Monads for Jesus

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. At the same time, the more far-reaching the claim that the church has erred, the stronger the argument needs to be, and it’s difficult to overstate modern people’s overconfident, condescending, dismissive, feeble arguments when they suppose that a past dogma or practice has become old-fashioned.

5 thoughts on “Monads for Jesus

  1. 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.’

    Under the auspices of the lifelong processes (even generations-long) coming out of Original Sin, not necessarily so. Reinhold Neibuhr wrote interestingly about how majorities can be more deceived and dangerous than individuals because systemic and systematic. We have too many accounts of the baptized community in the last 500 years as a whole having consensus about rather nasty systemic treatment of others to speak of a consensus as “objective”–perhaps on many matters, but not necessarily in every case. That is no cause for those who disagree with the majority at this time to claim absolutely truth of their thought or decisions or practice for likely this is still being worked out, but in the moment we cannot speak of a consensus in toto anyway, as there is disagreement and that too is a part of the process–and reveals a breakdown of a consensus, including disagreement with our ancestors in the faith. In the end, these matters will not be solved on the discourse level in which they currently reside, for one because of its remove from lives at Eucharist. Mark Jordan made interesting points in his work Blessing Same-Sex Unions especially regarding truth-seeking and rhetoric:

    Ideological speech is designed to convert its opponents into ideologues. It does this by wasting language to the point that an opponent despairs of speaking—except by shouting back…..Before we can engage in responsible moral teaching, we have to wait on what God teaches. God teachs Christian communities about moral matters in any number of ways, but perhaps especially through the holy lives of their members. It is only very recently that Christian communities have permitted members to live their sexualities openly, to show God at work in their sexual lives. For example, it is only very recently that lesbian and gay Christians have been able to speak candidly and at length even with one another about the realities of their lives. We have barely begun to see what freely lived lesbigay lives look like. We have hardly begun to experience with these lives in genuine Christian freedom…

    The truth of those lives will not best be found in discursive systematics in which a few want a full worked out theory before any action is taken, but in steps and misteps and in other forms of language more truthful to persons and relationship, indeed, the kind we best know when speaking of God because it admits some level of mystery to the workings of divine grace:

    Just here we can usefully adapt some suggestions of negative theology to speech about sexual ethics. In its severe control over our assumptions in speaking about divine revelation, it does not rule out inventive language. On the contrary, it has authorized some of the most experimental Christian writing, writing in beautiful language loosed from the false constraint of literalism or “accuracy.” It has encouraged a diversity of genres, from the critical or analytic to the liturgical and lyrical. Most importantly, it has freed theological language from the smallness of human purposes—of human regimes—for the possibilities of transcendence. We need new roles for speaking Christian sexual ethics. We thus also need new genres for our speaking.

    I am still waiting for anyone to offer what they might consider marks of a godly consensus. Many of the markers of the present consensus look anything but godly: scapegoating, minimizing violence toward the minority organ, limitless discourse that moves past flesh and blood in an effort at distance that is in fact not neutral or objective, and a lack of invitation to participate as full partners in the discussions at hand.

  2. Chris,

    I think that, on the whole, I don’t disagree with you much. I don’t mean to suggest that two millenia (give or take) of church teaching equals objectivity, and certinly not that there are no reasons for taking Mark Jordan’s position (or yours, or mine) seriously apart from “we like it.” In sketching the terrain for students, however, I’m starting with a rough senes of the question as it stands in the public arena, and I doubt that most of my students will have read Mark Jordan (or Gene Rogers, or the pre-ABS Rowan Williams, or David Matzko McCarthy, or any of a number of other such people).

    I still think that the waiting that allows space for the Spirit to clarify what’s what would be the best course, but most of the pertinent decision-makers have no more patience. “Winning a fight” will not impress God, either way.

  3. It is only very recently that Christian communities have permitted members to live their sexualities openly, to show God at work in their sexual lives.

    This statement is quite odd for a number of reasons. First of all, in our modern, democratic culture, Christian communities simply do not “permit” or “forbid” members to behave in particular ways. While one might think that the stated teachings of particular denominations might translate into explicit behavioural standards for members (standards which are both enforceable and actually enforced), in fact Christian congregations are purveyors of religious experience in an open marketplace of religious entertainment. In such a marketplace, like any marketplace, the customer is always right. The author of this remark (Jordan?) is assuming a model of an authoritative, and therefore an oppressive, Church which, though it may arguably have existed in mediaeval and early modern Europe, simply does not exist in our time and culture.

    Secondly, he uses the phrase members’ sexualities in the plural to suggest that he is referring to “sexualities” in general, both conventional and otherwise. But his statement makes sense only with respect to non-conventional sexualities (“lesbigay” as he puts it). He writes as if all Church members — homosexual, heterosexual, married, single, celibate, promiscuous, whatever — have been forced by an oppressive Church to “live their sexualities” furtively.

    But traditional Christian orthopraxis does provide a way for believers to show God at work in their sexual lives: it is called marriage. This is what the authentic Christian tradition tells us is the spiritually healthy (and theologically authentic) way to live out one’s sexuality.

    From where I sit, it appears that writers like Jordan are willing to sacrifice the proper theology of marriage (with serious ecclesiological consequences) in order to accomodate sexual heteropraxis.

  4. Chris,

    To say that because we live in a democratic marketplace translates into such openness belies some realities still present with us such as folks being hung up on fences, being bombed, and burned in tires; permit is not necessarily too strong a word. We could say rather makes space for so as to discern, if permit is not to your liking. And until quite recently to make space for as to discern was in fact not a possibility for a person in a same sex relationship. To say otherwise is to deny some of the hard realities of our history as Church that are still with us in perhaps less physical ways. These have affected how we are together with one another. For instance, I have been refused Eucharist when I was Roman Catholic or had the “pleasure” of having gays and lesbians denounced from the pulpit.

    He is suggesting that our unwillingness to make space so as to discern has in fact foreclosed careful consideration and has led to a host of inconsistencies and furtiveness, and given my observation of Church folk, especially heterosexually married Church folk, I’m inclined to agree. We have yet to have honest and careful conversations with one another on such matters.

    Jordan assumes a quite complex reading of Church actually, and you’re reading into this quote what he himself does not do in his historical work. Theologies of marriage are many, and we are still working this out. To say that we’ve had a singular and proper theology of marriage is an ahistorical rendering not too mention it occludes most of Christian history which has seen marriage and sex as suspect in favor of celibacy. The modern celebration of marriage is, well, modern. And some fine work has been done to suggest such an ascesis marriage-like for those with same sex affections. To simply foreclose the space for discernment that God might be at work in same sex relationships by appealing to heterosexual marriage as the orthoprax way is to forestall the possibility that this might be a way too where God is working.

  5. We have yet to have honest and careful conversations with one another on such matters.

    The failure of our “conversations” on such matters is not, I think, due to any lack of honesty, but to the fact that there is almost no common ground upon which to base a conversation, even among those who think of themselves as Christians. To me, Christianity is not something that we are still “working out”; it is something that we have received, something that we have been given which we are to pass on unchanged, neither adding anything nor taking anything away. A Christianity which is thus malleable, that is subject to change according to our “conversations”, our “working out”, and our “discernment”, is a Christianity which I do not recognize as the same faith which I have received.

    That is not to say that that other, more seemingly changeable Christianity may not be right, and I be wrong. Perhaps my belief in an unchanging deposit of faith throughout all ages is romantic and naive. But right or wrong it is my faith, and that makes it difficult to converse with those who see that faith as “fundamentalism” and as no more than a smoke screen for bigotry.

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