Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What Does It Mean to Do Theology?

Like sands through the hourglass, nothing seems so relentless in the Episcopal Church as the continual effort at eroding any kind of notion of doctrine. Thus a discussion of catechesis at the Episcopal Café set off, as anyone might expect, a run of responses deriding the notion of a catechism as being a vehicle of "old-school" "authoritarian[ism]". Well, as usual this immediately abandons any real sense of Episcopal Church history, as everyone knows that we didn't even have a catechism until 1976. And that book actually says this concerning the catechism:
This catechism is primarily intended for use by parish priests, deacons, and lay catechists, to give an outline for instruction. It is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher, and it is cast in the traditional question and answer form for ease of reference.

The second use of this catechism is to provide a brief summary of the Church’s teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book.

It may also be used to form a simple service; since the matter is arranged under headings, it is suitable for selective use, and the leader may introduce prayers and hymns as needed.

I submit that there is nothing much authoritarian in this, other than the apparently now antique notion that the Church teaches anything whatsoever. A perusal of what our catechism actually says should reveal nothing that is controversial to those who have set aside the routines of modernist revisionism. Obviously people who value questioning more than answers are going to have a problem with such formulas, but someone who is going to question traditional answers has an obligation to know and understand those answers. A catechism is a pretty easy route to to that understanding, be it memorized or not.

Behind this emphasis on questioning, however, is a more or less utterly false picture of Christian history. Or at least, it stands as an utter rejection of Christianity as a historical religion. The trope is religion as a Journey, in which God has to be sought out; but that's not Christianity as the Church teaches it. Seeking takes us to baptism, and baptism (as the sacrament of incorporation) brings the crucial seeking to an end. Doctrine is part of the map giving direction to this, and one of the Church's roles is to keep this map whole, and to make sure it keeps getting passed on to the next generation.

By contrast, the modernist version seems to be that the church really doesn't know much about God, at least nothing worth listening to; in fact the message seems to be that one can basically assume that everything they say is wrong. A quote from one response: "'[R]evealed' truth [...] is nothing more than a prior consensus opinion of some particular group." This isn't a "healthy skepticism"; it's skepticism of a certain sort elevated to dogma. The modernist catechism, were one to be written, would say that the church is nothing more than a political body, that it has no historical teaching worth passing on, and that the purpose of theology is to mine the tales of scripture so as to best ratify the moral impulses of upper middle class liberals.

My reaction to this is to observe how Christian precepts inherited from the church are central to the moral dogmas of the liberal intelligentsia. It seems to me any reason they can give for rejecting church tradition goes on to provide a ground for rejecting liberal moral teaching; any compelling reason to think that Jesus is of any importance eventually relies on the authority of the church as a witness to the faith. And besides that, the picture they give of church history simply isn't true. It is possible to say the most utterly unsupported things about church history and scripture without the least shame, the product of a restorationism so extreme as to retreat back before any record we have, enabling what comes down to simply making up proto-Christianity as needed. But there are a lot of records, and it's pretty clear working from the materials we have that Nicene orthodoxy wasn't something made up at Constantine's behest.

That orthodoxy may not sit easily in some modern minds, but so what? Surely what is most congenial to the secular, irreligious, or "spiritual" world around us is what we should be most suspicious of. It is those precepts which we who hold ourselves worldly are most inclined to rationalize. And I should add at this point that the neo/paleo-con conservative political religion of a lot of American Protestants is as easily criticized on the same basis.

Moderns don't like Jesus as the Real divine revelation who acts in history to save us, because it's so, well, particular and exclusive. Well, so what? If that's the way things are, then it's up to us to learn to live with it.


Jon in the Nati said...

"...a run of responses deriding the notion of a catechism as being a vehicle of "old-school" 'authoritarian[ism]'."

"...than the apparently now antique notion that the Church teaches anything whatsoever."

Indeed. This, for my money, is the thing that is going to kill the Episcopal Church. Not women in vestments, not pet blessings, and [probably] not the gays. If the church teaches nothing that is worthy of belief or adherence, then I cannot for the life of me understand the reason for its existence at all.

Really, it became impossible a long time ago to have a theologically-serious discussion in TEC; witness, just as an example, Archer of the Forest's comment on the previous post. It is not just 'liberalism'; it is utter disdain for doctrine of any kind, and an unwillingness to engage (even to the point of disagreement) with the great doctrines of historic Christianity.

Fr. Jonathan said...

Just a minor correction. We had a very good Catechism for teaching children preparing for Confirmation long before 1976. Presumably, the teaching of that Catechism is still licit,

AAK said...

I agree with Jon in the Nati: this is right on the money.

Frair John said...

Over the Summer, I had a group of people in my front room discussing this very thing.
We tended to place the problem as being more of an issue within certain axis of generational and socio economic groups.

C. Wingate said...

John, to the degree that's true, it's a recipe for the church to grow old and die.