Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Griswold's Reflections

It may be worth pausing a moment over a sentence or two from Presiding Bishop Griswold's recent reflections on the September "Global South" and Camp Allen meetings. Griswold wrote

As much as we draw comfort from those who share our own point of view, it is important for us on all sides to realize that truth in its fullness cannot be contained in any one perspective.

So far as I can tell, Griswold is serious about the limited capacity of any merely human perspective "to realize truth in its fullness", and has voiced similar opinions throughout his tenure as Presiding Bishop. Indeed, his opinion here could hold as a kind of litmus test dividing Episcopalian separatist conservatives and pro-GC2003 progressives.

There is, of course, only one Truth, and that is God's self-understanding in the divine Word, which became incarnate and human in Jesus. Nothing else can be true, except by extension, for example as signifying a symbol for or an effect of or a participation in the one absolute Truth. It follows that whatever else is true is true only in a secondary and qualified way; viewed without qualification, anything other than the one Truth is absolutely false--indeed, absolutely nothing. That is quite a radical doctrine with a decidedly Platonic flavor, though nothing much more than the platonism already operative in Aquinas' metaphysics. It is difficult for me to imagine criticizing Griswold as liberal, much less a pluralist, for holding it.

The doctrine's implications are rather severe I think; among them: no merely human statement of Christian dogma can be final, immune to correction. That's not especially an epistemic point, to be prefaced with an operator like "so far as we can know here below." It is rather primarily an ontological point, pointing up an incapacity necessarily following on our being created, other than God. Take the Nicene Creed any which way you wish--you know ahead of time that however you take it, your understanding will not be true in the absolute sense. It may participate in truth, and may be better or worse than other understandings, but however far it goes, it cannot be final. To pretend otherwise is sheer foolishness, a pathetic attempt to usurp the Being of God. For any understanding finally true would imply an identity with God impossible to creatures. Hence the import of epistemic humility in matters theological, even matters touching the core of Christian belief. It is not especially a pagan virtue, as it rests on the assumption of creation ex nihilo which I do not imagine can be demonstrated by natural reason alone. Epistemic humility is an especially theological virtue, one following on being Christian in a full sense, i.e. not trying to usurp God's place even--lo--even in professing the Faith.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

a non sequitur from IRNS

If you agree that the escalating tensions in the Anglican Communion have something more to to with ecclesiology and especially authority, the series taking shape over at rathernot might be of special interest--though it is too early to say where he will go. Regardless, reflections on his topic should be welcome in our communion, especially when he gets around (if he does) to discussing biblical authority and the place of Scripture in the church.

This little bit caught my eye:

Nevertheless, a recognition of authority—or rather, in the case of a revealed religion, an agreed upon theology of authority—is certainly essential before it can be exercised. So before anyone gets around to wielding authority, it would be a good idea to clear up just what we Anglicans have supposed it is and see if we need to make any adjustments.

The tone in context seems to carry a touch of levity, so I am unsure whether it is fitting to invest this bit with authority, as if it expresses considered reflection. But suppose it does; it seems wrong, and the error, if error it be, is rather interesting.

If your hopes rest on some kind of classical liberal epistemology of optimism (yes I am still amazed at the distinguishged company Hayek keeps of late), the project in the quote might well make good sense. Lacking "complete certainty" about God's thought on authority, we might still look forward to "the plain sense" of "a definitive self-disclosure of God’s intention" about authority expressed in Scripture etc etc. Well and good, say.

But do we need the theology before authority can be exercised? No, or we would not have had a church, and there would be nothing relevant going on which we could have reflected in producing our theology of authority. But if authority gets exercised for a while, a long while indeed as the case may be, without there being a theology of any significant sort behind it, in what sense do we really need such a theology? A very fast and loose sense of "need" I should think. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking the project otiose.

However, as the Anglican Communion begins to centralize and sharpen the tools and implements of its institutional structure in the name of some kind of vision of catholicity or "affectionate fellowship," it needs some set of principles, some developed theology of authority that we can agree to, or at least recognize as tacit or implicit in the tradition of Anglican practices of exercising authority. The alternative? An unprincipled pow-wow of the in-group, a nightmare vision of Schmitt's political theology in action--well, a nightmare for a few: at least those on the outside serving to constitute the "in" identity via enforced exclusion. Consider those unfortunate few homosexiuals or their advoctates in Nigeria and Uganda and wherever else the Anglican Communion does its rent-seeking. Sounds like a principal-agent problem to me.

OK, OK--let's call it. The theology appropriate to authority in the Anglican Communion is already out there, and not just in Schmitt and Girard, but in classical liberal public choice economics. The evolving power dynamic in the AC explicitly jettisons truth for unity--absurd indeed if you think these convertible, as I do. Indeed, in sundering them, we lose goodness and beauty as well, leaving elements of the power calculus in public choice theory appropriate concepts for analysis by analogical extension. They are trying to force something after all, implying the Anglican Communion seeking a unity beyond its truth is profoundly against nature. But that won't keep many people who should know better from getting their hands dirty with it all. True, some labor in making the analogical extensions explicit is called for, but that labor is rather different from what IRNS calls for: philology of all things. That kind of labor sounds like it will likely yield something merely ideological, a bit of false-consciousness.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Nearing Rock Bottom

Archbishop Williams' appointment of Drexel Gomez to chair the Anglican Covenant committee is certainly provocative, as Gomez prima facie cannot be described as a neutral arbiter who like Williams is ready to set personal conviction aside in the interest of catholicity. Of course I may be wrong, but this appointment--at this time--is enough to drive some on the Anglican left, like me, who saw a covenant process as a reasonable way forward, near to despair. With Gomez in charge, it seems the covenant will have the sentiment of Lambeth 1.10 written in as a condition for full, normal communion. We will in effect have moved from the "Lambeth Quadrilateral" to the "Lambeth Pentagon," where what is now a partisan reading of Scripture will be taken as normative for the fullness of a church's Christian being. That would be a curious and deplorable turn of events, and one well worth resisting while there is an iota of a chance of success, and even after should the worst come to pass.

I cannot help but see Willaims' hand forced in all this by the current state of the Church of England. He cannot abide its disintegration, but probably feels that siding against Lambeth 1.10 would lead to the CoE's disintegration via schism with right wing evangelicals. For instance, Alpha et al have been enormously successful in promoting the evangelical wing of Anglicanism in England, whereas the Affirming Catholicism movement there as elsewhere simply has not kept up.

That is to say, the Anglican left is being forced to the wall by its failure to recommend its way of living Christianly and responding to the Gospel. The Episcopal Church may be somewhat different, inasmuch as our evangelicals remain a minority--still, TEC has not done well across the board evangelizing into its distinctive way of living Christianly. A future shift in the Anglican Communion from apostolic catholicity to enforced right-wing dogmatism would be part of a broader difficulty, one ranging widely within Christianity as a whole: the right wing in various forms increasingly dominates more and more of a shrinking pie as globally Christianity moves further and further into a post-Christian era, where numerical success increasingly comes at the intersection of evangelicalism and megachurch "wealth gospel" dreck of the Word Faith movement variety, signalling Christianity's near complete capitulation to the lifestyle of secular materialism.

Partly it may be that the cause of truth and justice--properly God's cause--seems to too many better pursued elsewhere, so that the secular minded may see little point in prayer, baptism, and eucharist. They may ask, what's the point of all that extra stuff, when what needs to be done is so clearly over here instead?

How well can you explain the difference being Christian makes, or being part of the Christian church makes, to those among the virtuous secular?

I know--and you may know as well--a number of young people in Gen Y and Z who are unbaptized, and have reached the age of reason and beyond oblivious to the church as they pursue their various laudable secular paths. When I have talked to them, they are shocked to see anyone educated entertaining Christian belief--or even theism. And that is as good a place for evangelism to dig in and start its work as anywhere alse. What would you say?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Alison's Toxic Meme

I. Alison's Bad News
Kendall Harmon of T19 is calling attention to this letter to the editor fropm retired Bishop C. Fitzsimons Alison of South Carolina, in which Alison writes

The troubles facing the Episcopal Church (and other denominations) have to do with being divided between two faiths. A new religion has arisen that uses the terminology of Christianity but is a serious alternative to it.

In particular, the Episcopal Church of today uses terms like "sin" and "redemption," yes--but with new meaning inconsistent with older, traditional usage. Thus,

This religion [that of contemporary Christianity? Or just mainline? Or what?] paid no attention to the psychiatrist Karl Menninger when he warned the churches about ignoring the essential human problem in his book, “Whatever Became of Sin?”

And (who can argue with the following truism?):

The churches that acknowledge the reality of sin and persist in their trust in forgiveness, redemption and salvation will not only survive but prevail.

Why draw your attention to Alison's little blurb? I think he speaks for many on the Anglican right--he is not alone in thinking that TEC has utterly lost an appreciation of sin's depth and danger, replacing concern for repentance with concern for self-realization. You could find simlar sentiments in Turner's "ECUSA's God" and Kimel's series on gnosticism in mainline Christianity. Suspicion over TEC's regard for sin is also behind some misgivings over the 1979 BCP's treatment of the Prayer of Humble Access, relegated there to optional status in one among many versions of the Holy Eucharist. They see GC2003 and GC2006 as consequences following on the heels of a theological shift over the Episcopal Church's understanding of sin and salvation. As long as they see things this way, wrangling over GC2003, GC2006, the Windsor Report and so on is rather beside the point--for those items are merely surface phenomena issuing from deeper realities, among which is this theological shift. If restraint over the actions of GC2003 is too much to ask, well, they might believe turning back the theological shift is all but impossible.

Thus, Simons can say this: Individuals can be reconciled but these two faiths cannot. Let that sink in, for I believe he speaks for great numbers on the Anglican right who are ready to leave now, and who were ready yesterday. It might be unrealistic to expect much of any high-level meetings between bishops of anyone else when one of the parties has Simon's mindset. What we may be witnessing are negotiations and discussions merely about the means, about the most prudent way to achieve a split--according to those shariong Simons' view, there is no longer a wish for unity between the right and left in TEC. Such unity is not on their agenda--period.

II. However....
Alison's "two faiths" or "two churches" meme is toxic mush. I'd guess he's being forced by events to speak before thinking things through properly. The right's "prophetic praxis" seeks justification, a rationale in TEC's purported Apostasy of Mass Destruction. That Apostasy just has to be around here somewhere. Have you seen it? Is it, as Harding seems to have suggested, in all those (really too many) references to the Holy Spirit he heard at GC2006? Or all those references to the love of God (the horror! The horror!)Turner heard in the preaching of young seminarians? Or maybe, just maybe this time Alison has found it. We're just too light on sin, too light for minimal orthodoxy.

But wait a minute. Simons says the two faiths cannot be reconciled; Simons implies it is impossible that those who see sin clearly and those turning a blind eye to it be reconciled.
How does that smell? Can Simons even say this and be serious about the evil of sin? Simons has done a measure of good work invigorating Nicene Christianity with "The Cruelty of Heresy" and articulating the need to take guilt seriously as a means to entering an ongoing growth in Christ structured by repentance and forgiveness; he rightly has no patience with those who would relocate Christianity to Borders' Self-Help section.

But it seems so many on the Right have an inadequate appreciation of evil's extent. Christian tradition does not limit individual guilt to the confines of merely individual agency; the sin I am responsible for is not merely that which I originate. Insofar as my being is relational and my being is stained in sin, I should expect my guilt is going to be tied up in those relational complexes of which I am a part: I may be carrying, contributing to and spreading dispositions to sin which I did not originate. The point may sound complex, but it is not and it has been a part of Christian tradition for a long time in the form of the notion of original sin. But even putting original sin and its permutations (e.g. in Kierkegaard) aside, consider someone born into the antebellum south socialized into an acceptance of slavery without having made a conscious choice about the matter. How many such dispositions might we be carrying around? The Right, here as elsewhere a witless victim of Enlightenment prejudice, underestimates the fragility of personal agency, and fails to recognize its limited relevance in moral formation: children are socialized into a wide array of morally relevant dispositions long before the age of reason.

Point? We may have to repent for a wide variety of sins we did not choose to commit, but which have infected us nevertheless, and this repentance will take us directly into confrontation with social injustice. Alison misjudges the form of TEC's understanding of sin, which includes his own but sees it alongside other sins of social injustice to which he chooses to remain blind. Seriousness about sin requires not dogged focus on the mere individual, a focus in thrall to a fetish of autonomous rational agency bizzare in Christian moralists, but on the individual as he and she actually are, embedded in and responsible for forms of life not of their own making.