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.


At 6:35 PM, Blogger Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks you AS for the customary wit and wisdom. Perhaps put more simply, isn't epistemic humility a species of willingness to apply the caveat of the Article, "the Church... hath erred" to oneself as well as the tradition? I would summarize my own position in that way; I think the "tradition" has erred in its understanding of human sexuality, but I could be mistaken. The problem with epistemic hubris is summed up in an infallible present that rests upon an infallible past. Surely Anglicans, if anything, would find such a world-view difficult!
Thanks again.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Closed said...

More to the point epistemic humility applies the doctrine of Original Sin to one'sself. What has happened is this:

Gay folk are accused constantly that our falling in love with members of the same sex is part of our fallen/original sin self (false self) formed in alienation from G-d and not a part of our redeemed self (true self). And we internalize that quite well, at least many of us do, but we find that that internalization is alien to who G-d calls us to be. But because we have that internalization, we always have to ask and consider that we might be wrong.

However, those who make this claim often do not have that blessed sense of uncertainty--claiming love of sinner, hate of sin that fails to acknowledge that their sense of the matter might in fact be the sin in this case, that is we must also consider the possibility that because all of us are fallen, we have misapprehended Reality/Truth, that gayness (this falling in love with the same sex and forming households of ascesis) is not fallen, but that we are in our fallen interacting of our lives together treat it (and those who display it) as such to the grave harm of those who find themselves gay. If that is the case, we might want to consider a little uncertainty on our part lest we cause immeasurable harm to sisters and brothers. I have seen very few such displays.

The best place to observe this is in the commnity that comes before the Most High in thanks and praise to partake in the redeemed nature each Sunday in Holy Eucharist. This is the lab, so to speak. And it is the act in which Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are placed in the ongoing life of the Church. None of these can be abstracted from our central rite which is our theologizing par excellence.

If we find over time through grace gay people becoming heterosexual or celibate, turning away from their false self of homosexual to their true self as heterosexual, we should expect gains in sense of self worth, greater upbuilding of the community, more transparency, the abandoning of partners as enriching, and even the possibility in time of taking on an opposite sex partner...

But if we find over time through grace gay people come out, gain in sense of self worth, respond due to call to become a religious or fall in love with another of the same sex, become more transparent, form families that upbuild one another and the community, growth in the virtues we might at least want to have the humility to consider that this flourishing is in contradiction to saying this is a "false self" and step back for further study rather than (re)asserting the tradition on the matter with overdue certainty.

You are correct, liturgy is where it's at. And many Episcopalians worshipping with gay folk over time have come to discover how they simply become more fully human, images of G-d, as gay folk and all that that entails.

At 4:59 PM, Blogger Contarini said...

I agree with your defense of epistemic humility. My problem with ECUSA's position is precisely that it seems to lack epistemic humility about itself. Either Episcopalians (i.e., the leaders who craft the current policies and the apparent majority who support them) are absolutely certain that the actions in question are God's will or they aren't. If they aren't, then their persistence against the wishes of most of those with whom they have been hitherto in communion--their willingness to tear further the already tattered unity of the Church based on something about which they are not sure--is nothing short of horrifying.

But if they are sure, then how are they practicing epistemic humility? Or does epistemic humility only apply to those beliefs that come from the Tradition, leaving intact certainties that derive from contemporary cultural values? That is what appears to me to be the case. And that is my single biggest issue with the Episcopal Church.

That being said, I think christopher's comments are quite profound and deserve further thought. For what it's worth, I do think that I could be wrong in my view of same-sex erotic relationships. Indeed, I've reexamined my views repeatedly in the past few years. So far, the more I examine the issue the more clearly it appears to me that the arguments for the legitimacy of such relationships depend on numerous assumptions about human nature and human sexuality that conflict fundamentally with historic Christianity. But I remain willing to be persuaded otherwise. This is one of the reasons why I remain (however tentatively and uncertainly) an Episcopalian. I might quite possibly feel called to join a community of some other affiliation if I lived elsewhere. But I am unwilling to break away from those with whom I currently worship.

Christopher, are you familiar with the work of James Alison? I've been reading his _Raising Abel_ and then discovered that he had written a book specifically on being gay (Faith beyond Resentment). I have only read the beginning of this work, but so far he seems to be making a rather similar argument to yours. If anyone could persuade me to change my mind on this issue, it's probably Alison!

One final note: a problem I see with your appeal to experience is that it rules out from the start the testimonies of those who who do claim to experience grace through accepting the "disordered" nature of their desires for members of the same sex. This would include both those who embrace a life of celibacy (together with the belief that it would be wrong for them to act on their sexual desires--obviously, as you and Alison both note, there are many gay people who live celibate lives while believing that their sexual desires are in principle legitimate) and the "ex-gays" who claim to have overcome their desires enough to enter into heterosexual marriage. You ask (rightly) that we conservatives take into account the testimony of grace in the lives of those who feel called to embrace their same-sex desires as part of their God-given identity. But you cannot ask us to rule out from the start the conflicting testimonies of those who claim to have experienced grace through renouncing same-sex erotic relationships.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Brother Haller,

Thank you for your response--epistemic humility in ECUSA is, pace Harding, more than an insincere pose and more than part of a political power play. It seems to me to be part of virtue, which would always have us regard ourselves and our place in relation to God properly.

At 5:40 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I have heard the kind of polemic to which you refer, and I agree with your response. Those who dismiss and condemn homosexual love simply as symptomatic of the fallen fallen self seem to conveniently forget their own fallen heterosexual status--ironic in view of the beginning of Romans 2, which warns against just that error.

Or, to put it another way, finger pointing heterosexuals condemning homosexuality tout court the way we condemn grand larceny pretend their own sexuality is not terminally infected by fallenness; recall Augustine's animus for even str8 sexd aimed at procreation.

They seem to have precious little sense for their epistemic position: rarely do I hear Harmon, Witt, etc preface their remarks with "For all I know...." or "As best we can tell right now...."
, i.e. with the proper qualifications that are the mark of scholarly integrity.

We repent of more than we can leave behind when we live in the weekly liturgy the Church with its rhythym of death to self and rising again with Christ; God takes us in our shallow, ongoing repentence as the struggling ambiguities we are, str8 or gay.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


ECUSA's leadership has a horrible track record on social justice--the Episcopal rank and file has had to drag the leadership kicking and screaming into doing the right thing time and again (e.g. oppression of blacks, and women).

This time, with gays, the leadership exhibited a learning curve--they are doing justice, they would say, with the proper gravity and zeal. That gravity and zeal does not imply epistemic hubris--why not?

Nothing of what they have done at GC2003 is immune to counter-revision, oddly enough. ECUSA has not written the permissibility of gay unions into its esse--could it? Still, it must do justice on the issue of gay unions, regardless of uncertainty, for its worship to be valid; surely ECUSA's leadership has indeed made a sincere effort.

I know what you might say: "Bah! Any attempt to 'counterrevise' gay unions out would be met with massive opposition!" Well, yes, but that just illustrates the genuine consensus fidelium of ECUSA.

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Closed said...


I draw my arguments in this largely from James Alison, OP with some of my own thinking on Chalcedon tossed in besides. His work, "The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes" is seminal. He's not asking to convince so much as asking for honest assessment sans the emotional attacks, honest assessments all things equal comparing ego-synotonic and ego-dystonic homosexuals, comparing celibate, partnered, promiscuous homosexuals (who can be both syntonic and dystonic in each case) AND doing the same with heterosexuals. Given that gay folk often flourish under adversity that includes threat to body, we might find that others than ourselves are disordered, so yes, there is conflicting testimony at this time, and there may be flourishing in more than place, but we can consider degree. We can look at the ex-gay claims which now tend to admit not change of desire but change of action. And we must recognize that sexuality is complex, not simply either/or, gay/straight for some people. We can look at the continuum in celibacy, after all some people are called to celibacy, gay or straight. And we can look at same sex couples. I'm not asking you to rule out, but I haven't seen much ruling in from conservatives. Do you have gay couples in your parish? Do you observe them? Have you had dinner with them? Have you asked them about their lives? Given the current heterosexist state of affairs even making such measurements happens in increments, many folks dystonic and syntonic are closeted, but I don't see much effort to open doors, be silent, hold off judging, and be prepared to consider being wrong. I, however, live with that possibility.

BTW: This is not simply an appeal to experience per se as to natural law given that in a catholic anthropology as Alison notes, our creation is not separated from our salvation, such that we are capable by grace over time of becoming more who we were fully intended to be (true self) rather than remain in our Original Sin.

As to assumptions in tradition, I have found what is conservative may not always be traditional, nor orthodox with regard to gender and sexuality. For example, assuming human gender categories of essentialism in the Trinity is contra Chalcedon and in Jesus' humanity that that are projections of a modern anthropology rather than tradition as defined at say Chalcedon.

As for sexuality proper, a great thrust of the tradition tends to have decided sex is for procreation and is to be dispassionate, and if possible the couple would eventually give up sex altogether. This rules out not only artificial contraception but the rhythm method, after all Lambeth 1930 and Humanae Vitae are innovations--I think developments of the Tradition, but nonetheless not consonant with say Augustine or Aquinas. I don't hear of many heterosexual Anglicans wanting to live out this trajectory.

As for epistemic humility, why is absolute certainty needed to go ahead? Faith is to some degree taking a risk. I do think my proposal would open way for us to continue discernment together without schism on the whole at this time, but it would require heterosexuals to sacrifice, rather than simply continue to oppress queer folk.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Contarini said...


I didn't know Alison was a Dominican. I look forward to reading _The Joy of Being Wrong_.

Yes, there is at least one gay couple in the parish I attend. And while I don't claim to have spent a lot of time with them (they go to the 10 AM service and I go at 8), I have had quite a few conversations with one of them in particular, and I've had the opportunity to discover at least something about his life. Ironically, I first got to know him from a discussion group that met in the fall of 2003 to discuss the controversy over Robinson's election. Given the circumstances, and the fact that I expressed my conservative views in that group, I think his unfailing kindness and friendliness to me since then is a great testimony to the grace of God in his life. So yes, I do know how powerful this kind of testimony (of which you and Alison speak) can be. I have not changed my views, but knowing this brother in Christ has certainly given me far more of an incentive to reconsider them than I ever had before.


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