Monday, July 25, 2005

Following the Anglican Right's Ontology of Persons

In earlier posts I worried that ECUSA's right unwittingly imported premises of liberal individualism into its theology with various potentially bad consequences: e.g. "disenchanting" Scripture in league with secular rationality, misunderstanding the requirements for justice and the role of the Church in our meeting them. Indeed, we might see their impressively united effort to subvert episcopal authority in Connecticut as another manifestation of liberal individualism. With the pictures on the left, I allude to an older tradition, to Scotus, Aristotle, and others who recognized human persons from within a framework other than that of liberal individualism. That tradition is secure within ECUSA, despite its infatuation with Tillich, Bultmann, et al.

I. On the Right
But follow out the hypothesis (that ECUSA's right is committed to liberal individualism) a bit further. Step back and try to picture how ECUSA's right sees ECUSA's actions over the last 40 years or so. On the one hand ECUSA succeeded in desegregating itself, addressing finally a major injustice in its own history and the history of the nation--good. But then it went on, paying reparations, ordaining women, cooking up a new prayer-book, failing to sufficiently discipline bishops who flaunted the creeds, ordaining an openly gay bishop, exploring rites for blessing gay unions, etc. One step forward, and three or more steps back, yielding a clear overall trend: ECUSA is losing ground, gradually falling into the corrupt mores of the broadly secular world culture it is supposed to be resisting in the name of reconciling the world to God. That is just the sort of thing Barth warned of years ago, and we can find similar, louder clarion calls across ECUSA's right: Southern Anglican's magic crystal ball shows ECUSA sliding still further, Pontifications calls on Episcopalians to flee the insanity, Alister McGrath compares Anglican liberalism to quiescent German society enabling the Nazis in the '30s, and so on. From their point of view, too many of ECUSA's acts break its own canonical formularies; we are busy dismantling our own faith. In particular, ECUSA repeatedly subverts its own dogma in the creeds, the BCP, and the canons. Extreme measures are needed if anything tolerable is to be preserved, even if the result is schism, breaking off from ECUSA: at least some ecclesial unity with another more traditional part of the Anglican Communion might follow.

II. ECUSA's Leadership
To ECUSA's leadership, the willingness of the right to entertain schism over what the right sees as subversion of dogma is likely puzzling: the right mistakes the externals of faith for the substance of faith. That is, in the name of guarding the integrity of the faith, ECUSA's right is willing to endanger the substance of faith. The substance of faith for ECUSA's leadership, so far as I can tell, consists largely in a personal relationship with the living God mediated through the Church. The canonical formularies that the right values so highly, namely the canons, the BCP, and the creeds, are a dogmatic articulation of the relationship of faith. That dogmatic articulation is secondary or derivative, external to the substance of faith. To ECUSA's leadership, parties can disagree over just how dogma should go while retaining a shared faith: change in or differences over dogma need not imply distinct faiths. Thus, the right's willingness to entertain schism seems needless--our differences over the constitution of dogma are consistent with our remaining Episcopalian.

III. The Ontology Bit
What really worries the right? I suppose they worry (for the most part) that if intellectual assent to traditional dogmatic formulations is lost, we are left to rely on fuzzy, transient feelings. ECUSA, worries Turner, has replaced the traditional gospel with a gospel of inclusive love--this "love" being not the genuine Christian article, but something like a sloppy affection that cannot tolerate distinctions and exclusion. Thus, they might say, the stage is set in ECUSA for an unchristian moral permissiveness--indeed, for the active promulgation of sin. Behind this worry is a picture of the human person as constituted by intellect and feeling; if we cannot rely on one pole, we are left to rely on the other. That picture has the feel of dualism, of mind/body dualism, as one might find in Descartes, but which survives in other transformed iterations after him, even among his critics like Locke and Kant. That is, it is a picture at home in the modern world, dating from the 17th century.

ECUSA's leadership places great store on a relationship with God--but not a relationship like that you might find in evangelical or pentecostal denominations or congregations. In the latter, the emphasis is on emotion, on feeling, on an inward connection you can feel--and verify--viscerally. The evangelical/pentecostal wing of Christianity, so far as I can tell, buys into the picture of the human person shared by ECUSA's right: a human person is constituted by intellect and feeling.

That intellect/feeling picture reminds me of thinking from the seventeenth century and after, according to which Christianity was to be defended and articulated by appeal primarily to one or the other pole: reason or feeling. Buy into this--and you will encounter other pairs: rationalism/pietism, natural theology/fideism, Locke/Schleiermacher, Hegel/Kierkegaard, Enlightenment/Romanticism, etc--such pairs may end up structuring your thinking with myriad false dichotomies.

But according to the Episcopal Church's leadership, your relationship to God is mediated not via feeling so much as the liturgical action of your Christian community. The repetitive action is essential, not mystical feeling. Sure, feeling won't hurt, but the liturgy is what matters more, and it does not require you to persoanlly feel God--and ideally, liturgy will spread out over your daily life beyond Sunday to become a rule of life, indeed constituting a way of life. Liturgical practice aims at developing dispositions in its practitioners--what Aristotle, Aquinas, and Scotus would have called virtues, as these dispositions are meritorious. One becomes directed toward God through developing these dispositions--and they can only be developed by acting, doing the same type of thing over and over: like learning the guitar.

In a practiced Episcopalian, these dispositions become a second nature. They are not the fleeting stuff of feeling, nor are they intellectual abstractions--there is more to a human person than intellect and feeling (or mind and body). Both Plato and Aristotle recognized a part of us "between" mind and body (I was tempted to say "a via media"): the spirited part of the soul, or the irrational part that answers to reason, respectively, and it is that third part to which liturgy can appeal. Courage and humility (in H&W), or faith, hope and charity are neither merely emotional nor intellectual; we can become disposed to those virtues through litirgical praxis.

As dogmatic forms change, even as it may happen for the worse, the relationship of faith can survive because it need not be based on mere transient feeling. Rather, Christian community may be based on, and survive through, the virtuous dispositions of its members, dispositions inculcated through liturgy. Which is to say, we ought to be able to worship together despite our differences over dogma: we are the type of persons who habitually relate to the same God in hope, humility, et al. So you--yes you, make sure you go to Church.

I fear that for some on the Anglican right, such community seems unreal--lacking a picture of the human person that admits virtues and dispositions, once dogmatic forms change they can see only community based on feeling inevitably degenerating further. For all that, what seems true on the Anglican right need not actually be true. Side rather with a moral ontology admitting dispositions, and reject the dessicated picture of humanity on the Anglican right, a picture symptomatic of their entanglement with modern liberalism.


At 5:58 AM, Blogger bls said...

I love this one.

Fascinating idea, your "third way" concept: a faculty that resides between feeling and intellect, or is composed of some mixture of the two. I like the way you relate liturgy to the virtues by means of this faculty, too.

And nice to see the word "practicing" (as in "practiced Episcopalians") used in a positive context, for once!

Really interesting post.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Simeon said...

Yes, a FASINATING post indeed. Worthy of contemplation. Thanks!

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the Brits would say: Brilliant.

Steve, your essay reminded me of something about which I've speculated for a long time, namely that faith can itself arise through works. I just posted a short comment to that effect on my own blog.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Caelius said...

I do love this. I think of the Republic and the story of the man walking by the outskirts of Athens where executed criminals were exposed (and the daring part of his soul forcing him to look at the spectacle). The Eucharist really should touch in its essentials that very part of the soul.

But I worry that a sort of congregationalism is infecting both the right and left of ECUSA with respect to the liturgy. On the left, it seems that if there is a war being fought against dogmatic externals in which the liturgy is being changed to develop in us habitually theological (?) virtues that attack or muddy the substance of the faith. On the right, for example, folks are using the Tridentine Mass rather than the Sarum or the York rites, or Benedictine offices. There are churches where a BCP is apparently nowhere to be found.

Ecclesial unity through liturgically induced virtues, habits, and dispositions and the sacramentalization of daily life which you claim the leadership of ECUSA envisions (may God permit it!) will not be possible without some axiomatic dogma underlying liturgies that may have outward diversity without compromising their essential doctrinal core.

At 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm tired of hearing the right's that the left is beholden to liberal individualism, while I have always believed that that opposite is true. Your arguments here and in the earlier post that the right relies upon liberal individualism as the foundation of its critique is a wonderful counter.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

In a conversation with an unnamed rector whom I respect very much he noted a few things. First, which churches around ECUSA offer the Offices daily? Second, who do you think is going to encounter Scripture more, someone who picks up a Bible occasionally (often to beat people over the head with it) or someone who picks up the BCP four times a day? Third, how many cathedrals around our province have their attached canons pray the Offices publically and how often does His/Her Holiness attend said Offices? Gee, what if more people on *both* sides really lived a prayer book spirituality? Kinda makes you think doesn't it...

At 12:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, doll.

Change "flaunted" to "flouted" and you're golden.

At 3:57 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thank you bls, d.c., simeon, caelius, and derek (and the anonymous) for your comments; I appreciate them.

To derek,
The BCP, everywhere suffusing liturgy with Scripture, is one of the most attractive things about ECUSA--I think that rector is absolutely right. I wish more Episcopal parishes focused to promote prayer book spirituality--even if that meant a handful of people doing evening prayer together through the week in a side chapel. That's not just the duty of clergy; the laity have to (somehow) take the initiative.

To caelius,
Yes, now that you mentionit, the Republic is the classic text for this view of education--that the focus should be on inculcating dispositions. There's the gruesome passage you mentioned, but think of Bks II-IV, most of which develop an educational theory centered on music, rhythym, poetry; it's just a few steps from Plato to liturgical theory using hymns, processions, and prayers. I wonder if the Church Fathers, familiar with Platoat least through neoplatonic/middle platonic authors, picked up on these educationsl themes in discussing liturgy--Does anyone out there have an idea on this?

To d.c.,
I hadn't thought of this in terms of faith arising through works, but having read your essay, you seem right. Or at least really close to right: supposing that God is always making the offer to me, and is always willing to give me what is necesary to enter into a relationship with him, then the question is when will I turn toward him? It is like a circuit, through which a current flows only if the parts are connected right. Liturgy can help me turn toward God in such a way that I can respond to him in an intelligible way; and practice at it can make me the kind of person whose character is to be related to God in faith, hope, love,et al

To bls,
In truth, I hadn't really seen the importanceof liturgy b4 informing character--I thought of it almost entirely in terms of aesthetics (the call of beauty to the participant'ssoul to recollect God) or an economic transaction (I'll give God XYZ in return for a fresh start). But now it seems that liturgy helps form character, reinforcing the theological virtues in the soul, enabling the participant to remain related to God in the right way.

To the first anon,
I'm betting that ECUSA, with its emphases on promoting social justice, seeing Scripture from within the liturgy, operating through the (awkward) episcopate, and forming its ministers through liturgical practice, can check individualism. The Anglican right ranged against ECUSA might be promoting individualism unwittingly through setting itself up in opposition to ECUSA (so the right promotes individual justice, seeing Scripture as primary in itself, shopping for comfy bishops, and confession over liturgical practice).

What I have avoided mentioning is the Anglo-catholic right wing, exemplified in those ECUSAns resisting the ordination of women, among whom, I believe, are some in the SSC. They are a different, and more difficult kettle of fish--their champions,Cardinal Newman and the Tractarians if I am not mistaken, have excellent intellectual credentials, and could probably parry most of my concerns here.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Careful what you wish for...

The clearest expositions of education in the early part of the tradition include: 1. Cassiodorus writing to the monks in his Vivarium in the Divine Institutes. However, as Leclercq discusses in Love of Learning and Desire for God it was a far more intellectual system and while fascinating did not ultimately survive. 2. Isidore in his Etymologiae attempted collect all knowledge that would be of use to monastics beginning with the trivium and going on to encompass the majority of human knowledge at the time. 3. (H)Rabanus Maurus who does essentially an updated re-issue of Isidore in his De universo.

All of these discuss learning, liturgy, and the virtues. I don't recall that anything of them make the connection between the three explicit but it would have been considered fairly obvious. Now that I think about it, does John Cassian's Institutes say anything about this? If I remember his table of contents properly he begins with psalmody and the offices, then moves to talk about the vice and virtue. I'd be shocked if he didn't connect them...

The most recent modern reflection on these issues is a festschrift for Don Saliers put out by Pueblo called--I believe--Liturgy and the Moral Self or something like that...

On a side note, for a fascinating look at at least how the study of grammar and rhetoric impacted the liturgy you must get ahold of William Flynn's Medieval Music as Medieval Exegesis which is quite the learned treatise focusing on a set of festal Masses in the Autun Troper. And yes, chapter 2 that I'm currently working on has a large section on early medieval monastic education. :-)

Personally, I've been toying with thinking about how Cicero's De Oratore can/could be read substituting preaching and theology for oratory and philosophy...

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Addendum: This too may be obvious but there's always Benedict's Rule. The main points of convergence are these--he says he's providing a school for the Lord's service, he's got that huge section in the early chapters about the tools (i.e., virtues and habits), and the central activity around which the entire Benedictine life is structured is liturgical prayer. He really does assume the connection between liturgy and virtue than actually stating it outright.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Closed said...

Nice...what more can I say...I've been toying with how to think of sexual ethics from a liturgical perspective and this urges me on...Derek, Cassian does indeed do this in the Institutes. As does Benedict. It would seem some of the wisest among us took care for where {ahem. liturgy. worship.} we should begin.

At 6:48 AM, Blogger nope said...


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