Harding v Chane

One wants to hear more from Harding about "imperial pluralism," as it seems his piece criticizing Chane succeeds in engaging the Episcopal Church's current leading theology. Sure, the article is a bit polemical, but that is to be expected given the state of our community.

Chane's Move
Bishop Chane was quoted as saying:
I think it’s really very dangerous when someone stands up and says: ‘I have the way and I have the truth and I know how to interpret holy scripture and you are following what is the right way. It’s really very, very dangerous and I think it’s demonic.

Perhaps a poor choice of words; I suppose Chane should have done more to parse "demonic"--certainly an incendiary choice of words for a bishop at Lambeth. But maybe the article omits whatever nuances he managed to add. Regardless, Chane's basic point is not idiosyncratic, but expresses what--for around thirty years by my fallible reckoning--the Episcopal Church has adopted as its theology of choice. The category of the demonic applies to a created person's attempts to "seal" him- or herself off from God, as if effort could achieve the aseity proper to divinity. Chane could be picking the category up from Kierkegaard, or perhaps Tillich; who knows?

The Episcopal Church's leading theology, expressed in Holmes, Westerhoff, Griffiss, et al, extols the virtue of epistemic humility as the necessary mark of a finite person in relation to God. God, being radically free and unconstrained in his absolute power, is beyond finite comprehension--even in the event of beatification. In our relationship with God the Father, we must ever stand ready to respond in obedience to God's will for us, and never presume we comprehend the whole of what he has ordained. Thus, take a passage of Holy Scripture S and a period of time, t. Suppose God wills from eternity that the church understand S at t to mean XYZ; that is consistent with God willing from eternity that the church understand S at t' (later than t) as ABC--where "ABC" is contrary to "XYZ." For the church to complain How will we be able to tell? is understandable, but God--being omnipotent--is able to communicate with the church. The church's role is to listen and obey, listen and obey.

OK--so there is a sketch of the leading Episcopalian theology. Chane seems to be worried that someone claiming to know with certainty that S simply means XYZ not only infringes on the absolute power of God to ordain that S mean whatever he pleases it to mean (and only that can be Scripture's literal meaning), but also attempts to seal him- or herself off from God's commands. That attempt would count as demonic.

Harding's Counter
He writes,

John Chane charges the traditionalists with the crime of certainty. This is a commonplace. It is a corollary of the reigning intellectual culture among the intellectual elites of the West....

and that sounds right though a touch polemical; he then goes on to add:

[i]t is a consequence of the dogmas of post-modernism.

That is debatable--unless one wishes to date Postmodernism to the Early Modern period and include people like Bayle--the trope of uncertainty, and in particular uncertainty as applied to revelation, predates the likes of Lyotard and Derrida. Worse: one could follow the likes of Quine and other assorted analytic philosophers, and come away with a cogent general skepticism about ontology and moral value--but this would not be at all postmodern. He goes on:

It is based on the conviction that there is very little that can be known with certainty, perhaps just a very few “facts” of science, perhaps not even them. The dogma at work here is the ironic post-modern dogma of the certainty of uncertainty. Consequently according to this post-modern dogma, to claim certainty in the area of beliefs and values is immoral and especially so given the huge variety of religious and philosophical options....

The only part to take issue with is the formulation "the ironic post-modern dogma of the certainty of uncertainty." One might well pin this on, say, middle & late period Derrida, but I do not think it fits the Episcopal Church's position well. It's leading theology may look defensive: a modest core set of beliefs that are held with certainty are surrounded by beliefs and positions held without absolute certainty--but the core is there. Recall the Righter trial's verdict: Righter didn't violate the core, not that there was no core at all. A conservative might say in response:

(A) the core is absurdly thin, and missing necessary elements,

or maybe even

(B) the distinction between core and periphery is not defensible;

and the conservative may well contend

(C) the days of positivism are over--there is no need to be so defensive;

but the complaint

(D) there is no core--all is up for grabs,

seems mistaken as applied to TEC.

When Harding goes on to say "[t]his protest against certainty claims the moral high ground and sounds on the surface as though it is based on a generous tolerance" I strain to recall any theological defense of tolerance by any near-current, leading Episocopalian theologian.

The notion of tolerance--running from Locke up to today--presumes inter alia one side is convinced it knows the truth and the other side is thought to be mistaken in an especially morally troubling way, but that the side thinking it has the truth restrains itself from suppressing the others by whom they are troubled. Thus, tolerance is a virtue for those without a case of epistemic wobblies. For instance, if Nigeria's Akinola--certain in his interpretation of Scripture on homosexuality--were to decide nevertheless to rub shoulders with TEC's pro-GC2003 bishops at the Altar, that would exhibit tolerance in the relevant sense.

"Tolerance" seems to be the wrong word for what Harding is getting at; he might have spoken of the ancient skeptic's virtue instead: epoche, a la Pyrrho, or suspension of judgement. For it seems that Harding thinks of TEC, in my view misreading TEC's leading theology, along postmodern lines as skeptical about the ancient faith once delivered.

It would be wrong in my view to speak of "Episcopalian epoche" as if TEC's leading theology were a form of dressed-up Pyrrhonianism. Epistemic humility of the sort defended by TEC is consistent with having to take sides, make judgements, formulate definite interpretations with definite content, etc all stepping away from mere nomos, as TEC has done of late, whereas for an exponent of epoche, these things would be inconsistent--and there would be no core doctrine at all, however slim, for the skeptic.

The essential point about the Episcopal Church seems to be that when it takes those stands, it does not take them thinking itself to be infallible, to be closed off from correction by God's will. The actions TEC takes in disciplining a bishop, passing a resolution or condoning a type of action are ever taken to be defeasible. That is to say, the choice between absolute certainty and postmodern skepticism sets up a false dichotomy; pace Harding, there is terrain between the extremes.

But Harding has an ace:

It [TEC's leading position] is saying, in effect, "before we talk you must agree that your beliefs and values are the sort of thing that I say they are and I say they can never be more than one opinion among others. If we are to talk, you must give up all your truth claims before you come to the table. With regard to the rules of the table, I will be the final referee.”

That's mistaken, Harding thinks; he quotes Newbigin:

“In a pluralist society such as ours. . .any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation. It itself rests on assumptions which are open to radical criticisms, but which are not criticized because they are part of the reigning plausibility structure.”

That might work against a postmodernist or a theological pluralist. But TEC's position is--not yet at least--pluralist or postmodernist. Notice Newbigin's "any" in the quote. That word covers alot of ground--too much ground for TEC. The Episcopal Church has core doctrine, though maybe not enough for Harding; that is not to say it has no core at all.

Thus, it is not clear that TEC's leading theology demands all comers to the table first give up their unqualified truth claims, claims made with certainty. TEC might be better portaryed as saying something like "Your position is substantive and goes beyond our core doctrine; you better have a really good argument." And in a sense we have come face to face with our chief problem: a paucity of good theology. In our disputes, neither side seems capable of making a case with really good arguments--indeed, the structure of the arguments given is scarcely discernible. However, that does not mean there is no good argument to be made, or that with practice we would remain unable to speak for ourselves.

The polemical bit from Harding I spoke of above is here:

Bishop Chane’s protest sounds high minded and tolerant but it is in reality the rhetoric of the despot who is beyond rebuke.

Oh dear--this comes perilously close to calling Chane a despot outright, though Harding is merely accusing Chane of talking like a despot. I suppose it will entertain at least a few readers who need some good news in this Lambeth season: a utilitarian justification, alas.

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