Thursday, July 19, 2007

We speak a different language

Paul Tillich's Tomb in New Harmony, Indiana

For several days now I have been unpacking in my mind a meeting that I attended whose subject was supposed to be the proposed Anglican Covenant. While my hopes for the gathering had been less than modest, I had expected more than we actually managed to achieve because we spent the whole time speaking past one another. One priest of an orthodox persuasion came up as we broke up scratching his head and said that he hadn't understood much that was being said by so many of the participants.

This wasn't because he is dumb, but rather because it is clear that we are now at a point in the Episcopal Church where we talk a totally different language from each other. Understanding these languages is now crucial because having acted on the progressive insights we have entered uncharted territory.

For a number of years I have been asking those on the left, the progressive wing, or whatever you want to call them to engage with us in theological debate and dialogue over what divides us, but there has been little or no response. It has irritated me no end that we have not talked theologically about what divides us, but now I am reaching the conclusion that we cannot -- because we have little or no common language left, and our mindsets are a thousand miles apart from one another.

I came away from our meeting the other day as frustrated as from anything I have attended in a long time. It seemed as if the Grand Canyon yawned between us, we had been shouting across it at one another, and only hearing the odd word being said by those whose perceptions are different from our own. I am now convinced that it will be impossible to address the presenting issues until we are able to strip back at least three or four different layers of understanding, and can grasp the presuppositional worldviews that undergird our various starting points.

I am not sure that we are capable of doing this, partly because of the preconceptions that we bring to our understanding of what the other people's worldview might (or might not actually be), and then the baggage we bring with it to the table. The left treats the right as if they were six-day creationists and flat-earthers, while the right is of the mind that the left has sold out every distinctive of what it means to be Christian, and are swimming along with the spirit of the age.

When we look at each other as either Neanderthals or Heretics, it is like one team coming onto the field to play the American brand of football, while the other is kitted out for soccer. Such a game might have entertainment value, but it is not going to get very far, there is no way of measuring a result, and ultimately it will probably end with tears.

I spent a good deal of time in my late twenties, in post-graduate study, trying to get my mind around the contributions of both Freidrich Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich. It is no accident that the way I felt at a loss as I scrambled my way through Schleiermacher's massive volume The Christian Faith, and then the three volumes of Tillich's Systematic Theology. Actually, it was akin to the way I felt as I listened to the conversation at our meeting the other day. This should have been no surprise to me because Schleiermacher) and Tillich) are very much the forebears of the movement that has put this wedge between us.

It was no accident that Tillich was actually quoted by the facilitator of the meeting which set me thinking, for it seems that Tillich has in one way or another been the patron saint of Episcopal theological education for the best part of half a century now. The problem when grappling with the likes of Tillich and Schleiermacher is that their presuppositions and subjectivity render it almost impossible to grasp and nail down, as it were, the ideas being expressed.

After our meeting the other day one of my colleagues mentioned the writing of Dr. Robert J. Sanders and what he calls The 'Ecstatic' Heresy, an article that I have found helpful in attempting to describe what has shaped the landscape over which we are now trying to move forward (, although I do think in attempting to explain he sometimes cuts corners. He says, "In the ecstatic view, language applied to God is always symbolic since God is ineffable... the task of theology is to reinterpret the faith as relevant to new cultural contexts. Faith is evolving since culture evolves."

Even if Sanders is only half right, and I think he is more than that, it is clear to see how the orthodoxy and the progressive approach to thinking and believing are at odds with one another. "In the orthodox view, doctrines reveal God. They can be variously understood, they reveal mysteries, but they cannot be reinterpreted in terms of categories that have no objective reference to God," but for the 'ecstatic,' "doctrines do not refer to God but to feelings, the depth of reality, the horizon of being. Therefore doctrines can be radically reinterpreted in terms of categories that have no objective reference to God."

This is very much what I saw happening last week. Speaking personally, the way that I understand God's nature is that although omnipotent, majestic, beyond our fullest comprehension, God has in his grace revealed himself to us and that self-revelation enables us to grasp the principles of the divine nature, our response to them, and the enabling of belief and holiness that are concomitants of this. Those on the other side of the spectrum not only do not think in these terms, but are puzzled by them because to them "God is always beyond concepts and language... Since God is beyond language, every attempt to verbalize God is partial and inadequate, with the result that differing partial truths, even when they contradict, can be harmonized at a higher level in God."

The challenge before us now is to work out if it is even possible for these two approaches to the nature of the divinity to coexist in any way, shape, or form. Can we talk, or are we like someone who speaks only Chinese trying to hold an intimate conversation with someone who only speaks Arabic? Is it possible that there are folks who can act as interpreters? If we cannot interpet to one another, what should be the next step?

Blowing one another off does not work. The consequence of this is the bitter, bitter disputes that are in the process of ripping North American Anglicanism to shreds. But right now we don't seem to be able to do more than blow one another off, talk at cross purposes, get angry, bring lawsuits, walk out in a huff, shout, scream, denigrate, and so on, and so on. There is serious theological and anthropological work that needs to be done, but it will not be done while the major players on the field are not only unwilling to listen to one another, but also unable to communicate with each other.

The great missionary statesman, Canon Max Warren, was one of my mentors. He told me about a year before he died when talking about his son-in-law's work in dialogue with the Hindus in India, that we can never enter into cross-religious discussions honestly until we are prepared to be converted by the other person's viewpoint. Perhaps this is the level of vulnerability that is required by us at this point.


Rev Dr. J+ said...

In 1975, in the Diocese of Iowa, Walter Righter was a fairly new Bishop, a good pastor to the priest and a wonderful story teller. At a Diocesan Convention, he told of a group of multidenominational minister meeting in the Middle East to find common ground. One Christian pointed out that there were Hindu's present, and that the Hindu religion believes that there are no absolutes. Christianity has lots of absolutes; Jesus birth, life, resurrection etc. The question was, how can you have talks with these people with this in mind? +Righter pointed out that yes, we know they believe there are no absolutes, but if we say that, we can no longer talk with them about what we have in common. While I don't agree with what +Righter did in later times, he had a good point, one in which I think needs to be considered with some real seriousness or the Episcopal Church is going to implode worse than it has already.
Both sides have to ask themselves, "What would it look like if I gave up being RIGHT in order to talk?" What common ground and language can we invent to be able to negotiate? What can we do in Jesus' name to regain a sense unity? Interestingly, years after that story, ++Frank Griswold made the same statement as the Hindu's,
"There are no absolutes in this life." I challenged him, and he fudged around and never did answer my challenge, as I expected.

C. Wingate said...

It has struck me for some time that the unknowability of the divine is a problem to defend. How do we know it? Well, by revelation through language-- either that, or we're just making it up. For us Judaeo-Christians, unknowability comes from the Word of God in the biblical text. I don't think you can attack the biblical revelation in general without attacking that point as well.

And anyway, the question isn't whether we can understand God, but whether we can understand what God says to us. That is a problem of a totally different character, but it is the real central issue. If we take scripture/tradition as a deposit of such speaking, then there certainly is a level at which we don't seem to be able to understand it, simply because we are failing to agree on what it means. But at that point lots of other reasons for why we can't understand it come into play besides ineffability. If nothing else, it is explained that sin causes us to on some level not want to understand it, because we don't want it to tell us to stop doing what we are doing.

In the end I find I can't take the "utter ineffability"/"no absolutes" kind of talk seriously. They are articles of faith without grounding; my reaction inevitably is, "if you believe that, then who cares?" If I want someone with no absolutes, I'll take Neitzche, thank you.

The bible, at several key places, testifies that there is a language of God. It makes lots of other claims. My problem with the Tillichian program and its ilk is that it has stopped listening to the source material. How do we know that God is unknowable? I don't think the modernists-- or for that matter, a lot of the post-modernists-- can give a straight answer to that question. Yet it is crucial, because otherwise there's not much reason to accept it as a central principle. It seems to me that the real reasons can only be (a) revelation, and (b) revelation-- that is, experience of the unknowability of God (see Job) and because he tells us (see Isaiah). And if revelation happens, then the fundamental presumptions of unspeakability disintegrate, taking down their theological structures with them.

Anonymous said...


different language,
i dont get it really, thers tons of languages and its like where all differnt or evolved in that way ?
and how we understand each other, n who even made up words for each language.

just like outta space they speak differnt dont they, if ther is ;)