Saturday, March 12, 2005

Ack. An update.

So now that I've slept, here is some of what I was saying in my lost post last night -- and, yes, you will notice that I seem to have forgotten all the allegedly "brilliant" bits and just given you the usual mishmash of desultory commentary. I guess them's the breaks, eh?

So Scandal of Particularity was expanding on a post by Camassia. (Parenthetical remark: I have the sense that I may have met the author of Scandal sometime, or that we travelled in the same circles. Did she (she, right? There's not much biographical detail on her blog) attend Garrett and study with Steve Long? I don't know but I suspect so.)

As I was saying, Scandal was expanding on a post by Camassia and wrote:

This makes me cringe: "People know that at it's core, Christianity has something good to offer the human race." (Um, like Jesus, the Son of God?) "At the same time, many have a sense that they are alone in being a "thinking" Christian and that "salvaging" Christianity is a hopeless task." (I find that completely condescending. The only "thinking" Christians are questioning progressives?) "What is needed is a safe environment where people have permission to ask the questions they've always wanted to ask but have been afraid to voice for fear of being thought a heretic."

Well, color me cringing, too. I agree with her parenthetical ripostes. And I am somewhat resentful that a segment of the church wants to paint itself as a persecuted yet truly enlightened (morally and intellectually) minority. Apart from being the usual sort of self-righteous, self-congratulatory nonsense that ought to make us pause, this is also the sort of ideological partisanship that we see in secular politics, too, which can write off the "other" as not worthy of being listened to or taken seriously.

Actually, this story of a persecuted yet truly enlightened minority valiantly trying to carry on in the face of adversity for the sake of Truth seems like nothing if not a return of (a form of the many-headed hydra known as) Gnosticism. More than that, this story has proven popular reading in the form of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.

Scandal also quoted Camassia saying

As atomized as we are in the modern era, I don’t think those ancient habits are ever completely gone, and one good example of this is how liberal Christians — sometimes in concert with liberals from other religions — can form a remarkably unified communal consensus about certain concrete
matters while disclaiming any need for a unified orthodoxy. Just as fundamentalists can take a line like “your body is a temple of God” and uniformly agree it means that you shouldn’t drink alcohol, liberals can take an incredibly vague passage like
Micah 6:8 and agree that it means we should oppose the Iraq war. It likewise places common sense — literally, the sense we have in common — as the paramount authority. But as with Shawmut Baptist’s interpretations, it may not seem either logical or self-evident to those outside.

I think that this helpfully alludes to an alternative orthodoxy erected by liberalism -- and here I (and Camassia, I take it) am not talking about those who lean left in the politics of the nation-state, but more the American-liberal-baptist sense of liberalism. They will decry making the church's orthodoxy normative (what business is it of yours what people believe), but will impose other orthodoxies which arise out of a modernist/liberal point of view (tolerance, individual rights, the dignity of others, etc.).

In an interesting -- though unsurprising -- convergence with fundamentalism, which Camassia alludes to, liberals would claim that orthodoxy (usually considered as a set of propositional beliefs divorced from practices or an embodied community) is at best trivial, and at worst actually harmful. But they would claim that virtues such as tolerance, etc., would be absolutely essential and that serious questioning of them would disqualify one from membership in the community. (The sociologist of religion Russell McCutcheon observes this too, well summarized in this handout -- it's a .pdf file.) I see a convergence with fundamentalism in that this scheme is merely the converse of what a fundamentalist would say (equally questionable, in my mind), that is, that orthodoxy (considered as propositional beliefs, and not particular practices or a community which embodies those practices or beliefs) is crucial, but that the shape of one's life in the world is not at all important. (If this sounds like a caricature, I submit that many of those on one side of the Lordship debate claim just this. Check here, here, and here if for some reason you want background on that debate, not that I'd recommend it.) They end up being two sides of the same coin.

Of course, these are grave generalizations: I am talking more about types and tendencies than concrete individuals. People who are liberal or fundamentalist (or anything else, for that matter) are much more complex than what this suggests.

Camassia also mentions, in connection with an adult catechism, a generally observed tendency to encourage questions but discourage answers as people seek the truth on their own. Writing about this tendency, particularly in connection with non-Christian seekers, she says:

I imagine if their questions, like mine, are met with, “It’s so great that you ask such honest questions!” they’d be just as puzzled as I was. For me, asking questions was a straightforward means to an end: I wanted to find out what Christians believed, and why. I knew people were going to say things that would strike me as weird or nasty, but that didn’t make me feel rejected or oppressed, since I always knew I could walk away. Only when I knew what they believed, and what the church believed, could I work out what my relationship to it would be.

I have also noticed this tendency (discouraging answers to questions) among some of my colleagues, and I frankly find it discouraging. When I finally entered the church, having spent some time as an atheist, then a muddle of different things, then an agnostic, I had a whole raft of questions. I wanted to know what it was all about. And I found people who were more than happy to sit down with me and answer my questions as best they could. If they couldn't, they'd find someone who could, or they'd research it and get back to me. I also found people who would challenge me with questions of their own, and one person in particular who kept pushing me not to settle for a pale imitation of Christianity, but only to be satisfied with the real thing.

If I had entered a church and the only response to my questions was “It’s so great that you ask such honest questions!” and nothing else, I would have concluded long ago that Christianity was a sham, nothing but a scam charity with slack-jawed parishioners as a front. What kind of a racket would that be to dedicate your life to something and not have the vaguest clue what it means or teaches?

People who know me know that I am constantly encouraging people to ask questions, to grow in and understand their faith and the ways it shapes our lives. I love questions, because it means people are taking the Christian story seriously and thinking about it. And when people ask questions, I give answers.

More precisely, I give responses. I don't believe that we're somehow able to exhaustively or infallibly describe God or God's ways in the world. Just as when we are faced with another person, when it comes to God, there are great depths of mystery. To reply to one question, to satisfy a curiosity or an existential anxiety, is to move the conversation along, not at all to shut down further questions. To pass through the door of one answer doesn't -- or at least shouldn't -- put one in a broom closet, but opens up to yet another vast hall of questions, with many more doors of answers.

The Christian faith provides many touchstones for telling the story, many ways that we believe that God has revealed Godself to us through the ages -- not, to be sure, on some unambiguous Mount Sinai, but in the (sometimes excessive) messiness of the church and our life together. We neglect this (I think) to our profound poverty.

I say the creeds without wincing or crossing my fingers, which is not at all to say that it is comfortable or that I've got it all figured out. It's radical enough, it is challenge enough, I think, for all of us. For my money, exploring the tradition and asking questions of it is our responsibility as Christians, but we must also allow it to question us, to shape us, and even to call into question our questions. To caricature it and summarily dismiss it is not so much a disservice to the tradition, but to ourselves. Or as someone else once said (I can't for the life of me remember the citation) "We have forgotten the depths of that which we no longer believe."

To return to my discouragement over the discouragement of answering questions: I wonder if this is because we as Anglican clergy have forgotten -- or simply never knew? -- enough of our tradition or the Christian message to be able to pass it along sufficiently to others. Maybe this is part of the reason questions have sometimes been quashed: we didn't want to look like fools for not knowing? Insecurity and anxiety are very human and understandable reasons for this, although by no means excuses. Oh, we try to cover by moving into other areas like management, or leadership, or counselling, or what have you. And while I would never argue that these are unimportant or useless, I would strenuously argue that these are sidelines, secondary pursuits engaged to bolster our primary formation. But if we are bereft of what makes us Anglicans and Christians, we are like salt that has lost its saltiness -- and we are most to be pitied for having given away our fortune for some decidedly non-magic beans.


Blogger Caleb said...

You're right: that was blindingly brill. I especially like your distinction between "answers" and "responses."

I see your point about liberalism mirroring fundamentalism. I constantly see in myself the kind of self-righteous gnosticism that is repellent to me in others. (Isn't this why C.S. Lewis said we must love our neighbor as ourselves? Because loving ourselves so often requires overlooking a multitude of sins.)

I do think a distinction can be drawn, though, between real minorities and make-believe minorities. It troubles me sometimes that the idea of "remnants" is so prevalent throughout the story of scripture, but it is there. Prophetic minorities have existed and perhaps can still exist, and they are different from powerful majorities masquerading as minorities.

That being said, though, God help me if I think I'm a prophet.

Saturday, March 12, 2005 5:09:00 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

That was much better put than what I said! I don't think we've met; I actually went to Duke Divinity School and took one class from Steve Long when he was finishing up his doctorate there. Now I live in Evanston IL and coincidentally attend the same church Steve and his family do. I also audited two classes at Garrett last year as I was contemplating returning to school for a Ph.D. Anyway thanks so much for your thoughts on this topic!

Monday, March 14, 2005 9:16:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

A very kind remark, thank you. I hope it was clear that my own such designation was due to extreme frustration and not clear-sighted self-appraisal! (I should also point out that my blogging is not the only thing rumored to lead to blindness...!)

I should hasten to point out, in concert with your second paragraph, that like most people who preach for a living, I am usually also preaching to myself!

Finally, I'm not sure that the idea of "remnants" in the Bible bothers me per se (although maybe it should), so much as the failure of interpretation nowadays. We too quickly move from Embattled Israel, powerless and taken into exile, to our own context as first-world colossus astride the globe, as if they are precisely the same. There is a rhetoric of remnant/ minority that is deployed both by (political, religious, etc.) conservatives and liberals today that appalls, and I am foursquare behind you in decrying the "majorities masquerading as minorities".

Thanks also for the kind remark. Glad to know your name -- and I appreciate your blog! You're right, it turns out that we haven't met, just travel in the same wide circles, Duke, Steve Long, GETS. Are you still considering the Ph.D.? Where?

Thanks to you both for your comments. JF

Tuesday, March 15, 2005 5:05:00 AM  

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