Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Liberalism, Postliberalism and Catholicism

Steve Griffin, who could be regarded as Open Evangelical, wrote this in one Fulcrum discussion page about the Catholic side of Anglicanism:

...the theology of revelation that I was taught in the Catholic seminary I attended in Canada was close to RW's: Word and the interpretation of it are dimensions of revelation. Here and there it looks orthodox and apostolic and 'safe' because it's patient, waits for the communion to agree before receiving new doctrine, etc., but it provides the framework for thoroughgoing revision. That's because as long as interpretation of the Word is an aspect of revelation we have virtually nothing outside tradition to which the tradition is accountable. In practice, communion wins out over confession, because truth is always so tentative and provisional that you can never challenge tradition as such. You can only wait patiently to see if this or that is 'received'.

Posted by: Steve Griffin Thursday 1 November 2007 - 09:34 pm
This is surely right, and it is why Catholicism becomes associated with liberalism and looks like it to some, and indeed it can ally with some liberalism (as these elements of the Anglican Broad Church did).

The point has been made to me elsewhere that Catholicism and liberalism are different: Catholicism, particularly as it moves East, is a kind of given matrix that has deep paradox built in, and that its revelation is in that deep paradox that opens itself to the apophatic. So it can also appear to be liberal from that depth perspective too, as well as from the appearance about change.

The choices are that the Catholicism (that can change) has its operating unity within the named Church or, for Rowan Williams, within the Anglican Communion - and, if the latter (a rather big "if"), a cross section of cultures and Churches across that Communion would slow down any form of innovation, either Western or African (or of any region). Obviously its Churches are more culturally uniform and so innovation is more likely consistent with the region.

Incidentally, with the Eastern tradition, the paradoxes are continuously examined and never sorted out: change is a Western feature of sorting out. In the West concepts are developed, examined, and altered: in the East they are not altered once a fixed point is arrived at. Potentially, though, they can be, but a depth dynamic is at work over a sorting out dynamic. It is not just Western Protestantism that is rationalistic.

Where liberalism is different from Western Catholicism, and even Catholicism's ability to change, is that it becomes, in the end, group based or even individualistic. The group, or set of individuals, or indeed just individuals, is the new Church because this is where sentient interpretation takes place. Why should it be limited to a particular kind of greater institution in a particular place? One reason, of course, is that there must be a theology or ecclesiology of the Church. Nevertheless such a Church can arrange to have variation within: but then there can be a Church that says the Church is potentially each few or each individual - and this is what it becomes.

In this sense, then, there is a breaking down of the Catholicism of the larger Church - because, just as there can be a tendency to centralise (Rowan Williams), there can also be a tendency to decentralise.

Then what?

Groups will operate with some collective symbols. There might be a consistent worship, say eucharistic, in order that "Catholic" has retained meaning (and it follows the long tradition of Christian worship - its extraction from the seder meal and then agape meal), but the form of this can vary, and the interpretation of it be openly variable.

This then is where the Catholic intersects with the Unitarian, though the Unitarian grew up as an aspect of Reformation individualism (that is, individual interpreters of the scriptures, and then purely conscience over any particular text or tradition).

The postliberal, however, looks for more collective centres of the drama, and perhaps an ethical centre (Liechty postliberalism here over Lindbeck Yale postliberalism - the Yale version hardly has any liberalism to be "post" about). Postliberalism is Protestant. The comparative postliberal Catholic position would involve centres of collective existence and expectation to perform in a visibly Catholic manner. In other words, it moves back away from a pure individualism towards some sort of collective Church.

The key to this, I suggest, is that expectations of performance are found in liturgy, like interpretive cars revolving around a given liturgical roundabout. The liturgy provides the spirituality, and thus the terms of the debate, and so the liberalism that functions is in relationship to that collective expression: an expression rich in symbolism and inheritance, but open in postmodern fashion to interpretations even to the point of irony.

Liturgy is not quite fixed, however, because the Church is able to make changes according to interpretation: nothing stops it, for example, from adding syncretistic content, or cultural forms from the present, or whatever is agreed.

It would also include forms of ministry: particularly the threefold kind and succession. Again, the understanding of this would be liberal but the postliberal Catholic position is in the institutional appearance.

I come at this as a liberal. My adoption of the Catholic is a reasoned view that it offers spiritual resources drawing on the Jesus ethical imprint, and a range of witnessing texts, and offers a collective provision, and a continuing trained overseeing ministry. Nevertheless, I draw from Reformed elements too, as well as the religious humanistic and elsewhere (Buddhist, neo-Pagan).

I do think it is possible to have a truly liberal community. I used to argue for it. It means different people providing resources by which there is worship, and each pastorally in the collective worship setting provides for others in the market place of ideas and symbols. There is no given basis of ministry, though oversight is practical: the overseers would train others to do ministry. It means people showing the world that they can come together with differences as a community - a gospel for a world of difference that all too easily divides. Such does not aim for a collective definition of faith, only that of drawing on difference and demonstrating a common humanity.

Now the fact is that in 2001 the Unitarians in Britain adopted a pseudo-creed in its General Assembly Object that commits them to "upholding the liberal Christian tradition" (though I do not know what that "the" is). At the time some leading people there called for its use as an invocation in worship. So it was more than just something referring to a remote body (the General Assembly) that has limited powers of persuasion over congregations.

So the Unitarians are not such a body of pure individualism, or differences, but a body where one so called tradition was given privilege for its present and future amongst whatever differences do exist. There is no such purely individualistic or pluralistic Church now. There are some small groups, close to this. There are, of course, congregations of difference, although the Object tends to encourage definition by agreement over definition by difference. So this Church now tends towards the postliberal: having a maintained position of upholding that is then acted out, performed, for its religious and spiritual product.

The question is who does the postmodern, symbolic, Catholic and Reformed postliberalism better? My own adopted background was also Anglican as well as Unitarian, and as a liberal I made the full move out - Unitarian - in 2004 and more fully in - Anglican - in 2006. The Anglican makes more of the resources and the inheritance about which one can be symbolic, and it allows the movement into the Catholic (which Unitarianism excludes, by its Puritan shadow, and in practice - such as the "no" given to the Catholics of The Liberal Rite), and Anglicanism facilitates an in-depth theological engagement with Christianity's textual resources and the particular human-divine drama rather than the broad spread engagement that Unitarianism encourages.

No comments: