Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Is Dogma Daring?

Cantuar's statements at the Global South conference are stirring up a lot of unhappy responses. Well, I suppose liberal dismay that the archbishop won't run things as a fellow traveller shouldn't be surprising, though it has seemed to me from the beginning that their expectations have been methodically dashed by Rowan Williams, both before and after his elevation, at every possible opportunity.

The conservative response is perhaps more puzzling. Cantuar has all but said that he will let the communion as a whole expel ECUSA. In return the Africans and a growing list of American parishes are bubbling over with impatience. The latter I simply do not understand. ECUSA as a whole can do nothing before the next GC-- only six months away-- and it seems to me that ordinations and parishes bolting, for now, are not positive actions.

But then we have Al Kimel's response.

I suggested then that the real problem is Williams’s approach to episcopal leadership. Instead of acting like a bishop, he has been acting like a manager, trying to keep everyone on board through endless dialogue. The problem, of course, is that both progressives and traditionalists have had their fill of dialogue. They want a decision. And it is this decision that ++Rowan is unwilling or incapable of providing.

The problem is that, in a communion which eschews papal patriarchalism almost as a matter of dogma, Cantuar isn't everyone's bishop! And if anyone looks at the process that has been followed, it certainly doesn't look much like "endless dialogue". Indeed, it appears to me that the issue is being forced to a resolution: a commission wrote a document to propose a starting point, and the requests of that document are being almost universally rejected. Perhaps Al looks forward to an emotionalized and unmanaged breakup as a consequence of this, but I don't. And I think that one thing that Rowan Williams is doing right here is acting as the agent of the communion as a whole, rather than merely the exponent of his own views. A bishop who does no more than the latter is just a tyrant, even if his own views happen to be those of centuries of church tradition. So I don't have any problem with management, because it's bloody obvious that all sides of this need to be managed a great deal.

But then Al continues:

Jenson raises a critical point. The dogma of the Church develops because the Church dogmatizes. Theological disagreement and debate is no doubt necessary to the Church’s apprehension of the revelation entrusted to her; but on important matters, the Church has often found it necessary to bring debate to definitive closure, invoking the full weight of her authority. We may raise questions about the timing and wisdom of specific dogmatic decisions, but these decisions belong to the history of the Church and are necessary to the mission of the gospel. We trust these decisions because we believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church and leading her into all truth.

This begs the point in the most blatant possible way. It essentially elevates agreement over truth-- absolutely.

Contrast this with the way things work in the natural science. There is no real closure there, because any issue can in theory be reopened. In practice, most reopened issues are closed right back up again, but there should never be pressure to "close" an issue about which major disputes remain. In practice it happens, because scientists are sinful humans. But in the end, the lack of a final authority-- other than, of course, reality itself-- isn't a problem.

In comparison, the situation in theology looks quite poor. There really isn't closure, because the "resolution" is simply to create enough divisions so that everyone can have their own church with its own-- closed-- theology. Major disputes have persisted for not just centuries, but a millenium and a half; ecclesiastical divisions exist so that the differences don't have to be resolved. The closure is imaginary; it's just a kind of ideological tyranny. Secular intellectuals ridicule this with cause.

In this, Anglicans were weird, preferring union over closure. Clearly this is going to change, and I think that, for practical reasons, division is unavoidable. When theological differences are manifested directly in the rites of the church, it is nearly impossible to forestall division. But this particular failure of unity doesn't imply that dogmatic conformity is therefore good. If there's one thing that Roman theology doesn't take seriously, it's that its processes are carried out by sinners. Failures are therefore to be expected, and the burden of proof must be on those who claim that they are working. Dogma can obviously be put to the very sinful purpose of shutting up one's opponents because one cannot refute them. Surely the standard of consensus for dogma must be very, very high.

And closure need not be an all-or-nothing enterprise. It's one thing to limit constant, high effort reassessment of basic principles. I think by this time we do not have to put the Nicene Creed to the test at every church convention, but I do think the church must have a better counterargument to new challenges to the creed than "It's settled and not up for discussion." If the truth needs that defense, then it isn't truth.

There's nothing daring about dogma.

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