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Posts Tagged ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’

Pluralism in a normative sense (as opposed to pluralism as a matter of description which is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion) means valuing subjectivity over objectivity by declaring all cultural viewpoints (including religious viewpoints as a facet of culture) equally and fundamentally valid. The problems with this popular viewpoint-framework include first, that pluralism is itself a value that undermines all other values, and second, that it generally fails to be subject to its own scrutiny.

The value of pluralism is not somehow self-evident, regardless of whether it is treated as such. Even if it can be justified by rhetoric or evidence, pluralism is itself a value. The problem is that it is a value that undermines all other values. If I ascribe to pluralism, I cannot at the same time hold any other values, because that would be an assertion that those values were somehow true or the best or the most valid, which is inconsistent with pluralism. In fact, under the rubric of pluralism, there is no need to hold any other values at all: if all values are equally valid then no value supersedes another, and all values are thus also equally invalid. Pluralism, in its admirable desire for fairness and equity, swallows up everything else.

Furthermore, in practice, pluralism generally fails to live up to its own mandate. Most pluralists reject exclusivist or fundamentalist viewpoints. In other words, to the pluralist, all viewpoints are equally valid except for when they undermine pluralism itself. Thus all viewpoints actually aren’t equally valid because no viewpoint other than pluralism can ever be valid, since any statement of value necessarily implies the non-validity of contradictory values. Thus, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid because all values other than pluralism denigrate other values by not recognizing their equal worth and validity. But that is not even true: in fact, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid at all, not even pluralism, because rejecting say, Fundamentalist Christianity in the name of pluralism means recognizing that the pluralism is more valid than Fundamentalist Christianity, a situation that is impossible under pluralism.

Thus pluralism is undesirable as a stance because it not only undermines all other values, but in practice, pluralism even undermines itself. It is subjectivity taken to the logical, but absurd end. This end means the inability to make moral judgments of any kind, because it results in the rejection of all Ought principles. Even if not taken to the extreme, pluralism undermines strong Ought principles conceptually and thus undermines all moral imperatives, i.e., all statements of Should.

This lies at the heart of my unease with liberalism, at least liberalism as commonly articulated in America today. Liberalism is all passion but no principle. Certainly liberals have articulated a significant number of values couched in moral terms, and many liberals are extremely passionate about these values. But the problem is that liberalism includes and embraces pluralism as not just a value, but as a fundamental premise, and so liberalism fails to be able to articulate reasons for its values without rejecting a premise that it is unwilling to reject.

American conservatives, by contrast, get the force for their Ought statements from their belief in Christianity, pragmatism, or market economics. I may not agree with their Ought statements, or even acknowledge the validity of their sources, but they are articulating policies based on principles that are at least alleged to be objective. If you acknowledge even the possible validity of the source and the derivation of the Ought, then their Should-conclusions have a great deal of moral force. I’m not entirely sure about the source of libertarians’ Ought-principles.

Now, to be fair, many people are proponents of the same causes as liberals without being liberals in the sense that I am using it. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury is socially progressive but theologically conservative. His Ought-principles, whether they are true or misguided, come from a set of objective moral standards. Ditto for my friend Bryant: as a faithful Mormon, he believes in absolute morality and objective values, but he concludes that those values—that set of Ought-principles—lead him basically to the same Should-imperatives that liberals advocate.

However, people like Bryant occupy a perilous place in the American left. Because their moral reasoning is based on objective standards, by definition they reject full cultural pluralism, which means they are treated with suspicion by fellow-liberals. It’s not always easy being both religious and a Democrat in the United States: conservatives think that your Progressive politics is a betrayal of your religion (because you derive a different set of Ought-principles from what is ostensibly the same source), and too many liberals think that your objective values are the antithesis of pluralism and thus inherently invalid (and since pluralism is fundamental to liberalism, your objective values are the antithesis of liberalism even if you advocate the same set of policy goals; the feeling is that you happen by lucky coincidence to advocate the same policy goals in one particular instance, but since you reject pluralism you can’t really be counted on).

Yes, I know that political reality means that Democratic candidates have to use religious talk to get elected. But it is also true that they suffer derision and scorn from liberals when they do. This is because for the kind of liberal I am talking about, anything that even potentially undermines pluralism is the mark of the enemy.

Next: Religious Choices And Their Values

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Since I started looking for a church, the one that has appealed to me the most has been the Episcopal church.  I liked the Lutheran church, too- in practice it was very similar, but I wasn;t excited about it having Luther’s name attached to it, and I felt like a British church was slightly more culturally relevant to me than a German church, although the preference is only mild.

Anyway, when I look for a direction to go, a way to follow Christ, Anglicanism (and since I’m in the US, that means the Episcopal church) continues to beckon as an attractive and meaningful path.  In all honesty, the odds are decent that this is the direction that I will eventually go, once I get all of my issues sorted out.

Of all the mainline Protestant denominations I am familiar with, the Episcopal church appealed to me the most for several reasons.  I like the liturgical aspect, and I like the communion/eucharist-centered service.  However, my concerns with Episcopalianism/Anglicanism that I am going to express in this post also apply to the rest of mainline Protestantism  So keep that in mind.  In general, I am more interested in older Protestant denominations, though, i.e., the ones that came more or less directly out of the Reformation.

Anglicanism’s via media is very appealing to me.  In theory, it has the good parts of Catholicism- the meaningful liturgy and ritual, an ordained clergy that can trace apostolic succession, and a lot of tradition, coupled with basic Protestant theology, a lot of tolerance, and (in theory) a tradition of latitudinarianism that allows for a pretty theologically diverse bunch to all be united in one communion.

I also really, really like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If allAnglicans were like him, I would join the Episcopal church without reservation.  He is intelligent, creative, insightful, and he is able to maintain the same kind of balance between theological orthodoxy and progressive social action and an inclusive attitude that Brian McLaren advocates.  Except where McLaren is kind of adorably fumbling about it, the Archbishop does it all with such elegance.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of a church of Rowan Williamses, the Anglican communion is more a church of John Shelby Spongs and Peter Akinolas, tearing at each others’ throats, and I want nothing to do with either of those types.

First I want to address my Bishop Spong problem, and it’s really not a problem with Spong per se  so much as it is a problem with theological liberalism in general.  But given how outspoken Spong has been, and the kind of “Christianity” he has advocated, he’s kind of my lightning rod for everything I think is wrong with that side of the theological spectrum.  In my opinion, theological liberalism is dross.  Why be a Christian is you don;t really believe in the empty tomb, the incarnation, the resurrection?  Why bother?

As Rowan Williams put it in his eloquent (if slightly academic) response to Spong’s 12 theses, back when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth,

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

If Jesus is just a mortal philosopher, I see no reason to bother with Christianity at all.  I realize that accepting Jesus as God means having to deal with some hard issues and maybe living with some serious paradoxes, but I see it as the only way to be a Christian, and I want to be a Christian.

My point is that mainline Christianity in general and the Episcopal Church in specific are so riddled with theological liberalism that I don’t know if they’re really worth bothering with, or if I’ll just be frustrated all the time.

At the same time, I think religious fundamentalism is equally ridiculous.  Both religious fundamentalism and theological liberalism are the bastard children of modernism, and are in my mind the chief case for why modernism was horribly bad for Christianity.

If the Episcopal church could find a way to be progressive without compromising the essential beliefs of Christianity, it would, in my opinion, be the best of all worlds.  Unfortunately, at least the American Episcopal church seems to be doing a whole lot of compromising.

I have other concerns with the Episcopal church, too.  Chief among them is that so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of authentic community.  Juice and cookies in the undercroft do not a community make.  I imagine that part of this is a matter of finding the right parish, and also of persisting- real community is like a living thing, and living things don’t usually spontaneously spring fully grown into existence.

There’s also a teeny tiny bit of stigma attached, since becoming an Episcopalian would mean pretty much embracing the ultimate expression of WASPishness.  But I guess I can deal with that.

Next, I think the worldwide Anglican Communion’s current shenanigans over homosexuality are shameful.  Don’t get me wrong- I think Christianity’s attitude towards homosexual people has been decidedly un-Christian.  However, I think that by stepping out on its own to ordain gay bishops and bless homosexual unions, the American Episcopal church pretty much pissed all over the idea of unity within the Communion.  It was rash and reckless, and probably (if also unfortunately) too soon.

At the same time, the response of the Northern Virginia parishes has been tantamount to “taking our toys and going home” when the game doesn’t go their way, which is equally disrespectful to unity and togetherness.  And Peter Akinola’s response, to actually promote the schism, has been the crowning deed of the whole affair, completely un-called-for and inappropriate, displaying a kind of scorn and derision to the Anglcian Communion as a whole that completely undermines everything that it is supposed to stand for.

Whatever it turns out that God really wants, I’m pretty sure it’s not recriminations and schism.  The actions of both sides of this debate betray a disregard for Christian unity and brotherhood/sisterhood that makes me very sad.  Kudos to the Archbishop for dis-inviting both sides to the Lambeth conference.

Now, as a non-Anglican, it can be argued that the whole thing is none of my business.  But at the same time, I’m considering becoming an Anglican, and so the situation is important to me.  I’m not excited about the prospect of joining up and then being caught in the ultra-liberal faction of a schism that never should have happened in the first place.

But I have to weigh that concern against the incredible good that I see in Anglicanism.  I feel the sense of authoritative-ness that I’m looking for, both in the clergy and in the institution.  I feel that there is so much room for spirituality and even mysticism (especially with Rowan Williams in the Archbishop’s seat), and also Christlike life and social action.  The churches and the liturgy are beautiful, and they bring a sense of holiness and connection to God.

In any case, this is the situation where I am seriously torn.  I want very badly to go down this road, but I am afraid that the obstacles are simply too great.

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When I read Emergent writers like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, I find myself nodding and agreeing with so much of what they say.  I find the emergent conversation compelling enough that I actually sought out the church that McLaren founded, and that’s where my wife and I go every Sunday these days.

There’s a lot about the emergent conversation that I really like.  But I also have some problems with it that I would like to discuss.   These problems are interrelated and difficult to make really distinct, so they don’t really lend themselves to a bullet-point list in order of importance or something like that.  Instead, I’ll just pretty much tackle the whole thing at once, starting wherever and typing until I feel like I’ve said all I have to say.

One problem I have is that I see, for the most part, the emergent conversation/emerging church is really a child of evangelical Christianity as opposed to Christianity as a whole.  In a way, it seems like a kind of mini-Protestantism, emerging from fundamentalism and evangelicalism the way Protestant Christianity emerged from Catholicism.  The thing was, in the fifteenth century, Catholicism is all there was, so the Reformation was a big thing- its adherents were birthed from the entirety of western Christianity.

By contrast, the emerging church is mostly just the product of evangelicalism, which is only a small slice of current Christianity.  Thus, I feel like it rests on many evangelical assumptions, despite trying its best to be ecumenical and “generous” in its theology and outlook.

In short, I feel like emergent Christianity (and I knowingly use the terms “emerging” and “emergent” interchangeably, Mark Driscoll’s opinions notwithstanding) begins by making evangelical assumptions, finds problems there, and simply assumes that the answers can’t be found anywhere else in Christianity.  Even in McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, which is a great book, and you should read it, the hat-tip he gives to the rest of Christianity is largely superficial, and betrays his deel evangelical/fundamentalist roots.

Why do I care about this?  Well, for one thing, I have some concerns about evangelical Christianity that the emerging church doesn’t really resolve.  Second, recent things I’ve read make me wonder if the emerging church isn’t really just trying to reinvent the wheel, while rejecting the possibility that the wheel has actually already been invented and refined if not perfected.

I just finished reading Rowan Williams’s book Where God Happens.  Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.  I plan on posting something lengthy about Anglicanism in the near future, but suffice to say for the moment that Anglicanism is one of the paths I am seriously considering in my journey towards Jesus Christ, but I also have very serious doubts and reservations.

Where God Happens is a short book about the Desert Fathers and the relevance for people today of their teachings, sayings, and way of life.  Interestingly enough, the concepts that Dr. Williams pulls out of the sayings and practices of the Desert Fathers are in many ways extremely similar to the theological ideas and concepts of the emergent church.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me.  Until that point, the emergent conversation had been my oasis, the shining example of what it seemed like Christianity should really be about.  But here is the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking the fourth-century Desert Fathers (and Mothers; let’s not leave out Amma Syncletica) and the result is basically the same message!  In particular, the ideas about community and relationship and Christian discipleship are startlingly similar to the theological ideas of McLaren et al.  But more importantly, this same message is in a context that lends it so much more authority- or at least that makes it so much more authoritative– than the hemming and hawing we’re-just-regular-guys McLaren and Bell even come close to.  This is completely steeped in the fullness of Christian history and tradition.

The result is that I start to wonder about putting too many of my eggs in the emergent basket.  If they’re just reinventing the wheel, they’re doing it in a humble but arrogant way, assuming that the wheel hasn’t already been invented and highly refined just because they don’t find the wheel in their narrow evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds.

If all of the things that I like about emergent theology are there for the discovering in historic orthodox Christianity, then maybe emergent Christianity isn’t as great asI thought it was, especially considering my other concerns with evangelicalism that are carried over into the emergent conversation.

Another concern I have with the emergent conversation is in terms of the practice of worship.  While one stream of the emergent conversation is concerned with reworking and refining theology, there’s another, maybe more major stream that is concerned with new and relevant ways of worship.  I am not as excited about this stream, although it is generally seen by the rest of the evangelical world as the more acceptable facet of emergent Christianity.

These new ways of worship often involve pairing religious innovation with recovered ancient Christian traditions.  Once again, my problem is that this is completely from an evangelical standpoint.  The ancient traditions of worship and spirituality are not lost; they have merely been abandoned by evangelical Protestantism.  They are still easy to find and access in many Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and even traditional Protestant churches and communities.  And when the emergent church “recaptures” these traditions, they always seem so much more… superficial than they do when seen in practice in their traditional context, in something like an Eastern Orthodox Liturgy.

Furthermore, I’m not necessarily always excited about innovative worship.  To me, it assumes that the traditional ways have been fully mined for meaning and there’s none left, so we need to make up something new.  And I challenge that assertion.  I think part of the problem is a media-soaked culture that has forgotten how to be still and reflective, how to take time, to be thoughtful, and to let spiritual things penetrate deeply.  I think if we could recover contemplation, then the traditional ways of worship, the ones that have proven themselves relevant to human beings for up to twenty centuries, will still be just as relevant as they have always been.

I think there is room for thoughtful innovation in worship, but I think it is a thing that should be done carefully and deliberately, not recklessly.

My final criticism of the emerging church is its concern with being relevant to the postmodern person, and its general marriage to postmodernism.  As a postmodern person, it seems great, but at the same time, I long for a faith that stands outside of and independent of philosophical trends and momentary (compared to the continuity of human history) ways of thinking.  Christianity existed before modernism, and I think embracing modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity (I’ll post more about this later, but in my opinion, embracing modernism means either taking the path of theological liberalism or the path of theological fundamentalism, both of which make Christianity look foolish).  At the same time, I have no real confidence that people won’t say the same thing about postmodernism in a few hundred years.  Postmodernism may be a new way of thinking and a refreshing alternative to modernism, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve “finally gotten it right.”  Down the road, postmodernism will be outdated and will be junked with all of the other antiquated philosophical frameworks that humanity has consigned to the collective cognitive dusty attic.

I think Christianity should be able to stand outside of passing waves of philosophy- it should be something that endures apart from and independent of “the way people think.”  It should be an alternative to the current philosophical trend, not just one more manifestation of it.  It might make Christianity difficult to the individual who is hesitant to set aside his conventional philosophical framework, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  I believe that there are ways in which Christianity should be difficult.  When Jesus Christ said his yoke was easy and his burden was light, I really don’t think he meant that his way meant not having to change the way we live and think.  In fact, I’m fairly convinced that he meant the opposite.

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