Saturday, July 29, 2006

Anglican Moderation: Alan Jones

I do not expect Alan Jones will change many minds with Common Prayer on Common Ground. It lacks the tone of aggressive apologetic; it lacks trenchant argument. In fact, it may seem on the surface to be a rather delicate read, a bubbling over of fine sentiment rather untimely in our age of raised voices and unashamed invective. But he has an important point to make, one strong enough to fend for itself once he lets it loose.

I. Seeking a Middle Way

Jones professes to be an Anglican moderate, neither liberal nor conservative, and he invites us to join him there, apart from either pole. The liberals "believe the church--with its stand on inclusion and its radical vision of hospitality--is becoming more prophetic" while the conservatives believe the church "has lost its way and the liberals mistake pathology for prophecy" (1-2); "both sides" says Jones "need to repent" (2).

Liberals, he is worried, mistakenly elevate human moral autonomy as a good and picture Christians as individual atoms (4). They are losing their sense of divine transcendence as well as their respect for Christian tradition (5). He warns them (31) "the opposite of absolutism is not open-mindedness but relativism," which will undermine the Christian life. He believes conservatives, not able in practice to reconcile certainty and tolerance, are vulnerable to an "unworkable and disastrous" temptation to bring back an idealized past (31). Anxious to anchor faith to the right set of propositions they tend to forget "We need poetry and metaphor to express these great mysteries" (28) of the Christian faith.

Both sides have been affected and indeed overly-impressed by what Jones calls "scientific rationalism," an orientation of basic trust in science's ability to meet human need, especially that for intelligibility in terms of discrete propositions. Scientific investigation delving further and deeper into the mechanisms behind our closed, merely material reality will "get to the bottom of things," and its standards are the standards for legitimate inquiry and knowledge (14-15, 18-19). Thus we find that conservatives seek a formulation, indeed the single legitimate formulation of the faith in terms of propositions while liberals take on board science's mistrust for religious mystery--each camp in its way has yielded too much to the spirit of the age, and that very fact contributes to our current unpleasantness.

II. Anglican Orthopraxis

But they should not have such trust in the standards of scientific rationalism--for one thing, science fails to deliver the intended goods, Jones notes, on its own grounds. There is simply no way to extricate myth from human life, even from scientific investigation. Science must always be carried on from within a "big picture" which in turn cannot be established by scientific method; this is true even in the case where one holds "there is no big picture". For then "The sory is that there is no big-picture story" (29). Thus, "A vision of the whole and communion within it is built into the fabric of things" including science (29). If we are not self-consciously critical about the big-picture within which we carry on, we will end up accepting one by default--e.g. refusing religious myth merely lands one firmly within the "market myth" of materialistic consumption. Moreover, the idea that scientific investigation can proceed from a stratum of neutral, uninterpreted facts is simply naive. No such items can serve as standards against which to falsify or verify human truth claims. Like it or not, we must leave room for myth, and the mystery that goes with it.

Christians should not be ashamed at beginning from "the awesome mystery of God, which cannot be put into words" (20). The creeds, referring to incarnation, redemption, and communion, do not attempt to pin down and comprehend the mystery of God and what God has done, but rather "initiate a never ending conversation, a journey into mystery" (20). Christians are drawn into relationship with the Person of Christ, not an abstract Idea (21)--the reality of that Person cannot be finally expressed in any collection of propositions. This insufficiency in the face of divine reality is what God's revelation as "transcendent mystery" implies (25).

The proper response to God so revealed is reverence, worship. Anglican tradition takes orthodoxy "as affirming a mystery that elicits worship..." (20); indeed, worship is part of "a moral response" that God's revelation to us demands. Thus, "Since we can say true things falsely, the test of anyone's orthodoxy lies in orthopraxis"--right belief will result "in the development of a certain kind of character" (20). Such development within teh context of worship is part of the Spirit's work (34-35), so we can affirm "the kind of orthodoxy that takes no account of the moral life but only of verbal assent is obscene" (19).

The community of Christian worship, united in the practice of worship and the formation of moral character that proceeds from worship, takes priority over the propositinal correctness of belief. Since propositional correctness will always elude us as a community, our worship must call us into continuing together in humility. Jones writes, "Anglican tentativeness before mystery--rooted not in muddle but in awe--is a sign of strength, not weakness" (16). We should "stay together patiently in love, resisting the urge to parade convictions and go off" to do our own things (8), each sude acknowledging to the other that in the questions currently dividing us "...we may be wrong. We are open to correction. We long for civil and, if need be, contentious conversation" (23).


At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, sounds like there's some good material in there, but:

a) he's got a distorted view of liberalism: there's nothing wrong with relativism (with good guidance) and even less with open-mindedness. This is not the first book I've read that's prompted me to justify a liberal position. For one thing, it's a camp in which all comers are welcome, which I can't say for many other possibilities.

b) he's right that conservatives need to balance absolutism with the practice of tolerance. This is actually a *huge* danger with the rising evo/fundamentalist movements in the US and Nigeria, that actually Christianity will be reduced to a name for a bunch of ticks-in-boxes on specific issues, rather than a transcending means to bring the world and God closer together - where then will people learn to follow Jesus not just a political cause?;

c) he's been listening too much to pop-"science"-dramatists/historians and not dealing with enough real scientists. The scientific world is grounded in reality through experiment (good) and well aware of its own limitations (good) and of the potential for the body of knowledge to evolve in the future (good). The point at which you start trying to make this out to be on a par with religious thought is the point where you start going wrong. He's right about worship, of course, at least as long as he respects that not everyone gets their triggers the same way. (Hey, I *like* knowing the earth goes approximately round the sun, thankin' you!)

For another book in a similar placement, consider Brian McLaren's _A Geneous Orthodoxy_.

At 2:23 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for your comment.

I'm not sure who in particular "liberalism" picks out; I wish he had named a theologian or school: Tillich? Tracy? I'm not sure though either of those guys would be moral relativists. Anyhow, I am going to have to disagree with you on moral relativism: I think there is cause for concern (though I am not sure liberalism is committed to it).

You are perfectly right to say a good scientist would not fall under Jones' heading of "scientific rationalist."

Still, there are plenty of Naturalists who believe the physical world is causally closed, and that modern science requires such a picture; these guys include philosophers of science who in no way are pop-scientists or historians. I think Jones' target is that world-view, Naturalism, rather than science in particular.

As to the necessaity of a big picture or myth, although Jones does not elaborate, he could have cited late Wittgenstein or the now late DZ Philips: any linguistic practice whatsoever must be embedded in a non-linguistic way of life in order to be intelligible. As philosophy, that is a contested point to be sure, but not one to be dismissed lightly.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Closed said...


In reflecting on why St. Maximos offered two creations, the first being like the Eschaton and in which we were without sex, I have long focused like so many on his seeming negativity about sexual reproduction, and perhaps his monasticism led to such a negativity. Now, I get that that wasn't his point at all--it's not about sex but eschatological freedom being present to us from the beginning to work with God to become images. He was making eschatological freedom present from the beginning, in the present, and in the end. Our fall is from the side of the Eschaton in which we turned/turn against ourselves, one another, and God, and failed to increase in the Logos and the Spirit as St. Symeon the New Theologian tells us. But that working with God as friends, by grace we can become images, showing something of God's character--virtues, the greatest being love. And that a fall in the Calvinist mode requires an alien invasion of God, rather than God continuing to work through the history of Israel, Mary's "yes", which led to the Incarnation.

This opens way for a continuing understanding of Creation, in which as another Hebrew translation would render "God began to create". Not just Naturalists but many Christians have conceived of the world as causally closed...and harken back to a golden age, rather than that that Golden Age was/is/will be the Eschaton in which who we shall be is already present to us by the Spirit. This closed causality goes hand in hand with the Calivinist tendency to posit a closed Creation in the past from which we so terribly fell, that we depraved, and now covered, must simply follow commands, for there is nothing in us by which we can figure out truth and natural law at all. It also goes with an emphasis on the sovereignty of God. There is no freedom in such a view, and sin becomes simply breaking the rules harkening to a past, rather than working with God in the present, and learning through our discovery, yes, even through sin, as St. Paul tells us.

I say this as a one who had to learn by discovery and sin what it begins to mean to love another in sexual relationship when the rules failed to provide adequate guidance.

I hope that makes some sense; I just thought about that in reading a highly Calvinist take on sex and marriage at the bookstore which seemed like we are doomed to the fate of God's rules in the past, rather than to having to discover what in fact is the nature law that loves one's neighbours as oneself, which the Cross is perhaps the best starting point.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Annie said...

I appreciate your review, however I don't believe I'll buy it.

I don't understand when the conservative side latched onto the claim of being spiritual while they spent the first three years of the debate denying any possible input from the Holy Spirit. And, by the same token, why the most spiritual Christians I know tend to fall to the liberal side of the spectrum.

Yet, I will agree that both sides have something to repent for. And, I share a middle ground position--but it has to do with that repenting and with a peculiar tendency for people to be myopic in confrontation.


At 10:31 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Thanks for writing in; I should have been clearer about Jones' tacit distinction between being on the left and being liberal. One can be firmly on the left without being liberal--the qualifying mark of liberalism being relativism or pluralism. Liberalism is just one species among others that are quite different--like the Affirming Catholicism group with whom (I would guess) Jones has much sympathy.

Much conservative Anglican spirituality seems to center on the glorification of catholicity and tradition; TEC has moved decisively away from that whole vision of "church as bulwark."

At 10:33 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


That is very interesting; I'm gonna need a moment to ponder that. You've got a very Orthodox streak going for a Benedictine, no?

At 10:37 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Then again, it strikes me on reflection that Jones' rather apophatic Anglo-catholicism centered on ineffable mystery is really better described through an Orthodox spiritual lens than a Roman Catholic one. Indeed, the whole Affirming Catholic movement, or at least a large segment, might be better understood in such terms.

If so, a key question for Affirming Catholics here and about: what is catholicity in practice absent a magesterium, a confession, and as in the Eastern Church, a controlling weight of tradition?

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Closed said...


I'll be writing a more shall we say systematic post on this soon--I think it frees up to think about continuing Creation in a way similar to what James Alison does in "On Being Liked".

Yes, I have a deeply Eastern streak in me; I would say that Augustine is in fact akin to some of the desert elders in his pschologizing though I prefer Cassian mostly (who influenced Benedict) because he went deeper than sex in his exploration of our distortions of desire. And then again, Benedictine tradition has its roots in the the desert through Cassian. :-) It's the understanding of icon and the apophatic through St. P-Denys and then a whole host of the East that I tend to theologize.

I think absent a magesterium, a confession, and weight of tradition, we have our common life of prayer in Office and Eucharist, and an understanding authority always tempered by humility.

At 12:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both sides have been affected and indeed overly-impressed by what Jones calls "scientific rationalism," an orientation of basic trust in science's ability to meet human need, especially that for intelligibility in terms of discrete propositions. Scientific investigation delving further and deeper into the mechanisms behind our closed, merely material reality will "get to the bottom of things," and its standards are the standards for legitimate inquiry and knowledge (14-15, 18-19). Thus we find that conservatives seek a formulation, indeed the single legitimate formulation of the faith in terms of propositions

A reliance on propositional truth is one side of it...

...but the other, particularly in America (but you're also seeing it in Africa now), is a rationalist dependence on the market.

When a conservative decries "the World", they often are referring to phenemenon which, when unpacked, can be described in terms of the market. If "the World is going to Hell in a handbasket", it's only because the fallen are buying so many handbaskets...

...but yet, AT THE SAME TIME, they propose to "prove" their truth-claims, using the same market forces! (I just heard today that, IIRC, the Dio. Fort Worth websit is touting statistics that "pro-gay" dioceses are losing members, while anti-Gene Robinson dioceses are gaining).

Make up your mind, friends: the market can't be the Devil's Work, when it comes to people buying pornography, yet on the side of the angels, when it's the packing 'em in of a megachurch (Maybe some of the same people are doing both? *g*)

I think true epistemic humility would ALWAYS maintain a skepticism of the market (50 million Frenchman---OR 59 million Bush voters---can be wrong!) . . . without desparaging the culture just because it's a "pop" part of it. Test and see! :-D

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Closed said...


Check out AKMA on consensus. This conflation no matter how subtle of consensus with objectivity and truth is a continually troubling thing in the current discussions. It seems to me that the term masks a great deal of disagreement among Anglicans by trying to defer disharmony and at the same time masks dealing with the suffering of fellow Christians in favor of arriving at a worked out theory before we can move at all so that unity and uniformity are one. But Christianity has never been this way nor has it changed this way and such thinking is an ahistorical tendency of systematic theology.

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JCF wrote, "Make up your mind, friends: the market can't be the Devil's Work, when it comes to people buying pornography, yet on the side of the angels, when it's the packing 'em in of a megachurch"

Which may be my major pet peeve with the evangelical megachurch movement. It's the shallow, crassness of it all. "Church" dished out like a product at Wal-Mart for materialistic, conservative suburbanites.

"(Maybe some of the same people are doing both? *g*)"

Oh Lordy, Lordy... Jimmy Swaggart, et al. Wouldn't be surprising, given the cheap, easy "grace" marketed at those places (and I chose the word "marketed" on purpose :)


Post a Comment

<< Home