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.

Thought Experiment

Thursday, 17 February 2011 09:51 am
cjbanning: (Symposium)
(1) Imagine that God creates the following universe (graphically represented as an alphabet consisting of uppercase and lowercase letters):


(2) Imagine that God creates the following "natural order" for (1):


(3) Because the "jklmnop" in (1) is in contravention of the order found in (2), it counts as "supernatural."

But why would God even bother to create (2)? What would it even mean for God to have created (2)? It seems more than somewhat blasphemous to assume that in addition to the world God created, (1), there's also (even as an idea) the world God should have created but chose not to, (2).

Now the human mind looks for patterns, so if someone only sees the parts of (1) outside the brackets, she's going to see the pattern described in (2). But then seeing the parts of (1) inside the brackets shouldn't be an issue at all; she should simply recognize, with humility, that the pattern she saw is insufficient to describe the whole created universe of (1), and she'll have to come up with a new, better pattern, (2′), perhaps to be followed by a (2″), (2‴), etc.

And since there's always more of the universe to explore, she's going to be constantly revising the patterns she thinks she sees. That's scientific progress.

But it doesn't leave much room for the supernatural.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
"[Tolstoy] is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men [sic] talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men [sic] sane." -- Chesterton, quoted here
The subtitle to Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, our book club book and the subject of a couple of recent posts, is Christianity Not As a Mystic Religion But As a New Theory of Life. Implicit in this title seems to be a conflation of mysticism and supernaturalism which is endemic throughout the text and seriously weakens Tolstoy's ability to engage with the religion, for it causes Tolstoy in his quite correct (in my opinion) resistance to supernaturalism to throw the baby out with the bathwater and also reject the core of Christian mysticism which runs throughout Scripture and Tradition, leaving him only with a weakly modernist set of humanist ethics.

Tolstoy's version of Christianity, then, falls into a type of angel worship by de-throning the mystic, living, Risen Christ who works in history via the Spirit. Tolstoy writes in the third chapter, "The Church as a church, whatever it may be--Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian--every church, in so far as it is a church, cannot but strive [. . .] to conceal the real meaning of Christ's teaching and to replace it by their own, which lays no obligation on them, [and] excludes the possibility of understanding the true teaching of Christ." By asserting a "true teaching of Christ" Tolstoy thus limits Christ to a human doctrine, trying to place God within the categories of human beings.

Tolstoy thinks he does so in the name of reason and science, but it is not Christian mysticism which lies in contradiction thereto, but Christian supernaturalism. Supernaturalism represents the claim that some set of empirical phenomena operate in a manner which is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature" (ST I:102:4). (For further thoughts on the supernatural, see my post here.) Mysticism, on the other hand, makes no falsifiable claims about creation, and thus cannot find itself in tension with science. Instead it attempts to provide insight into that which cannot be said when we have come up against the limits of our language, and attempt to perceive that which is made manifest in experience. The Trinity, the Real Presence, and the Unity of the Church are examples of mystical doctrines, not supernatural claims.

Tolstoy joyfully skewers those who place their faith solely in tradition (his caricature of Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy) or in scripture (his caricature of Protestantism)--and of course he is right to do so (for there are of course Christians of all brands who do indeed live up to the caricatures). But his own modernist account of what Christianity ought to teach similarly elevates reason as its sole authority. There's nothing wrong with this, per se: certainly being reliant on reason is far superior to a slavish, unthinking devotion to either scripture or tradition alone, and I don't have any real argument, yet alone a proof, that scripture and tradition represent legitimate sources of revelation when used in moderation, or that Tolstoy should recognize them as such, anymore than I have an argument against sola scriptura (well, other than that the doctrine of sola scriptura is nowhere to be found in the Bible).

And yet the truly catholic option is to allow scripture, tradition, and reason to enter into dialogue with each other--the "three-legged stool" of Anglicanism. (Add in experience and you get the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) And it is precisely this sort of relationality which lies at the very heart of Trinitarian Christianity.


Saturday, 27 November 2010 05:37 pm
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
The notion of the supernatural assumes that there is a natural order to the universe independent not only of the efforts of human beings to describe it (i.e., scientific models) but also of the will of God whose actions are assumed to be in opposition to, or at least contravention of, it. Why would/should such an order exist?

If an elephant were to suddenly crash through the roof of the Parsonage, that'd certainly be outside of common, every-day experience, but I don't think one would call it supernatural; one would simply assume a plane passed over carrying an elephant, and encountered some type of difficulty. Calling something supernatural seems to me to be a statement not only about what we do experience, but what we could--something which is not only beyond our current scientific models, but in some way beyond the ability of scientists to model ever. Then again, since I'm already working from the assumption that the notion of supernaturalism is incoherent, there's probably plenty of room to accuse me of attacking a straw person.

Aquinas writes of the miraculous being "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature " ( ST I:102:4); I'd love to think that this understanding is no longer the operative one in Christian and cultural Christian understandings of the supernatural, but I'm unconvinced.

God's existence, which is not an empirical phenomenon, is transcendent (as well as immanent--but there is something implicilty transcendent about immanence, perhaps?). I can't touch the Trinity, although I can experience it mystically, and it can touch me through the sacraments (but there's nothing supernatural about THEM!) But supernaturalism isn't transcendent, but empirical; if a supernatural event occurs, the assumption is that someone can hear or see or feel the event and/or its consequences, but that it somehow still gets to count as Other. It's a confusion of the categories, trying to have one's cake and eat it too.

Yet the question then is how we make sense of the way(s) God moves in and/or through the World, is made manifest in that which is the case, representing the wholly Other impinging on that which is not Other. God's actions in and/or through the world--of which reality's very existence is the most obvious, since God is the creator of heaven and Earth, all that is seen and unseen--ARE empirical phenomena (I think?--but the fact that they are God's actions is NOT empirical). They're simply not supernatural.

My project is basically to try to reconcile Wittgenstein's claim in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that "God does not reveal [Godself] in the world" with Christian orthodoxy by making a distinction between "in the world" and "through the world"--which would, I think, (to quote my friend Bryce) "keep the miraculous actions of God within the normal operations of the world."

I think that brings with it a denial of the supernatural, at least as I define it, because in my understanding supernaturalism requires that God, spirits, angels, demons, ghosts, etc. be able to act on the world in a way which falls outside its normal operations.

But if the natural is simply the laws of the universe as they are understood or expected, then every time a scientist gets a reading in her laboratory she didn't expect, she's experiencing the supernatural. That strikes me as a fairly absurd conclusion.

I suppose I define "natural" as something like that which follows the physical laws of the universe independent of how they are understood or expected--and then I question what leads us to believe there are physical laws of the universe which are indepedent not only of a) how they are understood or expected (since we are constantly revising those expectations), but also b) the will of God (since, to the supernaturalist, God can act outside those limits).

It seems that if God does something which seems to not adhere to our understanding and expectation of how the universe operates, then the issue is some failure in our understanding or expectation.
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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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