cjbanning: "Saint Clare of Assisi Vanquishes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (Saint Clare)
Over at the Guardian, Theo Hobson is questing for an authentic liberal Christianity, and has come to the conclusion there are really two separate "liberal" Christian traditions.
One sort of liberal Christianity edges away from supernatural belief, and church ritual: it presents Jesus as a great moral teacher, the first humanist, through whose example we can learn to mend our world. It assumes a basic harmony between Christianity and the rational Enlightenment.

The other sort of liberal Christianity affirms political liberalism – the ideal of a state that rejects theocracy and protects people's liberties. But it does not seek to reform Christianity in a rational-humanist direction: it understands that such "reform" undermines this religion, falsifies it.

Very simply, the latter sort of liberal Christianity is the only authentic version; it must be rescued from the deathly embrace of the former sort. Only thus can liberal Christianity be renewed.
As a post-liberal Anglo-Catholic mystic, you might guess that I, like Hobson, would prefer the "ritualist" version of liberal Christianity over the "rationalist" one. And insofar as that goes, that's right. But I see a couple of problems with Hobson's binary division of liberal Christianity:

1.) Both versions are firmly rooted in the same Enlightenment project, so much so that it strikes me as naïve to just assume they can be separated out from each other. I share Hobson's distaste for "Christian-tinged humanism"--what I've often called "ethical Jesus-ism"--but am skeptical of his refusal to similarly critique the Enlightenment values that underlie the modernistic liberal political project:
I studied theology, and learned that cutting-edge thought was strongly "post-liberal"; it sought to purge theology of Enlightenment corruption, and restore its autonomy. I largely agreed with this agenda, but retained a nagging sense that such theology over-reacted against liberalism.
Hobson describes the rise of political liberation and the growth of rationalism as two separate trajectories that just happened to occur at the same time:
I found that the Reformation gradually gave rise to two forms of liberal Christianity. One of these was deeply involved in the first phase of political liberalism, in the mid-17th century. Its clearest theorist was the poet John Milton. He said that the Protestant Reformation, launched a century earlier, had now entered a new phase. God willed a new sort of state, with no official church enforcing religious unity. Instead, the state should protect people's freedom to believe and worship as they wanted (as long as they did not threaten the new political order).

He criticised any authoritarian church, established or not, that tried to impose moral and religious rules on people (he pointed out that St Paul had attacked such rules). This is the liberal Christian tradition that I affirm. It is a religious vision that entails a political vision, of the post-absolutist state, in which the ideal of liberty unites people.

But something else happened in the 17th century. Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from both ritual and supernatural belief. This was a disaster.
But this ignores the way that both the turn towards political liberty and towards reason were part and parcel of the same modernist moment, the same historical dialectical processes, born of an emerging paradigmatic shift which changed humanity's understanding of themselves, their place in the universe, and the nature of knowledge.

Hobson wants to dethrone the modernist worldview when it comes to faith and ritual but leave it firmly in place when it comes to politics. Sorry, but it doesn't work like that. If we're going to reexamine the role of reason in our theology--and we should!--then we're going to have to do it in our politics too.

2.) Hobson's desire for a "nuanced liberal Christianity – one that affirmed political liberty, but also understood that authentic Christianity must be rooted in faith and ritual practice" is my own desire; after all, one of the reasons I identify as Anglo-Catholic is because I recognize the power of ritual. I find little to disagree with when Hobson says:
For authentic Christianity cannot dispense with faith, nor with ritual expression. If it cuts itself off from the basic, rationally unjustifiable practices of worship (prayer-speech, communal cultic action), it commits suicide. One need only recall that this is a religion that makes regular use of (what might be called) fake blood – that involves the drinking of fake blood!
But in his statements that rationalist liberal Christianity "edges away from supernatural belief" and that "Protestantism gradually absorbed rationalist assumptions about the need to reform Christianity away from [. . .] supernatural belief" (resulting in disaster) Hobson seems to assume that "faith" must require belief in the supernatural. That seems to me to be both a musunderstanding of the original Pauline understanding of what Christian faith ought to be, and wrong (or at the very least undemonstrated) on its own terms. Now part of this might just fall to differing definition of terms; I do after all affirm the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which seems to be Hobson's example of the sort of rationality-defying practice which is necessary for faith. But I don't consider such a thing to be supernatural; instead, I'd classify it as transcendental. No one--at least no one properly catechized--actually believes an empirical change (a change in the accidents) is effected in the Communion elements; instead, the change is mystical, or metaphysical (a change in "substance," to use Trent's problematic neo-Greek metaphysics).

The problem with supernaturalism as I define it--which includes bleeding statues and ghostly apparitions but not purely spiritual transformations--is not that reason causes us to deny it. Drawing on Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and the insights of postmodernity in general, I'm perfectly comfortable recognizing the limits of our reasoning and turning to religion to fill in the gaps. It's that even when he have done so, belief in the supernatural remains unmotivated.

A Response to #GC77

Sunday, 15 July 2012 05:34 am
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As many of you reading this may well already know, the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church happened this past week. And of course, the entire world is talking about how TEC reauthorized use of the 1979 lectionary as an alternative to the Revised Common Lectionary with the permission of one's bishop and reaffirmed the sacrament of baptism as the normative entry to Holy Communion.

Okay, pretty much nobody's talking about those things. But they probably should be. So it goes.

Admittedly, the things everyone is focusing on--those having to do with sex--are pretty important too. D019 and D002 were resolutions which explicitly forbid discrimination against transgender individuals for lay ministry and ordination, respectively. These two resolutions are, to my mind, unmitigated goods. The morning after the House of Bishops passed them, essentially ensuring their passage as it is more conservative than the House of Deputies, I was messaged on OK!Cupid by a trans woman asking about "what [your] christain church thinks about ppl like me???" I was proud to be able to tell her.

I am slightly more conflicted--but only slightly--about the progress on same-sex unions. A049 approved a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Now, these unions are not marriages, but I think the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music correctly decided a revision of the sacramental marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer would go beyond the mandate given to them by the 76th General Convention. However, they did propose resolution A050 to create a task force on the study of marriage. They explained their reasoning as follows:
As the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music developed liturgical resources for blessing same-gender relationships, it faced repeated questions about marriage. What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church’s blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, “marriage” or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called “marriage”? Because the Church’s understanding of marriage affects so many of its members, the Commission believes it is important to engage in a Churchwide conversation about our theology of marriage.
To me, this makes a lot of sense. I think it is important that we as a church take time out to articulate our theology of sacramental marriage. What is the function of the sacrament? For many people, it is to differentiate between licit and illicit sexual acts, but I actually reject that answer as still far too socially conservative. But if it is not about regulating sex, then what is the purpose?

There are many ways in which the sacrament of marriage is the odd one out among the seven traditional sacraments. (I feel the need here to note in passing that the BCP distinguishes between baptism and eucharist as "sacraments of the gospel" and the other five as "sacramental rites.") I know I'm not the only one to find Mt 22:23-33 strangely in tension with Mt 16:18-19 and Mt 18:18-20. While the understanding of marriage as a sacrament dates back to at least St. Augustine of Hippo, the Church herself did not officiate marriages until the second millenium C.E. Now it is true that anyone can baptize and that within Anglicanism lay persons can hear confessions, so the non-sacerdotal application of the sacraments is hardly without precedent. But it still makes me pause in my considerations of just what the sacrament of marriage is, exactly, and how it works as a means of grace. I look forward to hearing the conclusions of the taskforce in 2015 with excitement.

In any case, I am confident the foundation is being laid for full sacramental marriage to be expanded to same-sex couples within TEC within the next decade. I look forward to that time.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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