In my on-going (some might uncharitably say “obsessive”) concern to articulate the ways that faith and culture, reflective theology and daily life interact, I’m working out some premises of which I’ll try to persuade my students this fall. This morning’s premise concerns the relation of the self to culture, and how that affects the ways we prepare for and exercise our ministries.
Premise: We do not have “selves” in a way we can analyze apart from our involvement in particular cultural (social, relational) circumstances. Such selves presumably exist with God — but we do not have access to them, except by way of the culturally-inflected understandings with which we recognize, puzzle out, assent to, strive to correct, and confess our faith. “Inflected,” not “determined”; that is, all our understandings partake of cultural infusion, though we trust that they also partake of a truth that subsists distinct from mortal cultures.
Several points seem to follow from this. First, we mustn’t think of ourselves in the [modern] sense of individual selves; that necessarily involves a distorting isolation from the lives and settings with which our own lives are intertwined. (One of the many problems that afflicts our recent convulsions about holiness in intimate relationships derives from our willful occlusion of the extent to which two people’s intimacy and commitment affect the world around them, as should be obvious to anyone who has spent time around two infatuated high-schoolers or has lived through the dissolution of the marriage of two beloved friends.) The “selves” that we know always involve other people’s selves, and environmental dimensions, always in ways that elude our apprehension. No one is an island, and so on; it tolls for thee.
Second, if the selves we know and the selves with whom we interact as disciples and as ministers of the gospel always intertwine with others’, then we need always to attend to communicative, interactive aspects of our claims and behavior (or, I suppose, just say “too bad for you-all” and write off everyone else). With regard to my special area of concern, we (my students and I) simply must learn to act and speak with care for what we express. I can imagine no excuse we could plausibly offer God for choosing carelessness.
Third, if we don’t have access to some insulated, pristine “self”or “truth” (and I know I haven’t been arguing about “truth” heretofore, I don’t have time to double back and fix it up, but I suspect that the same points hold), we stand under a greater obligation to understand that which share with others whose solidarity we claim to share. That is, if I say that you and I have something in common (“Christian faith”or “Anglican identity,”for instance), only an boor would presume that she or he already knows what that common inheritance entails without attending to her or his partner’s sense of the shared inheritance. Under present circumstances, this point cuts two ways. It absolutely requires “conservatives” to offer honest, open attention to different senses of “what is shared.” If the Anglican tradition affirms that churches can err on matters of faith (and Anglican traditionalists should be comfortable with this premise), we can never foreclose the possibility that the churches have in fact erred.*
It also absolutely requires that “liberals” offer honest, open attention to what millions of [non-liberal] sisters and brothers hold and teach and live by, and have done so for centuries. There’s a whole lot more “objectivity” in the overwhelming consensus of practically everyone who has accepted the new life offered in baptism than there is in “what my friends and I are sure must be true.” People always tend to believe what they want to; when people want to believe something that contravenes long-affirmed premises, they have to be honest about the extent to which they’re proposing a novelty, about how thin the basis for that novelty is, and about how precarious a position that proposed innovation puts them, us all (since we are not islands), in.
* One of the awkward torsions that contemporary stress imposes on admirable, pious people is the simultaneous claim that Anglican identity involves adherence to claims that Anglicans have “always” held, and that this settles one or another important issue — when the very identity of Anglican Christians rests on the corrigibility of matters of dogma and discipline. That does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that we can’t rule out a prior any possible claim, much as we might like to, and as improbable as that claim may look at the outset.