Saturday, July 14, 2007

Restraint and Moderation

The most recent issue of First Things has a nice essay by Henry Luke Orombi called "What is Anglicanism?" (August/September 2007, pp. 23-28). Orombi is the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, and writes with both clarity and passion about the troubles besetting the worldwide Anglican Communion. Among the virtues of (authentic) Anglicanism that Orombi extols are those of "restraint and moderation". He argues that restraint and moderation in matters of discipline (how one worships) ought not to be confused with restraint and moderation in matters of doctrine (what one believes as a matter of faith). When it comes to doctrine, he suggests, authentic Anglicanism shows no restraint or moderation: Uganda's Anglicans have been martyred for their faith, and to confuse restraint and moderation in matters of discipline with restraint and moderation in matters of doctrine is to make a mockery of their martyrdom.
The various disciplines of the autonomous provincial churches can be contextualized, but doctrine, based on Scripture, transcends all such cultural distinctions.
An important point to be made by a member of the Christian community that seems most likely to implode, at least in the communities outside of African and Asia. If you take the stuffing out of a mattress, it will collapse, and the ECUSA mattress is notoriously lacking in stuffing these days.

There are some, however, who prefer a stuffingless mattress or, indeed, no mattress at all. The most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement (13 July 2007, p. 27) has a review by John Whale of Kevin Ward's recent book, A History of Global Anglicanism (Cambridge University Press, 2006). You'd think that a book by that title, weighing in at nearly 400 pages, would cover a great deal of material, but to judge by Whale's review you would come away thinking that it was principally about Anglican missionary activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Be that as it may, Whale contends that Ward's book brings in a four-fold indictment of worldwide Anglicanism on the following charges:
1. Christian missionaries expect people to believe in Christianity, not in other religions.

2. People who become Christians in missionary territory may find themselves in danger from surrounding non-believers.

3. Christian missionaries seem to think that Christianity is not compatible with other religions and, indeed, they can't even agree among themselves what the right form of Christianity is.

4. Christian missionary activity has had the most unfortunate effect of teaching people in missionary lands that homosexuality is wrong.
I suppose it should come as no surprise to find that the climactic claim of this bill of attainder should so prominently feature the Christian teaching on sexuality, but the hostility of folks like John Whale to such things is no longer news. What is more interesting is the rather self-righteous indignation about the possibility that one set of ideas is true to the exclusion of other sets of ideas. With regards to the first charge, for example, Whale writes
missionaries impoverished the unconverted by devaluing local beliefs.
In addition to the banality of this charge, one may legitimately wonder whether it is a matter of necessity that one harms another by devaluing his beliefs. If the missionaries had found themselves in a land where children were sacrificed to non-existent entities, perhaps devaluing their beliefs would not be altogether a bad thing.

As for the second charge, Mr. Whale may do well to read Mr. Orombi's essay. Whale writes:
In the 1978 riots that removed the Shah of Iran, Anglican hospitals and a school for the blind were expropriated; church workers lost their liberty and some their lives.
I suppose it's a good thing that Mr. Whale is not an activist for democracy in a land like China. As we saw in the 1990s, it could be downright dangerous to live one's life in defense of certain principles, even non-religious ones. But what the heck, it would be to devalue the authoritarian beliefs of the local party elite to bring democracy to China. Let's just enjoy it ourselves, and leave them to their own diverse ways.

The third charge is the most bizarre of the bunch. Indeed, it is rather difficult to see what, precisely, Whale is even talking about. Here's what he writes:
Missionaries exported the idea that religion necessarily involved dispute between conflicting certainties.
At first, one might think that what he has in mind is a variation on the theme of the First Charge, but it soon becomes clear that all he really means is that Christians of various persuasions can't agree among themselves about what "The Truth" is. Perhaps he finds this distasteful because he doesn't himself think that there is any such thing as "The Truth" when it comes to matters of religion, but it's hard to get really worked up about the fact that "in the 1950s, one group of revivalists used megaphones to shout down another's services from outside the building." Why this should count as a serious indictment of either Anglicanism in particular or religion in general, but not of virtually every form of human partisanship and tribalism, Whale does not bother to explain, but perhaps it is connected to his irritation regarding the Fourth Charge, which appears to touch rather close to home with him.

This is not the first time Whale has written critically about religion, and it seems fair to imagine that he would agree with one of his recent defenders, Henry Harding, writing in the TLS in February of 2004:
What Kenrick sidesteps but Whale may have spotted is that the whole enterprise of seeking, claiming or accepting transcendental certainties, be it never so instinctively attractive, is permanently flawed and divisive, root and branch. No amount of sophistry can cloak the propensity of organised religion to sponsor beliefs held with an overweening certainty that is always liable to slide into intolerance or violence. What is needed is not the recalibration of institutional religion, but its demise. The absurd circle-squaring of religious leaders who maintain that everyone can retain their beliefs full-bloodedly without risking internecine clashes is long overdue for exposure. When a lion approaches, we do not take it for a peacemaker.
This attitude is quite popular these days among the self-styled "Brights" who think that they have discovered the key to solving the ills of human society in the eradication of all religious belief. The irony of the moniker "Brights" is lost on them, but presumably some of them, at least, are aware that other movements than religious ones have been responsible for human suffering because of some view that is held with "certainty". Worldwide communism has brought about the deaths of over 100 million persons, and with all due respect to the innocent victims of Jihadism around the world, their numbers pale in comparison with that. But when you've got a bee in your bonnet about something, you can forget about being sane and rational, even when you're criticizing others for not being sane and rational because of their religious beliefs.

Restraint and moderation are, indeed, virtues. I can be restrained and moderate in my treatment of a communist dictator whom I have removed from office, and therein I will differ from that very dictator, who may well have treated me very differently had I failed in my attempt to remove him from office. And I may be restrained and moderate in my behavior towards other religions, even while openly rejecting the beliefs of those religions. In this I will undoubtedly differ from other sorts of religious folks, but it hardly follows from the fact that there are those who would treat me differently that my own beliefs are as dangerous as theirs. Surely it matters more what the actual content of one's beliefs happens to be, not so much whether the beliefs are held with a kind of "certainty". I'm not altogether sure what sort of person believes in things about which he has profound doubts, but I suppose most of us hold beliefs about which we have some doubt. But to infer from this that it is madness to think one's beliefs might be true to the exclusion of other beliefs is, well, nutty. Indeed, the certainty with which I hold my beliefs appears to be exceeded only by the certainty with which folks like Whale hold their beliefs about the lunacy of certainty.

But again, the irony is lost on them.

1 comment:

djr said...

An admirably restrained and moderate post, Dr. Carson.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

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