Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Open Communion and Time

Again CWOB is in the news, and however tempting I do not want to revisit my old arguments. Rather, I wish to add a note about how time seems to be conceived in the debate. I'll keep it brief.

"Time" is hardly a univocal term. It can refer to the passage of minutes, hours, days, months, and years in orderly, predictable succession: a march of carefully arranged units that most of us count on in organizing our daily lives. So, for instance, it is a mark of sanity to recognize that it is 2011 rather than 1911; the man who habitually cannot remember what time it is endangers his job, his relationships, his well being. It is perfectly normal to conceive of one's life set out in these conventional units, so that one may plan accordingly the upcoming weekend's festivities, class prep for next semester, next May's wedding, paying off the mortgage, retirement. One may take this sense of time to be exhaustive, to be all there really is to time.

Of course, one might recognize that time is experienced differently from how it is measured in regular units. The animated conversation makes the car trip back home much shorter than the ride up alone, though "strictly speaking" the trip took the same time both ways. Or one may wish to argue the metaphysics of ordinary time; should we be three or four dimensionalists, say? It is unsurprising that "time" has many senses.

But among the various senses enumerated, I think it is safe to say the ordinary sense of "time" divided and subdivided into regular units has a kind of priority; it is the one we take to be most real, most pressing--the one to which we must be prepared to answer.

No doubt the debate over CWOB takes the ordinary sense of time for granted, as--so far as I can tell--unquestioned background. There is to be a regular sequence in the normal reception of Communion: Baptism then Communion. Or better: Baptism & Instruction in some sequence with Confirmation, and then Communion. The notion of a sequence requires the notion--or better, a notion--of time, inescapably. And at just this point it seems to me we typically read our ordinary notion of time as the proper notion through which to conceive the sequence in question.

That reading is tempting and eminently understandable--hardly anything to run off to Confession over--but it is also a textbook case of eisegesis, of reading into old notions (like Baptism and Communion) contemporary ideas (about time) that are foreign to the old notions. The old notions are at home with events like the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36), the climactic vision of Stephen at his martyrdom (Acts 7:56), and not much later, the idea of the copresence of the timeless eternal to the mundane flux of the world here below. The old notions are at home with such things because the old notions were conceived through a different idea of time from that we take for granted. On the pre-modern idea of time, the flow of time in ordinary life is permeable at every point to interpenetration by the eternal; such a thing makes no sense on our modern conception of time. Indeed, we might feel sorely pressed to demythologize here, rejecting the notion of a timeless eternity, and reading the Transfiguration and Stephen's vision as not implying anything about copresence: eisegesis.

I mention this point as context for discussing CWOB. Maybe the pre-modern idea of time is wrong in such a way that it must be dropped from serious theology, but maybe not. I want to see the argument. That pre-modern idea sits well, after all, with the notion that Communion has an eschatological side, a notion that I think carries wide acceptance, but which can only be read as poetic, i.e. can only be deflated, by one who will accept only the modern notion of ordinary time, divided up into regular units.

Monday, September 06, 2010

What do we mean by "God"?

Here Archbishop Williams speaks with Richard Dawkins, making the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Virgin birth sound like "poetic language"--which is not, I gather, how he would have wanted to come across after being edited. "Nature opening up to its own depths" can be understood in other ways, but would Williams agree with Dawkins that the Church is committed to it as a "statement of fact" that is true or else false? Just what did Williams mean to say?

Some (see the comments) have responded to Dawkins on God by saying, or agreeing with the saying that "I don't believe in the God that Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in, either." OK, fine, but then what God are we talking about? Is there a consensus among the faithful or are we each stumbling in the divine darkness? As with Williams, an important part of the content of the faith, referred to in the Quadrilateral and in the Creeds, seems to be read in a new way; in just what way is it being read?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

On Paul Jones

Paul Jones, I think we can all agree, was right to oppose American involvement in World War I in 1917, and the HoB was gravely mistaken in calling, as a result, for his resignation. If you seek the causes of WWI, you will likely dig up a standard list fairly near the surface: a system of alliances, competition among imperialist powers for a greater slice of the economic pie, et cetera. But the catastrophic bloodletting, the unprecedented violence, the sheer magnitude of death and injury, were grotesquely out of proportion to the causes; WWI is a paradigm case of wasted life, young men charging into machine gun fire for nothing: human wreckage. Alas, in 1918 he was alone in being pressured to resign for his anti-war stand.

Between now and then we do not seem to have learned very much about war. The current Iraq War--or whatever that obscenity is now that, mirabile dictu, combat operations (or is that "combat operations"?) have ceased--is another case of a war fought for nothing, a war whose evil is grotesquely out of proportion to its justification. I have heard it said that around the time of the first Iraq War, soon after the fall of the Eastern bloc, quite apart from the accidental doctrine of the preemptive strike that featured later under Bush II, the Rubicon had been crossed; we would live under an international political and economic "order" based on a magnitude of death and destruction that can only come from war.

As far as I can tell, opposition from churches, from Christendom as a whole, has had no effect on that order, or just about as much effect as the witness of Bishop Jones. Perhaps it might have had an effect; one may imagine some anti-war movement of a size and intensity commanding political power sufficient to have prevented the war or forced a withdrawal. I am not so sure though; I am not sure the anti-war movement had much an effect on the conduct of the Vietnam War, especially after Kent State. Moreover, actual Christianity as a whole has been disproportionately quiet on the Iraq wars--and the Afganistan war; it's hard to picture such a fractured, self-obsessed body rousing itself to anything so immediately significant and controversial.

Do we have anything cogent to say about war? Why would a serious person whose time is scarce pay any attention to anything any Christian church has to say about the Iraq wars, or any war for that matter? I am tempted to fall back on a Papal this or an NCC that, but come on. That stuff hits with a thud, as well it should; people take churchbabble about as seriously as Rowan Williams takes his piece on the body's grace. It seems a case could be made for a rather sad a priori: most any given church will either be firmly on the side of those profitting from the carnage, as the Episcopal Church was in the time of Paul Jones, or it will be near to the last to arrive at skepticism or disapproval, if it is, or once it has become, common sense. As an aside, I wonder how far such an a priori could be applied, suitably modified, to other hot issues. Such wonder is not idle, inasmuch as people inferring unreliablity from that a priori may well feel justified in extending skepticism to the Gospel, or to whatever the churches seem to be saying these days about Jesus. And who can blame them? You should know the smell of bullshit is going to travel.

It is difficult to prise a simple lesson from the witness of Bishop Jones, except to say that in spite of the HoB's error then, and the torpor of the churches now, his witness was right and good, in spite of his being alone, and such a witness would be right and good today as well, whatever would befall the churches.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Natural Law in Aquinas (ST I-II); Part 1

I have promised something here in defense of natural law, in hope that it can be used as a basis for arguing in favor of, say, blessing same sex unions. Since natural law theory has been used in the past--indeed, seems typically to have been used in the past--to defend conservative moral positions in the Christian community, one might well wonder whether my hope is simply misplaced. What can I say? The proof is in the pudding; if I can produce a defensible version of natural law theory that does the work I hope it can do while resisting the use conservatives might wish to make of it, I think my work will be done.

We might approach the topic of natural law in Aquinas with what he calls the eternal law; taking a Christian starting point for granted, there is nothing to obstruct starting with God. The eternal law is “the plan of governance of the world existing in God as the ruler of the universe” (Q91 a1 resp)—basically the decree from eternity that God has ordained in his providential care for his creation. Given God’s providence, his reason will rule over creation, but a law just is “a dictate of practical reason by a ruler who governs a perfect community.” (ibid) Thus, there exists, Aquinas claims, a law governing creation—an eternal law, as God’s plan is conceived timelessly, from eternity.

A neat little argument, but coming “from above” it might seem just a bit too neat, even a bit presumptuous. Supposing God creates, who am I—who are you—to say that God must have a law, decreed from eternity, that constitutes his providential design? Can we be sure there is no other way? I think Aquinas would say that given God’s activity as creator, God will have some intention about what to create, and that this intention—what God intends to create—will constitute the decree of eternal law.

One could still resist the argument, of course, by rejecting Aquinas’ perfect being theology: denying, in effect, that God is an eternal creator. Indeed, I suspect such a rejection would gather much favor among contemporary Christians across the political spectrum. One intent on defending natural law theory may find it necessary, as a practical matter, to find some other starting point while eliminating, if at all possible, controversial talk of an eternal law.

I will save the development of such a defense for another occasion; for now, I am more interested in the uneasiness one might have with Aquinas’ argument from worries about evil. Given the manifold atrocities, say, of just the last century, of Hiroshima, of the Holocaust, of numerous other genocides, of the advent of totalitarian regimes and the rise of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, one might ask whether there is any evidence supporting divine providence, supporting the existence of an eternal law. Aquinas’ approach here, proceeding from above, might be seen as intensifying doubt about the reality of the eternal law; he seems to miss the problem. But consider what Aquinas says:

…the end of God’s governance is God himself, and his law is indistinguishable from himself. And so the eternal law is not ordained to another end. (Q91 a1 ad3)

Part of what this means, I think, is that the eternal law is not decreed to attain some other end, like maximal moral goodness, or maximal aesthetic beauty, or, say, maximal justice. There is no standard independent of God, like the Platonic Form of the Good, against which his decree is measured. That is, creation as a whole has no moral quality on account of its meeting a standard independent of God, because, I think Aquinas would say, there is no such standard. More: its having such a quality is not possible, since such an independent standard is not possible. Thus, it is not as if a world like ours brimming with atrocity lacks some moral quality that it should have had, or even could have had. Logically speaking, creation—and even God’s providential care—is consistent with a great deal of evil in the world.

Granted, there is not much comfort in such a logical nicety; one may well wonder why God’s providential design tolerates, and even in some sense calls for, the contingent acts of atrocious evil which in fact obtain—quite apart from any question about the moral quality of creation as a whole. In my opinion, the worry over evil is a pressing one, and until something can be said to shed light on it, my treatment of eternal law may well have the feel of fiction to it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Baptism (Been Busy)

We recently baptized a second daughter in Daytona, Sophia. This picture captures the scene just a few minutes before the procession back to the baptismal font, near the old entrance to the church building.
On the left is my older daughter, adjusting her younger sister's baptismal gown; we're up near the front of the nave, missing a bit of the sermon. They are, in fact, both dressed up for Baptism--my older daughter having some sense of the rite as a re-affirmation. My wife, Susan, is to my right, and a young friend of my older daughter looks on, rather intently curious--this whole deal is not a part of her liturgy where she goes to worship. Further down in the pew, a young fellow whose mother--not visible in this pic--worships at another Episcopal parish sits with a friend of his, who is turning around to say something in hushed tones to his mother, seated behind him. Interestingly, entirely of their own accord, some members of our party refrained from participating in Communion--even some who were baptized. One of these was my oldest daughter, not yet confirmed. But another, old enough and perfectly knowledgeable, was--as best I can tell--carrying out a kind of "conscientious objection".
A couple points here: (1) two children is alot of fascinating work, and we wish we had gotten started earlier, in our twenties, when three or so would have--who knows?--seemed more reasonable. The thirties are fine, mind you, but we are on the verge of "Slow down, junior!", and we would have happily brushed aside much of what we considered precious in grad school if we knew then what we know now. Word to the wise. (2) Communion can be really quite significant for a wide variety of people with different practices of faith, to the point where they feel compelled to take private, and earnestly heartfelt, stands on the practice without discussing or debating them. I wonder how common that kind of reticence is. I would love to have a clearer sense for how the experience of the Baptismal liturgy proper, up at the font, impacted their decisions on Communion, if the experience had a significant impact (I think it most definitely did, but it is difficult to say just what).