Tuesday, March 10, 2009

How Much is 2 Plus 2?

“The Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that if you ask a man how much is 2 plus 2 and he tells you 5, that is a mistake. But if you ask a man how much is 2 plus 2 and he tells you 97, that is no longer a mistake. The man you are talking with is operating with a wholly different logic from your own.”

Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989)

I find Friedman's citation of Wittgenstein helpful in making sense of the dissonance I sometimes experience with Episcopalians who say and advocate for things that I find utterly baffling. It's as though they are saying that 2 plus 2 equals 97. (To be fair, I wouldn't be surprised if they said the same thing about me.)

I'll offer just a few of the many examples I've come across.

An Episcopalian says: "Historically speaking, The Book of Common Prayer was born out of a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. As such a compromise, it entails no substantive content."

My response: "Compromise = no substantive content? What?! (Too bad no one told Thomas Cranmer ...)"

How much is 2 plus 2?

An Episcopalian says: "To claim that there is such a thing as 'the faith of the Church' and that the Bible, the creeds, and the liturgies of the Prayer Book embody that faith is merely a way of trying to impose one's own views on other people. The Episcopal Church doesn't have teaching that's binding on anyone. To say otherwise is to endorse indoctrination, not inclusiveness."

My response: "The section entitled 'Concerning the Catechism' in The Book of Common Prayer says, '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' (BCP, p. 844). One of the concluding collects for use after the Prayers of the People says: 'Regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church' (BCP, p. 395). And then there's this prayer for the candidates about to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism: 'Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church' (BCP, p. 305). It's clear to me that the Prayer Book says there are such things as 'the Church's teaching' and 'the faith of the Church.' While some may say that upholding those ideas and teaching their content constitutes indoctrination, I call it formation."

How much is 2 plus 2?

An Episcopalian says: "We all recite the same words of the Nicene Creed on Sundays, but many of us disagree on what almost every word of that Creed means."

My response: "It may be true that 'many of us' disagree on what the words mean. But I believe that the more important question is what has the Church meant by these words down through the ages? Each of us is free, of course, to disagree with what the Church has said. But that's not the same thing as saying there's no substantive theological content to the Creed and/or that it's meaning is up for grabs."

How much is 2 plus 2?

An Episcopalian says: "Teaching a class about 'the faith of the Church' is all about trying to tell every Episcopalian what they do or should believe, which amounts to indoctrination and a guilt trip."

My response: "There is a difference between what Episcopalians may or may not believe as individuals on the one hand, and the faith of the Church as received by The Episcopal Church on the other hand. There's the faith of the Church, and there's the individual's faith. The faith of the Church is the norm against which the individual's faith is measured and perhaps found more or less wanting. Proposing to teach a class about 'the faith of the Church' is a proposal to explore the faith articulated in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the historic creeds of the Church, and the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer. Of course, individual Episcopalians are always free to make up their own minds. They may struggle with and reject what the scriptures, the creeds, and the Prayer Book say. But it doesn't follow from the mere assertion of such autonomy that the individual's mind is the measure of what the Christian faith is all about."

How much is 2 plus 2?

An Episcopalian says: "I reject the idea that, as an Episcopalian, I gather with other Episcopalians around a uniform set of theological ideas and teachings."

My response: "But we already do that every Sunday, regardless of whether or not we agree with those theological ideas and teachings. It's called the Eucharistic liturgy."

How much is 2 plus 2?

An Episcopalian says: "What differentiates us from other Christian churches is that we embrace pluralism. We acknowledge the reality that Episcopalians hold very different understandings of the stories about Jesus in the New Testament and we do not accept any attempt by anyone to tell us what to believe about such matters."

My response: "Perspectivism and pluralism bordering on relativism are not the distinguishing marks of who we are as The Episcopal Church. The faith articulated by the Prayer Book as liturgically enacted in accordance with the patristic maxim 'Praying Shapes Believing' and given theological depth and practical import in our theology of baptism - that's a good place to start to get at what differentiates The Episcopal Church from some other Christian churches."

How much is 2 plus 2?

An Episcopalian says: "Any attempt to talk about 'what Episcopalians believe' would make some people feel belittled, criticized, and excluded."

My response: "I've already made a distinction between the faith of the Church and what Episcopalians may or may not actually believe, indicating that the former is the norm against which the adequacy of the latter is judged. But to go a step further: why is it necessarily a bad thing to note the limits and boundaries of who we are as a Church? I grant and celebrate the generous orthodoxy of the Anglican tradition we have received, an orthodoxy which makes room for a wide range of theological diversity, but not an unlimited range. There are limits to generosity. Norms are necessary. We Episcopalians simply cannot be all things to all people. We cannot include everybody and still be who we are. Indeed, we do a pastoral disservice to people if we pretend to be something we are not. Perhaps there are some seekers among us who would thrive better in a different church setting (e.g., a conservative evangelical church, or the Unitarian Church, etc.). There's nothing necessarily wrong with that."

How much is 2 plus 2?


Joe Rawls said...

Bryan: 1. An excellent, excellent post! 2. The theological liberals have an unbounded capacity for dogmatism when it comes to the control of real estate and other financial assets. 3. Wittgenstein also said, "whereof we cannot speak [coherently], thereof we must shut the hell up." Or words to that effect.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Joe.

Another dimension of the unbounded capacity for dogmatism on the Left is the ability to espouse inclusion and affirm "a safe place for everyone" while simultaneously expressing contempt for views that fall in the Center to the Right on the theological spectrum. I don't think that kind of self-congratulatory hubris should have any place in the Church. But its presence (and in some cases, the fact that it flourishes) again raises the question: "How much is 2 plus 2?"