Plus Ça Change

The other day I felt a rush of retrospective excitement as I read through David’s post on “why anonymity should be the default” on the internet, and then clicked over to Eric’s response. We’ve been having arguments like this for years, but it’s been a long time since it has come to the future (its reappearance is probably related to the near proximity of the next Digital Identity World Conference. Send my regards — the day when philosophical-theological participant observers fit into the schedule are over). Their insightful, well-informed, respectful disagreement rewards reading and reflection.

Since “several years” is a long time even apart from the internet, and even longer online, I’ll take the risk of repeating a response that I’ve been making to their positions since we first broached this topic. Although on the whole, I take David’s part in this specific disagreement, both Eric and David (and Doc, to drag another old DIDW friend) complicate matters by taking the metaphorical sense in which we can fittingly characterize the internet in spatial terms, and inappropriately argue conclusions about the Net that disregard the pivotal differences between the (non-spatial) internet and (spatial) physical interaction. To aggravate my current Wittgensteinian theme, a spatial picture about the internet holds their discourse captive, when the problem that David and Eric are hashing out arises in great part because of the ways that the Net differs from physical space.

I’d like to mash up their conversation with Nick Yee’s piece on “The Prison of Embodiment” at Terra Nova. Here’s the point: how do we deal with questions of disembodied identity? Most of our familiar devices for identification depend on physical characteristics (our physiognomy, external paraphernalia such as cards or papers, physical location) — but the online aspect of our lives dissolves those physical-spatial devices. If we reason about digital identity with devices or metaphors that perpetuate the legacy of spatiality, we occlude some of the decisive characteristics of the technological transition in which we participate.

Of course, the church has been trying to think through the importance of non-spatial identities for centuries, which helps explain my confidence that a theologian’s perspective can contribute to the discussion. All along, people’s identities have been constituted by the memories, links, knowledge, and patterns that they share (or not) with the rest of the world; in our digital environment, those aspects of identity come to the fore. Let’s not shackle them to simulated spatiality, but instead let’s seek out a way to work with identity in ways indigenous to a non-spatial identity ecology.

Nothing New Here, Move Along

The New York Times article on the Dead Sea community takes the predictable “newsy” angle by playing up doubts about whether the Dead Sea site should be associated with Essenes; its closing line, “Despite the rising tide of revisionist thinking, other scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls continue to defend the Essene hypothesis, though with some modifications and diminishing conviction,” understates the predominance of the Essene hypothesis and overstates (as far as I can tell) the interest in alternative theories. On the whole, the vast preponderance of the Qumran scholars whom I know hold to one version or another of the Essene hypothesis, and since I’m not by any means a Qumran scholar, I regard that predominance as significant evidence.

At the same time: I hold to several minority positions in my own field of expertise, so I don’t dismiss those who question the Essene hypothesis. There have not been any links between Qumran and the Essene movement that approach “conclusive” evidence for their association. Even if there were stronger evidence for the Qumranites being Essenes, we should attend carefully to divergent positions — they keep us honest by focusing attention on the inevitable weak spots in our speculations, and they often enough do turn out to become the next generation’s scholarly consensus. And as I’ve said before, just because an “expert” said something, whether it affirms or challenges received opinion, doesn’t make it so.

At this point in the Qumran story, though, the Esssene hypothesis has persuaded the most knowledgeable scholars that it best accounts for the evidence we have and involves the fewest weaknesses, leaps, idiosyncratic interpretations, and obtrusive ideological imperatives. Yes, the argument could be a lot stronger; no, it’s not anywhere near an established fact; but no, the revisionists haven’t yet turned the tide of informed judgment, as best I can tell (and Jim Davila evidently would back me up on this).

Theological Turbulence

The Episcopal Church — the US branch office of the Anglican Communion (for the time being) — stands at an increasingly awkward point, as the cartoon figure with one foot on either side of a widening chasm. Many will point out that its actually rests on just one foot, and the Episcopal Church is managing to brush the dust of the far side with its other toe, claiming that it’s straddling the gap, but at least for formal reasons, its center of gravity remains finally to be determined. In matters that involve God and the action of the Holy Spirit, we should exercise all our restraint to avoid foreclosing what may be possible.

I’ve observed here before that something desperately important about the Episcopal Church’s “Anglicanism” is in jeopardy, perhaps quite lost by most people who have a dog in the particular fights that have catalyzed this decomposition. In the established Church of England, the Church had to operate on the premise that citizens and Anglicans constitute (generally) overlapping sets; although the culture knew of Jews, Catholics, Dissenters, Muslims, and Freethinkers, the extent to which church and state were integrated entailed a complicated tension of expansiveness in self-definition. If you factor out the obligation to make room for all but the most determined non-Anglicans, you collapse one element that sustains the definition of “Anglican” or “Episcopalian”; while the church could always (and did always) develop deliberate claims about doctrine and practice, those claims had to be applied in a way that recognized the citizen-congregant status of almost all English/Welsh/Scots-Episcopal/Northern-Irish adults. (Establishment brings with it a variety of pernicious effects, absolutely; here I’m citing one background effect of establishment that I appreciate, without arguing that the legal ground for that effect should be preserved.)

Another bulwark against convulsive exclusion in Anglican identity was the Book of Common Prayer. Its careful compromises between the firm Calvinism of many Anglicans and the Catholic resistance to Reformed theology (a legacy of Henry’s theology, the determined position of some theologians, and a strong substrate in much popular theological sentiment) in a single point of theological reference obliged all Anglicans to frame their positions with regard to a particular regimen of affirmations and claims. That the BCP served admirably in that regard for so long provides preliminary evidence that something like “the historic Book of Common Prayer,” a generally harmonious series of BCPs from 1662 onward (and it would be easy to overamplify the differences among the editions before 1662) articulated a flexible but durable reference point for theological orientation.

Fast forward to 2006 in the United States, where the Episcopal Church stands under no extrinsic obligation to comprehend a maximal constituency of people-who-might-be-called-Anglicans, and where the 1979 Book of Common Prayer departs from its predecessors by incorporating a wide variety of liturgical forms (leave aside, for a moment, its deliberate changes in theological perspective) — and at the moment, many congregations treat subsequent liturgical texts as functionally equivalent to the BCP, meaning that any of nine (I think) eucharistic prayers may count as the legitimate sacramental expression of the church’s faith, depending on where one worships. Absent two powerful checks on capricious theologizing, the whole matter of “Anglican-ness” has drifted toward a Humpty-Dumptyian ideological stipulation, rather than a bounded compehensiveness. That is, when one must accept, in general, the Anglicanicity of most everyone who wants to be called an Anglican, and while “wanting to be called ‘Anglican’ ” involves at least general affirmation of the authority of the Prayerbook (with a single authorized form for the Daily Office and the Eucharist), then one can afford to be patient with dotty vicars and controversy-mongering bishops; one has an identity imprecisely-bounded, but a bounded identity nonetheless.

Without the tension between needing to take a generalist view of the church’s identity (on one hand) and acknowledging the formulations of a canonical compromise among divergent visions of ecclesiastical identity (on the other), things fall apart. Particularly when we treat the Prayerbook simply as a sourcebook and inspiration for “the kind of prayers we like, here,” and when our partisan (in a non-pejorative sense, if that’s possible) alternative definitions of “Anglican” vie for the power to enforce their theology over against opposing views, something fragile stands in peril — if indeed it has not already been lost. That loss would injure all concerned, whatever their theological stripe, however confident they may be that theirs is the divinely-justified, legitimately correct response to God’s call.

Technical Questions

OK, I got a cable to connect my Motorola V[erizon]265, and it makes an effective USB connection from my cell phone — but as far as I can tell, one of the corporate links in this chain has set up the phone so that the photo images on the phone are encrypted and inaccessible apart from the proprietary software that Verizon sells. And the proprietary software is, so far as I can tell, Windows-only.

I had another question, but it slipped my mind.

[Later:] OK, I remembered. I’m getting sick and tired of deleting comment spam, so I’m thinking about replacing the built-in comment function (that I moderate anyway, by hand, relatively laboriously) with a link that sets up an email to me, with a subject line that included a keyword such as “feedback” (for filtering purposes) and the title of the post, and then invites you to send me an email with your comments. I can filter them at this end, add them by hand to the original post, and make sure formatting works out. I won’t take significantly longer than the overburdened “accept” button of my Moveable Type installation, and I wouldn’t have to spend valuable time every day deleting comments (and it would significantly diminish the burden on the ISP’s s server). So, first of all, does this make sense in general? And second of all, does someone with the chops to do it right know in a flash how to code that, or shall I exercise my overaged script kid capacities to try it myself?

That was it.

Live! From Glen Ellyn!

Well, not live exactly, but I’m pasting the text of yesterday’s sermon into the “extended” part of the post below. Everything went very well, I had the honor of serving alongside Rodney Clapp (who was a last-minute fill-in acolyte), and renewing acquaintances with some of the people who came out for the da Vinci Code extravaganza in the spring.

The whole weekend was colored with the experience of being able to think well for a while, an experience much rarer than I would wish. At the beginning of the Conflict of the Faculties, Kant describes the way his intellectual functions fluctuate, comparing his frustrating days with the feeling of having cold in the head. His thought becomes congested, as it were, and his ideas can’t breathe (I don’t have my copy at hand, and it’s not online in English). I’m in the middle of reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, which reports that Wittgenstein went through similar experiences. I would tend to name this experience as a species of depression (or a related phenomenon), but I bring this all up to note that it’s a relief to remember that some pretty high-powered thinkers went through phases of this cognitive-stuffy-nose feeling.

Anyway, this weekend I broke clear of a stuffy mind and was breathing freely, and it felt great, and it helped me pull the sermon together as I wanted to. I’m thinking moderately productively today too, and I’m hoping to have a nap and move on in strength. I’ll post some of the queries and notions that occurred to me, but later.
Continue reading “Live! From Glen Ellyn!”

Time Passing

This morning, NPR belatedly took up the brouhaha over Núñez and Sweetser’s article (PDF, warning!) about the unusual ways that Aymara-language speakers express their orientation in time with spatial metaphors: whereas most cultures depict the future as in front of us (and the past behind), Aymara spatializes the future as behind and the past as ahead. Both NPR and the print-based media that picked this story up in June have sensationalized the alleged differences in consciousness that such a divergence presumably entails, with concomitant occasion for misapprehensions about language and consciousness compounding ignorance and confusion. (I expect there’ll be a few sermons about “Greek minds,” “Hebrew minds,” and “Andean minds,” alas!)

As I expected, Alex addressed the topic over at Savage Minds (and the good folks at Metafilter provide numerous examples of other languages with comparable metaphors for time-orientation) — but I wish he had hammered harder on the problematic pop-Whorfian correlation of language and thought. My short response simply points to the fact (as the original report notes) that young Aymara-speakers have begun to adopt future-forward metaphors for time — presumably without developing psychological disorders, or finding themselves incapable of communicating with their elders. (Or, “m ore incapable of communicating with elders than is usual for young people.”)

Perhaps A Sermon

I think that Sunday’s sermon will hang on the words from the epistle lesson, “Thieves must give up stealing.” Steve Fowl has a terrific essay on this premise, so I mustn’t go read it till I’m done, lest I simply reproduce what he has done better. Something charms me, though, about the letter addressing its readers with advice that seems so patently obvious, especially in the context of Ephesians’ expansive rhetoric of community. It reminds me of Laurence Sterne’s sermon “Against the Crime of Murder,” another warning that you might have thought that preachers need not belabor in most congregations.

Dry Well

It’s been a very long time since I preached. This week’s sermon has been resisting extraction from my imagination. In fact, it’s been resisting conception.