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.


At 9:39 AM, Blogger Closed said...


This is a fine piece. May I pass it on with credit of course? It gets a long way toward answering a question posed to me recently, asking why it seems Anglo-Catholic parishes seem to be more inclusive of lgbt folk? I responded that its because the Holy Scriptures are placed in their proper context--worship. But you take it further...worship in the context of relationship (I just assume this). Good stuff!

At 12:54 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for the kind word. Please feel free to pass it on; I'm impressed by how cogent ECUSA's theology is turning out in Holmes and Westerhoff. It's too bad so few people seem to know about it--even our right-wing critics. We have to find a way to bring the theory into biblical/Creed based preaching.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger bls said...

Yes, very nice.

It does become tiresome arguing against dogma, when experience - the "primary source" - is saying something altogether different. As you say, we are talking past one another - but I think this is always true when new information becomes available.

I was very pleased with ECUSA's statement in re this question at Nottingham.


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