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.


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