Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Inviting Heretics to Speak in the Parish

It occurs to me that the there may be a really perverse mentality going on in the invitations to have heretics come speak at church. Most of these speakers fall into the "things no modern man can believe" class of somehow-still-faithful-to-something-or-other skeptics who have managed to come up with a reason for continuing to attend some religious ritual even though they reject the doctrinal content of what happens. OK, well, I've already been around why these people shouldn't be put in pulpits and made a feature of adult education: they undermine the message of the creed and make us look hypocritical and foolish. But there's a bit more to it than that.

I would conclude that someone like Spong or Crossan does in fact damage the faith of a lot of people, not just in getting them to invest in the heresies these modernists espouse, but also in convincing many to abandon the Christian religion entirely. The contradiction of trying to hold these anti-creedal tenets while reciting the creed each Sunday is too much for many, well, more rational people to maintain. So in that wise I do not think that their presentation under the aegis of church sponsorship is without negative consequence. And it's pretty clear that some people of firm trinitarian conviction decide to go elsewhere and cease expending their energy on a futile resistance to such heresy (since after all they have no hope of correcting the faults of the clerisy). So what do the people doing the inviting think of this? Well, if it is not obvious, then a couple of guesses may be hazarded. The first is that the inviting clerics are also heretics, but lack the nerve or privileged position to be up front about it. So they get other people who aren't risking anything to do their preaching for them.

A less plainly egregious rationale would involve a cleric whose own theological thinking is so muddled that he doesn't really understand how wrong these guys are, because he cannot or will not work through the implications. But I think perhaps a third principle is dominating this, and it is the manifestation of a lack of confidence in the faith of his actual and potential charges. Too much Tillich and his ilk has got our hypothetical rector part if not all the way to believing that modern people (by which he means intelligent, clear-thinking, reasonable people like himself, not the sort of riff-raff who go to Southern Baptist or fundangelical churches) cannot take the scriptural stories seriously. But he needs these people to keep the pledges coming, so he's will be be compromised in order not to scare them off. At the same time, though (and this cannot be said out loud) he's relying on the stalwarts to remain stalwart. In other words, he takes his orthodox parishioners for granted. Or to put it in other, more damning terms, he subconsciously thinks in terms of they being those who are and who remain faithful, dismissing the possibility that the speakers he brings in may be working to undermine that faith. At the same time he is subconsciously working on the premise that the potential unorthodox modernists among his flock are they whose "faith" must be coddled and nurtured. And beyond that, our putative rector essentially holds that genuine creedal orthodox faith and instruction is a threat to these waiverers, while he acts as if the converse were not true.

This would add up to a tacit admission that it is orthodox faith which is strong and lasting and which gives hope for the future. But that contradiction, I suspect, isn't going to be worked through.


Fr. Aaron said...

I suspect some combination of the three, with the additional (and disturbing) likelihood that inviting Spong makes one edgy and "sexy" in diocesan eyes. Someone who pushes buttons is clearly on the way up in the church, while those priests who keep banging on about "orthodoxy" are only fit for some dead-end parish in the projects. (You know, the places with creaky pews and sagging rectories and actual Christian ministry happening?) The lunatics are in charge of the asylum, in other words.

rick allen said...

Puts me in mind of this from one of Waugh's autobiographical essays:

"I shed my inherited faith as lightheartedly as though it had been an outgrown coat. The circumstances were these: During the first World War many university dons patriotically volunteered to release young school-masters to serve in the army. Among these there came to my school a leading Oxford theologian, now a bishop. This learned and devout man inadvertently made me an atheist. He explained to his divinity class that none of the books of the Bible were by their supposed authors; he invited us to speculate, in the manner of the fourth century, on the nature of Christ. When he had removed the inherited axioms of my faith I found myself quite unable to follow him in the higher flights of logic by which he reconciled his own skepticism with his position as a clergyman."

C. Wingate said...

Fr. Aaron, I suspect it makes you look better when you send your manuscript to Harper-Collins, at least.

Mr. Allen, Waugh's criticism seems so obvious that I can only attribute the failure of these clerics to quit the positions to a combination of an intellectual egocentrism, a misbegotten crusading spirit, and a lack of confidence that they might find gainful employment elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I cannot fathom the lack of integrity these guys have. Why can they not "man-up" and admit they have lost their faith. My cynical side suspects that the bishop retirement is too good as are the book deals you get when you are an Episcopal bishop writing rather than just some yahoo with an offbeat opinion and the ability to wax eloquent on it.

They seem to be dishonest, unpastoral (for what end does it serve?) and merely firing for effect...a dated cliche of modernist doubting Thomasism.

Why we have rectors opening parishes to them is puzzling. Why our bishops, tasked with being chief pastors and guardians of the flock would introduce them rather than chase them out of town with their croziers is unfathomable.

C. Wingate said...

Of Spong's six books published between 1988 and 1999, five had subtitles beginning "A bishop", and first three began "A bishop rethinks". He prostituted his office in a big way.

And the obvious problem, Matt, is that our bishops have tended to see their office in terms of teaching authority first and have largely set aside their their responsibility to the institution when seen in any context larger than the present. There's a strong tendency now to think of the church organization solely as a political instrumentality instead of as an authority of its own to which they are held responsible. Therefore their response to crisis disagreements is not departure and division, but seizure of power. Nor does the church teach them; they feel their job is to teach the church.

C. Wingate said...

Another to-the-point observation from a thread on Haligweorc: When the church panics about attendance, its immediate reflex tends to involve diminishing the stakes of going to church — you don’t have to believe X, you don’t have to do Y, you don’t have to share Z, and so on. The pre-Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre rightly noted that the modern liberal church responded to the ‘threat’ of secularity by giving people less and less in which to disbelieve.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder, have you or any other creedal orthodox Episcopalian actually asked point blank to a muddled rector 'why did you invite the notorious heretic Spong (or Borg, or Crossan, etc) to speak, or 'why are you promoting Spong/Borg/Crossan/some-other-Jesus-Seminar-heretic in adult RE? The answer might be informative. Or evasive - but even that would be informative in a way.

Perhaps many of the fuzzy-headed clerics just don't like the orthodox Episcopalians and find them an implicit threat to the parishioners they prefer, and even perhaps to their own theological and lifestyle choices. But sometimes you have to ask.


C. Wingate said...

I suppose I could clog the e-mailbox of one of these guys with the question. But when it comes down to it, I really don't have the heart for subjecting myself to the kind of vacuity which I've heard so often before. I have to think that anyone who would do something so manifestly problematic isn't going to be able to mount a coherent defense of the act. If my rector now were to do this, yes, I would object, and make sure that other knew, not just because it's my parish, but because I'm on the vestry and thus have some official responsibility.