Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inner ecumenism and the place of doctrine

Is there a place for doctrine in the church? How much of a place, and where? If it is, as Lindbeck says, a cultural-linguistic phenomenon, what does that imply for the inner life of a community? For our community?

One of the limitations of The Nature of Doctrine is that it is a synchronic description. Keep in mind while reading that I understand Lindbeck through Saussure, and that this is intentional, since I feel that Saussure does better than Wittgenstein in describing the limitations of a language system. Of course, it isn't strictly synchronic; Lindbeck does, after all, follow Wittgenstein, who doesn't care about cleanly separating developmental history from the state of a system at a given point in time. However, the only extent to which The Nature of Doctrine is concerned with the diachronic is as the development of doctrines demonstrates what they are as phenomena. It is, you might say, a phenomenal theory. Or at least, a phenomenological one. Synchrony with recourse to explanatory diachrony.

Consider religion to be an element of the sociological complex that makes human culture. Since we're considering religious communities, it is reasonable to suggest it as the primary element, even though we know that this is not actually the case in life. You think of space as three-dimensional, don't you? We play with toy problems in the laboratory because full n-variable systems don't play well with the scientific method. Lindbeck describes the communal religious aspect in terms of its linguistic nature. This is nice, because while they come out of very different enunciative modalities, the analogy of linguistic and religious systems as discursive formations proves edifying. (Assuming, of course, that you are familiar with both.) Religion, as a language, varies over communities. Like linguistic phenomena, it is inherited and learned as superior to the individual, external and static. It lives inside the speaker. To the same extent, the religious belief of a community is superior to the community, and lives inside of it. Changes in religious belief happen naturally and slowly, for the most part unconsciously. Attempts to change the religious belief of a community are much like attempts to change the social contract -- on the whole, they fail. This is true because of the fundamental Saussurean understanding that signifiers are arbitrary. The dance of signification never stops. A living language uses signification as a tool with which to describe the world. Here we get to the reality of linguistic change, and an insight into religious change. You cannot fix a signification relationship because a) the signifier is arbitrary, and does not natively mean anything, and b) what it signifies in the system is an object as understood -- and this is also arbitrary. This is not, of course, to suggest any form of unreality. In point of fact, the signification is far more real because of its arbitrary and shifting nature, more real than any secondary attempt to codify the association on both sides. The signification moves, and what Barth says of the church is true of the codification: it is left guarding an empty riverbed. The codification is always a statement of the form: this signifier meant this signified object, in this place and time, under these circumstances, for these people -- on average. There is hybris involved in any attempt to state that this signifier has a lasting meaning, and to assign it out of the linguistic past, and the same hybris is involved in attempting to state that this signifier means some new thing.

Doctrine, quoth Lindbeck, is just such a secondary codification. It signifies a state of signification, of meaning. That signification has its reality in the life of the community that believes. Even though it may be simpler to model it as a propositional system, the reality of all such models is that X = Y where X and Y have equivalent values. The proposition is false when the world disproves it. Of course, it's far cheaper to carry a set of rules describing the synchronic state than to have to derive them every time. In sociological formations of high regularity and broad scope, such as Western Christianity developed under, it becomes very easy to discard the context information and assume that the rules are universal. Not true, but a convenient approximation. One of the things Lindbeck does with this, charitably enough, is to define doctrines as conditional statements, true when their conditions are true, and to posit certain arrangements of necessity in their application. We grant that your doctrines are true, within their contexts, and we hope that you will grant that ours are true within theirs. From there, we can discuss our underlying commonalities of faith. Enforcement of doctrines stops at the boundary of the community for whom they are valid codifications. Ecumenical dialogue, once this threat of enforcement is out of the way, proceeds upon the basis of faith common to the participants.


In the ELCA of late we've been proceeding along the assumption that we can enforce doctrines within the community upon those who disagree. Up until the social statement on sexuality and the expression of the churchwide assembly, and probably still after it in many places, "respect for bound conscience" has been a one-way street going in one direction or another. The ELCA cannot accept and roster practicing LGBTQI people and respect the bound consciences of those for whom hetero-abnormality is a moral wrong backed by religious doctrinal prohibitions. On the other hand, the ELCA cannot fail to accept and roster practicing LGBTQI people and respect the bound consciences of those whose sexualities are "hetero-abnormal" and as essential to their existential being as those of the "hetero-normal". Which is why Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust attempts to focus on real sexual sins: "violation, discrimination and injustice," signs of broken trust in relationships. (HS:GT final, 4) The church is bound by its own conscience to love and respect all of its members. And this is not gospel, lest anyone should call it reductionism, but the strictest legal standard we have given to us under the words of Christ. We know through Christ that salvation is not at issue here. Any who confess salvation to be at issue because of human behavior have a questionable place within Lutheran theology because of our firm belief in justification by faith alone. Here stands or falls the church. Since God makes it stand, posterior to salvation and separate from it we are bound as Christians to obey two commandments and through them all of the rest: love God and neighbor with your entire self.

It is an expression of God's profound love for us that we have these words through Christ, but they fall with as much force upon the theological practitioner today as they did upon the Pharisaical Judaism of their time. It is precisely us for whom they are intended, as commands to the powerful in religious communities. God saves, first and foremost, and then God covenants with the saved. It is through these words of Christ that our consciences as Christians are captive to God. So what becomes of doctrine? I guess it depends on the doctrine. The leadership of our community, the ELCA, has determined through a long collective process with high levels of community participation that it does not hold hetero-normativity to be Christian doctrine. We have far higher priorities when it comes to sexual morality than the gender or orientation of the participants. We want love and trust. To that end, we accept LGBTQI people as full members of the body of Christ and the priesthood of all believers. But of course, I am obliged to insert that qualification that must be attached to every codification: in this place and time, under these circumstances, for this group of people -- on average. Because it is clear that this may be the majority opinion of the church, but it is not an opinion held equally by all participants in the community. And it may be a social statement, but it does what Lindbeck says doctrines do, which is approximate the actual grammar of the community. As a doctrine, it also does what doctrines have historically done within communities: determine right and wrong behavior by conformance. And it is backed by the majority approval of practical steps to implement this acceptability stance by opening the rostered ministry of Word and Sacrament to practicing LGBTQI people. However nicely phrased, the church means this to be a real part of its doctrine as a community, and has developed it out of the best parts of its own prior doctrinal heritage. HS:GT is explicitly the ELCA following its legal covenant obligation of love for the neighbor.

So what does this do as doctrine? When it divides the community, because it is a choice among possible doctrinal options -- everything is a hairesis, especially orthodoxy -- what happens to those who are heretics under this new rule? HS:GT has done well by making the church's burden of love for the entire community and all sides part of this doctrine. It does not tolerate intolerance. It demands love and pushes the boundaries of neighbor wider. We failed under the old boundaries! And many more will fail under the new boundaries, which has always been the problem with law. Every law, for good or ill, condemns disobedience. We have said that we will not allow these sins against these people any longer, but it will be a while before that is true. More immanently, a vocal portion of the ELCA threatens to leave the ELCA because of this doctrinal statement and its implementation. They feel excluded from community because this community includes certain others in ways with which they disagree. And this, too, is what doctrines do. They are rules “regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question,” and “they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.” (ND, 74) Members that now feel excluded used other doctrinal understandings to exclude LGBTQI persons from full membership in the community, and do not desire to change these doctrines. If sin does not exclude from the community, on which many of us agree with Augustine, some at least disagree to the extent that it should exclude from leadership and ministry, and proceed to define sins, in this case including being L, G, B, T, Q and/or I.

Ah, but sin does not exclude from the community. Doctrine does, now as always. So however the Lutheran church divides again, perhaps we should take a page from Lindbeck and be internally ecumenical. We cannot make our brothers and sisters agree, and we should not. We have defined what the ELCA will do, what love of neighbor means for this community as it signifies the body of Christ without respect to gender, sex and sexuality. Whether or not our brothers and sisters in Christ respect the operational rules of this community, they are welcome to walk with us, and we will do our best to walk with them, which is what love of neighbor means when applied to the disagreement. Official community boundaries inevitably follow the shifting of meaning, and intervene between disagreements. It is the same within language. But we should never forget that we are dialects of Christianity, itself a dialect of the faith in the God who chose Abraham. If we lose our commonalities in other things, this is still life. If we lose our commonalities in God, it is death. However communities stay together or separate, nothing can separate us from the love of God or God's gift of salvation in Christ. This above all things must be remembered, and especially by the doctrinal theologian. Whatever else may be true in our sundered communities, this is our ground for dialogue and the only permanent unity of our faith and life.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bug squashing and recompiling - a theological flag day

I believe in something with which I disagree. It's bad faith to suggest that my self-understanding trumps my existential demonstrations, so I had as well get to work squashing this bug. People who disagree with me are wrong. This is the bug, and like any off-by-one, it was an easy mistake. In fact, it was a mistake made by observing and borrowing code from much of contemporary Lutheranism. People who disagree with orthodoxy are heretics. Add power gradients and stigmatize appropriately. Get trained to be orthodox, modulo some very particular denominational politics. In the process, learn that the state of the art is right, which agrees with your science training. Learn to differentiate yourself by being right in contextually appropriate ways. Creatively redefine orthodoxy such that it can remain a palatable concept under the constraints of contemporary theological science, rather than a relic of history that should be discarded. All the while climbing up in the power gradients and stigmatizing disagreement. And magically we are a humanitarian, neighbor-centered, and loving persecutor of heretics. Paradigm inversion at its best. Same system, new "top."

I don't come from "below." I'm just climbing around the wheel as it turns. I was raised white, conservative, middle-class, and modern. My father believes firmly that homosexuality is morally wrong. If he was at CWA09, he voted no. If not, he voted no at the synod level. I went to Valparaiso interested in what Gil Meilaender had to say, and having been a reader of First Things. On the other hand, I grew up never understanding why evolution and the Bible should conflict. I was raised on the literary text of scripture and the best of science. Faith in God, understanding of the world. We weren't fundies -- we knew better -- we were just bourgeois. In everything else, I was trained to be right. Why not theology? In everything else, I was trained to accept that our understanding of the world changed. Why not morality? And in everything, I was trained to argue, and to be convinced only by solid reason. The seeds of my success, and simultaneously the bug.

In actual fact, I was not trained to keep an open mind. I was trained to think I had an open mind, which is a very different thing. I was actually trained to be on the right side, and to move to the right side should I ever find myself on the wrong side. This involves scrupulous attention to which sides are the wrong ones. A lifetime of what my wife calls "You're wrong, and here's why." And in point of fact, I expect that from others. I expect to be refuted and to change sides. It has happened before, and it will happen again. But the bar is high. And this is the game in which I learned theology -- whose history lends itself beautifully to such a game, especially if you're Lutheran. It's agonizing, from which root come both agony and antagonism.

I'm not sure I know how to do theology without polemics. I've never been comfortable putting down the weapons. I went from using them against people to using them to defend people, but that's just another way of using them against people. I've grown to love too many people on all sides for that to be a livable solution any longer. So I find myself on the wrong side. There are no enemies. There is bad theology, but you can't kill bad theology with weapons. All you do is wound good people. And I firmly believe that theology that wounds good people is bad theology. Hoist on my own petard. But how do I get down from here? It's an insidious bug, and squashing it in one place is no guarantee it won't show up in another.

The answer, of course, is that I'm wrong, and Christ is my only righteousness. But God so help me, it doesn't seem like a very practical solution in my profession.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

continued: epistemology of the game

But where do we get the solid ground of divine truth to which we must attend as a primary fact of theological work? How do we escape the abysmal notion that it's turtles all the way down? Everything is conditioned. Even our faith is a culturally mediated reality in the moment that we reflect upon it. Given by God, sealed by Christ, the work of the Spirit in us, yes, all of that, but in mediate ways or else unknown. The church is of all things most culturally mediate; its traditions a chain of conditioned realities; the scriptures human witnesses writing after the fact at best. Ah, but that last is a clue: witnesses. Aftershocks, bomb craters, dry stream beds, mineral traces, footprints, the backside of God after he has passed. Hidden in revelation. A pointer to what is not there now. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Collapsed wave functions, one and all. This is why the game doesn't end, and why the end of the game is the beginning of heresy.

God is not the phenomena. God isn't even the simplest explanation for the phenomena. If you believe, the phenomena help to illustrate God. If you do not, they will not make you believe. Natural theology is always a failure as an a priori enterprise. Negative theology works no better than positive theology. There is no guaranteed path, theological or otherwise, that takes us to God. Only paths guaranteed by God's action in the ways God comes to us, given flesh for us by the witnesses of history. The whole theological enterprise is built first upon trust in God, and only second upon evaluation of evidence.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Meditation on systematic theology as a course

As with patriotism, one of the problems with systematic theology is that we attach our firm beliefs to its highest achievements. We gaze longingly at the highest points of the theological edifice, the great dogmata of the church, as though God put them there -- as though their glory were God's own. No such illusion is possible to the construction worker, even if the architects read too much of their own press. Only the foundation does not shake, does not fail, does not fall. Trust only the foundation -- believe God, not theology. Work on theology; understand how very much of it needs to be repaired or refurbished or replaced on a too-regular basis. It may be the Christian faith, but only in the way that the 5:15 train is the 5:15 train -- that is, independent of its material constitution. Our faith is in God, as a necessary presupposition of theological work, or we rise and fall with the fallible materials of today's edifice. The train comes and goes because it is promised that it will, regardless of which cars, what crew, what engine, how much fuel, &c. happen to be involved in this run. We trust only the promise, not the train itself. If the train fails one day, we do not stop riding the train thenceforth -- someone fixes the train so that it meets the promise again.

This class is not about your belief -- not essentially, anyways. In point of fact, you can play this game without believing. At that point, we call it philosophy, or metaphysics. But this class presumes that you do believe, and that you will have charge over others who likewise believe. What this class does not presume is that the knowledge of what that belief entails is self-explanatory. It does not because it cannot -- because it cannot be presumed that faith naturally makes sense. That sensibility is highly sought-after, and all of us make some kind of bargain, some tradeoff between faith and intelligibility. Systematic theology is the art of making the best of that bargain today, and continuing to look for a better bargain tomorrow. Only, you must prioritize what is better, which balance point provides an equilibrium with which you -- and those who hear you -- can best live. Be prepared going in to be wrong, and to change your mind, as you seek those balances. Follow your faith, and the faith of those around you, and let it guide your searching.

Church history is full of options on the balance between faith and intelligibility. We have even prioritized some over others -- orthos doxa vs. hairesis. Right opinion versus the choice of something else. This division is all about the balance of intelligibility against faith. Heresy is that step too far toward what would make sense to us, overbalancing the given truth of God. Ironically, orthodoxy has become a bad word today precisely because it becomes heretical, because it refers to periods in the life of the church when what seemed right enjoyed unquestioned paradigmatic dominance, developed along its own lines, and stagnated because it failed to attend to the ground truth of God. It is dangerous to play too far above the foundation, to trust too much in the made materials of human doxa and build too high on them. Learn the history not only for its successes, but also its failures. Know the balances that have been struck across its extent, and why they worked or failed in their contexts. Understand where, when and who you are, and try the balances for yourself. Properly understood, this is not a game that ever ends. The end of attention to the balance, of attention to God along with intelligibility, is the beginning of heresy.

You will fail. We are all heretics. Remember why you are saved, and that your theology is not it. Strengthen yourself in the sacraments, the grace of God given and shared. Get up and play the game again.