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.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

I Talk to the Snakes, But They Don't Listen to Me

It's hard for me to get past the title of Elizabeth Kaeton's latest missive on the conflict over marriage. When she accuses her opponents of "listening to talking snakes", it's easy to get the message that serious response to their objections isn't on the program. It's also easy to get the message that grounding in scripture isn't a component of her theology. Or perhaps the temptation of a snappy and contemptuous comeback has overcome the recollection that it is God in those early chapters of Genesis who is providing the instruction.

And indeed, that's the rub, for if she isn't going to listen to God speaking in scripture, it might well be asked to whom she does listen. It's all well and good "to talk about the traditions of mutual love, fidelity, intimacy and mutuality that are at the heart and soul of Christian marriage," especially when that talk comes from scripture. That talk, in scripture, is found in the context of an explicit acceptance of all that stuff in the book with the talking snake. And back when I was discussing the lessons for the proposed same-sex blessing rite, I noted how all nearly all the lessons addressing marriage were dropped apparently because they all started from the "man+woman=godly intent" theology of Genesis, except for one passage of love poetry, a lot of general lessons about agape, and a couple of slash re-readings out of the OT.

So where is the instruction coming from? Well, without regard to the opinions of the DSM, it isn't coming from science. Permit me to turn my religion off for a second: the teaching of biology is that homosexuality among humans is a sexual aberration which fortunately hasn't been common enough to interfere with the continuation of the species, at least perhaps until recently. That's about what we can get from that, and it's obviously not a good basis for a moral mandate of any kind, for or against. No, it's pretty obvious that the starting point is in some respect taking the material in Genesis 2 and maybe adding a few extra verses after verse 25, and maybe filing the gender off Eve, and dropping verse 24. The argument is that homosexual relationships are just like heterosexual ones, but the latter continue to be informed by the same set of verses (except some of what Paul says), and therefore someone like Kaeton is listening to the talking snake just as much as anyone else in the church is.

The point here is not about listening to talking snakes, but about listening to other people. My interpretation of Kaeton's remarks is that anyone who explicitly goes to scripture as an authority in opposing her program is going to be dismissed out of hand. I also interpret them as expressing contempt for those people. So, really, there's no point in even talking about talking, because it's pretty clear that the only talking that's supposed to be heard is her talking. And you know, I'm not willing to sign up for that.

It's hard to find any discussion of "alternative sexuality" of any sort and not hear at least a whisper if not a droning mantra of "it's what feels natural to me, and it's not hurting anyone else." Why on earth should anyone take that seriously? It's nothing more than the voice of appetite. Meanwhile I look at ordinary, procreative heterosexual sex, and I see a lot of people who hurt each other, themselves, and especially the kids they bear because they cannot control their appetites. It seems to me that same-sex relationships shouldn't get a pass on these issues, so that I think we can step up to getting rid of the same-sex blessing rite simply because we cannot possibly justify having an opposite sex relationship blessing. Instead, it's easy enough to figure out that we countenance endorsement of marriages-which-aren't-marriages simply as a tactic toward insistence on the acceptability of homosexuality.

Kaeton thus comes across here as a classic "[w]e know better than you on this topic and we’re going to have a 'dialogue' until you see the error of your ways and agree with me at which point our dialogue will be done" liberal. Personally I have better things to do with my time.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Church and Chicken

As pretty much everyone in the country knows by now, the president of Chick-Fil-A had an interview with a Baptist organization in which he stated support for the "the biblical definition of the family unit" and made other statements essentially rejecting the notion of same-sex marriages. Apparently the LGBT rights lobby, with the help of those friendly to them in the media, decided to make a test case out of this, to the point of getting a few big city mayors to make rash statements about how they would try to keep CFA out of their cities. So someone (it might have been Mike Huckabee, but he certainly played a key role in organizing it) decided to respond with an Appreciation Day: basically an eat-in. Well, CFA was swamped, and media from all over reported on the crush of people, albeit often grudgingly. A LGBT "kiss-in" protest, by comparison, made little impact.

So what does it all mean for us in the church?

Matthew Paul Turner, I think somewhat inadvisedly, titled his analysis "5 Reasons Why the Church Failed Yesterday. I think perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about how the churches failed, given that different churches reacted in contradiction to each other. I do think that Turner is partly right in his third point: this was not about people, but about issues. But beyond that, it's also about the institutions which exemplify these issues, and here is where I think it is more profitable to focus. It is the done thing, from the liberal side, to throw around the word "hate" a lot, the better to identify the opposition with those who tied Matthew Shepard to a fence (and yes, it was only a day or so before I saw that connection made). It seems to me to be more about anger than hate, and I think the target isn't so much homosexuals as it is the liberal establishment that's pushing this cause. Which isn't to say that there weren't a lot of people in this who, put on the spot, would not have strong negative reaction to homosexuals as a class.

But the thing that really lit this off was how the MSM and the mayors jumped behind a boycott. That set off American antiestablishment reactions in a big way. The message that should be taken away from this is how intense the resentment is against being lectured over this issue, not about how much America hates homosexuals. The liberal establishment put their influence on the line, and failed spectacularly.

Obviously the Episcopal Church ended up on the losing side of this. Oh sure, we got to indulge in our feelings or righteous persecution, but we had no effect on the course of the event. The usual Episcopal liberal voices said the usual things about how hate-filled the sandwich eaters were, and maybe it's just me, be there was at least as much anger expressed there as in a thousand chicken sandwich lunches. Outside of our own little world, nobody cared. We got dismissed as just another bunch of liberals, subspecies a bunch of heretics who've pretty much forsaken the faith.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ike, We Hardly Knew You

In one of the more egregious acts of questionable triumphalism concerning the recent General Convention, Becky Garrison writes:
Commentators at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times may decry the Episcopal Church as a place offering pet funerals but nothing for the faithful or failing to provide anything one cannot get from purely secular liberalism. These traditionalists appear to bemoan the loss of a 1950s-era church that promoted an Eisenhower-era civil religion replete with the cross draped in the American flag.

While they wax nostalgia over a past that largely existed only in TV Land, the Episcopal Church made history at its 77th triennial General Convention by passing two gender nondiscrimination resolutions.

She is, at least in one respect, talking through her hat: given that she is a bit over a year younger than I am, she has no memory of the fifties, because she wasn't even born yet. Eisenhower himself was in some respects a throwback to mid-1800s political faith: he holds the unique distinction of being the only president to be baptized while in office. But as for the past, I need not recall the fifties, but (to take a signal year) 1979. In that year there were plenty of signs of weakness, but one could generally be assured of stepping into an Episcopal Church and getting an orthodox service and a half-decent sermon. The crackpot radfems were about (Gyn/Ecology was first published the year before) but if you avoided recent EDS graduates or faculty, you were probably safe, and there were still plenty of priests left from the glory days of Sewanee.

Thirty years later, and surely nobody is particularly surprised by the transgender resolutions. It's the sort of stuff we do, as a matter of course, endorsing the mores of that sect of liberal academia who still go to church. The problem, as Garrison resolutely ignores, is that there is no theology behind that morality; instead, the theology is cut down so as not to tread on the mores of the upper middle class.

The sneering reference to TV Land is, of course, a slap at Ozzie and Harriet, as though few people were raised by their undivorced parents. Far more typical of fifties TV fare were slap-happy, childless comedies like I Love Lucy and Jackie Gleason's various shows, as well as all those westerns; the other archetypal "fifties" show, Leave It to Beaver, didn't start until '57 and ran well into the sixties, and Andy Griffith didn't start until 1960. In the irony department we have the fact that Hugh Beaumont was a licensed Methodist lay preacher, and that the real TV Land has been running Roseanne for the past four years.

But then, one could just as well make snide references to Rocky Horror religion, seeing as how GC has all but set us up for the Rev. Frank N. Furter. Way too often there is a kind of freak show quality to things Episcopal these days, where there seems to be a contempt for the ordinary and a love of what we in the medievalist community call "freaking the mundanes". Thus canonizing agnostics and inviting pagans to communion is good, because it annoys people who take baptism seriously. Weird, clumsy and questionable rewrites of the liturgy are good, because they annoy people for whom the long-memorized words of the rite recall the ancient traditions of the church. Chasing after academic leftist fads is good because it annoys the supposedly rightest establishment. Doubting the creed is good, because it annoys those who see the manifest hypocrisy of it. The Episcopal clerisy and its hangers-on are heavily contaminated with radical chic.

I do not need the fifties, which I too cannot remember. But I like to think it is still possible to set the sarcasm aside and simply do the prayer book rite straight up and mean it without irony. I like to think it is possible to do theology as a church instead of as a colony of secularized academia. And I like to think we can talk about the past without falsifying it. Her picture of what the reasserters want is, to put in bluntly, as false as can be, and furthermore it's very hard for me to believe that she could have any real awareness of them and honestly make the claims about their desires that she presents.