Monday, March 26, 2007

Pelagius Risen (The Second of Two Parts)

When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less.
G.K. Chesterton

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
Matthew 6:27
So where was I? Oh yes. The precedent set by the Anglican Church as it accounts for Jay Currie’s singular version of that faith: a hodge-podge of notions, much more remarkable for what they omit than for what they include, but which do include 1) emphasis on a few select passages from the Gospels, directed (much more importantly) by a strong feeling about what Jesus must’ve meant by them, 2) a rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin, and 3) a belief that apparently God’s Chosen People was more of a temporal designation—that the chosen, in effect, are the Baby-boomers.

Oh, and the novel suggestion that Christ missed His true calling as … a lawyer! (That’s my attempt at the asked-for “lower body blow”.)

I’ve mentioned to JC (again: I’m talking about Jay Currie here, not the other JC, the S of G) that, insofar as the above conforms to no one version of the Christian faith—indeed, in the case of number two, to no version of the Christian faith at all—it becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for us to argue our respective positions. I used this analogy:
You’re welcome to take the steak out of your serving of a steak and kidney pie, but it would be silly to claim that we’re still eating the same thing if I don’t. Sillier still if you maintain that you’re eating steak and kidney pie.
Rather clever, I thought.

Unfortunately for me, though, this sort of reasoning is terribly naïve. Fact is, the Anglican Church has been calling its own meagre offering—of, not so much a cold slab of liver pud, as just a plain green salad—“steak and kidney pie” since it first made the switch back in 1538. So, really, JC’s every-man-his-own-religion- still-bothering-to-call-itself-Anglicanism is not only precedented, in many ways it is entirely in keeping with the Anglican tradition.

For as you’ll probably already know, the Anglican Church was not the product of a religious movement. Which is to say: its historical establishment had absolutely nothing to do with the Protestant reforms that were, at the time, sweeping Europe. It was, rather, and to put it quite bluntly, the result of a bit of political maneuvering on the part of Henry VIII; whose request for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been, most inconveniently for the son-crazy King, refused by Pope Clement VII. Henry—fierce, and otherwise quite unapologetic Catholic though he was—quickly dispatched Thomases Cranmer and Cromwell to the (wait for it!) great European universities, to go about the business of figuring out how he (Henry) could get himself a consequence-free divorce. They did this, he followed through, got himself excommunicated for his trouble, and, folly’s-your-father’s-brother, he made himself the head of the English Church ... And here we are five hundred years later. Seeds sown and grown.

Now, whether these decidedly unholy¹ origins of a nationalized Church of England render it—and all of its Anglican Communion brethren—fatally flawed (as it unquestionably is by JC’s reckoning of it), or whether they just pose as an irritating, but ultimately surmountable (even necessary) challenge to the faith, remains fuzzy.

fuzzy, I say, because the challenge is ongoing and might very well still prove to be fatal. Here’s why:

The argument, on both sides of the progressive/traditional divide (so, respectively, JC/EMG), for Anglicanism’s legitimacy as a living church is necessarily an ‘after the fact’ argument. Yes, Henry VIII severed the English Church’s ties with Rome for the sake of personal gain. Fine. But enter the Caroline Divines some 80 years later and Hal’s abuse of the letter of the law is, a posteriori, not only imbued with a kind of ecclesial absolution but, in the end, a pretty convincing assertion of its continuity with the Spirit of the law.

So far so good.

The problem with this sort of apologetic, though, is that from the very outset Anglicanism bogs itself down in an extremely complex (even if entirely defensible) theological/philosophical/semantical formulation. That is: this “a posteriori” business runs a very high risk of ceasing to be understood, as it should be, in terms of the undeserved gift of a merciful and forgiving God (Who deplores the sin, but loves the sinner—as Christ loved even he that drove the nails through His hands and feet), and being recast as the precedent for God’s approval of essentially self-interested acts. (Because, I guess the reasoning goes, unless God’s niceness has been given way more credit than it deserves, His forgiveness should be taken as read.) Thus, ironically enough, the symbolism of a purely secular authority getting away with rejecting the authority of the Church and even going so far as to take that authority for himself has come, for many in the Anglican Church, to overshadow the whole Christianity part: a foundational understanding and recognition that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.²

A posteriori reconciliation becomes, then, very nearly indistinguishable from post facto revisionism.

And thus the great and ever-widening divide within Anglicanism (and, nearly as terrible, the only conceivable reason I can make out why JC refuses to put me on his blogroll). One side believes itself to be the reformed Catholic Church, the other—following Henry VIII’s lead—Whatever. A platform for social reform, social engineering … Hell, it can even be a place to indulge vague notions of the injustice of Original Sin; or to fantasize about the possible sexual habits of Our Lord. So long as Love (no, no, don’t feel as though you have to call it God or Jesus Christ) is paid its lip-service, old Mr. Impossibly-High-Expectations can just be happy with what He’s been given. (By the way, I thought it would be particularly abstemious of me if I gave up the Holy Sacrament for Lent this year. What do you think? … No, Lent’s the one before Easter.)

Ah, love. The ground-zero of faith for all progressive Christians. As I’ve mentioned before, JC is very quick to assert the veto power of “the simplest implication of loving each other” in the face of any of either of the Testaments’ more unambiguous imperatives. Recently he quoted someone calling himself “Spengler”—not, I think, to be confused with the eccentric but largely sound 20th century German philosopher of the same name—to this end:
Franz Rosenzweig, that most Jewish connoisseur of Christianity, believed that the Church of Peter (Rome) and the Church of Paul (Protestantism) would yield place to the Church of John (Orthodoxy) - that the churches of works and faith would be transcended by the church of love. If Europe has a future, it lies in an ecumenical alliance of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and at least some elements of Anglicanism.
Of course, that I am myself largely in agreement with such sentiments (particularly the qualification that only “some elements of Anglicanism” be included in this über faith) serves as some indicator of the degree of obtuseness to which the inter-Anglican debate has attained. One side says it’s all about love; the other side counters that it is nothing of the sort. That it is, instead, all about love ... Here we go round the prickly pear / Prickly pear prickly pear / Here we go round the prickly pear / At five o’clock in the morning.

As I understand it, the matter stands this way: it is definitely safe to say, if we’re feeling particularly lazy and unimaginative, that Christianity boils down to a simple requirement that we should love one another. But! But, but, but ... This is not the kind of love that’s spelled with a heart shape or with a peace symbol. The interjection of such childish things³ can be of no consequence or use in a labour of transcendence (to use Herr Rosenzweig’s excellent and very concerted term). God moves in mysterious ways, after all, not puerile ones.

So what, then, does “love”—in this uniquely Christian context—actually mean?

The word comes to modern Christians by a very long and, at the end, hooked road. Until recently, we only used “love” to supplement our understanding of the word “charity” (as per the three Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity). Which was as it should be; for while “charity” comes much closer to the true meaning of the original Greek word from which it is derived, agapé (in Latin: caritas), it does have a rather unfortunate habit of getting itself mixed up, in the common view, with the “charity” we associate with “good works”, with material generosity. The decision, however, to cut out the middle man on this one was a mistake, and completely counter to the spirit of reform which motivated it, however well-meaning. “Love”, unmediated by charity, is just as insufficient to describe agapé as charity is without love. Indeed, the word’s preponderant association with what is better described by the Greek word eros—that is, romantic or sexual love—makes matters uniquely complicated (as we are now seeing) by making love in and of itself incompatible with the orthodox view of sexual morality.

Thus, an error in translation has been construed as an error in the revealed Word. And thus thus, Bishop Ingham et al's call for substantial revisions to the Anglican Church’s position on homosexuality, abortion, masturbation and birth control is, actually, of a piece with the sort of loose theological thinking that used to turn a blind eye to any conspicuous barrenness of spirit so long as the offender spent a couple of hours a week slinging soup at the local mission.


So, in a very roundabout way, we come back to JC, who maintains that the Christian vocation is:
the work of bringing our prejudices into conformity with He who had none. The work of sacrificing our most fondly cherished beliefs on Christ’s simple altar of Love. It is, to follow in His footsteps and embrace the Other.
Which, again, I'm generally in agreement with. (Though this business of Christ having no prejudice is a little too mincing for me. Had He no prejudice against sin? Not the sinner, mind, but sin?) Of course, and I trust I'm not wildly overstepping the boundaries of reasonable inference here, JC means this in a much more specific and pointed way than is immediately obvious. Given the origins of our debate, I mean ... What he is referring to here, when he speaks of "our most fondly cherished beliefs" is, let's face it, our most fondly cherished homophobia.

Now, I've already pointed out to JC the traditional Anglican position on homosexuality, but I think this has availed my position little. In spite, even, of his sneaking admiration of Pope Benedict XVI, JC seems to be under a strong impression that anyone who accepts the traditional line that homosexual practice is an act of sin, must also take a certain amount of glee in the fact. Must believe his or her own sins to be somehow superior, or more acceptable, or less unacceptable anyway, to certain others.

Which is, I'm afraid, absurd.

Hell, even the Roman Catholic position on homosexuality doesn't support this:
Understanding the existential problems and the choices of persons living in de facto unions is legitimate and, in some cases, a duty. Some of these situations should even arouse real and proper compassion. Respect for the dignity of persons is not subject to discussion. However, understanding circumstances and respect for persons are not equivalent to a justification.
But, alas, we're confronted with a rather serious impasse at this point ... To appreciate the subtlety of this sort of argument (and, indeed, the profound fairness it betokens), requires something that JC has yet to reconcile himself with. Namely: an acceptance of the fact that we are all, from the outset, flawed. That none of us is without sin, and that the greatest challenge Christ poses to us is not that we turn a blind eye to this, but that we continue to love in spite of our sins and in spite of the sins of those to whom we are, ultimately, beholden.

But in the absence of such a rejection of that nasty old Pelagian Heresy, I fear that the best that can be said of JC's faith is that Richard Rorty hasn't entirely eclipsed that other JC (the S of G)'s rightful place at the top.

Still. That being said ... I love you, Jay.

¹Let me refer you, once again, to Christ’s rather unambiguous position on divorce: that it is valid only in the event of fornication. That is, adultery.

²Sorry. Forgot that Pauline references are off limits.

³Sorry, Paul again.