealed in experience as a person, over a period of time; second, that experience is expressed in myth and ritual; third, the experience or the myth/ritual is explained in dogma or doctrine. It is wrong-headed to turn to the Bible, the myths of the people of God, for propositional dogma; it is like a category mistake (e.g. wanting to see Oxford University, not the colleges). The Bible was not written to serve as a mine for proof-texts.

II. Applications
God can be experienced in ritual--we are not constrained to conceiving the presence of God to us as something long ago and far away, reported through the Bible, and perhaps by a handful of special mystics. This experience can serve as a reference point for criticizing the dogmatic interpretation of myth. The Bible is not a long series of dogmatic propositions; the Bible is distinct from dogma, and the interpretation of any statement taken from the Bible should be controlled not only by (A) the scriptural narratives in which it is embedded, but also by (B) the ritual action of the Christian community. The same Persons are experienced now in Christian ritual as were experienced way back when the canon was in formation; the Bible is the attempt to describe such direct personal experiences. Thus, current experience of those Persons is a valid lens through which to read and interpret the Bible.

ECUSA claims to have experienced the love of same-sex couples within the life of its Christian community such that their love was continuous with the narrative, i.e. the love proper to a Christian marriage. Skepticism here is out of place, a kind of perverse special pleading. One might say the occurrence of such love among gay couples is a miracle, a special grant from God insufficient to establish a rule--for all we know, it could be true; W&H jettison absolute certainty about dogma, making interpretation in general a risk. With its experience of Christian love in same-sex couples, literally, the experience of the Spirit in their unity, ECUSA revisits Scripture and interprets it so as to be consistent with that experience. ECUSA's particular action in reinterpreting Scripture is an instance of a general principle, the priority of religious experience. Those who disagree with the particular action--and there seem to be many--might do well to argue explicitly against the general principle.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Christian Believing, Ch.s 2-4

In sections I and II, I summarize the high points of chapters 2-4 of Westerhoff and Holmes' "Christian Believing." I remain convinced that a grasp of this work goes a long way to explain the thinking behind the ECUSA's leadership; we shall see that Griffiss is not as explicitly focused on epistemology, he retains the premises set out here. Critics of the ECUSA's leadership abound, but serious engagement with the leadership should involve taking up and evaluating such works as this.

I. Our Basic Epistemic Predicament: Being Cut Off
We have a natural capacity for experiencing meaning, i.e. for taking items as means for understanding our lives; indeed, we long for this understanding, and are disturbed by its absence. Humans are distinguished both by their second-order epistemic awareness--e.g. by nature, we can know that we know--and their epistemic need for meaning, carrying them beyond merely biological desires.

However, X's being meaningful for us does not imply X's truth. Belief tends to require the appearance of reasonableness, but being reasonable does not imply truth. Nevertheless, we are tempted to infer truth from meaningfulness, as life without truth claims would be beyond our bearing. Making truth claims reveals confidence in our mode of life--being reluctant to make truth claims would imply a lack of confidence, an anxiety about our mode of life. Thus, we are led to ask questions about the ultimate in relation to our lives. Still, the being of objects is beyond our reckoning; i.e. we cannot know the ultimate truth about them.

Worse: we naturally develop, without explicit conscious awareness or choice, a structure that filters the chaotic data of our experience, directing what we can perceive in that data. We use this structure to "fill out" incomplete data from experience--the structure is like a theory of reality. Without consciously choosing, we may find our selves committed to a framework. This commitment is a faith, "a natural orientation" to what is ultimate and to life's meaning.

Thus we are beset by two problems: (1) our need for meaning and truth pushes us beyond the capacity to know we have on our own, and (2) what we consciously experience is already shaped by a default conceptual framework. In theory, that framework may preclude, without our awareness, knowledge. For all we know, we are systematically misled by our framework; we should be humble in our claims to know.

Moreover, religious people in particular are living through a crisis of faith. Being unable to believe as their ancestors did, who did not live with the contemporary success of secular science, consumer-based materialism, etc, they do not have their ancestor's confidence in the content of their faith.

II. Religious Knowing
How is religious knowledge even possible? On our own, we cannot build a "bridge" to God; God must build the bridge to us. Otherwise, knowledge of God would be impossible. Calling on the Song of Solomon, Westerhoff and Holmes take God to be the Lover, while we are his Beloved; his Love reaches out to us, it is the bridge God builds down to us. In that Love, we may experience God as a person. That is, we may respond by falling in love with him, and once this happens, we are converted (or better, we begin the process of conversion).

In conversion, our experience of God as a person (1) confronts us with a new conceptual framework in conflict with our default framework, and (2) we choose to adopt the new conceptual framework. In stage (1), confrontation is important--the conflict can be suppressed; e.g. we can live with contradictory beliefs without choosing to adopt the new framework. We must have the courage to face an internal crisis about how to lead our lives (in which framework), and the courage to leave our old framework behind.

But conversion does not happen all at once--the person of God is infinitely rich. There is always more to know of God, and as we live with the experience of him as a person, we learn more about him--adjusting our framework accordingly. That is, we must always be open to "transforming experience" in our personal relationship to God. Again, both humility to be open to change, and courage to make the change, are required of us. The changes are always risky. We do not deduce or demonstrate the ultimate truth, which is beyond our capacity anyhow, but take risks guided by hunches or "intuition" based on our experience; we may later have to turn around and admit being wrong. Still, fidelity to God requires our acting on our personal experience of him. The best we can do to make sure we "get it right" is test our conviction: it must be measured against yet more experience, both of God and the world, and against our best knowledge of the intent of Scripture. Thus, we never finally comprehend God; our knowledge of him is always a process, in which we may come to know more or to correction of previous belief.

At least some of the language of religious knowing is symbolic, rather than merely consisting in signs. Symbols, like the bread of the eucharist or the cross, are not merely arbitrary signifiers adopted by consensus, but bear a natural relation to what they are about. Their meaning is partially constituted by items outside our conscious intent. Thus, religious symbols are open to truth beyond our comprehension, and even consciousness. We can retain a symbolic discourse while coming to understand its meaning differently.

III. Application
You might think Westerhoff and Holmes are just too abstract for their own good--by Chapter 4, they haven't even narrowed their discussion down to Christ and the Church. They are still talking about religion (esp. theistic religion) in general terms. But note their emphasis on having a personal relationship with God: doesn't that sound more like something from the evangelicals?

A rector could read their work and come away convinced that above all, even above traditional dogma, he or she must bring the flock to a personal relationship with Christ. That is the first task of preaching--to assist in bringing a personal relationship culminating in conversion. Dogma comes second, and we can expect the dogma to be in flux to some degree. However, the relationship with God should always hold. Gentle reader, did you realize ECUSA was so deeply commited in its theology to such evangelism? Yet here it is.

And indeed, we see the dogma in flux. Apparently, some in the ECUSA have had personal experience in their relationship to God and the world sufficient to call old dogma around homosexuality into question. That dogma just didn't "test out;" it must be thrown out, on pains of our remaining Christians "in good faith." But this sort of thing is just what an evangelical church based on a personal experience between God and its believers will do. It is risky and done without demonstration or deduction--that Westerhoff and Holmes would acknowledge--but fidelity requires it of us.