Friday, July 07, 2006

The Problem of Theology

Here, by the way, is the problem in a nutshell (I have to warn you, it's quite a bit to wade through). This is theology as exclusive men's club, available only to the privileged who see the world from the "right" vantage point (I do not speak in political terms there), and who understand the rigid, settled, and incontrovertible value of received opinion and settled tradition. *

In other words, no thought after the Enlightenment period need apply. He even speaks disdainfully of Descartes, the one philosopher who above all represents the beginning of modern philosophy. Which seems to be the trouble: modern, post-Enlightenment thought has taken the entire cosmos (church + world) down the wrong path, and the election of PB-elect Schori and ordination of Bishop Robinson are just the latest signs of the deadly corruption.

I waded through this late one night, and realized the next morning that not a word of it took into account anything more recent than Aquinas or accepted any current in Western thought since at least Descartes. To read this is to be sealed in a time capsule in which not only modern philosophy never occurred, but the impact of empiricism was never felt, the assaults on faith and belief in the 18th and 19th centuries were simply satanic heresies (if acknowledged at all), Soren Kierkegaard never wrote about the individual's struggle with the Absolute Paradox, German biblical scholars in the 19th century never studied a word of Scripture, World War I never shattered the faith of a generation (Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, most of Europe) in Christianity, Edmund Husserl and Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger never gave the Western world a new way to examine and understand human existence, Rudolf Bultmann never penned a word about the Gospel of John, and Jacques Derrida never examined religion or religious belief in the context of phenomenology.

It is, in short, breathtakingly airtight and a completely artificial creation, ignoring anything and everything that might contradict a world view that persons from medieval times would find as baffling as any European priest in the 17th century. Consider, for example, his reliance, at the end, on Aquinas and natural law. Now, there is no question that Aquinas formulation of natural law is one of the monumental works of the human intellect, and as at least one contemporary Aquinas scholar said, there are only a few Aquinas scholars alive who truly understand the work of the Saint (and he said, in humility, that he was not one of them). But Aquinas' natural law was a reaction to the then-new (because rediscovered from the Muslims, who preserved it when the West had lost it) works of Aristotle. It was another attempt to reconcile Hellenistic thought with Christian (a Hellenistic-Hebrew mix) teachings. In doing so, Aquinas re-wrote Christian doctrine in fundamental ways, much as Luther would do a few centuries later. It was an attempt which is no longer relevant to contemporary concerns. Aquinas's work is, in many ways, foundational, and is certainly important to the student and as a touchstone for consideration in many issues, especially issues of Roman Catholic doctrine. But outside that very narrow field, no theologian begins his consideration of theology by asking: What would Thomas do? The concerns of phenomenology, of existentialism, of modern existence (nuclear annihilation; religious fanaticism; GLBT issues; feminist issues; the savagery of wars) are simply too pressing, and almost no one understands them in the terms of the 13th century. Which is still not to say Aquinas is as irrelevant as the work of Marcilio Ficino (a 15th century Florentine scholar, important for his contributions to Neo-Platonism, but important only to other scholars). But explaining the modern world by insisting on the frame of the 13th century is as absurd as explaining to the "Lost Generation" that World War I must be seen in the weltanschaaung of the Crusades.

Theology is a living practice, not a dead reverence for "tradition." And besides, which tradition? The pre-Lutheran tradition of indulgences and justification by works alone? The post-Lutheran tradition, which is now veered toward justification by a profession of faith alone? The tradition of Paul and Theoklia? Or the tradition of the mutiliated image of Theoklia?

It is good to remember that Jesus was a defier of traditions. There is no question that a woman in a roomful of men in Jesus' Palestine (and, reportedly, still true today in many Middle Eastern countries) was considered a prostitute, even if she was the wife of the homeowner. Yet while Simon, at the end of Luke 7, is repulsed by her and wishes she would simply leave so he wouldn't have to so much as deign to acknowledge her presence, Jesus accepts her overtures as a love offering. We might still prefer to infer a proper intent from her actions, but Luke's text gives us no reason to imagine we know what is in her heart, or that it is radically different from the context of Greek erotic literature, where washing a lover's feet with your tears and drying them with your hair is considered highly erotic. That one upsets us so much, in other words, we still don't want to break with our traditions and follow our Lord's example of unconditional love and acceptance. So the real question for us is always: whose tradition is it? Ours? or God's?

Why do I bring this up? Dr. Witt is, by his own identification, a lay theologian. He is apparently well regarded among some Episcopalians. There are also many questions of orthodoxy being raised, and the defense of orthodoxy is itself important, or at least an important issue. So why do I bring it up? Because if this is the best defense orthodoxy can manage, orthodoxy is in bad shape, indeed. The argument for orthodoxy seems to primarily come down to one of authority: authority has said it, I believe it, that settles it. But that line of argument stopped holding sway sometime after Socrates taught us all to question what we knew was true, and Aristotle taught us all to value logic. Authority as the unquestioned and unquestionable answer to issues of existence was certainly finally dismissed by the work of Descartes. So if the best position one can muster is "We've always done it this way!," then orthodoxy no longer serves God, because orthodoxy itself has become an idol. If my theology cannot respond to the phenomenology of Sartre or Derrida, if it cannot (as Kierkegaard did in his time) speak in contemporary terms, then the problem is with my theology, and it is time I discard it. The irony is, Aquinas did not defend 13th century orthodoxy against the revelations of Aristotle; he rewrote orthodoxy, on the basis of what Aristotle taught him. This kind of change has been the constant in Christianity for 2000 years. To try to freeze it now, is as foolish as trying to freeze it just before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door.

One other issue: Witt leans heavily on the concept of "Christian identity," which he identifies with a very narrow, and barely supportable, view of church history and theology. The position of the Episcopal Church is that the American tradition a bishop is elected by the parishioners of his or her diocese and consecration is canonically procedural. Unlike in Africa, he or she cannot be deposed at the whim of his or her archbishop, and unlike in England, he or she cannot be strong-armed into standing down, as Archbishop Williams was able to do over the appointment of the celibate gay theologian Jeffrey John to the suffragan bishopric of Reading.
So there is a legitimate issue of polity here, and of the nature of the Anglican Communion. This is not simply, in other words, a matter of the willfulness of the American branch of the Church of England. The question of Christian identity is certainly a part of that issue, but it is traditionally a question which the various bodies of the Communion have clearly answered in different ways. The problem now is simply: who gets to decide? And more and more, the answer to that question seems to depend on whose ox is being gored.

*I have to note that the subject of "same sex marriage" is a part of Mr. Witt's discussion, but again, at no point does he go so far as to condemn homosexuals. However, neither does he specify the the Scriptures which speak against homosexuality, although he dismisses (wrongly) with an unsupported generalization the Biblical scholarship on the question. Still, we are faced with the intractable problem, and the "ick" factor again: if homosexuality is a choice, then gays and lesbians must choose to be heterosexual. But no scientific evidence supports that claim, so gays and lesbians must be as God made them. Which can only mean God either does not condemn homosexuality, or that God made them sexual beings only to insist they alone, of all God's creation, remain chaste not by choice, but because of God's law. Which is a curious position indeed, but again, not one even Mr. Witt is willing to assert; not explicitly, anyway. So the problem with homosexual bishops is not that they're homosexual...well, it is, but that's only a problem if they have a relationship, and that's because, well...ick! To his credit, the Rev. Dr. Harding attempts to grasp that nettle, but he does so so disdainfully it is hard to give him much credit for it at all.

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