Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Absolutism and its Limits (the Rev. William R. Coats)

"Only let not men be hasty in calling every disliked opinion by the name of heresy, and when they have resolved that they will call it so, let them use the erring person like a brother, not beat him like a dog or convince him with a gibbet or vex him out of his understanding and persuasions.
"And the experience which Christendom hath had in this last age is argument enough that toleration of differing opinions is so far from disturbing the public peace or destroying the interest of princes and commonwealths, that it does advantage to the public. It secures peace because there is not so much the pretence of religion left to such persons to contend for it, being already indulged to them."
-- Jeremy Taylor, "A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying"

All creatures are bounded by death. Because human existence is finite, it is marked by various forms of anxiety. All people, in addition, are set within a set of social and political parameters. The socio-political environment in America has always been turbulent. Our vaunted "American Way of Life" is constantly hounded by economic dislocation [Americans now change jobs on average five times in adulthood] and by constantly shifting social mores. The soil of freedom is double: one can spread one’s wings and soar in many directions; one can also fall dramatically.

One of the functions of religion is to bring some order, clarity and consolation into lives marked by personal insecurity and social flux. It is why religion has been and is successful in America.

Characteristically, American religion has met the challenge of instability with absolutist claims. Churches make final and unassailable claims about their authority - Scripture or a hierarchical church - as well as about human status before God and about necessary moral behavior. Most American churches from the time of the Great Awakening to our current "era of evangelicalism" have long taken on the characteristic of absolutist religion.

In a rapidly changing social and moral climate, absolutist religions characteristically bolster their case by a vivid contrast: Absolute truth (about authority, meaning and behavior) versus relativism. Thus, in the current struggle within the Episcopal Church the vocabulary of the absolutists consists of such phrases as: "The faith once delivered to the Saints," "The deposit of faith," "The inerrancy of Scripture," "The absolute truth of the Gospel," "The absolute authority of Scripture," or "The truth of tradition." The absolutists characterize their opponents as "heretical," "apostate," "schismatic," "preaching another gospel," or "practicing anything goes."

A sign of relativism, in their eyes, would be the presence in the Episcopal Church of the "heresy" of holding a more open reading of certain biblical passages concerning homosexuality and of tolerating homosexuality behavior, Not only is this opinion and this practice wrong, but its very existence in the church infects the whole. It must somehow be "rooted out." (The Rt. Rev. Peter Akinola). In the absolutists’ world, it is truth or relativism – all or nothing.

Is this true? Is relativism the opposite of absolute truth? Is relativism a kind of amoral wasteland in which anything goes? Is it true that only an absolutist religion can save us from chaos? As Leo Sandon of the Tallahassee Democrat has argued on our website, the opposite of absolute truth need not be relativism. It can be any form of truth short of absolute truth. Partial truth may not be absolute, but it may have an authority and it is not equivalent to permissiveness or "anything goes."

I argue that the key to understanding the long tradition of Anglican comprehensiveness – the so-called big tent of the Anglican church – lies in an understanding of the usefulness of partial truth.

First, it should be noted that Anglicanism has long had trouble with absolutist brands of Christianity. The vaunted tolerance of Elizabeth I was unsatisfactory for a large number of Puritans. The Anglican church in the late 18th century could not contain the driven enthusiasm of the Wesleyans. In the 19th century many Anglo-Catholics worried about whether the English church contained the means of salvation and subsequently left for Roman Catholicism. In late 19th-century America, the Episcopal Church lost a small number of persons who furiously objected to a dilution in the church’s Protestant tradition. At present, Anglicanism is being torn apart by radical evangelicals who vehemently oppose certain more moderate cultural positions found in the American church.

Second, historically, much of Anglican tolerance has been driven by the need in England to remain a national church, and hence a comprehensive body. No such national requirement has been necessary in America, yet the American church took on the traditional mantle of tolerance and comprehensiveness. What has been needed for some time is a rationale for this openness and comprehensiveness.

That rationale lies in two places: the Reformation doctrine of grace and the American experience of democracy.

The Reformation doctrine of grace, in which human beings were to be justified not by their works but by the overwhelming mercy and grace of God revealed in the Cross of Jesus Christ, was more than a simple mechanism for salvation. The super abundance of grace was linked to the ubiquitousness of sin. The fallenness of human beings extends to all aspects of their earthly existence. Grace is the astonishing mercy and love of God which comes to human beings in all aspects of their fallen life. This can be related specifically to the human search for and the explication of truth. Human fallenness or finitude means that all human positions regarding the formulation and explication of truth have a double possibility; they are at once inevitably given to egoism, pretension and self-interest and at the same time blessed with the possibility, in a limited fashion, of transcending these conditions. Thus all claims about authority, scripture and ethics are inevitably tainted with aspects of pretension and arrogance and can never be allowed to be accepted as absolute truth. My truth can never become the truth. All truth on this reading is necessarily a partial truth. Because of the presence of grace, truth can be approximated and thus possess a limited authority, but it can be no more than this. Therefore the doctrine of grace mandates modesty in all claims, a modesty now belied by the absolutists among us. St. Paul, recall, had said we all "see in a mirror dimly." Only later will we "know as we now are known."

Democracy is not a biblical concept, though by now few would deny its efficacy and legitimacy as a political construct. The conciliar form of polity in our church is in fact a form of democracy. Immediately after the Revolution, the Episcopal Church created a conciliar form of polity in large measure as a response to the democratic ethos of the nation. For more than 200 years the American experience of democracy has had an enormous impact on our church. American democracy is not merely a form of popular rule; it is a structured set of institutions designed to thwart power. If a particular balance in the political arena corrals or limits the exercise of power, American democracy at the bottom has another effect. Without a commanding rule from the top, American politics is characterized by a mish mash of contending groups, interests and individuals. Apart from a tilt toward the power of money, the political and social arenas are a hodgepodge of competing units each seeking a particular end for themselves. For decisions to be made, accommodation and compromise are irreplaceable aspects of political and social life. Indeed, the American experience of compromise exists at every level of national life and in every institution – including the church. As a result, rarely is any final, exact or exclusive truth or justice established both in state and church. We have merely instances of proximate justice or, in other words, partial truth. That is also why the American experience of openness has demanded a wide tolerance of views and behaviors. It is why the church has been open and tolerant as well. It is hard to see, as an American, how it could be otherwise. This accounts, therefore, for own national ecclesiastical comprehensiveness.

Of course, from time to time moral behavior occurs in American society that is beneath what the churches uphold as proper. This is usually met with howls of indignation from the churches. Indeed, from the inception of the nation, elements of the church would blame other elements for either inducing or fostering such behaviors which the majority of the church found repugnant. The claim of relativism or permissiveness is as old as the nation. But there is no connection between moral laxity and a church which is open and tolerant. No church blesses gross immorality. The political and social soil of freedom means over time moral boundaries will be crossed. It is a mistake to believe that only an absolutist position can stem the tide of immorality or that partial truths countenance and advance these transgressions.

It is true that certain political configurations can and do lead to such harm that only a firm and resolute stand will suffice. One cannot face slavery, racism, fascism, communism or other forms of political and social tyranny with half measures. Upholding partial truth in the fluid and changing cultural realm does not mean blindness in the face of oppression in any arena. Such excursions into resolute and uncompromising political actions, however, are not a blue-plate for all manner of social or moral disputes. Here the notion of partial truth remains especially helpful.
I argue for the usefulness of partial truths in adjudicating the tensions often found in church and social life. In the church this means a certain latitude and toleration. In the American church compromise has become a dirty word to the absolutists. I hold it to be a gracious way of respecting others. It also means a church of modesty, in which claims are put forward with a keen knowledge of their limits. I argue therefore that comprehensiveness is a necessary mark of the true Anglicanism and that the absolutist positions now before us belie both our Reformation and democratic traditions. To refashion this church along absolutist lines would be forever to change Anglicanism.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article, but really, with respect, not entirely straightfoward, when it comes down to it.

First, Rev. Coat's suggestion that conservatives are just a bunch of religious absolutists is a caricature of orthodoxy. Of course, all caricatures have their measure of reality and, certainly, there are many conservatives who fit that stereotype. Yet, orthodoxy as it has been articulated from the Church Fathers would have no problem with the contention that we are, at the end of the day, dealing with partial truths in the sense that we cannot know the mind of God. It would be arrogant to claim otherwise and I just don't think the traditional orthodox tradition does that, liberal caricatures notwithstanding.

Second, ths talk of absoultist claims to truth and the virture of partial truths really cloud the issues in front of us. The first one is that two groups in the Anglican Communion are increasingly unable to make decisions together because they can't even agree how to discuss them or how we know if someone is right or not. Much of the annoyance of both sides comes from the fact that neither side accepts our rock-solid proofs for the simple reasons that they don't share our assumptions about Scripture, faith and the world. It is simplistic to ascribe this to bad absolutists and nice tolerant relativists.

Lastly, if we, actually, analyze the actions of both the liberal majority in TEC and, I fear, Epscopal Majority itself, we discover that they are no more relativists than I am, rhetoric aside. Let me point out that the decision to accept Bishop Robinson in the face of conservative pleas and warnings was, in effect, teling conservatives that they are simply wrong about what they are saying about the issue. It was a decision to say that gays/lesbians who complained about exclusion from the church are right and conservative who suggested that this lifestyle was sinful was simply wrong. I fail to see how that is anything else but an absolute claim that one group is right and one is wrong.

Similarly, Episcopal Majority has made it very clear what it believes is true in the current struggle in TEC. Let me quote directly from the website for Episcopal Majority:

The Episcopal Majority is a grassroots organization committed to the values and vitality of the Episcopal Church and working to neutralize the negative influence of the American Anglican Council (AAC), the Anglican Communion Network (AAN), and those groups abroad who wish to harm this Church and exclude us from Anglicanism

That makes it very clear to me that EM thinks that these groups are simply wrong. It also makes it very clear to me that this organization is hardly a group of moderates, but is actually quite activist in support of the current hierarchy and polity in TEC. That is what it is, but let's stop pretending to be nice relativists. Activists simply can't be relativists because there wouldn't be a point unless you thought what you are doing is right.

I write this not to insult people, but to point out that the rhetoric in this and other articles simply belies both the actions of the 'majority' in the TEC and the aims of EM itself. If the aim here is to be the voice of the moderate majority, let me point out that it isn't working. If it isn't, then, let's be straightforward about it.


11/16/2006 8:26 PM  

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