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?


At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your whole answer seems to be predicated on this
"Christians cannot have absolute certainty about anything in their dogma outside a minimal core, the kerygma"

So again I ask why you hold to it.

I find it curiously at odds with the whole tenor of the Bible:
"In the beginning God might perhaps have created the world...."
"Thou shalt not commit adultery ... on the other hand there might be circumstances in which it is appropriate so we must judge each case on its merits"
No neither is in the spirit of the original.

More importantly, the Christians of the early New Testament had certainty in their beliefs, and more importantly for this discussion, that they could decide matters of dispute with certainty (see the Council of Jerusalem again.) Now I do not claim that certainty for myself -- or indeed for you -- or on the basis of Acts for either Peter or Paul -- but I do claim it for the leadership of our church when meeting and discussing an issue of moment with serious and prayerful consideration ie situations like Lambeth 98 (which, as an aside, is why the Lambeth decision is the important thing --- not all the background politically motivated fluff that was also produced which you think is so nice). I also accept that there are some issues where there is not certainty because the Bible itself does not present a united voice, but homosexuality is not one of those issues. The Bible is uniformly against homosexual unions, and uniformly for heterosexual marriage. I will point out that when Jesus spoke on this issue and said "God created them male and female ... man leaves his father and mother and united to his wife .. the two become one flesh" there wasn't a "perhaps", a "maybe" or "in some circumstances" in sight.

So I suggest you should be a little more uncertain of your uncertainty. I know you are reading this and thinking "How dreadfully unsophisticated" but then I read what you had written and thought "how terribly non-christian the basis of his philosophy is" You have swallowed the camel of an alien philosophy -- so I suppose it is not surprising that you strain at the gnats of church authority. The pity is that the ECUSA does not also believe in your uncertainty principle --- if it did it might have the humility to be more willing to listen to the voices of the overwhelming majority of the communion.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS I am now away on work for a few days -- just so you know I am not avoiding you when not answering immediately. No doubt others will take my place.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Take your time; I won't take silence as agreement in any case-- meanwhile I'll reply as best I can.

To the "In the beginning God might have created..." point: The Bible isn't in the same genre as the Summa Contra Gentiles, say. It's not a handbook of systematic theology, or even a repository of propsitional dogma, ready made to be extracted as-is.

Let's take the opening of Genesis (NRSV):
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."

Was there a when at creation? Is that even intelligible? Not to theologians like Augustine and Aquinas. But is there even a clear statement of creation ex nihilo here? No--formless void and darkness are givens for whatever God is doing here. And shall we identify God in any Person as wind? No, on pain of sin.

Well, what exactly is going on in those verses? Whatever it is, it is not simply there to be read.

Epistemic humility applies to our effort to extract definite meaning from Scripture. Scripture isn't always in that mode because it isn't always presenting propositional dogma. Likewise, "Please pass the steak," being neither true nor false, is not properly an utterance around which EH should operate. It makes no sense to say "For all I know, please pass the steak." Likewise with much of Scripture.

We have a more urgent difference where you say:
"I do claim it [certainty] for the leadership of our church when meeting and discussing an issue of moment with serious and prayerful consideration ie situations like Lambeth 98."
You may claim it, of course, but Lambeth cannot operate with such certainty on an issue like that of the permissibility of gay unions.

When you say
"The Bible is uniformly against homosexual unions, and uniformly for heterosexual marriage. I will point out that when Jesus spoke on this issue and said 'God created them male and female ... man leaves his father and mother and united to his wife .. the two become one flesh' there wasn't a 'perhaps', a 'maybe' or 'in some circumstances' in sight"
I reply by re-iterating the point that the Bible isn't a book of systematic theology; you've a genre mistake here. When you undertake to translate it into dogma, then, since you add something of your own to it by the very act of instantiating it in a new context, you are obligated to exercise humility.

My humility has two roots:
(1) Respect for divine omnipotence and freedom;
(2) recognition of my corrupt nature.
Neither (1) nor (2) are directly found in the Bible; they are evident rather from the Book of Nature. As there is only one truth, what natural reason can demonstrate must be consistent with faith--I hold this with Aquinas. Since it can be demonstrated by natural reason, I need not hold it with the kind of humility with which I hold to th e permissibility of gay unions.

Just because some truths can be demionstrated here below, it does not follow all truths can be demonstrated here below.

At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear! I had got home from my trip looking forward to a considered, thinking reply from you ... and I got this.

Well --- I don't think there is any point in us continuing to debate actually. Since you dismiss the Bible simply because it isn't a book of systematic theology (and prefer the Book of Nature because of why exactly??)-- despite the fact that Jesus seemed to find the Bible totally adequate in its ability to clearly define what people should hold to, well really we don't have any common ground on which to discuss things.

I have no doubt that you will continue to believe that you are right (despite your protestations towards uncertainty) regardless of anything that I can say.

I hope you find your "Book of Nature" satisfies you in the long term. I think though you need to re-evaluate what you think of yourself as being. Someone who is as far from Christ as you can hardly be called a Christian. Perhaps a Naturalian ... but I will leave that to you.

At 11:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS I think it was that dreadful person called C S Lewis who once said that a person holding views like yours should be extremely careful what they read. Can I suggest you make sure you never ever ever read the final part of the book of Job (but of course you are sophisticated enough to know that is a mere fable and not of any value anyway). You might find a real challenge to your uncertainty there.

At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scotist, what use is it? When the "debate" always ends this way: "reappraisers" are "far from Christ," and it's simply not worth discussing the matter any longer.

This is exactly the same response the "Communion" gave to faithful gay and lesbian Christians at Lambeth 98, in fact. Discussion is and will be henceforth foreclosed, because we are pagans and heretics and not worth any further effort.

At least Anonymous has made it clear that this is a definite pattern. There just isn't any way in - which IMO is why we need to move on.

- bls

At 5:50 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Do not despair! I am confident you can overcome your unfamiliarity with these ideas and conduct yourself accordingly. And I am flattered with your concern for my soul; you are truly your brother's keeper. And thank you too for calling for me to re-evaluate myself--of course you are right: we are each always repenting and returning to Christ. You are always welcome to share pastoral advice--as you see, you have my thanks. But let us return to the business of theology, shall we?

"The Book of Nature" is Stephen Holmgren's phrase for conclusions drawn from natural theology. I believe we mentioned him before.

As there can only be one truth, natural reason and faith cannot contradict. Thus, conclusions demonstrated in natural theology are consistent with whatever the faith can demand here below.

To paraphrase Aquinas, grace completes nature without contradicting it--natural reason, and the conclusions of natural theology are premables to faith which are essentially incomplete.

Thus, do not fear, anon: whereas I cannot help but start with natural reason and the Book of Nature--and neither can you--we cannot be satisfied with that alone.

Finally, I am intrigued by your mention of Job. Do not be shy--go ahead and say some more. You have done so well up to this point upholding your argument--with embarassingly abundant Christian charity I might add--that I can hardly sit still imagining what you would make of Job's story. Please continue!

At 5:53 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Perhaps you are right--anon's sharp spiciness might just be defeated sarcasm rather than the salt of the earth in disguise. But let's give him a chance to clarify his efforts. Let us hope all things!

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear! I arrived at this thread, and on the basis of your first two posts, anon, and Scotist's considered response, was looking forward to an intelligent (and Anglican) discussion . . . and instead I read your snippy ad hominems against Scoty.

Pity you so certainly remain in your sins...

Praise Christ who forgives us all anyway! :-D

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Scotist,
I want to thank you for reviving the term "epistemic humility" and if you haven't yet had a chance to take a look at it, to peruse my short essay The Anglican Triad which is an effort at placing this form of humility within the Anglican framework (from which things like Lambeth 1998.1.10 so definitely depart...)


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