04 March 2011

Another Take on "The Real Problem" in Anglicanism Today

I recently read with some exhaustion a Living Church account (though not this one) of the Mere Anglicanism conference held in Charleston, SC, back in January. The theme of the conference was "Biblical Anglicanism for a Global Future: Recovering the Power of the Word of God." I have to say, especially in the added light of following this week's hubbub around Rob Bell's new book, I'm getting awfully tired of having my faith be portrayed as "unbiblical" by people who, in good faith, read the bible differently from how I read it (which manner is, I believe, also in good faith).

One particular case in point is the following comment about the Rev. Charles Raven's session "The Wages of Synthesis or Lasting Treasure? Recovering the Power of the Word of Truth." (In fairness to Raven, let me preface all this by acknowledging that I'm relying on Daniel Muth's account of his position, so I'm happy to stand corrected if I'm misrepresenting him.)

Raven described Archbishop Rowan Williams as a brilliant committed Christian beset with an ultimately unworkable combination of hermeneutical pessimism (Scripture is unclear) and ecclesiastical optimism (if we talk long enough we will find common ground). Despite the archbishop's best efforts, treating Christian orthodoxy as process rather than proposition does not keep all parties at the table, Raven said.

It seems to me that the accusation of "hermeneutical pessimism" gets to the very heart of what is tearing us all apart right now. I believe Williams is a hermeneutical realist; he acknowledges that faithful people encounter the biblical text and reach different conclusions about what it means. You can call that an attack on "the Power of the Word of Truth" if you like, but . . . well again, we ultimately arrive at me saying something like "but we're going to have to agree to disagree on that point." I believe we are called to a more hopeful and realistic doctrine of the Truth of Scripture, one that is neither relativistic nor threatened by the existence of a diversity of interpretation. We don't have to be soft on truth to be firmly convinced that no party sees it in its entirety but, rather, "in a mirror, dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).

And so it goes. The demand that orthodoxy be purely about proposition is common enough, but the history of Christianity shows--in my reading of it, though some of my classmates understandably disagree--that we've never gotten very far at living out our catholicity when we demand of all our fellow communicants rigid adherence to a universally agreed upon dogmatic program. Indeed, you could do a lot worse than to interpret the term "Mere Anglicanism" in exactly that spirit: our tradition chose to acknowledge the difficulty of demanding uniformity of doctrine, so we dedicated ourselves to sharing common worship. (Then again, I got into one of the two shouting matches I've been in during seminary defending that position.)

What seems especially unfair about Raven's claim (or, again, Muth's gloss of it) is the language about keeping "all parties at the table." It sounds like we can agree, at least provisionally, that doing so is an admirable goal. But why is it intractable under the Williams formula (hermeneutical pessimism + ecclesiastical optimism)? Because the hermeneutical optimists want us pessimists to either (1) see the light and change our tune, (2) leave the table because of our dogmatic unworthiness, or (3) allow them to take the table with them somewhere else. Keep in mind that subscribers to the Williams formula are not--by and large, though we have some things to repent of, I believe--asking anyone to leave the table. What is communion, our position leads us to ask, but continuing to sit at the table and talk about the things we disagree about? So take note: in this program, no one's being forced out (this is absolutely essential to the integrity and cost of the position, and I think my "side" has blown it in a couple of instances), though some do choose to leave.

On the other hand, what of the converse position? What would happen if the dominant formula were hermeneutical optimism (Scripture is clear) and ecclesiastical pessimism (no amount of talking will lead us to identify common ground)? That table seems to have people leaving in droves: First, most of us hermeneutical pessimists will be forced to leave for our unwillingness to sign on the dotted line (except for those few whose individual interpretations happen to fall in line and who are willing to push away from the table their brothers and sisters for whom that is not the case). Second (and of course this one is subject to my biases as a hermeneutical pessimist), there will be the inevitable trickling out of those hermeneutical optimists who find, not that their optimism was misplaced (Scripture is clear!), but that their fellow optimists just happen (out of ignorance? unfaithfulness? outright rebellion against God?) to be wrong about some point or the other. In this alternative, even if "the Power of the [unambiguous] Word of Truth" heads off the secondary trickle that has never heretofore been headed off, an awful lot of people get forced out.

So we have two alternatives, both resulting in the original table seating many fewer guests. How do we choose among them? Well, hermeneutical pessimist that I am, I return to 1 Corinthians 13:12 and then keep on reading:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Final reflections:

(1) I'm sorry about all the polemical Us vs. Them here, I really am. This article has just been eating away at me all week, and I needed to get my objections out there in the open. Obviously, the terms Raven/Muth set out here are fundamentally inadequate to capturing the complexities of the situation. But there's a kernel of truth here that teaches us quite a bit about what all the fuss is about.

(2) Obviously, the combination of hermeneutical optimism AND ecclesiastical optimism is an attractive third option and may best account for why the Anglican Communion has made it this far with its current level of intactness. And I certainly want us to go forward with an approach that is deeply grounded in faithfulness to scripture and that trusts in the Spirit's power to guide the Church into all truth. But aren't we asking too much of the Bible if we expect it to somehow be the unambiguous arbiter of all our doctrinal disagreements? And isn't that what Raven, in comparing hermeneutical optimism favorably to Williams' ecclesiastical approach, ultimately does?

I don't think you have to be a radical historical-critical biblical skeptic to believe the Bible contains some pretty significant ambiguities on issues that matter to our modern life together. This is why I prefer the term "hermeneutical realist" and why I believe that love--God's love for us, our love for God, our love for each other, and Christ's longing for us all to be one--is the only force strong enough to keep us all at the table.

(3) Incidentally, does anyone know why these Living Church issues keep ending up in the VTS mailboxes? Did the seminary score, like, a complimentary subscription for all its students? What about at the other seminaries? I'm not speaking ill of my hometown's ecclesiastical periodical (indeed, I'm grateful, even on a day where I've frittered away my entire afternoon on a blog post about a single paragraph on page 26 of the February issue), but it's slightly creepy to be getting a magazine without knowing why.

No comments: