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.


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