Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Honest Thomas, Honest Peter: Some Anglican Musings

This started out as a reply to a post by Thunder Jones, but got out of hand. I figured that if I could contribute that much content to him, why not actually post something on my own blog?

In the comments section to Thunder's post, Erica mentioned "i think it is interesting that someone is usually touted as being "honest" when they voice a position of doubt." Thunder replied "There's nothing dishonest about doubt. In fact, I think there's often more dishonesty in unwaivering certainty than in doubt."

I agree there's nothing dishonest about doubt, and moreover that people shouldn't be ashamed of doubting and working through that.

But there does seem to be a hallowed tradition (since at least the Enlightenment) of naming as "honest" doubts or critique of Christian belief, such that "honest doubt" simply becomes a cliche. As I mentioned, I do not question any particular doubter's honesty (or sincerity, another overused term), but as a common rhetorical move (a doubter is an "honest doubter") it seems to imply that a believer is dishonest, purporting to subscribe to things which we know aren't true. How frequently do we hear someone described as an "honest believer"? As an expression it might be used some, but it is not nearly so overused and hackneyed as "honest doubter". And to speak in this way simply presents the issue unfairly, along the lines of Bishop Spong, or some proponents of the Jesus Seminar who seems to say at certain points that anything like taking the creed as (more-or-less) straightfoward description is simply bad faith: you know it's wrong, but you say you believe it anyway.

Well, I don't know it's wrong, and I honestly believe it. (Certainly more than I believe in more modern pious fictions such as the invisible hand of the market or manifest destiny.)

Perhaps one thing worth noting is the apparent opposing of doubt and unwaivering certainty. Maybe it would be better to locate doubt and belief together in one region of a continuum, upon which unwaivering certainty and unwaivering skepticism might be the extremes. Which is to say that "honest doubt" and "honest belief" are quite close to each other, and might at any particular time be intermixed -- and that one does not preclude the other.

Also, there has been talk about Anglican fundamentalism recently, but I think that charge might become something of a canard. (Thunder cites some great examples, though, from T1:9 -- and by "great" I mean "awful".) I think that we too often use the term fundamentalist to designate in a fuzzy way someone who believes differently than we do, but in a conservative direction. (A priest friend once called me a fundamentalist -- me! -- because I believed in the resurrection.) Others tend to use terms such as "liberal" or "revisionist" in similar ways. (I am not saying Thunder does the same in his post, I'm just wondering in print if we might be able to come to some other term, or a clearer, more precise, less polemical usage of the "f-word".)

Also, the Thinking Anglicans post that I've referenced demonstrates a tendency that I have seen elsewhere, too. I have read enough GOEs to realize that many people think that the three-legged stool is somehow the heart, the essence, the sole defining characteristic of Anglicanism. There is some small truth to its centrality, but I fear that we have seized on this in such a way as to elevate Hooker and this one image over all other such traditions and resources we have at our disposal. If we want to move away from (a modern, distorted sense of) sola scriptura, are we replacing it with sola Hooker? (or sola "an image from Hooker"?) Is this much different than some Calvinists' tendencies, or some Lutherans' tendencies to enshrine their namesakes in a timeless vacuum?

I find the constant excoriation of so-called Anglican fundamentalists as "neo-puritans" as a bit anachronistic, and a bit heavy-handed as well. Not that many of the original Puritans were not challenged by the church to a different way of theologizing, but that so many of the Anglican worthies who did the challenging (and at times, persecuting) were themselves Puritans of a somewhat more moderate temper. All of the archbishops from the beginning of Elizabeth I's reign up to (not into) Archbishop Laud's term would have identified themselves as Puritan, as would Lancelot Andrewes and the other Caroline Divines. The disputes between the Puritans and the Anglicans was more of an in-house dispute than the present-day disputes in our church. This is not to weigh in on behalf of the alleged "neo-Puritans", but to say that by excluding a group on those grounds we also forget a substantial part of our own tradition. Rather than write Puritan-influenced theologies off, I think we ought to wrestle with them (I say that as a decidedly more catholic Anglican) and be honest about their place in our heritage.

Finally, the three-legged stool: a decent image, but I think it needs some more nuance. We use the three sources (Scripture, tradition, reason) in our theologizing -- or, better, our lives -- but I do not think that we can approach them in isolation. The idea that we find the same message proclaimed and confirmed in each of the three "books" might be a historical notion, (Calvinist, no?) but I'm not so confident that it is true. I think instead that the three interpenetrate each other and mutually inform each other: we cannot read Scripture apart from the tradition, we cannot reason apart from our Scriptural interpretation*, we cannot process the tradition apart from reason, and so on. So I wonder if an image like a three-plaited rope or a braid might be better? They don't interpenetrate, so maybe not, but they at least bring the elements closer, rather than being isolated and self-sufficient, like stool legs.

*I like saying counterintuitive things -- you've probably noticed, no?


Blogger Thunder Jones said...

I think the things that we are both pointing towards in our discussion of Anglicanism and the current row is the *bigness* of Anglicanism. By bigness, I mean the ability of Anglicanism to hold a lot of different people together under a common faith.

Let me offer an example. I think Bishop Akinola and Bishop Spong have this trait in common: both are so certain of the correctness of their position that they are willing to assert it to the exclusion of others. This seems to me to be a very unAnglican trait.

The reason so many of us go ga-ga over Hooker and the stool is the ability of this kind of emphasis to hold a lot of us together. I think that most Anglicans want to be together. We want one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, not seventeen holy, catholic, and apostolic churches. This is why the Anglican emphasis on the Eucharist as the principle act of worship is so important (as opposed to preaching in the Reformed and even the Baptist traditions).

(At this point I feel my reply may be turning into a post as well)

I think we can track a lot of the origins of the current push for a split by some boomers to the same lack of enthusiasm for ecumenism that we saw in the boomer generation. This lack of an emphasis on the critical necessity of the church to be one holy, catholic, and apostolic in order to be the Church is, I think, being manifested in groups like the AAC, AMiM, and the ACN.

In Tennessee, many members of the Tennessee Anglican Council, the local AAC chapter, WILL NOT share Eucharist with people they disagree with about the propriety of the ordination of +Robinson. The bishop has allowed this to happen and it occurred during the Diocesan Convention. The push for “orthodoxy” scared the begesus out of me, not because I feel unorthodox, but because I see it as a telling sign of the priorities of priests. Namely, the certainty in the correctness of their position so that they are willing to assert it to the exclusion of others.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe in anything, nearly the opposite. I think we have forgot that we are church and we ought to assert the strangeness of that belief as our primary identity. Hooker and the three-legged stool offer a way for us to say that we are Church without utilizing dogmatic tests of belief. We are a Eucharistic people bound together by baptism, not by doctrinal purity (which is nice, but no where near as important as baptism).

This reply feels a bit jumbled, but I don’t really feel like editing it… sorry for the rambling.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 4:58:00 PM  
Blogger Caleb said...

Regarding the possibility of being an "honest believer," I was reminded of this quote from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, regarding his being sent to live in Baltimore, where he eventually escaped from slavery:

"I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence."

When I reflect on myself, I think I have many times expressed "dishonest doubts." Because there have been times when I didn't want to incur the "ridicule of others," I've instead suppressed "the earliest sentiments of my soul."

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 7:03:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

As usual, I find we are approaching the topic from a very similar perspective. No doubt the influence of the Duke Mafia! I posted my comment, which was long and broad.

Glad to see you in the Street! And thanks for the helpful story about Douglass, one which (given my area) I had never run across before.

Thursday, June 09, 2005 3:13:00 PM  

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