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.


At 9:10 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

But why is there a need to make sin an either/or--either individual holiness or social sin? Grasping onto either exclusively is certainly a failure to grasp the whole... Both the prophets and apocalyptic literature in addition to the Law are clear that social justice is close to the heart of God. But, without making restrictions or distinctions all three are also quite clear that personal holiness is an essential part of the equation. A holy God dwells with a holy peopel. They must be purified for his coming--with fire if need be, to borrow their language (which--just to be perfectly clear--is metaphorical, although a certain amount of suffering is inevitable in any worthwhile change).

An overemphasis on social justice seems to loose an idea of the holy that is not itself fundamentally about the earthly community. That is, most of the "sola social" folks I know would say that holiness is justice for the gathered people of God. Well...okay, but what about the personal holiness of God who calls us into a world that we can never fully comprehend nor conceptualize? What about the God who smites the hand that steadies the Ark, the one hymned by supernatural beings in the temple of Isaiah? Why does the social have to loose the sacred?

That having been said it is certainly no excuse to ignore the social. Furthermore, Our Lord repudiated certain of the commandments that seem to deal exclusively with personal holiness but I do not see this as a complete abrogation of these--just a reminder that compassion and works of mercy are not to be prevented by undue appeals to holiness; holiness should never be an excuse not to be just. Which, if I read it right, may bring us back to the point at hand...

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

AQctually, upon reading through my comments I noticed another binary that ought to be exploded--the notion that holiness is purely personal...there are communal aspects of it which, again, motivate a number of the people who disagree with us and which should be taken seriously...

Liked the points on WO too--nicely said. :-)

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Caelius said...

I've just read Al Kimel's critique of Salty's piece which sounds suspiciously like Liccione's (perhaps unsurprisingly).

I am quite impressed by your idea that some doctrinal controversies stem from the church's inability to distinguish its teaching from the opinion of the larger culture.

Have you ever considered that there could be another related concept that muddies our understanding of divine law: legislation against systemic evil which we exegete as being legislation against individual conduct?

At 3:00 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

If indeed my comments exonerate individuals from moral responsibility, so that for instance it is not I who sin, but my community, then you would have a reductio--granted. I wish to preserve individual responsibility for sin.

However, indiviual holiness is always communal; the Christian ascetic is never truly alone, but is always at least in the company of God--who is three persons, for a total of four persons altogether at least; we leave out choirs of angels, archangels, separated souls of the saints, the already transfigured or resurrected (Elijah? Mary? Jesus, though not as a person separate from the Word) and whatever or whomever else is out there. The lonesome ascetic is in great and indeed mighty company, 24/7.

Individual holiness, I want to say, is essentially a matter of the human getting right with God--i.e. being rightly related to the three persons of the Trinity. It may be a a matter of maintaining an even larger company (angels, saints, etc)--but not essentially, I suspect. Holiness isn't being set apart as a mere individual, but standing within the already relational life of the community of persons in the Trinity--being drawn into their love so far as our nature allows. Just so, individual sin is always at least our vitiating this community.

Which isn't to say there is no individual sin, but rather that my indiviual responsibility for sin comes as a consequence of social injustice I perpetuate. I.e conceiving "society" to include God. But why not, if we wish to address reality?

At 3:19 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

It is as if right-wing Anglo-catholics, who really should know better given their fondness for Thomas, conceived of substance/ousia in merely Aristotelian terms, not taking seriously what the Trinity implies for substantiality: even with God, it is relational, i.e. constituted by a relation among really distinct persons. I suspect the Summa T, starting as it does with God and emphasizing his absolute simplicity, misleads.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Closed said...

By the same token these folks should take seriously the communal dimensions of holiness that motivate (at least some of) those who disagree with them. I personally don't experience their attacks or policies as holiness but as self-righteousness and oppression.

Of course this is a both/and. One person striving by grace to live a more compassionate and perfect (as G-d is perfect) life affects the entire Body, indeed, in a way that's the only way we can. On the other hand, a more loving Body affects each person to seek after G-d all the more.

I don't see social justice as divisible from holiness or from ritual. Eucharist is the cornerstone for my thinking about social justice. If we meet one another at the Table and then proceed to treat one another badly, we've missed the point. In fact, St. Paul would say we've no Eucharist at all.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Well put, in my opinion.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger Mike L said...

Anglican Scotist:

Re your comment on Aquinas and divine simplicity, you might enjoy viewing my dustup with Perry Robinson on that subject.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks--I'll take a look.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Quite an interesting piece. That's gonna require a post of its own.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger ruidh said...

We're stuck in a cultural context which emphasizes individual responsibility and, as a result, individual holiness. If community standards of holiness are to be applied, then we are ill equipped by our worldview to accomplish that. Humanism and individualism are so deeply ingrained in this culture to the point that we can't see and have no basis to judge what apropriate community standards are. We have to recognize that Aglicans have historically rejected the kind of pietism that we see currently in the conservative wing.

But I wonder, recongizing our blind spot in communal responsibility, whether the current emphasis on individual holiness in the context of the Church as hospital for recovering sinners (and not as a country club for recovered sinners) is not really where we should be. I'm exceedingly uncomfortable with individuals claiming the ability and need to discern for someone else what God is calling them to be or to do. This comes much too close to the kind of judgementalism which Jesus repeatedly warned us against.

Getting back to antinomianism. It is merely a convenient linguistic club with which to beat one's opponents into theological submission. There are few real antinomians in the world -- those who believe that their faith frees them from moral responsibility altogether. What we have is a fundamental disagreement about moral theology, the discernment of ethical choices and the role of reason in these exercises. Forthe conservative camp, the Bible is the sole source of authority here. For the modernist camp, the lessons from Scripture are tested against experience with reason to determine their reliability.

Without some means to reason about ethics and to make moral judgements from first principles rather than just the rules from Scripture we would never have concluded that slavery is morally wrong or that the taking of interest is morally defensable. Once you admit the need to reason about moral choices, you open yourself up to exactly the kind of step which has been taken in the modern world -- testing the experiences of members of Christian communities by looking at the results in the lives of the people involved.

Sin has real consequences for our spiritual and phychological health (as Romans 1 tells us) and when we fail to see those consequences and instead see positive values of love and faithfulness, we have to question the condemnation of these people. In either event, the warnings of Romans 2 must be observed "Who are you to judge?"


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