Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Making it difficult

“The loyal and uncritical repetition of formulae is seen to be inadequate as a means of securing continuity at anything more than a formal level; Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities…. And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.”

—Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2d ed.; London: SCM, 2001), p. 236.

20 Comments:

Halden said...

Absolutely. Williams as seen this insight about the task of the theologian more clearly than anyone else writing today.

kim fabricius said...

And that - returning to the discussion about Spong - is precisely one of the problems with theological liberalism - it is an attempt to make theology less difficult, more agreeable (cf. Helmut Gollwitzer's 1964 review of J. A. T. Robinson's (in)famous Honest to God (1963) entitled "Christianity Made Easy?")

It is interesting, by the way, that Williams' statement comes in his "Postscript (Theological)" to his brilliant book on Arius: it is a characteristic of heresy that it over-simplifies.

Mystical Seeker said...
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Mystical Seeker said...

I disagree that the goal of progressive theology is to make theology "less difficult". I would instead suggest that its goal is to make it more credible. Not the same thing. The idea that unless you strain credibility, a theology isn't valid, does not strike me as a very convincing argument. "What, it doesn't make sense to you? Then it must be true!" Ahem.

Williams's argument really strikes me as a justification for suppressing dissenting views. "You disagree with our theology! Well, you just haven't wrestled with it for 20 years. Or maybe you just aren't smart enough to get it. So just shut up, assume that what we tell you is true as a starting point, and try to work out why it is true, rather than engaging in free inquiry, which might take you different places than we want you to."

From what I can tell from where I sit as a non-Anglican, it seems that Rowan Williams can't even be bothered to take a principled stand on behalf of oppressed sexual minorities within his denomination. I'm sure he can come up for a "traditional" reason for this viewpoint as well. Sometimes, tradition is just plain wrong--as anyone who has been oppressed by traditional dogma on sexual matters will tell you.

Halden said...

How's grinding that ax going for you there?

the ghost of Dr. Ruggles said...
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André said...

This language of "making credible" needs, I think, to be submitted to some critical scrutiny. If it's used in one sense - e.g., the way it seems to be used by Spong et al - then I think it may serve as a way of failing to do theology. Here Bonhoeffer's comment that christology - and by implication, all theology - is an exercise of distraught reason is to the point. And this is what Williams is saying - that the gospel, which stands over against our efforts to make sense of it, is the place where we become undone (but also remade). It's precisely this process of breaking and healing - what Augustine calls a "purgatio mentis" - that seems to be missing in Spong etc. Spong is confident that he knows what the gospel is and what the world is; Williams, like Augustine and Bonhoeffer, and closer to home, like Donald MacKinnon, believes that it is that confidence itself - that sense that I already know - which is placed under duress by the gospel. The upshot of this is not the suppression of dissenting views, but rather the practice of a form of intellectual humility which is shaped by patient attention to (and, through the Spirit, participation in) the divine humility manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
One more quick point: it seems to me that certain kinds of liberals sometimes perpetuate a mythology about how theological disagreements work. The idea that when a theologian claims that theology has certain tasks and responsibilities and not others, he or she is attempting to exclude dissenting views is both naive and wrong. It's naive because any theological perspective entails not only substantive claims, but also what we might call "first-order" claims, i.e., claims about what would and what would not constitute doing theology. It's naive to think that anyone entering into a theological discussion - whether they are "conservative" or "liberal" or something else - can escape such first-order claims, although these may or may not be made explicit. It's wrong to mistake these claims as attempts to exclude people from the conversation. Contestations over first-order claims may be fairly rigorous and heated, they may even end in an impasse (e.g., the debate between A. von Harnack and K. Barth), but the very fact that people are disagreeing with one another is itself testimony to the fact that one side isn't excluding the other. A truism perhaps, but one that liberals (and others) have not always been quick to acknowledge. It would, I think, be good if liberals (and conservatives and others) stopped accusing those who seek to engage with them critically with trying to exclude them. This is where an important question arises: what reason does the liberal have for not excluding those who disagree with him or her? For the orthodox (broadly-speaking) theologian, such exclusion is itself ruled out by the intellectual humility I mentioned above. But the liberal seems to reject this humility (or has no theological reason for adopting it). So what kind of theological account can the liberal give that would rule out excluding say, someone who takes a different view of scripture, from the conversation?

anony-mouse said...

Also from Rowan Williams, Arius, p. 239

“This being said, it has also to be recognized that the language of spiritual authority and fidelity to the sacramental community is capable of as much ideological distortion as its opposites. In the career of Athanasius himself, the faith that is at one level a resource for witness and resistance can also justify unscrupulous tactics in polemic and struggle, and—if the celebrated papyrus evidence is to be trusted, brutality towards opponents. Theologically speaking, an appeal to the Church’s charter of foundation in the saving act of God, rooted in the eternal act of God, can never be made without the deepest moral ambiguities, unless it involves an awareness of the mode of that saving act as intrinsic to its authoritative quality and as requiring its own kind of obedience. That is to say, the God who works in disponibilite, vulnerability and mortality is not to be ‘obeyed’ by the exercise or the acceptance of an ecclesial authority that pretends to overcome these limits.. But this is a refinement not readily to be discerned in Athanasius: the notion of incarnation as triumphant epiphany is still perhaps too dominant for another note to be struck.”

kim fabricius said...

Hi Mystical Seeker,

What you have said about Williams demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance about the way he has fought the corner of lesbian and gay people both theologically and practically. His pastoral - and indeed political - handling of the matter as the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to hold together a fracturing communion is another matter, though I fully admit that there I too would have some criticisms to lodge. But that this has anything to do with "suppressing dissenting views" or kowtowing to "traditional dogma" is arrant nonsense.

And hi The Ghost, etc.

Sorry if you think I am "grinding away" against liberals. With Barth, I would say that "I myself am also a liberal - and perhaps even more liberal that those who call themselves liberal." And if I have a grinder, it is quite ecumenical, taking in conservative evangelicals as well!

halden said...

Kim, if you're referring to my comment about grinding an ax that was directed at "Mystical Seeker", not yourself. While we part ways somewhat on certain of the sexual issues that have been (somewhat randomly) brought up in connection with Williams, you and I are definitely of one mind about his personal integrity, theological importatance, and dedicated churchmanship.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Halden,

No, I wasn't referring to your comment at all, but to the Ghost's, which seems to have been deleted. I know that you and I are (more or less) reading from the same hymn sheet. It would send me into a paroxysm of self-doubt if we weren't!

Anonymous said...

African slaves brought to America to work the cotton fields were oppressed. Two gay men who really want a church wedding when the vicar won't give them one are not. To equate the latter situation to the former cheapens the meaning of the word 'oppression'.

Mystical Seeker said...

What you have said about Williams demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance about the way he has fought the corner of lesbian and gay people both theologically and practically.

If I am wrong, I will gladly stand corrected. I base this impression on his shoddy treatment of Gene Robinson and such things as this article from 2006 which says, "Rowan Williams has distanced himself from his one-time liberal support of gay relationships and stressed that the tradition and teaching of the Church has in no way been altered by the Anglican Communion's consecration of its first openly homosexual bishop."

Notice those words--"tradition" and "teaching". As if a "tradition" that was oppressive was somehow to be respected simply because it was a tradition. The reason I bring it up because he seems to be arguing on behalf of tradition for tradition's sake both that case and in the case of his argument that we should somehow wrestle with orthodo theology that makes no sense to us just 'cuz. I categorically reject this position. If you can make a case that he actually continues to fully support gay rights in his church, then more power to him. This is not what I have observed, and I would love to be proved wrong.

That isn't my main point anyway. My main point is that this argument being touted--that it is an argument in a theology's favor if it makes no logical or coherent sense to us--strikes me as nonsensical.

Mystical Seeker said...

Spong is confident that he knows what the gospel is and what the world is

True, Spong is quite dogmatic. That's why the "wishy-washy" label that was used by Rorty is so absurd. You can say what you want about him, but he definitely is not wishy-washy.

It would, I think, be good if liberals (and conservatives and others) stopped accusing those who seek to engage with them critically with trying to exclude them.

Fair enough. But when Marcus Borg says that it doesn't matter whether you take the resurrection to be a literal, historical event, he is being inclusive of both those who do take it literally and those who do not. On the other hand, large swaths of conservatives categorically insist that belief in a literal resurrection is a necessary tenet of the Christian faith. So I have to wonder who is being inclusive, and who is being exclusive. Orthodoxy by definition is "right thinking". Its role has been to establish itself as the arbiter of what is allowed and what isn't. Progressives have plenty of firsthand experience with conservatives who insist that progressive Christianity isn't legitimate. We can just consider the blog posting that quoted from Rorty, which essentially accused progressive Christianity as being "wishy washy", lacking in substance, and being the path towards having no faith at all. The very premise behind such an attack is to exclude progressive Christians from the dialogue. This is the reality that progressives face all the time--attacks on their very credibility as Christians.

halden said...

But when Marcus Borg says that it doesn't matter whether you take the resurrection to be a literal, historical event, he is being inclusive of both those who do take it literally and those who do not.

Stop talking nonsense. If I were to tell devote adherents of Judaism that it "doesn't matter" whether one celebrates the Sabbath or not I would hardly be being inclusive in any meaningful sense. All I'd be doing is saying that I am completely indifferent to their beliefs and that they don't matter. Try saying that regarding the 1,000+ men women and children were slaughtered on the Sabbath by Antioches because they refused to fight on the Sabbath. I doubt those who cherish their memories would think that their belief "doesn't matter".

To say that the central theological belief of a group of people "doesn't matter" is hardly to be "inclusive." Are you really stupid enough to think that it is?

Mystical Seeker said...

Are you really stupid enough to think that it is?

Ah yes, anyone who doesn't toe the orthodox line is hereby declared to be "stupid".

Another fine example of that orthodox inclusiveness.

Maybe this blog should rename itself from "faith and theology" to "faith and insults".

halden said...

I'm not saying your stupid for not being "orthodox" however you define that. However, to say that telling someone "It doesn't matter whether you believe what you believe or not" is not the least bit inclusive, or for that matter, interesting.

I for one think it matters a great deal whether one is a Muslim or a Christian. I doubt any Muslim would think I was being inclusive if I told him "Hey, relax man it really doesn't matter if our beliefs are different."

Jonathan Keith said...

Hi Mystical Seeker,

I've a criticism to make, but I'd like to make it without heat if I can. :) The post highlights the need to emphasize the strangeness and lack of familiarity of the gospel message - a difficulty of comprehension, not of credibility. Are you confusing the two? Or do you take it as given that what is difficult to understand is inherently less credible?

anony-mouse said...

Jonathan,
what is difficult is not comprehending the gospel, but doing it. Williams is not an intellectualist, despite his prodigious learning.

the ghost of Dr. Ruggles said...
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