Monday, March 05, 2007

Another Look at Catholicity and Reason

In tracing back a bit further from the posts which prompted my just-previous entry, I found a post by Fr. WB in his blog in response to a passage from Alexei Khomiakov discussing Anglican legitimacy. I find myself largely in agreement, but I think there is one point which calls for further elaboration.

A point which is constantly misunderstood about the Anglican scripture/tradition/reason triad is that it is intended as a prescription. Well, it is, I suppose, in the sense that one ought to be aware of it: but it is more fundamentally descriptive. It is simply the way that everyone does theology, whether or not they claim otherwise. It is inarguably true of the Roman theological process, whose reference to the three components is evident to anyone. It's also true of low "bible-only" Protestants who can be seen to appeal to their own traditions and their own reasoning.

There is no getting the reasoning out of theology. And while I'm at it, Eastern snipes at the West for using "Hellenistic" reasoning is complete bullhockey. Yeah, Aristotle was dead wrong about natural science and how to go about it, but the basic notion that there are rules of proper thinking and that arguments can be tested against procedure is simply inassailable. Eastern theologians use that Hellenistic reasoning too-- indeed, as is the rule where the Anglican triad is denounced, they are all the more bound by it because they refuse to see that it is in every sentence they utter. (The Palamite "energies/essence" distinction is an object example of such bondage.) And if reasoning is everywhere in theology, then personal judgement is also everywhere-- not in the degenerate sense of someone sitting in their room and trying to work everything out without consultation, but in the much more pervasive sense of propositions requiring assent. For Roman loyalists, perhaps such assent is easy-- though as someone pointed out elsewhere, Roman Catholics as a rule have found difficulty in assenting to Humane Vitae. For someone who is not yet a Roman (or Eastern) loyalist, there's no substitute for presentation of a sound argument to which the potential convert can assent through his own judgement-- or perhaps reaching his reason through some route which does not involve theological propositions, but that's not the route of choice here.

In all of this, the Vincentian canon helps, but in the wrong way. The typical sectarian usage by Roman or Eastern correspondents is so painfully tendentious as to not bear rehashing. And obviously the expansion to include everyone who ever called themselves a Christian is hopeless: there's simply not enough commonality, especially if you include people like Spong in the mix. But what the canon does tell a person is that there's more to theology than just convincing onesself. It has to fit into the bigger theological picture, and especially into the greater community, and especially into the historical picture. And not just historically, but into the future. "At all times and places" means that one has to keep convincing people that a proposition is true, and if that conviction fails, the proposition is called into question. I don't think that the Southern Baptists get to trump Catholic positions, but to state that the Catholic Church doesn't even have to answer SBC objections satisfactorily (which is to say, reasonably) is state an absurdity.

In the long haul, theology objectively looks like many other sciences which have run aground on the shoals too much "reasoning" and not enough knowledge. If it were otherwise, the divisions wouldn't be as extreme; as it is, I can't justify the kind of absolute commitments demanded by Rome or the East on the basis of theological proposition alone.

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