Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pelagius Rising (The First of Two Parts)

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:18-19
Jay Currie and I have been having a most fascinating conversation about Anglicanism over on his site and, for anybody interested in that sort of thing, I think I can safely recommend it as worthwhile reading.

JC (Jay Currie that is, not Jesus Christ … decidedly not, but I’m getting to that) JC, I say, is of the liberal Anglican persuasion, you see. And I am not. (That is to say: I'm not a liberal Anglican. I'm just a plain old, regular kind of Anglican.) It’s odd really, because in just about every other respect not only do I tend to agree with JC’s views of the world and its myriad follies, I’ll often slap my desk as I do too, and say something like “Hear, hear!” or (if I’ve been drinking, usually) “You can say that again, J-bone! We should hang out or something!” But on the matter of our shared religion we are, somehow, as chalk and cheese. (He’s the cheese, needless to say, I’m the chalk.) He says this of me:
It appears [EMG] is inclined towards importing the Old Testament’s vengeful Lord into the New Testament’s new dispensation. “‘Labour and be heavy laden’” quotes Mr. George.*
Nonsense, of course, but I blush anyway. My grandfather (the Reverend Calvin Zwingli George) would be very proud indeed.

But I should perhaps mention that our quarrel began some time ago, over the issue of, surprise surprise, same sex marriage. JC had suggested on his site that anyone opposed to SSM is an “idiot”, and I, being just such a person (an idiot? or an opponent of SSM? up to you, I guess, just hear me out is all) decided to take issue with him on this. I left a comment with him, then posted my own opinion on the matter … Barring an email or two, it was left pretty much at that.

Until, that is, two weeks ago: when Bishop Michael Ingham, of the Diocese of New Westminster, decided to announce that Christianity, particularly Anglicanism, had the whole abortion/ homosexuality/contraception thing ass-backwards. Needless to say, I thought this was utterly ridiculous and said so. Sure enough, JC thought the Bishop’s views anything but ridiculous, and he said so. And the feud began anew. (A distinctly respectful and, I think, even constructive feud, I hasten to add. But a feud nonetheless.) The debate has taken place largely on Jay’s site and is, as I say, well worth the read—here’s the link again (God forbid you should scroll up and lose your place!). But for those of you unwilling to take the time to do this, here, briefly, are the positions:

Accepting that Caesar is owed what I gather he is owed, it is my belief that homosexual couples are entitled to civil recognition (and the various practical benefits that this entails) of a de facto union, along the lines of marriage, but without its actually being marriage. JC, on the other hand, is of the opinion that the established understanding of ‘marriage’, as derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is itself flawed; that the Jesus episode set the precedent for a rejection of the strictures of the Old Testament, namely its proscriptions against homosexual practice. It is for this reason, he believes, that not only should ‘marriage’ be the accepted term to describe civil unions between homosexuals, but such marriages should also be given the sanction and blessing of the Church.

JC elaborates his theological position thus:
[Jesus] required men to adopt a substantive teleological position towards “the law”. What is the purpose of a particular law and can it be reconciled with the overarching requirements that one love God and love one’s neighbour?

That teleology is the joyful burden which I believe every Christian must bear.

Jesus was not about nit picking or logic chopping; rather he was rather straightforward as to what God wanted.

Which brings me to cases. Propose for a moment that someone were to suggest the ordination of women. There is, no doubt, plenty of Old Testament evidence suggesting that such a thing is contrary to God’s Will. But the simplest implication of loving each other serves to override that. Marriage for the divorced? Pretty much the same argument. Gay marriage? Again, ask what the purpose of the act is and you are likely to have your answer.
So the debate, for all intents and purposes (and barring any of the Pauline contributions to the New Testament, as JC is under a strong (and terribly convenient) impression that these are little more than reactionary piffle), is of whether or not the Old Testament should be maintained as actively informing the teachings of Christ given us in the Gospels.

Here, then, is my argument.

Looking at JC’s theological position as given in his own words above, I’m basically with him right up until that third paragraph there. Indeed, the logic chopping business sounds about right to me as well. But the nitpicking, and everything else, just stinks. Or itches, I guess it should be.

Jesus was definitely not about logic chopping. No. But I know that He was also not above a certain amount of judicious nitpicking. (Lice, one assumes, must have been a rather pressing reality in a society that was largely unwashed. He certainly didn’t seem to have too much of a problem giving His disciples' (even Judas’s!) feet a thorough scrubbing.) Where the seeds (or nits) of destruction remain, no saviour can be said to have properly done his job. And given that I (and the bulk of Christendom—with the exception of a number of western Anglicans, of course) are under a rather strong impression that Jesus did do His job, this Jesus-wasn’t-a-nitpicker hypothesis simply cannot be expected to follow.

And it doesn't.

Indeed, if JC didn’t do so much logic chopping of his own in the cases he provides, he might've noticed this himself.

Take this business of "the simplest invocation of love" overriding the Church’s doctrinal position on divorce.** Unfortunately, and rather glaringly, Jesus the Nitpicker stands in direct contradiction to this. (Which, of course, is why the Church does too.) He says: “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Mt 5:32).

Erm … Sorry, but are we supposed to believe that Christ was speaking figuratively here? Seems a little weak to me.

But JC’s error in this, as with at least one of the other two examples he provides, is not it occurs to me actually malign. It is simply an error of application. (The reasons for which, I think, can be traced directly to the precedent set in this respect (of error) by the very conditions of the establishment of the Anglican Church. But I'll get back to this.) JC is under the impression that Christ’s emphasis on the first two commandments in the Decalogue requires Christians to look outwards, or beyond the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. But this is to get it precisely backwards. (Though, it should be said, he is very close—in the sense that anything which stands in perfect opposition to something else (as with complementary colours) is but one full step, rather than an inordinate number of small ones, from its opposite.) For it is rather clear that Jesus does not leave the matter of the Christian vocation at a mere emphasis on the first two commandments. Rather: the imperative is ever present throughout the Gospels that Christians look through this lens, yes, but only that they might gain ever deeper understanding into even the ‘jots’ and ‘tittles’ contained within the Old Testament law.

To wit: to continue with the divorce example, not only does Jesus not say that if the condition of loving one’s neighbour is met then divorce becomes no biggy, he goes a great deal further and says: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28). The strictures, then, are actually tightened under Christ’s scrutiny; the spirit of the law is, it turns out, much more prohibitive (to use a really quite unfortunate word, given the delicate sensibilities of our day) than the letter. This because the spirit is the fulfillment of the law, not its negation. It gives us the means to embody—to live!—rather than simply to follow, the letter.

But, as I say, JC's fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's treatment of the Old Testament is not consciously skewed. It is undoubtedly self-interested (in the abstract sense—but this is no less important than the concrete sense, remember!), certainly self-serving by Christian standards. But it is definitely not intended as such. I see that. It seems to me, rather, that JC's misunderstanding springs from another confusion altogether, one that lurks darkly at the very heart of the Anglican Church. A confusion which, sadly, might very well prove to be Anglicanism's definitive legacy through its undoing.

But I'll deal with that in Part 2 of my little treatise here. Expect it to be up no later than tomorrow morning ... Better say tomorrow afternoon, actually.

*I hasten to point out that this “Labour and be heavy laden” business is a variation on a New Testament reference. Christ himself was the speaker, actually. But I quibble.

**Given that the Anglican Church has, alas, despaired and pretty much reconciled itself to divorce, we should perhaps take it as read that we’re actually talking about the Roman Catholic Church here.