Saturday 24 May 2008

Another Pluralist World

Matt Kennedy gave a three talks on Mere Christianity in a Pluralistic World posted at Stand Firm on Tuesday, May 13, 2008, Sunday, May 18, 2008 and Wednesday, May 21, 2008.

It's another claim that The Episcopal Church has abandoned the historic Christian faith, this time focusing on the effects of pluralism and the pluralistic position.

Given my Internet name, I am interested, though the origin of this name is a stance within the Unitarians of years ago. Fulcrum also have used a pluralist name (the thread became somewhat variable in content), this time regarding Anglican Churches and their organising.

These talks may have one more to be posted, but there is enough to go on for now. They derive from two talks given to an LCMS Atlantic District pastor's conference.

Very soon in the first talk he claims the Episcopal Church is sick. It was the intellectual Church, but one without a grip on classical doctrine to be replaced by love and social justice. The Episcopal Church has engaged the culture and pluralism, and Anglicanism in the West was "so susceptible to cultural subversion". He states:

a pluralist culture is one that embraces a myriad of choices, paths, and pursuits, many of them mutually exclusive, as valid and legitimate.

This is not the same as relativism:

Relativism is self defeating because the relativist assertion that all is relative and nothing is absolute asserts an absolute.

This is not necessarily so. Just as a pluralist can be agnostic about absolutes, so there can be an agnosticism or relativism about relativism. These, though, are not the same. The first allows the possibility of some absolutes whilst thinking much is relativist; but to be relativist about relativism is to be part of an intense deconstruction not only of all other concepts but about relativism itself, and this represents a kind of implosion of meaning that turns structuralism into poststructuralism, everything into a spin. In fact it can produce a kind of virtual world, or a bubble world of word-plays and meanings where an impression of absolutes is nothing but a relationship of relativities.

Matt Kennedy is talking about objective truth and lack of certainty. He says:

The pluralist answer is that human knowledge of the absolute is absolutely limited and being limited very few definitive statements about the absolute can be made.

Not quite. This sentence contains an assumption that there is an absolute. Limitation of knowledge involves the question at least of whether there is any absolute anything. We do not know this either. This is one reason why relativism can become a working hypothesis, but another hypothesis is the Isaiah Berlin position of clashing values all claiming objective truth.

There is, though, another position that is both objective and stranger - that reality may end up, as in quantum science, full of paradoxes and multiple states. Ideas that clash may well have possibilities that they do exist as truth even though at a larger and surface level they seem to be completely competitive. That paradox thus leads to another kind of relativity, a more objective relativity, and it can be a road to a very broad universalism of paradoxes.

Anyway, he then jumps to something else, "though it might seem like a detour at first" which is Christian pluralism, the position of John Hick - that religions themselves provide salvic ways to the Real. This is different from the Christian inclusivist position where it is still Christ that saves via what is legitimate in other faiths and unknown regarding Christianity. Matt Kennedy is an exclusivist, but just about allows for the inclusivist - but not the pluralist. He thinks the pluralist position asserts that:

...Christianity and Islam and Buddhism are all equally valid, equally able to provide access to the divine in themselves.

I don't agree with this, and I doubt John Hick does either. My view is that John Hick is an inclusivist of the Real, that all are aiming towards the universal ultimate. A pluralist position says, rather, that each religion, like a language, has is its own process of "salvation", that salvation or equivalent being understood within that religion. The problem with Hick's view is that he imposes a Real on religions and groups and individuals that they do not themselves accept. As soon as he describes the Real, he has described his own package. It is rather like this: the Gospel of John gives Jesus the words that he is the only way to the Father. Well he is to the pluralist, just as Buddha is the found way of the Dharma. Buddha is not even seeking the Father. The concepts are internal.

Well they are except the pluralist can be playful - and just as languages steal words and even phrases from other languages, so you can get combinations of phrases and understandings. The social anthropologist tries to translate. But join elements together and they form packages: a new one every time.

Here he is knocking The Episcopal Church's own leader:

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church articulated the Christian Pluralist view with precision in an interview with Time Magazine on July 10th, 2006. She said, "We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box."

This could be Christian inclusivism, actually. Clearly there are other religions around, and at least on theory that God acts these have been formed in time and in place. The definition of God may be that of the Christian, but clearly there are other paths by which there can be a judgment of salvation that derives from Christianity. As for Bishop Schori, lack of certainty that there are not other ways regarding the fullness of God may in fact be no more than an agnosticism about those other ways, while she is fairly certain about her own. Such is not affirming an inclusivity of a higher Real, let alone pluralism.

A person who may actually be pluralist as I understand it is Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is because from time to time he addresses Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims about their scriptures and them having their own integrity and form, and generate communities (about which we can be multi-cultural) whilst he operates within Christianity. We can compare communities, of course, and have laws, but religions are something that form around us and indeed form us as individuals.

The second section identifies pluralism as coming from the impact first of Kant - that we receive the physical world through our senses and that leaves the metaphysical world high and dry, with reason suggesting there might be a divine, but that Schleiermacher said that our feelings of utter dependence give us a route to the divine.

I am not sure what this has to do with pluralism at all.

Pluralism arises because institutions have ideological output and they do not agree and they make claims on others. So we once had in a geographical area basically one religion (other than for the persecuted Jews) and we lived in a hierarchical sacred canopy. That canopy absorbed and regulated the baseline of magic and superstition. There was a flowering on non-sacred knowledge at the Renaissance, but the real change came with the Reformation and religious competition. With the rise of rationality came a whole non-religious space too, which was another basis of ideological competition. Some historicist ideologies arose that were similar to the Judeao-Christian-Islamic linear schemes but secular. Eventually we lived in a world of many religions, many Churches, and a large space where we think practically and ordinarily without any of them. There is a fragmented superstition left, much of it forming miniature religions and consumer spirituality. As well as competing dogmas there is a stress on non-dogma regarding the spiritual. Much seems to be subjective. In the neither objective nor subjective postmodern situation, the large claims of competing ideologies collapse, forcing everyone of commitment to a particularist language be sectarian in a sense.

In other words, pluralism is a social issue - it is about the sociology of knowledge and how this alters with changed institutional relationships. Kant and Schleiermacher are bit players in this.

Matt Kennedy then jumps to scripture and revelation. He does not tell us how he knows that these are objective sources of exclusive knowledge: how he escaped the experience trap that apparently found everyone else.

He should also realise that in the postmodern situation there are those who are equally narrow in their selection of authoritative sources of revelation who have no objective basis for the selection - none at all. They just run with them. Thus we have George Lindbeck (discussed regarding Fulcrum and the pluralist position) and John Milbank of Radical Orthodoxy.

Inside the bubble may be as real as inside any other bubble - the pluralist again says that each bubble decides the terms of its own understanding and engagement.

The origins of this are Karl Barth, that neo-Calvinist of sorts, whose God was anti-cultural and anti-religious. It was all a one way encounter. When such a God is so remote, he is in danger of disappearing. Thus Harvey Cox's The Secular City was a combination of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Theologically I also identify the subjectivity of James Martineau, who produced such a cultural view of religion that it becomes subject to transience and difference. He was a collective universalist of theism that actually was subjective in authority regarding every individual. It just breaks down. From opposite poles both end up with postmodernity.

As for experience and Schleiermacher, it is arguable that since William James the theological view is that you express and then experience. You cannot experience without a symbol-system interpretation - otherwise it is mu (a Buddhist word for utter nothing). Well there may be a pure transcendence or mu (Hick again) but not a dicky bird can be said about it.

I have no idea how Matt Kennedy knows that he is backing the correct horse, with his exclusivist Christianity. Apparently Rowan Williams (the pluralist and narrativist?) believes that without a historical dissolving of bones into the resurrected Christ he would stop celebrating the Eucharist and resign. But he has no historical method to know whether that happened or not, and for it to happen would involve changing our understanding of biology and physics - not exactly full humanity (in that sense - I don't know beyond that sense how "full" humanity is measured).

Matt Kennedy thinks that reliance on experience is the way by which the Episcopal Church has innovated against his interpretation of scripture. Experience needs interpretation:

the corporate experience of the contemporary church has become the sole measure of theological truth. Sola scriptura is replaced by sola ecclesia.

This does not follow at all. The Church can believe in continuing revelation: it can believe in the continuing and ever new witness of the Holy Spirit, for example. It can be as dogmatic as him.

It might, alternatively, be agnostic and therefore just become more inclusive on a social basis. Arguing that this is theological and of revelation is not pluralist at all: it is another form of exclusivism. It says it knows that this is being revealed, or at least this seems to be the case.

Indeed there can be a revelation argument about cultural change and the move to inclusivity all around. The incarnate world follows God's revelation into particular culture. This is not postmodern at all: it is realist. It is not pluralist either (other than that there are a variety of cultures). It need having nothing to do with it.

The third talk gets into the effects of "pluralist subversion" regarding forms of Marcionism (that God is always good, equalitarian, etc., on the grounds of the love of Christ) and Gnosticism in the Church (privileged spiritual knowledge).

Is Marcionism based on experience? Has it anything at all to do with pluralism, even if it can be shown to exist now?

All a Marcionite-avoiding position involves is taking into account the yuck of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as well as its good bits. It does not mean treating them equally: it does mean asking why they are there and what they convey, and whether any of it can be translated to the now. Experience often flies in the face of a Marcion type position, rather than upholds it, given that so much in the world is ugly and destructive. Ah - perhaps this is why we keep the rough stuff as well as the good in the Bible.

Gnosticism is definitely not equivalent to a 'Christ of faith' and 'Jesus of history' discernment. In fact the starting point is often the material world, and affirms it, which Gnosticism does not. It just states, for all what dogmatists assert, that there is no sure historical method by which you can find out that much about the Jesus of history. There are no primary documents and the New Testament is a series of theological documents from the early Churches - secondary and about faith. The Jesus Seminar votes: so what? It does so after indirect methods are employed.

Pluralism matters here in so far as the multiplicity of institutions including secular ones, and the shifting of religious authority away from secular authority, has allowed for a critical historical approach to be made to religious formation using historiographical understanding.

Theology that then says we shall be symbolic, or narrative, or radical, is not a pure knowledge, but rather a stance of faith - just doing. It is to walk the path. The creed writers had no more historical insight than we do: indeed, they had less and did not apply it. They just came to philosophical conclusions that made the faith a coherent workable Empire faith. Early Christians may have developed various formulas, but they hardly needed sealed doctrines - nor did they need anything other than the sacred mythology that they lived within. So today the importance is to walk the road; trust in the faith-path.

The real Gnostics today are perhaps those who think they can override historiography and "know" it is all historically true. They don't know.

The "pluralist" Church doesn't divide flesh and matter. If it exists then all it means is that there are different views and tendencies. Most liberals and radicals are quite earth rooted.

It might have taken some intellectual muscle to put down Arianism and Marcionism, but it does not take much to put down the arguments as presented by Matt Kennedy. They are just a collection of misapplied points. In the end, he makes assertions he cannot support. He does not tell us how he knows, only that he does. He is the Gnostic, him and his New Puritanism Church. They have history all wrapped up - except they have not.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pluralist. Thank you for taking the time to read and critique my talks. I really do appreciate that.

I do not have time to respond in full, still trying to get the sermon finished for tomorrow, but I do want to agree with you that I have not "argued" my points sufficiently.

My intention was not to argue or even to persuade. The LCMS is a very conservative denomination, far more conservative than I am. They agree with all of the essential and basic premises I carried into this talk so I saw no need to establish them. I did not need, for example, to argue for the objective validity of special revelation or the basic correspondence between what we perceive and what is. These are points we agree on.

Had I been presenting this talk to a group of liberal Episcopalian clergy, I would need to argue for the things I took for granted here. So, basically, I agree with you that I did not "argue" well as I was not intending to present an argument so much as a discussion of pluralism and its effects on the Church.

Thank you again for taking the time.

Matt Kennedy

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Thank you. I take the point; their assumptions and yours are quite similar. Not sure how that relates to Kant and Schleiermacher and pluralism, however. I suppose you are indicating to them where some liberalism comes from. There are many sources, of course, not least the left wing of the Reformation. The philosophical and also systematic theology arguments are important, but pluralism is something that is unavoidably concrete and that's where I make a focus. Then I would, drawing on sociology of religion.