Is it even possible to err, theologically? How would we know?
I see two prominent ways of addressing the possibility of theological error. The first depends on the premise that theological truth doesn’t involve any particular realities apart from our selves. If one speaks one’s heart, sincerely and authentically, one speaks the truth. On this account, the dangerous sort of theological error entails making claims on a basis other than one’s own personal understanding of the world; by the same token, any claim made authentically, from one’s heart, can’t be challenged. One can’t be right or wrong about God — one can only be inauthentic. Our intuitions and feelings provide the criteria for theological truth, and they can’t bind the consciences of anyone else.
I won’t pretend to see this as a sound alternative, but I acknowledge that very great minds have advocated a theology such as this one. One can see a powerful appeal to this approach; it obviates the point of religious arguments, and religious arguments have been implicated in some great horrors. (Those who advocate this approach frequently overestimate the specifically religious element of such sorrows, but even if religion only provided a fig leaf to conceal the nakedness of aggression, that’s too much.) Theological authority lies within our hearts.
If the “authenticity” approach truly identifies the ways we ought to speak and write about God, then the vast preponderance of Christian teachers have been quite wrong, for two thousand years (give or take a few). Most theologians have argued that our claims about God may be found true or false regardless of our dispositions or sentiments. Arguments over theology involve a complex array of factors, but they stand or fall to the extent that they appropriately express who God is, and how we best understand God. To that extent, then, church teachers justly endeavor to inculcate [what they take to be] correct theological claims, and to lay to rest [what they take to be] theological errors.
That doesn’t imply that everything in such theological discourse can be assigned a binary right/wrong value — rather, it acknowledges that sincerely-held suppositions about God can be erroneous, and that one is better off to adhere to a theological truth that makes one edgy or dissatisfied than to adhere authentically to what is false. It implies that the locus of theological truth lies not in me, but in some source beyond my own capacity to determine. I must rely on the pooled insights of others with whom I stand in solidarity, in order to arrive at a common sense of what might be true. Theological authority involves the informed and tested discernment of a broad community of wise teachers — a magisterium, whether formal or informal — and the wisdom of the theological community needs to be taught. One can err, through ignorance of the truth, or through informed denial of the truth, but the truth (as they say on TV) is out there.
The Episcopal Church has a long history of supporting theological latitude — a “big tabernacle” approach to theological truth — partly from its contested genealogy (and subsequent contested identity), partly from the exigencies of maintaining national unity in a state with an established church, partly from a stereotyped cultural distaste for fervor, partly from the insight that the faculties with which we reason about theology are themselves partial vehicles of fallible illumination, partly a bunch of other reasons. The stock figure of the dotty English clergyman who dreams up outr?© explanations (or dismissals) of theological propositions reflects a genuine sense that the church is better off enduring folly than enforcing conformity. At its best, this allows for a thoughtful theologian to challenge the church’s teaching without calling the church’s authority into question, or jeopardizing his or her loyalty to the church. That ecclesiastical endurance, though, relies on the aggregate soundness of the non-dotty leadership; if the community’s pooled sense of theological truth were to drift toward “dotty,” or if the church’s decision-making process itself obscured the church’s teaching authority, the community itself would have nothing left by which to orient itself. The very process of orientation would have come disordered.
As a result, many churchgoers have lost the capacity to disagree with one another. By that I mean (sorry, I’ve been reading Lemony Snicket books), because so many in the church now adhere to the dogma of authenticity instead of acknowledging an extrinsic truth that stands to judge them. That would not be a problem in small numbers, but when a sizable body of the church’s spokespeople adhere to theological premises that are only true-for-themselves, it’s difficult to figure out how the church will arrive at any sound decisions about where we are, and whither we should head.
Day by day in the church, I observe several different kinds of dissent from the church’s teaching and administration.
- Passive-aggressive dissent: This mode of disagreement admits the authority of the church, but sneaks to get its way behind the back of a bishop or commission. “I’ll do what I want and teach what I want, until you catch me at it — then I’ll pretend to go along with you until you lose sight of me again, when I’ll return to my ways.” This seems a very common trait in the church these days.
- Romantic dissent: This mode of disagreement allots itself the martyrs’ palm while at the same time it lays claim to the victorious sovereignty to do what it wants, regardless of what ecclesiastical authority would permit. Rebels claim the prerogative to set aside the church’s authority in the name of their own vision of the truth.
- Schismatic dissent: Not truly a matter of “dissent,” I suppose, but a vivid enough part of the controversies around us to merit acknowledgement here. One part of the body discovers that (contrary to what might have been supposed heretofore) it is itself a complete body, with no need of the organs it leaves behind.
- Conscientious dissent: a dissent that acknowledges the church’s authority, but vigorously presses the church to think yet more deeply about a particular problem.
- Personalist dissent: “I don’t know and don’t really care the reasons for the church’s teaching; I don’t feel like assenting to that, so I won’t.”
When debate about a particular topic reaches a certain temperature, a certain threshold, the significant differences among these sorts of dissent evanesce, leaving visible only the obvious labels of partisan allegiance (or epithets of disallegiance). The differences among these sorts of dissent, however, will inflect (perhaps even determine) any effort to resolve a conflict in the church, and they will haunt any effort to short-circuit conflict by declaring one side victorious.
What I hope for, what I pray for, is a church in which we can disagree, clearly and respectfully, with one another. What depresses me is the extent to which a disoriented church makes honest disagreement (as opposed to partisan polemics) difficult or impossible, and the extent to which the prospect of humble and careful deliberation seems more remote with each overstated, underargued, overweening press release.
Aquinas’ Summa is so long not because he was an especially voluble character, but because he took pains to give the most charitable and careful account of his interlocutors’ reasoning — and to offer an even more thorough and careful rationale for his own thoughts.