Monday, November 28, 2005

Mascall's Mistake

Anglican comprehensiveness, extolled variously as a virtue among some Episcopalians reluctant to abet schism, has come under fire of late as actually--despite promising appearances--incoherent. Crudely put, comprehensiveness refers to the quality of keeping divergent theological parties in communion such that they may worship together. In Anglicanism, ideally, Anglo-catholics and evangelicals, Christian socialists and modernists can all "agree to disagree" while coming to the altar together to worship God. The act of worshipping together in grace knits them into a Christian community, not their uniformity of propositional belief. On the other hand, when Primate X refuses to worship with Primate Y, for instance, we have a failure of comprehensiveness--a failure which prima facie strikes at one of the constitutive features of Anglicanism.

But for its critics, comprehension is hardly a virtue; it is a confusion, perhaps, one infers, even serving to mask a steady liberalization of dogma. For instance, Al Kimel some time ago raised an argument from Eric Mascall purporting to show what is wrong with comprehensiveness:

[a] The fundamental incoherence of the three-school theory can be seen from the obvious fact that the existence of each one of the schools can be justified only on the assumption that its characteristic theological assertions are true. [b] But in that case the characteristic theological assertions of all the three schools must be mutually compatible. And in that case there is no reason why we should not accept them all and a great many reasons why we should. [c] But then what will have happened to the three schools? It is quite ridiculous to envisage the Church as a tricorporate society, each of whose parts is committed to holding one third of the truth. Regrettable as this no doubt is, it is because each school has not been convinced that everything that the others were holding was part of the truth that the schools have remained recognisably distinct.

I have added letters in brackets to mark key points in Mascall's reasoning; my use of boldface indicates important words. [a] contains an extremely strong claim; in effect, the parties of Anglicanism presume that their distinctive theology is simply true. That presumption is their reason for being. On [b], they could then only be comprehended in Anglicanism if their theologies were logically consistent. But, according to [c], their theologies are not logically consistent--each party envisions itself as complete and not in need of coexistence with the others. Thus, a religion "comprehending" them would be entertaining contradictions; ergo, Mascall writes of "the fundamental incoherence of the three-school theory." And, taking his cue from Mascall's reasoning, Kimel writes "[t]he ideology of Anglican comprehensiveness is simply an impressive way of hiding the internal contradictions of our denomination."

I am not persuaded by Mascall, however. The soft point in his argument seems to me to be in [a]. He presumes each party could only mean for its theology to be taken in such a way that they contradict each other. For example, the Anglo-catholics assert "Q is true" and the evangelicals assert "Q is not true;" they must make their assertions without qualification as simply being the case, according to Mascall.

If they instead asserted "So far as we know, Q is true" and "So far as we know, Q is not true" then there would be no contradiction. Such qualification in the parties of Anglicanism is a mark of epistemic humility. Mascall's incoherence-argument requires epistemic hubris, namely the unqualified assertion of the position of one's party. But, givem our conviction that comprehensiveness--unity in worship--really is worth striving to maintain, it follows we should view Mascall's argument as a reductio of the practice of epistemic hubris. he does not do what he supposes, arguing that comprehension cannot work, but only that it cannot work without epistemic humility.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

More of this kind of thing to Come?

By their fruits you shall know them, we are told. In 2004, a member of the Dover, PA school board is said to have read parts of Genesis and exclaimed

How can we allow anything else to be taught in our schools?

A Rev. Jim Grove of Dover around the same time claimed

The teaching of evolution takes you somewhere--it leads you to atheism.

I don't know, but I strongly suspect these folks were not big fans of James Griffiss, Westerhoff, Holmes, or, say, ECUSA's leadership. And that is no accident--the school board member had a certain way of reading the Bible such that to her the Genesis creation myths were fit for a science classroom. Or at least they could serve as tacit guideposts for the articulation of intelligent design theory--for Genesis gives us the facts as they happened, right? And science supposedly is all about the facts. So only a perverse secular ideology would prevent ID from being taught in science classes, they may have thought.

Their thought most likely depended on their way of reading the Bible, seeing it as a repository of propositional dogma, ready made such that parts, like the creation myths, may be extracted simply as-is. A similar reading strategy informs the Anglican right on questions of the permissibility of gay unions: parts of Leviticus and Romans, especially, are treated as repositories of propositional dogma. But that reading strategy is invalid--as the case of Dover is sufficient to show; even if tha strategy got things right on the gay unions issue, it would not be on account of the reliability of the reading strategy; given the reading strategy, their getting it right would be an accident. That is, the case of Dover serves to present us with a potent reductio applicable to some on the Anglican right--perhaps even to the Very, Very, Very Reverend Akinola? Who knows--has he ever stooped to offer his hermeneutic?

And yet I cannot help but have unsolicited pity for these Christians in Dover, our brothers and sisters. Let's look away from the mockery they bring to the faith in the eyes of the honest, the diligent, the literate; let us look away from the stumbling block they put into the way of those who see their mess as representative of the serious and devout calling to a Christian life--their antic display isn't merely one of amazing ignorance, but more, and much, much worse. Dover is no picnic, so far as I can tell; what would have been fertile soil for populism in an older time is now fertile soil for another kind of resistance--Red State Conservatism consistently in the serv ice of the Republican Party. What would Thrasymachus say about them, in Book I of the Republic? They are like the cattle who love the herdsman looking after them--why? Because of his concern, concern apparently for their well-being. But in reality, they are not merely grazing for their own good. Cui bono?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Griffiss' "The Anglican Vision," Ch. 6: Anglican Worship

"Worship arises out of a fundamental characteristic of what it is to be human," (88) i.e. out of our nature as human. We need to ask "Why?" and look for answers; it is not an option for us. But while we can give answers to some why-questions of a mundane sort (e.g. Why does it rain?), there is another sort of why-question, of the "ultimate question" variety, which we cannot answer given our ordinary explanatory procedures: Why are we here? What is the meaning of our lives?

Replying to such ultimate why-questions, we may tell stories. This storytelling takes up our past history and weaves it into "a drama bigger than ourselves" so that "we may understand ourselves as part of a larger story about hope and redemption...." (89) Storytelling replies are not explanations answering ultimate why-questions; that is not their aim. Rather, the aim is a fecund contextualization: the very act of weaving such a story yields a measure of the ultimate meaning we crave in asking ultimate why-questions.

Our story, into which we are woven via baptism, is one in which "God acts in Jesus Christ to save, to bring us from death to life." (90) Our storytelling consists not merely of words, but also of ritual action, action that cannot be reduced to words, but carries significance beyond what words can express in our dogmatic propositional formulations.

This combination of word and deed, our liturgy, is taken up by God who is present among us as the faithful Word. That is, our "stumbling" liturgy is transformed into "God's Word to us" (92) producing meaning for us in our "shattered" world. With God's Word as a foundation for our ultimate meaning, life emerges for us from death: we are able to live on in hope. This movement, taken as a whole--liturgy/transformation/meaning/hope, say--constitutes us as a "sacramental community," a spatio-temporal human community in which Christ is present. Thus, when we are baptized, "[w]e are baptized into Christ, not...into the Episcopal Church." (93) We continue our liturgy with the Eucharist, work that makes "the Incarnation concrete in our lives" (94) rather than just an oddity of history.

Liturgical practice primarily aims to yield belief in God rather than belief about God--propositional dogma is not the primary concern. That is, liturgy gradually--over time--brings us around to an awareness of God's genuine presence in our lives, over against false pictures of God that may have gripped us in the past; liturgy brings us gradually to a personal relationship with God. This relationship is something "more certain" than mere propositional dogma. I.e. even if the dogma is false, the relationship may persist.

But liturgical practice makes great demands on practitioners; participating takes courage. And not only the courage of taking a risk on the unknown, but also courage to lay down one's life to God. A sense of our sinfulness necessarily goes with our growing personal relationship with Christ--not sin merely in the sense of "simply breaking a rule or a law," but rather "sin involved the breaking of a relationship; it was a failure in love." (95) Forgiveness requires repentence, i.e. being taken up and transformed by Christ--a kind of death of the old sinful self symbolized in baptism and the Eucharist, where we are "there on the altar being transformed in the eucharistic prayer" (97). That is, the elements are taken from the produce of our being in the world; on the altar Christ can become incarnate in them, as in us, making them not just bread and wine but something more, something transformed: Christ in us, going out into the world to do his work.

I think, by implication, Christ is to infect all we do; all we do--not just what we do in Church--becomes a liturgy of worship: not just mundane activity but activity in which God is incarnate via Christ in us.

Christ's presence with us, in our lives, is not merely personal. I have a personal relationship with God on account of my being brought into the church community, so that its story contextualizes my life, giving my life ultimate meaning.

Nor does Christ's presence in our liturgy have correct, final propositional dogma as a prerequisite. Storytelling meaning is not final--it awaits finalization by action on God's part. For us to finalize storytelling meaning is for us to usurp God's role, and we are guaranteed to come up short. We are not writing the cosmic drama; we are not its Author. How dare we even attempt to provide a final context?

Proper liturgy requires open-ended storytelling and ritual, actions whose meaning is not finalized for us by our efforts in the way of propositional formulation. In short, we cannot tell ahead of time where liturgy will push us; Christ in baptism and the eucharist may be received in such a way as to surprise or even threaten us. Remember--as we grow in relationship with God, we repent. The repentence is not in despair, as we have faith in God's power to transform, but rather in accepting and acting of God's critique of us, who we are becoming and what we do and believe.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Lambeth 1998 and Epistemic Humility

Having been challenged to produce evidence of the Anglican Communion acting outside the constraints of epistemic humilty on the question of whether gay unions should be blessed, I have turned to the language of the resolutions and amendments of Lambeth 1998. While there is much to agree with in Lambeth '98, even in its discussion of human sexuality, there is, sadly, also much with which to be disappointed. In particular, it seems to me that the AC in Lambeth '98 1.10 pretends to be certain where it should not pretend certainty; despite the numerical superiority of the side which endorsed 1.10, that side may yet be wrong. It would have been a mark of intellectual integrity for the language of 1.10 to consistently express the uncertainty under which the resolution must operate--alas, you will look in vain for such consistency.

I. What is epistemic humilty anyway??
According to the doctrine of epistemic humility, Christians cannot have absolute certainty about anything in their dogma outside a minimal core, the kerygma. On everything else, they should always remain open to correction and reversal--in particular correction, that so far as they can know, is intended by God.

Thus, as the ban on gay unions is outside the kerygma, despite centuries of tradition largely behind the ban (leaving aside historical questions about exactly where, in which centuries, and in what sense such a ban was understood), we should remain open to eliminating the ban. We could not have imposed it on our own authority alone with certainty, and God may in his freedom from eternity intend that now, say, we are obligated to eliminate it.

II. Lambeth '98 Operating with Epistemic Humility
Sometimes I think nearly everyone remembers only pet passages from Lambeth '98; who has time to read the study guides concomitant to the resolutions? But go and read the study guide that corresponds to Lambeth '98's treatment of human sexuality--you may be in for a surprise. It breathes none of the condemnation and hubris of 1.10 and the appendices; indeed, the study guide in contrast seems a model of judicious moderation. It distinguished sexual practices considered simply immoral without q."uestion (Way 1) and those simply accepted as legit without question (Way 2) from Way 3, practices about which there is disagreement within the AC, including polygamy, remarriage of the divorced--and, you guessed it, "faithful homosexual relationships."

I quote: In many places, homosexual behaviour is identified simply with paedophilia and promiscuity, whereas in other places there are now many examples of faithful homosexual relationships in society at large and within the Church. At present, there is a clear division of belief amongst Anglicans on homosexual behaviour and, indeed, medical knowledge is still developing in this area. While almost all would agree that promiscuous homosexuality (like promiscuous heterosexuality) is sinful and belongs to Way 2, Anglican opinion on faithful but active homosexuality is divided. Some believe it is sinful and belongs to Way 2; others believe it is acceptable to God and belongs to Way 1. Different cultures and different understanding of biblical texts are important elements in how one decides on these issues. (57b)

In other words, the study guide does not impose an unqualified moral norm; it honestly recognizes differences of theological opinion, while searching out areas of moral overlap. There is nothing inflammatory in it, nothing to set the wheels of schism in motion. The study guide respects the constraints of epistemic humility.

III. Lambeth '98 Operating outside Epistemic Humility
On the other hand, have a look at the language of the resolutions and appendices; we enter a land of make believe, where human beings, bishops even (and quite a few of 'em!), decide to arrogate for themselves knowledge of good and evil, not merely educated opinion or qualified inference:
This Conference:
while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;

(1.10.d, e)

And more, alas:
Resolution V.1 from Central and East Africa Region
This Conference:
noting that the Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching that all sexual promiscuity is a sin, is convinced that this includes homosexual practices, between persons of the same sex, as well as heterosexual relationships outside marriage;

Note: This Resolution was put to the Conference in the form of an amendment to Resolution I.10 and was defeated.

Resolution V.35 from the West Africa Region
This Conference:
noting that -
the Word of God has established the fact that God created man and woman and blessed their marriage;
many parts of the Bible condemn homosexuality as a sin;
homosexuality is one of the many sins that Scripture has condemned;
some African Christians in Uganda were martyred in the 19th century for refusing to have homosexual relations with the king because of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their commitment to stand by the Word of God as expressed in the Bible on the subject;
stands on the Biblical authority and accepts that homosexuality is a sin which could only be adopted by the church if it wanted to commit evangelical suicide.

Note: This Resolution was put to the Conference in the form of an amendment to Resolution I.10 and was defeated.

I have put language outside the constraints of epistemic humility above in bold to isolate it for discussion. The bold-faced stuff has in common that a claim is made without qualification; there is no hint of doubt, no hesitation from the limits we must operate under in discerning such matters as mere sinful humans--no recognition of the possibility even, however remote, that even the long-standing condemnation of gay unions--yes, even this, even this--in the church might itself be a symptom of mere human sin, to be finally extricated from the body of the Christ. After all, the heart, we are told, is deceitful above all things--who can know it?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Archbishop Williams Erring

Recently, in response to a question, do you believe that same-sex sex can be holy and blessed? If so, on what authority do you base this belief? Williams replied

[A] The church overall, the church of England in particular, the Anglican communion has not been persuaded that same-sex sex can be holy and blessed. [B] Were it to decide that by some process unimaginable to most of you it would be by an overwhelming consensus. [C]Only at that point would it be possible to say in the name of the church, this is holy and blessed.

So I take my stand with the church of England, with the communion, with the majority of Christians through the ages. I have in the past raised questions about this. I was a theological teacher for 17 years and along with other theological teachers raised this issue and discussed it. I have advance ideas on this in the past, but the fact remains that the church is not persuaded, and [D] the church is not William’s personal political parties, or any particular persons. [E] I am loyal to the church which has asked me to serve, and I myself hold if I am asked about doctrine and discipline, this is what the church upholds. So, the authority that I accept has to be the authority of the whole body and that part of the body which is the church of England and the Anglican communion has made its determination.
I’ll add two things to that.
[F] One is to welcome the statement that we should never use language that demeans another human being. In London, we have had another extraordinary brutal murder of a gay man in the last couple of weeks by a group of extremely violent people. I am loathed, indeed I cannot bring myself to use any language which could condone such behaviour and I’m sure that is true for all of you. That is something which I have to take very much to heart. The second is, I think I need to put on the table, is theologians will go on discussing this and it would not, I think, be possible to stop them. We ask theologians to look at difficult questions. They come up with different answers. For nearly a century in the 4th century in this country of Egypt, the conflict over the doctrine of the trinity raged between theologians and bishops and was not resolved overnight. But I distinguish as clearly as I can between a question a theologian may ask and an action or determination the church may take, or only the bishop may take. I think that is a necessary distinction for the life and health of the church. It would be a tragedy if the church sought to suppress questions. [G] But it is equally a tragedy when the church create facts on the ground that foreclose discussions and reflections on such questions.

I've added the letters in brackets where I felt it necessary to comment.

Take point [D]: the church is not the party of any particular person. That is, I hope you will agree, completely false. Provided you agree that the church has exactly one head, in relation to whom alone it can exist at all, namely Christ, you should concede that the church is the party of a particular person, namely Christ. The church in no way is bound to any doctrine or action where Christ would have us do something different--even if the overwhelming majority of the church throughout its history here below stood in agreement on a point contradicting the will of Christ, Christ would be right, and the church wrong. That should be a no-brainer for Williams, but he misses it.

Now take point [E] in light of his error in point [D]: which church is Williams serving? Evidently not the one headed exclusively by the person of Christ, but a "church" with another head, perhaps made up of bishops, etc. Evidently he is serving the wrong church--quite apart from questions about the possible holiness of same-sex unions.

But let us address points [A] to [C], which take up the issue of same-sex unions. How are we to determine that of which the church has been persuaded? Given Williams' conception of the church and its "head" you will not be surprised to find him speaking of "an overwhelming consensus" as determining the mind of the church. Buit that is wrong--the mind of the church is not determined by the persuasion of a super-majority; rather, it is determined by the mind of Christ. Christ's determination is the standard to which we are to bring ourselves in line--and it is an objective standard, not open to being altered and mutated by human preference in the church here below.

To make his argument, Williams would have had to establish a necessary connection between overwhelming consensus and the mind of Christ--which he would seem to be unable to do, as he holds out the possibility in [B] however unlikely of such a consensus shifting (which Christ would not do). In short, Williams' position is incoherent.

Contrary to [C], it follows rather that one may speak in the name of the church, even against a consensus to the contrary, provided the minority speaks for the mind of Christ. The leading question should be not "Where is the consensus now?" but "What is the mind of Christ on this question?" Shall we govern the church and determine its doctrine here below by opinion polls?

To the extent that Williams departs from Christ as a standard, he becomes thoroughly confused--an object lesson. With that in mind, consider points [F] and [G]. What kind of viscious abstraction conceives a human person apart from the love of that person, that designs to separate person and character? Can this be done with the divine persons without violence? How can we abstract the homosexual from the love in which that homosexual lives his or her life? Yet this is what Williams would have us do in consigning their love to mere sin while prescinding from demeaning them--the person left over after the sinful love is removed is somehow pristine and whole. A new mystery.

And finally, [G]--which seems hardly to stand long enough to fall down. His point cuts both ways: are ECUSA and Canada creating facts on the ground? Or are those provinces in the Anglican Communion creating facts on the ground by their resistance to blessing gay unions, their condemnation of homosexuals, their avid pursuit of schism? Williams displays a mindset here that should be vigorously rejected, the same sort of mindset that would tell black Americans in the Jim Crow south to wait a bit longer for equality, and above all not to stir up the anger of their segregationist neighbors by actively protesting the status quo. The status quo is itself a "fact on the ground" that is hardly morally neutral to the extent it is unjust; rather, by the very fact it is the default mode of life of the majority of the AC it continues to develop dispositions to injustice in those members of the AC affected by those facts so as to support the status quo. Why, when the status quo involves a manifest injustice contrary to the mind of Christ, is it wrong to create new facts on the ground, a new mode of life: justice in accord with the mind of Christ? It seems to me Williams has erred.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hero? Saint? Do not falter and look back!

After treating you to the rank obscenity of those parodies of virtu, those Americans grinning and giggling over corpses of the dead, after showing you a child roasted alive in our name, I needed to find an example of something that surely seemed noble and in accord with the will of God, lest we--me included here--fall into utter despair.

We should know when we are persecuted for doing justice, we should only, no--we can only fight back harder, louder--relentlessly. Do not look back; you know better:

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.’ 16But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. 17When they had brought them outside, they said, ‘Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.’

This is not counsel to run to Tahiti--there is no geographical place sheltered from the reign of Babylon and beyond its reach. Flee rather to the Mountain of God, flee rather to the Kingdom. God's reign is here, among us, now, where and when we stand up and do His will regardless of the cost.

4Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; 5for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.

The costs now are very light given our crimes as a people; we are not being martyred. But just wait--are you ready? Go ahead and count the cost, Christian. What if what is now going on in France were to erupt here, say? What if we have three or four more 9/11s? Do you really think after seeing New Orleans, after seeing the smiling faces of our young soldiers, that there is any depth to the moral quality of our society? The costs of standing up for Jesus could rise astronomically very rapidly--pray that they don't. Please pray that they do not--I hardly think our churches and denominations are ready.

Pray rather that it is for us as a people as it was said to be for Nineveh in the story of Jonah. It is not for us to say whether we will pay for our injustice with blood and fire; what was possible for Nineveh, what was possible for the USSR, what was possible for Eastern Europe, for India under imperial rule, for South Africa, even for the Jim Crow American South is certainly possible for us here and now. The arm of God has not shortened between 1964 and now.

The Spirit has worked in the plain sight of all, disintegrating our mighty and sinister structures nonviolently when we had feared blood and fire. The same can be true for us as a people, if we will only heed, if we will only be led by the Spirit in nonviolence--having witnessed these things, how can we doubt the power of God over Satan, the power of his Light in the darkness of our world?

But for that we must flee, flee for our lives, flee to the mountains, flee to His Kingdom. There is no staying back, lingering, looking over our shoulders. We cannot count on being swallowed by whales; we cannot count on God raising witnesses for Truth from stones. You were not raised from stones; you will not be swallowed by a whale. You were born of woman, you are flesh and blood and that should be enough for God's love to become incarnate in you, in your words and deeds.

The Current Iraq War and the Episcopal Church

Have we no shame as a people? (nota bene: the "soldier" on the right is pointing to a char-broiled corpse, barely discernible as human in the photo; on the left, the celebration concerns part of a corpse, claimed to belong to a car-bomber)

Rev. Mark Harris recently complained that the churches were not doing enough to mark the passing of the 2000th death of a US soldier in Iraq; and of course he is right to ask "Where is the reflection? Where is the action?" Frankly, from where I stand within the well-fed and affluent environs of bourgeois America, the Iraq War is something of a mere abstraction, out there. Have we, at least in practice, traded the Kingdom of God for the Kingdom of Caesar, the Kingdom of the Devil?

What does YHWH have in store for us as a people? Is there anyone out there who thinks that Jesus would approve of the current Iraq War? Even that it fits, say, Aquinas' criteria for being a just war? I'm sure some such creatures are out there. But seriously, ask yourself exactly what about it makes unjust...e.g. Is it our rather ironic use of chemical weapons, i.e. the atrocious white phosphorus (from the Times Independent)? Is it the malicious use of outright lies by our elected leadership in manipulating the American people into support of the war? Well, I fear not much was really needed to manipulate the American people; they went along, by and large, rather willingly. And I have a feeling, as the Iraq War proves to be more and more an immoral gamble undertaken with idiotic levity, an everlasting monument to our viciousness and stupidity as a people, the American people would rather find a scapegoat than repent. Once again we see how our celebrated religiousity has failed; we as a people proclaim ourselves to be religious believers, and very many claim to be Christian, but in truth we have a rather tired lust for power more reminiscent of the Aeneid than the Sermon on the Mount. We are a nation of rather ill-tempered and thoroughly immoral pagans in desperate need of Christ.

It is hard for me to picture universalism as true; I sympathize with Lewis in The Great Divorce. Hell is just as real--and gratuitous--as this war. When you contemplate the words of Amos, how can you fail to be filled with fear?

(Ch. 2, NRSV)
14Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives; 15those who handle the bow shall not stand, and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves, nor shall those who ride horses save their lives; 16and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, says the LORD.

(Ch. 5)
21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

(Ch. 6)
O you that put far away the evil day, and bring near a reign of violence? 4Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; 5who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; 6who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

When we hear of an Episcopal priest coming under fire from the IRS for speaking the justice of God against this war, we should recognize how important it is to support him. And not only that: to hold up his conduct, his open opposition in the name of God, as an example to other preachers of the Word who might have been curiously silent about the atrocities for which their congregations may be responsible. Is it not a culpable negligence on a preacher's part to risk harm to the souls of his or her congregation by keeping silence here? We need to reflect, to speak against injustice, to protest. That is just the beginning of what we should be doing as Christians to bring this abomination to an end.

For we as a people are truly Sodom on the plain--and not because we are painfully recognizing that homosexuals may indeed love sacramentally, thereby bringing our minds after millennia into line with the mind of Christ--but because we are beyond inhospitible to the weak and vulnerable in our midst.

The risks around this on the traditional theology coming to us through the Fathers and the Doctors are absolutely incredible. It is not as if God saves us because His happiness requires it--quite to the contrary. Transcendence should terrify--not even Christ, fully divine, presumed to hurl himself off the roof, expecting to be causght by angels. Will we presume where Christ did not dare?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Defending Epistemic Humility

I. Harding's Case
Filling the time between now and GC2006, I came across this piece from Rev. Harding's site. He criticizes a crucial piece of the theology belonging to ECUSA's leadership, namely their acceptance of epistemic humility (EH). On EH, Christians cannot have absolute certainty about anything in their dogma outside a minimal core, the kerygma. On everything else, they must always remain open to correction and reversal--in particular correction that so far as they know is intended by God. So, as the ban on gay unions is outside the kerygma, despite centuries of tradition behind the ban, we must remain open to eliminating the ban. We could not have imposed it on our own authority alone with certainty, and God may now, say, intend us to eliminate it. This is the best I can make of the doctrine, EH, that Harding attacks.

To begin with, Harding writes [A] that epistemic humility
must be decoded as the ultimate play for power by a completely unaccountable autonomous self. It is a position that rules all certainties save its own certainity that no authority can be asserted against its preferences invalid apriori [sic].

I suppose he means what might have appeared to other people as a debate about a philosophical or ethical principle is really just a contest of power between selves, where some selves, practicing autonomy (moral autonomy?) sought power through pushing a clever epistemological strategy. Sounds a little abstract, no? I shall take the liberty of filling it in for him.

Maybe he just means to claim ECUSA's leadership insincerely adopted a pose of epistemic humilty in order to seize power in ECUSA from conservatives and moderates, and undo ECUSA's moral traditions in the face of ineffective conservative opposition. Conservative objections are met by the leadership with the charge "Epistemic hubris!"--a charge never applied by the leadership to liberal assertions. That is, the leadership operates with and exploits a double standard.

Thus, Harding infers the leadership is not sincere in holding to epistemic humility; they are not interested in the truth of such humility, but in a contest of power in ECUSA; they are confident of victory precisely because, being rich and powerful, they will prevail in such a conflict. Thus, Harding says [B]:

One must suspect that such a position has more to do with adavancing the interests of the rich and powerful than advancing the search for truth. It is the rich and powerful who prefer a contest of wills in which they inevitably have the advantage. F.D. Maurice was famous for saying that the only protection of the poor is the creed of the church. If in the spirit of Casa Blanca one were to say let us round up the usual suspects for a major revision of the doctrine of the church, it would usually be members of the affluent and privileged classes.

Well, points [A] and [B] are merely polemic. They do not touch the issue of whether EH is true or false. Worse, Harding should explain what is wrong with anyone, even the rich and powerful, seizing power IF they seize power in the name of what is true and good. And should he be so sure that the leadership really is insincere? Harding's focus on power issues detracts from the cogency of his argument; the question should be Is EH true? not
Why do these guys adopt EH?.

Moreover, Harding does nothing to show that ECUSA really does hold what he thinks it holds. He seems to think ECUSA holds (1):
Absolutely, gay unions are permissible
when it might well be true that ECUSA holds (2) instead:
For all we know, absolutely, gay unions are permissible.
(1) might make ECUSA guilty of epistemic hubris, as Harding contends in his piece, and would make ECUSA guilty of a double standard--but if ECUSA holds (2) instead, it is not guilty on both counts. Here we see the imprecision of Harding's argument opens it to objection--he should be much more circumspect in characterizing his opponent's case.

More to the point, Harding claims conservatives are not guilty of epistemic hubris, contrary to liberal claims [C]:
The claim of reasserters is not to have a privately privileged apprehension of the truth but to be the inheritors of a dependable tradition of revelation. It is a claim to a public form of knowledge. I do not claim that “I” know with certainity God’s truth but I do claim that there is dependable though not exhaustive knowledge of God to be had through the universal church’s teaching tradition based on scripture and tradition.

This is much more substantial, and merits a more cautious refutation. Harding here, and elsewhere in his piece, attributes ECUSA's acts at GC2003 to claims made on behalf of so-called private "revelation" to individuals about the intent of God or the Spirit.

II. ECUSA's basis for moral reflection: a brief review
ECUSA's theological leaders, late and present, such as Holmes, Griffiss, and Westerhoff, believe that there is a core to revealed truth that is beyond revision, but that core is minimal and there is not enough to it for us to infer or deduce truths that are equally beyond revision about such urgently pressing issues as gay unions.

Thus, for instance, "Christ is our Lord and Savior" is part of the core, and beyond revision. However, "Gay unions are forbidden" is not part of the core, and is not immune to revision by being part of that core.

Nevertheless, ECUSA must take a stand on such issues as gay marriage, and the stand it takes ought to come out of, they would say, our relationship with God. Harding claims the relationship at issue for ECUSA is one of private indivisuals to God; I disagree. Although mystical experience is part of the hyuman relationship with God, for the most part Episcopalians maintain a relationship to God through liturgy, through acts of worship. These are not entirely inward, but are for the most part at least partially accessible to observers: one hears the chant, smells the incense, sees the vestments, shakes the hands, tastes the wine, etc. Even when liturgy spills outside the confines of the building, it retains--how shall we say it?--a measure of externality: one takes up prayers from the BCP, one recites them, one lights candles, kneels, takes up beads, etc.

In short, the relationship that is the basis for Episcopal moral reflection is objective. Even rule-governed. That is not to say it is without aberration, but rather that aberrations can be measured against rubrics et al. Nor am I implying Episcopal worship is merely external and objective; even so, it is not clear that worship includes any merely inward parts. Who knows how far things hidden from my brothers and sisters in the pews are open to others: the Father, Son, Spirit, even hosts of angels if such there be, or separated souls of saints, etc.

Moreover, Episcopalians still hold to an objective presence of God in the sacraments for those properly receptive--even though that presence cannot be seen or apprehended by the five senses. Surely it might be felt inwardly, but that does not render the experience of a relationship with God in a sacrament non-objective. And not merely because of the heavenly communion, but also because the experience as a whole includes an objectively present relatum: Christ in the sacrament.

Anyhow, worship is one thing, and moral reflection another. The one is the basis, and the other, the reflection, takes the basis as its starting point. Because worship and reflection on worship are distinct, reflection can be uncertain without worship being uncertain. The uncertainty of reflection need not invalidate the certainty of our experience of Christ in the Eucharist, or in Baptism. There is no contradiction there, or at least there need be no contradiction there.

III. Contrary to Harding
Where am I going? Section II should have been rather obvious; if so, then you will agree with me that Harding is obviously wrong. Contra Harding, ECUSA does not take the hidden experience of the ego or "I" as its epistemic starting point--it takes communal worship as its starting point.

But then, given the communal nature of ECUSA's reflection base, Harding's claim that epistemic humility is "the ultimate play for power by a completely unaccountable autonomous self" should be given up as well, a claim he makes above in comment [A], section 1. Why the fantasy of Cartesian or Lockean selves run amuck? ECUSA's leaders have a pretty communitarian epistemology, rather anti-individualist about the mental. And I think ECUSA's leaders are correct in that communitarian epistemology--but Harding seems completely ignorant of it. I suspect very many on the right are similarly ignorant--here, vice is its own punishment.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The War of Northern Aggression

In the effort to see ECUSA's current travail as a pastoral problem, rather than primarily as an occasion for theological debate, how far should one go back into history? At least to the time of Reconstruction following the American Civil War. Having spent time growing up in rural western Massachusetts, I have some sense of the old Union: I went to HS at Gateway Regional, named for its place on the Underground Railroad; I've seen secret rooms for hiding fugitive slaves in old houses in Northampton; I've heard the old folks sing old songs about Sherman marching through Georgia and trampling the grapes of wrath; pages missing from Boothe's diary were supposedly found in an attic in my hometown of Worthington. Still, I suspect my experience was nothing like the experience of the presence of the Civil War in the life of a young man growing up in the South, black or white.

I propose the analogy: the Global South is to the West as the American South is to the North. As with any analogy, the comparison breaks down--for instance, the Global South has no ideology that I am aware of that can compare with the American South's "southern agrarianism". But my hope is to illuminate facts that might have been lost otherwise.

Namely: both the global and American south were crushed in violent conflict by force from a technologically and economically superior opponent; both were subsequently exploited by those who crushed them; both lost contact with what was an older, native way of life. That is not to say that their older ways were permissible or preferable to what came after, nota bene. I'm not here to pull a "Genovese." And for both, the tables recently have turned somewhat. The American South, which as a cultural entity extends almost to Philly and out into CA, has become a seat of economic and political power--likewise for our global confreres. Their narratives have some overlap, perhaps enough for a common understanding:
"the North and the West are the enemies, a wicked Other which must be reigned in, an Other whose defeat is unfinished business left by ancestors as a duty to posterity. Surely the victories of that Other should not be read as springing from God's favor-that simply could not be. The North/West is decadent, wealthy, parasitic, casuistic, skeptical, sophisticated and inscrutable. We in the souths are Other to the North/West, and so are not complicit in their immoral culture." The analogy makes some sense of why the two souths so readily joined as of late in common cause within the AC; they have discovered, perhaps without fully conscious awareness, that their stories run into the same stream.

And there is truth to their stories. The North/West really did bring with its hegemony an exploitative socio-economic order; each south might well have experienced the imposition of that alien order as colonialism. For some in the American south, even the civil rights movement of the '60s may smack of a kind of colonialist imposition, the Other from the outside stepping in univited to exercise Power.

But irony of ironies: the new found power of the souths springs from the old North/West. The old, exploitative North/West grew tired of the tension with its own people, and sought out more subservient laborers in the souths: a condition of the souths becoming seats of economic power. And furthermore, the souths use the power, received from the North/West, to undermine those within the North/West who struggle against the North/West's exploitation. I.e. the global south makes common cause with southern conservatives to undermine northern liberals., leaving liberals wondering "What? We liberals and the global south have so many common interests; why attack us for differences over women and homosexuality? Why make common cause with those who have no serious interest in the interests we share?"

Surely theological conviction explains this unlikely common cause in part, at least. Left wing North/West theology comes bearing an offensive stamp, the face of affluence and leisure, exhibiting the skepticism and sophistication the souths came to distrust. The souths have had no time to think under such conditions of affluent leisure--common cause with the Anglican left comes with a steep price: accepting an imposed second-class status (e.g. think of the believers' reaction to the Scopes Monkey Trial, a reaction that birthed a forceful American fundamentalism--also a reaction that typified Hegel's Unhappy Consciousness, if you recall the fundies' Darbyism).

Perhaps the Snopeses have taken over in the souths--explaining why the North/West's economic interests found such fertile soil there. Anyhow, I infer:

(1) More theology in the North/West style will not move enough southern hearts.

(2) The underlying problem is one of justice; one should not expect church region Y to cooperate with church region X, when X exploits Y. Or: injustice pollutes worship. And: justice requires more than equalizing the place of gays in ECUSA's ministry.

(3) Therapy-style solutions, addressing southern anger at exploitation, which smack of North/West-speak, will not get far (as w/ (1)). Again, therapy alone may leave the underlying injustice unaddressed.

(4) We are dealing with a kind of false-consciousness in the souths, a la Thrasymachus in Republic I. Southern Anglicans believe they are being just by obeying the rules, when in fact they are merely serving ruling interests.

There is enormous potential for destruction here. The souths, operating from within a false consciousness about biblical interpretation et al are ready to go into schism, while neither therapy nor theology can dislodge the false consciousness. What to do?