Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Advocating the Daily Office

Here is something interesting from Rev. J.P. Russell (p.14); I agree with what he says here, and would go further to give it a "high theological" reading:

"The prayers, canticles, collects and readings walk with us through our lives. The words take on flesh as we find ourselves identifying with them in our own lives. Our own personal words and actions begin, almost imperceptibly, to take on the power and impact of those words given us by Christ and remembered in every generation by the Church: 'And you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered in his Name you will be in the midst of them...' [BCP 102]"

That is, becoming a practiced Christian may involve becoming disposed to give way in one's life, indeed in one's self, to Christ. Cultivating theological virtues in God's grace, one living the Daily Office can achieve mimesis or imitation of Christ, becoming literally in the being of one's very person a participant in his thinking, his deliberation. That is not to say one's very thought is identical to Christ's, but is so related to it in Platonic terms as imitation to model, derived to original.

Monday, August 29, 2005

More of the Same

Is the Episcopal Church especially antinomian, such that it takes the individual person, and especially the individual conscience as the measure of moral obligation? So Michael Liccione claimed, writing in the course of criticizing a piece by John Wilkins that

"the 'liberal' gospel, 'supports and undergirds the ideologies of relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism that now dominate our culture.' How does it do that? Inter alia, by ensconsing ever more firmly in revealed religion an account of the primacy of conscience that JH Newman rightly rejected."

He explains:

"That is because, given the “Protestant principle,” [calling Paul Tillich? -Scotist] Protestant churches cannot conceive their authority along the same lines as the Catholic (or Orthodox) and thus cannot, with any consistency, limit the role of conscience in the way Newman does. And that is why, in the final analysis, 'conservative' Protestant churches have no more resources to prevent what is happening in the 'liberal' ones than the latter do. It’s only a matter of time."

Interesting. However, Liccione's line of criticism is essentially McGrath and Turner's: ECUSA has turned away from the traditional--and only genuine--Gospel handed down to the apostolic Church by adopting a novel, inauthentic "gospel" of merely inclusive love, rendering it in a fell swoop both in harmony with similar secular trends toward yet more permissiveness, and unable to draw and keep firm moral lines defining right and wrong. Listen closely and you'll hear: "A formula for disaster--just recall the days of Christian churches capitulating in their liberal theology-induced haze to advances from Nazism; it's inevitable." Oh boy.

This picture of ECUSA ignores Anglican liberalism's successes while it elides current left-wing Anglicanism with Weimar liberal Christianity. Left-wing Anglicanism is pluriformed, a veritable rainbow of diversity, including Anglo-catholics, Modernists, and Radicals, each with a body of theological thought, in some cases very imposing, behind it. Prima facie it simply won't do to tar them all with the "inclusive gospel" brush and leave it at that. That's too easy; there's more.

At worst the pluriform "rainbow coalition" of left-wing Anglicanism finally dragged Episcopalians into the vineyard to do the work of the Lord--this was a church that did nothing to split over slavery in the Civil War: a notable achievement for a mainline church. It was a church with parallel diocesan conventions especially for blacks: how fortunate for them. It was a church that could not throw itself 110% behind protest to end the Vietnam War: prescient, given the slow-motion trainwreck in Iraq. And it went into convulsions over losing the '28 Prayer Book, after having to be dragged screaming into the ordination of women.

Sure--to take just one of these large issues for a moment--reasonable people can disagree over ordaining women, but to be honest, whatever the theological merits of the traditional case, even reasonable people should agree that Christian tradition on the point did little to disambiguate its resistance to ordaining women with secular society's general oppression of women--in fact, there seemed to be a steady mutual reinforcement between the Christian Church and secular society on the point of keeping women in their second-class place.

Just to take one instance from many: Ask yourself how many conservative Episcopalians agitate, or have ever in their lives agitated, for a nation-wide system of enforcement finally to make sure absent fathers paid legally due support for their children? Where is the paper trail of GC and diocesan documentation from the Anglican right? Surely that would be the sort of thing right Anglo-catholics should have long-ago pulled together to accomplish.

What, "tu quoque" you say? To answer that way is to concede what a conservative institution ECUSA has been in the bad sense, conserving what ought not to have been conserved--and how much in need it is of a move to the left: right praxis is more important than right theology. In Biblical terms, right praxis is a necessary foundation for acceptable worship--right praxis being justice--and it provides matter in the community for reflection so that the community can eventually achieve right theology.

As if each of the Ten Commandments is not relational, presuming community. Which violation is merely individual? A sin is in every case between at least four persons, and in no case less--in fact, there is no real possibility for a sin that involves just one person.

That at root is why ECUSA is right in emphasizing social justice--you are always in community; your sins at the very least are against God, all three persons. When you vitiate your relationship with God by breaking his law, it is simply obtuse to focus on the law rather than the community. What after all is a commandment or law? A Platonic Form? An abstractum obtaining ab aeterno? Think again: a commandment is not phusis at all; it's all nomos.

It may take ECUSA a while to work all this out, but it is clear at least that they are heading in the right direction, naysayers to the contrary. It would not be the first time the Church has been led to act as God pleased before understanding why. And that is perfectly consistent with Christianity returning to small numbers--as I've said before, the wide way of secular culture is the easy way, the way of the world under the sway of doomed Powers, in the grip of the mystery of evil and Babylon. It is the way tread by too many for too long, the way ECUSA finally turned its back on. ECUSA is making formidible demands on its members by pushing an enormously unpopular debate on gay marriage forward--it is our shame only to be outdone (again!) by the UCC.

It is not that ECUSA is antinomian, but that the law it pushes forward is not the law its critics recognize. Their individualism is a form of putting the creature in the place of God: abstracting themselves from their relational dependence on God, assigning to themselves a measure of independence sufficient to ground merely individual action--the necessary (but false) ontological foundation for their emphasis on the individualistic notion of sin.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Reviewing McGrath's "The Renewal of Anglicanism"

McGrath's call to evangelize anew with the Gospel is surely right on, but his version of the "via media" is bogus (see below for his caricature of liberalism), and his call to Lindbeck's postliberalism is perilous. With McGrath (I hope), I believe liberalism carelessly tends to dismiss Chalcedonian dogma as if it were indefensible; in fact that dogma has enormous resilience and relevance to liberalism's interests. But Lindbeck's postliberalism is a trojan horse, smuggling in a kind of postmodern relativism about the incompatible claims of competing religious traditions--Lindbeck would have done better to stick with Scotus.

Although McGrath scores hits criticizing Spong's scholarship, Spong is a straw man, a popularist elevated by McGrath into a foundational theologian. McGrath seems completely ignorant of the questions at stake--he should have addressed liberalism's strong side (e.g. the liberation theology of Gutierrez, Segundo, Boff; Moltmann's early work; process theology). I suspect he knows better, but his omissions serve his project, putting Anglican liberalism on par with comparatively brain-dead fundamentalism.

His nadir--a knuckle-dragging argument ad Nazium: Anglican liberalism's "cultural accomodationism" "shows alarming parallels with the situation that developed in the German Church crisis of the mid-1930s," that is, where the poor German liberals "were unable to discern the dangers" of theology hostage to Nazi culture(pp. 122-3). Ugh. Note his convenient selectivity: McGrath is silent on important successes in liberalism's track record within the ECUSA: support for desegregation in the US in the 60s & the desegregation of the ECUSA, the ordination of women, prayer book reform, an ongoing activism for social and environmental justice. To have mentioned them would have made clear that Anglican liberalism does not accomodate, but criticizes and reforms the dominant culture.

Anglican liberalism is not just Spong and diluted Bultmann; its actual theology and practice make formidible demands on its adherents, and it is no surprise if many seek comfort elsewhere. Here evangelism should do its work, calling those tempted to seek the wide and easy road elsewhere to the Gospel and to life in the Spirit, a life of justice, of loving engagement reconciling wayfarers to the ways of God.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Summarizing Holmes and Westerhoff's "Christian Believing"

Surely "Christian Believing" deserves a systematic treatment that I will not give in this post; I merely hope to summarize some main themes that run through the short work, a work I would recommend to any one looking to get a handle on the theological foundations of ECUSA's leadership. I have commented informally on

Chapter I,
Ch.s II-IV,
Ch. V,
Ch. VI,

previously. The book is available used for $.01 last time I looked.

I. Human Persons
Holmes and Westerhoff operate with certain assumptions about what we are. We are by nature capable of experiencing meaning (an odd locution, no?) and indeed long for an understanding of our lives that renders the whole meaningful. By nature we develop conceptual frameworks which structure and order our experience, filling out incomplete sense data (which we do not experience merely as given); these frameworks are entered at first without conscious contrivance, but we are capable of operating within more than one, and even switching between one and another. Finally, we are religious by nature--we cannot help but live in relation to "the Ultimate". That is to say, our conceptual framework-filters do not shield us from experiencing chaos, at least in the extreme forms of debilitating illness or death; desiring order, we "reach beyond" the chaotic world we find ourselves within to something other.

This is not to say we experience God, much less Jesus Christ, by nature. Indeed, there are substitutes for God and Christ in our search for an order beyond our chaotic world--ways of escaping the reality of chaos known to us at least in death, but such substitutes are the wrong type of items on which to depend. Depending on mere beings rather than Being Itself, radical anxiety is inevitable. However, we are not left merely to radical anxiety; we may live in relation to Being Itself.

Living in relation to Being Itself outside the world of beings, we are at least open to an experience of the holy. True, we are radically ignorant of Ultimate Being and cannot reach up to it alone; we depend on it to reach down to us if we are to know it as it is in itself. Were Being Itself to remain closed to us, we could only know it negatively, and not personally. We are capable of becoming unable to receive the Ultimate Being in any effort of it to reach down to us, barring the miraculous; depending as we do on a conceptual framework for conscious cognition, a sufficiently impoverished framework can leave us tone-deaf to God.

The Ultimate Being reaching down to us reveals itself to us as God in three Persons. God's reaching down to us is a reaching down to us in our experience: we come to know God in experiencing God personally. How? God loves us personally--we experience ourselves as beloved in relation to God as Lover. We make sense of this type of experience, of being loved by God, not for the most part all at once, but as a process over time.

First, we re-enact our experience for ourselves, remembering what we have experienced and so "handing down" that experience throughout a community. This re-enactment is not primarily a matter of propositional articulation or dogma, but a matter of story telling and ritual action. These means of re-enactment are superior to propositional means at least in leaving us open in a way propositions do not to God's otherness and transcendence, from which God may elect to correct and fine tune our limited propositional understanding. Thus, we make sense of our experience of God first through the symbolic language and forms of liturgy. Only then, in reflecting on our experience and our liturgy, which includes Scrpture, do we formulate propositional dogma. And again, it is possiblefor a community to be so impoverished that it cannot as it stands re-enact the experience of God had by its members--its symbolic language may lack the means. However, assuming a community can re-enact that experience, a group is called into being by God--what we might call a church--capable of experiencing God now in its very liturgy. This community's ongoing experience of God in its liturgy is its faith, constituted by the personal relationships its members bear to God.

Our experience of God always being imperfect and incomplete, we are open to correction and learning truths about God that are new at least to us. Thus, our liturgical and dogmatic articulations of the faith can change over time. But that does not imply everything about the faith may change--to the contrary there is a final core to the faith necessary for its survival: the experience of Christ promising the fulfillment of a future order, the Kingdom of God, wherein death will be overcome through personal, bodily survival in resurrection.

However, the final core, something like what I noted above, is so minimal as to admit contrary, opposed articulations which we now, and for the foreseeable future, will not be able to rule out in a principled way, based on our experience of God. That is, a certain indefiniteness should not be eliminated within the Church. The consequence is that something like Anglican comprehensiveness is called for--we are called, so far as we know, to tolerate and live in communion with a number of different and opposed styles of living in relation with God: the evangelical style, the modernist style, the anglo-catholic style, etc.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Gnosticism Revived?

Pontifications carries a fascinating archive on gnosticism in contemporary Christianity; Al Kimel's efforts at diagnosing the current unpleasantness in ECUSA led him to consolidate a rather rich series of ruminations that frighteningly come close to being right, in my opinion.

Summarizing Kimel's point with crude, reductive brevity, he claims we Americans are raised in a culture that celebrates self-actualization as ultimate (my category). For we are pulled by the prevailing cultural stew of modern America to presume an identification between God or Being and our individual selves. Thus, we seek above all to get in touch with ourselves, to purify ourselves in the sense of turning away from the messy concrete world to attend to the inner me, which for all its frustrations in the outer, material world is, taken in itself, clean, clear, and divine or at least spiritual (see this post of his, for example).

While he has most definitely identified a real phenomenon here, I have to take issue with his diagnosis. Gnosticism is predated by nondualist Hinduism, for example, which sounds very much like what he describes, with (for our purposes) irrelevant differences: that is, again crudely, deeper than the merely apparent phenomenal self is a single real Self, immutable and immaterial, and our salvation comes with the mystical realization of this great Truth. And gnosticism is followed by, for instance, Hegelian Absolute Idealism, in which the attainment of absolute knowledge functions like the Hindu mystic's realization, though in a weaker sense. In other words, gnosticism is one among many instances of "something" that manifests itself variously but repeatedly among us--I presume, an error of moral consequence we cannot seem to avoid, something incompatible with Christian belief and practice.

What is the something for which gnosticism, nondualism, and idealism are masks? A disposition to displace God as the center and put ourselves in His place--the kind of thing traditionally referred to by "the Fall" and "original sin", described in different terms (but still described) in the '79 BCP Catechism under "Human Nature". We are "naturally" (nature in a deranged sense) self-centered in this way, and our psychological egoism is the "true" Face of the selves we hold dear and desire to preserve. Gnosticism is just a mask worn by the Face.

We do not realize how dangerous this mask-seeking, debased Face really is; CF Allison has a good pamphlet from Forward Movement addressing the danger. The Face seeks closure, separation from the reforming power of God (aka God's love) that would begin the death or burial of the Face in its debased form (which it takes as true) with the sacrament of Baptism. Kierkegaard, in a brilliant move, identifies the successfully closed-off self with the Demonic: in our natural state we strive to emulate those vicious Powers for all we know possibly already beyond redemption--one death not being enough for us. Of course most of us do not know that destination under quite that description--but this sort of destabilizing ignorance is precisely what follows on separation from faith.

In contemporary Anglican Modernism, I tentatively believe the Face wears a form of Idealism as its mask, going in its latest iteration by the name "panentheism"; I'm influenced by a recent reading of "The Panther and the Hind" in that judgement; caveat emptor. Backing that up will take some work, which I do not claim to have finished yet--hopefully soon.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Interpreting Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI on the Crisis in European Culture

Here are several pages from a lecture given by (then) Cardinal Ratzinger; the mere fact the speaker is (now) who he is makes the lecture intensely interesting. And, of course, when he says in Part III "[b]ut, above all, it must be said that this Enlightenment philosophy, and its respective culture, is incomplete. It consciously severs its own historical roots depriving itself of the regenerating forces from which it sprang..." he has my attention; still, all things considered, he turns out to have a nuanced optimism about Enlightenment philosophy. Anyhow, if you have a moment, take a look and share what you think.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Addendum: On the one hand, Cardinal Ratzinger identifies Enlightenment rationality as a phenomenon that should trouble the Christian Church. In Part I, he talks about a "purely functional rationality" growing out of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment connected with an increasingly secular, merely scientific understanding of the world. Although a laudable commitment to human rights followed in the wake of the Enlightenment's spread over the north Atlantic, the Cardinal claims our commitment to freedom has gone too far, leading us to agitate for the ordination of women and normalization of homosexuality.

Well, I disagree with him there--such agitation can spring from anti-Enlightenment sources just as well; but back to his essay. Getting to the heart of his concern, he writes: as "[a]ccording to the thesis of the Enlightenment and secular culture of Europe, only the norms and contents of the Enlightenment culture will be able to determine Europe's identity," (Pt. II) it follows "this new identity, determined exclusively by the Enlightenment culture, also implies that God does not come in at all into public life and the foundations of the state." (Ibid) And that, I think, touches Cardinal Ratzinger's main point: Enlightenment culture is execrable for bringing human beings to defy their moral dependence on God, and to develop an understanding of the world without God.

And that seems to be a different line of critique from mine; I target Enlightenment's commitment to individualism, insinuating that it will lead to the kind of defiance of God Cardinal Ratzinger deplores. Cardinal Ratzinger seems rather to leave individualism by the wayside--and indeed there is a strain of Roman Catholic thought, exemplified for instance in Michael Novak's work, that would celebrate a union of catholic Christianity and individualism. When Cardinal Ratzinger says "a Christianity and a theology that reduces the heart of Jesus' message, the 'kingdom of God,' to the 'values of the kingdom,' identifying these values with the great key words of political moralism" he seems to be criticizing the very priority of social justice I advocated on ECUSA's behalf as a (partial) antidote to liberal individualism. Does Cardinal Ratzinger neglect the Enlightenment's individualism?

No--so far as I can tell; seeming can be misleading. When he mentions "[a]nd in the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience, either by denying him altogether, or by judging that his existence is not demonstrable, uncertain and, therefore, belonging to the realm of subjective choices, something, in any case, irrelevant to public life," (Pt. I) he acknowledges the inadequacy of a Christian individualism.

It may well be, for all he has said here, that he would not see that inadequacy as implying (a) ECUSA's particular social justice agenda--indeed, the two are inconsistent on the face of it, or (b) the more general type of emphasis on social justice evident in ECUSA, an emphasis that comes, if Philip Turner is correct in his essay "ECUSA's God", at the expense of concern with merely individual sin. Regardless, supposing my suspicions are correct about the Cardinal (and I have cause, given his treatment of liberation theology) there is enough overlap between him and ECUSA to make an interesting debate possible.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"What? 'Liberal Individualism'? Aw c'mon!" And the Anglican Right without it

I've used the phrase "liberal individualism" like a cudgel in previous posts, claiming that members of the Anglican right are slipping unwittingly into its grip--and now I'm paying dearly, it seems, on other sites especially, for taking the term to be common currency and not laying out what I meant. And so, in outline, here it is.

Permit me to start from the tradition of political liberalism, which so far as I can tell, has two sides today, a left-wing exemplified by Rawls and Dworkin, associated (unfairly) with the welfare state, and a right-wing exemplified by Hayek and Friedman, associated (at its fringes) with libertarianism and also laissez-faire capitalism. They are familiar debate partners, if you will, on our political landscape, a landscape they dominate now with the demise of socialism as a live option and the spread of globalization.

Both sides err, in my opinion, in their foundations. Both, so far as I can tell, are committed to individualism about the mental--roughly the idea that meaning is just what is "in the head"--and methodological individualism, roughly the idea that we may proceed without loss to theorize as if there were only individuals and their properties. One can see these assumptions operating especially in rational choice theory, e.g. in economics, and also less clearly in social contract theory. My point: liberalism of both sides, left and right, is well established in academic disciplines with these assumptions (among others). But liberalism in this sense is also present as a theoretical background in policy making--think of cost-benefit analysis in public or corporate planning.

Note that liberalism has venerable roots in the early days of modernity (aka the roots and flower of the european Enlightenment): Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, even (I would claim) Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant, among others. Its intellectual credentials are impeccable.

I have referred to "Enlightenment rationality"; the wider cultural constellation of liberalism is what I mean--liberalism developed not just as theory, but lived in the academy, in government, in the economy, in public debate: our common ethos. For instance, when we conceive of ourselves as simply self-made individuals, morally autonomous roughly in Kant's sense, with inviolable rights due to us as citizens, operating in the economy as sovereign consumers--we live within the culture of what I called "Enlightenment rationality", and we live as if we accept what I called "liberal individualism" and its assumptions.

I believe that the assumptions of liberal individualism (individualism about the mental and methodological individualism) are false. Moreover, its assumptions are unbiblical, opposed to properly Christian ethics. The Church competes with liberal individualism and Enlightenment rationality; opposition is unavoidable as long as the Church is faithful. It should not, I believe, take the assumptions of liberal individualism on board as its own. Thus, when I see any branch of the Church, like the Anglican right, taking on the assumptions of liberal individualism, I object--as should you, gentle lector.

Of course, I am not the first to object to the Church taking on Enlightenment rationality or liberal individualism (e.g. Pope Benedict XVI does as well--see above); others have articulated a case stronger than mine. Narrative theology and canonical criticism are in part responses to Enlightenment rationality et al that have gained ground (so far as I can tell) in the Anglican right and left. Prima facie, a scholar on the Anglican right, following Lindbeck or Frei, could say "I am already insulated from your critique" and move on. That is the scholar I wish to address--there is my target: you think you are insulated but you are not.

It seems to me that narrative theology and canonical criticism are united in working within Church tradition to settle truth claims; they deny neutral, external points of reference from which criticism of that tradition may be launched; they deny a univocal sense of "reason" or "rationality" and deny the sovereignty or autonomy of the individual. I am not alone in seeing those movements in this way--I do not claim any special originality for that. Furthermore, a large philosophical body of literature backs up parts of their claims (think of the late work of Wittgenstein, middle period Putnam, Tyler Burge, MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and even many writing under the label "continental theory")--they seem (at least) to be on solid ground.

However, narrative theology on the Anglican right, taking up Church tradition, also, I contend, takes on tradition from the worldly culture surrounding the Church: the two (Church tradition and worldly culture) interpenetrate and historically are in continual tension. There is no historical point of pure Church tradition within which canonical interpretation or Church narrative may operate--and this is what we should expect, given the depth of sin in ourselves and the surrounding culture.

For instance, in particular, it may well be that many on the Anglican right are tempted to read the Bible as if liberal individualism were true, as if there were plain facts of meaning to be discovered once and for all about biblical texts, as if the reader could have such a fact of meaning consciously present to him or her. This, in my opinion, is not only false, it is also part of the very Enlightenment culture narrative theology was designed to throw off, what I called (from Adorno and Horkheimer) part of the practice of disenchantment. Again, under liberal assumptions adopted as part of the Church's "tradition", one may believe all sin can be reduced to the sins of individuals; one may presume the moral status of an act is closed under individual motives, say. Such thoughts might lead one to focus on individual righteousness to the expense of social justice. Such a focus is mistaken; narrative theology seems to me insufficient as a barrier to block such "cross-pollination."

Anyhow, is liberal individualism essential to the Anglican right? I have not argued that it is; for all I know, liberal individualism is merely accidental to it. An Anglican right without liberal assumptions seems perfectly possible--but what practical difference would such a creature make? Two things jump out (I'll sketch them here): (1) its general strategy of arguing from biblical text would change; we might see a search for external reference points in doing theology--i.e. metaphysics or natural theology in the tradition of Aquinas for instance, as one sees today in the analytic style of E. Stump and S. Davis (neither of them leftists, so far as I can tell, BTW), pace Barth. And (2), the right would do work consistent with ECUSA's emphasis on social justice. For instance, resistance to gay marriage would proceed from natural theology, taking up a consideration of human nature as articulated in Chalcedon as a starting point for (perhaps) a natural law or virtue ethics case. Indeed, several Roman Catholic theologians have already done work in that direction (e.g. Finnis, though he seems to me overly-anxious to drop the metaphysics behind the natural law tradition). Resistance to gay marriage could be argued from the common good as, say, a necessary part of the just society, rather than as a merely individual sin.

The fallible impression I have from my exposure to SEAD and ACI, the AAC and ACN, and varied blogs on the Anglican right is that with a few exceptions, theology isn't being done on our pressing questions the way I hope to see in (1) and (2) above--at least such theology is not moving action along on our issues.