The argument from design at its best

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, philosopher David Hume concluded that the classical arguments for the existence of God, even if they were logically sound, would not in fact prove what believers want to have proven.  The characters Cleanthes and Demea set out to demonstrate to the existence of God, and find themselves unable to satisfy their friend Philo.  After Cleanthes has made the case for believing that the orderliness of the observable world demonstrates that it is the creation of a supernatural being, Philo responds with a series of conclusions that follow at least as logically from Cleathes’ arguments as do the conclusions which he would like to draw.  The final item in this series is the following:

In a word, CLEANTHES, a man, who follows your hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions: but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think, that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.

This passage came to mind when I read yesterday’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Zach Wienersmith has sharpened Philo’s hypotheticals a bit:

What is a calendar?

Monday’s xkcd made an interesting point:

I’ve sometimes asked people to imagine that they had an expandable ruler.  If an object measured as longer than they expected, they could add a centimeter or two to the ruler to match their expectations.

Such a ruler would not be much of a measuring device.  Likewise, the calendar, with its expandable and contractible bits, its subdivision into the week, which is not commensurable with the other major subdivisions of the calendar, its months of varying lengths, etc, is not particularly satisfactory as a measuring device.  Indeed, if its chief purpose were to serve as a measuring device, it would have been replaced long ago.

What a calendar chiefly is, is a series of commands.  Many of these commands are tied to specific events in nature, and so we resort to leap days and the like to ensure that they come up at reasonable times.  That today is 22 April means, in much of the world, “Observe Earth Day!”*  That yesterday was 21 April meant, to Latin teachers, that it was Foundation of Rome Day, and so they have to organize some cheesy kind of classroom activity, possibly involving togas.**  That tomorrow is 23 April means, to Christians in certain categories, that it will be Saint George’s Day and so they ought to do whatever it is they do to commemorate Saint George.***

*xkcd fans will understand me when I say that my first reaction to this command is to resolve that I will not be going to space today.

**I am a Latin teacher, but I teach in a college, and I don’t have language classes on Tuesdays.  So I got out of it.

***I recently assigned myself in one of those categories, and I value Saint George for various reasons.  First. as a soldier who was put to death for refusing an unjust command, his memory should give courage to others whose consciences urge them to say no when it might be easier to join in atrocities, such as Albert Battel or Hugh Thompson.  Second, as a saint revered in all the major communions of the East and also in parts of the West, George is a potent symbol of Christian unity.  Third, the particular category of Christian I’ve ended up in is Anglicanism, and that’s one of the Western churches where Saint George has played a special role.  And fourth, my grandmother was born on 23 April, so I like to make a fuss about something on of that day.

Indiana becomes the center of the universe, for a little while

This is where Indiana is, in case you’ve been wondering.

Last week the state of Indiana made the national news by passing a law whose sponsors named it “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Opponents of the claim that this name is misleading, both because it does little to promote religious freedom and because it is significantly different from the US federal law known by the same name and from the laws modeled on that federal law that are on the books in many other states.  Because the law is expected to protect businesses that refuse to serve members of sexual minority groups, advocates of the rights of such groups have protested vigorously against it.

The two things about this controversy I’ve read that I’ve found most helpful are an essay posted on Facebook by lawyer Carolyn Homer Thomas and a blog post by Eve Tushnet.  As the weeks pass, I’ll probably see good things in print, but for now the story is fresh enough that the internet is the richest source.

Carolyn Homer Thomas writes that Indiana’s law differs from the federal law in two key ways:

First, SB 101 expressly recognizes that for-profit businesses which “exercise practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by…the individuals…who have control and substantial ownership of the entity” qualify for religious exemptions. This means that there is NO Indiana regulation that a business cannot theoretically trump by saying their religion forbids compliance. What’s rightfully getting the most attention (because of the gay rights movement) is the risk that businesses will try to trump non-discrimination and employment laws. This is because, until the Hobby Lobby case, most people had understood the earlier federal and state RFRAs to only protect individuals or non-profit religious institutions, like churches and charities. But the Indiana RFRA now allows even for-profit corporations to exercise religion.

“This means that there is NO Indiana regulation that a business cannot theoretically trump by saying their religion forbids compliance.”  A statute that, interpreted by its plain language, would dismantle the entire civil law system of one of the fifty states would seem to pose a threat to every law-abiding citizen of that state.  I can see that members of sexual minority groups are among those who are especially vulnerable that threat, and so it is reasonable that they should be among the major focuses of attention as Hoosiers* try to figure out how to get themselves out of the mess their state legislature and governor have landed them in.

Carolyn Homer Thomas goes on to identify another major problem with the Indiana statute:

Second – this is the most fascinating aspect of the whole thing to me as a religion law geek – SB 101 only protects a business who is actively “exercising” a practice that is “compelled or limited by” religious belief. This means that the religious belief cannot just be a preference — it has to be theologically mandated. So, a business who suddenly changes course, or comes up with a fairly weak theological reason for its action? That is a ground in court to reject their exemption. By contrast, SB 101 protects ANY “exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” for individuals and non-profits. So it will be harder for businesses to get exemptions than individuals. Indiana will require a much higher showing of religious conflict before it will protect businesses. (I am going to bracket the fact that this difference presents its own Constitutional problems – courts aren’t supposed to, under the Establishment Clause, evaluate theology.)

Giving state courts the power to decide what does and does not count as a worthwhile religious belief would seem to be a pretty big drawback in something called “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Eve Tushnet, as a conservative Roman Catholic and an out (albeit celibate) lesbian, has a unique perspective on this issue.  Because of her religious beliefs, she understands the scruples of those whose consciences won’t allow them to participate in same-sex weddings:

1. Cooking is an art, cakes are art, compelled creation of beauty is compelled speech. I feel like the denial that cakery is/should be expressive, that food bears meaning, is somehow Gnostic and class-biased (or sexist? if your grandma could do it, it must not be art?), but maybe that’s self-parody on my part. Anyway beauty + meaning, to me, pretty clearly = art. And photography is even more obviously art, right?

At the same time, because of her sexuality, she also understands dimensions of the issue to which other social conservatives are blind:

2. Still… I wonder how different this debate would look if more gay people felt confident that Christians know how common discrimination, harassment, and violence are in our lives. I mean I didn’t really know this myself for a long time. I was very sheltered. The past few years, in which I’ve gotten to know lots of gay people from different backgrounds (mostly Christian, mostly celibate, it turns out this doesn’t protect you–not that any of my friends asked it to), have been eye-opening for me.

And quite often I find straight people are even more surprised than I was to hear about the frequency and sordid creativity of anti-gay acts. I hope I’m remembering this right, but at a retreat I was at, the leader asked how many of the non-straight participants had either experienced violence as a result of sexual orientation ourselves, or had close friends who had experienced this violence. And I think all of us had. (Close friends, in my case.) And the straight people were shocked. When I tell this story now, people’s eyes widen–I mean, straight people’s eyes widen.

The support major corporations and prominent media figures have given to the protests against Indiana’s law has convinced social conservatives like Rod Dreher that America’s power elite is solidly in favor of the rights of sexual minorities, and that he and his fellow dissenters are headed for a future on the margins of society.  Mr Dreher writes, “On this issue, the left has the media, the academy, much of the legal profession, and corporate America on its side. That’s a powerful coalition. It is the Establishment. And you will not escape its view.”  At The Federalist, Robert Tracinski goes even further, declaring that “The Left Has No Concept of Freedom,” and that those leading the charge against the Indiana law portends a “law of the state [that will] expand so much that it leaves the individual no space in which he may determine his own private principles of action.”

Ms Tushnet has a response ready for Messrs Dreher and Tracinski:

We have a sharply bifurcated culture, where like Glee is on tv and Tim Cook is a gazillionaire, and yet countless kids are being harassed, berated, and thrown out of their homes for being gay.

I am not convinced most straight people know that stuff, and think it’s awful. I am definitely not convinced that most gay people trust that our heterosexual brethren know and reject that stuff. That’s some of what you’re hearing in the “slippery slope” arguments, Can they refuse to carry us in the ambulance? Can they kick our family out of the restaurant?

Those slippery slope arguments are pretty hard to forget when you think about small towns and rural areas of a sort that do exist in Indiana, places where public space consists of a handful of businesses, a few fundamentalist churches, and a couple of government offices.  If you live in one of those areas and the people running those businesses decide that it isn’t worth their while to be seen with the likes of you, your life could become very tightly circumscribed very quickly.

I’ll conclude with a very clever tweet from Michael Brendan Dougherty.  Mr Dougherty, who has taken a rightist stand in this debate, posted this:

Well of course they do.  That’s why mainstream political discussion had so little room for the rights of sexual minorities until recent times; most people can’t really imagine themselves wanting to exercise the right to form a same-sex relationship, or to be transgender, or to live any of the other lives that we now group together under the LGBTQI banner.  And it’s also why every other minority group, including religious minority groups, has a hard time finding a hearing from the general public.   I consider this tweet to be very clever because, in a single rhetorical move, it creates a category into which both the same-sexer who has to wonder whether the paramedics will refuse to put her in the ambulance and the photographer who has to wonder she’ll be sued out of business if she declines to take pictures at a same-sex wedding naturally fall.  So he, like Ms Tushnet and Ms Thomas, manages to open a space in the debate for a human voice.

*That’s what people from Indiana are called, “Hoosiers.”  No one knows why, though there is some evidence supporting a theory connecting it with an early-nineteenth century slang term from Yorkshire, “howzher,” which meant “oaf.”  Anyway, though the word may have originated as an insult, people from Indiana insist on being identified as “Hoosiers,” and if you call them “Indianans” they genuinely do not understand what you mean.

This can’t be true, can it?

I picked up a used book a few days ago and was just leafing through it.  The book is the Wordsworth Reference 1993 paperback of James George Frazer’s 1922 abridgment of his massive work of comparative religion, The Golden Bough.  On virtually every page, I find something which moves me to exclaim “Interesting, if true!”  I’m pretty sure that 99% of Frazer’s factual claims are total bullshit, as for example this story, chosen entirely at random, alleged to be a description of the practices of traditional healers among the indigenous people of British Columbia:

The Indians of the Nass river, in British Columbia, are impressed with a belief that a physician may swallow his patient’s soul by mistake.  A doctor who is believed to have done so is made by the other members of the faculty to stand over the patient, while one of them thrusts his fingers down the doctor’s throat, another kneads him in the stomach with his knuckles, and a third slaps him on the back.  If the soul is not in him after all, and if the same process has been repeated upon all the medical men without success, it is concluded that the soul must be in the head-doctor’s box.  A party of doctors, therefore, waits upon him at his house and requests him to produce his box.  When he has done so and arranged its contents on a new mat, they take the votary of Aesculapius and hold him up by the heels with his head in a hole in the floor.  In this position they wash his head, and “any water remaining from the ablution is taken and poured upon the sick man’s head.”  No doubt the lost soul is in the water.

I take it the characters in this tale of Frazer’s are supposed to be the Nisga’a people of the Nass river valley; if any Nisga’a are reading these, please use the comments to tell me whether you think Frazer may by some odd chance be telling the truth about what your ancestors did a hundred years ago.

When I was typing the passage above up, I realized something about it seemed familiar.  Then I remembered Star Trek 3, a 1984 movie in which the ship’s surgeon has somehow ingested the soul of one of his patients.  It is by no means impossible that this passage may have inspired that story.  Comparative mythology was very much in vogue in Hollywood in those days, especially in the person of Joseph Campbell, and Frazer is a small step from Campbell.

The Rite to Remain Silent

There was also a nun, a prioress, who in her smiling modest was and coy, and her greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!”

In 2002, I took in a dog.  He’d lived in my neighbors’ backyard, and they couldn’t take care of him any more.  For those first few weeks, training him to live in my apartment kept me from getting much sleep.

Something else that was new to me at about that time was cable television.  Since I was now up at all hours, I started turning on the TV at all hours, looking for something to watch. I quickly found that there were always reruns of Law & Order on some channel or other.  I’d never seen the show, and was soon hooked on it.  When the announcer started in with, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups,” I would turn to to the dog and say “While the dogs aren’t represented at all!  That’s not fair, is it, boy?”  He never expressed an opinion.*

Anyway, I kept watching reruns of Law & Order long after the dog was housebroken.  I wondered why, and formed a theory.  Each episode starts with a very small group of people, usually two, sometimes more, minding their own business when they stumble upon a murdered corpse.  They make these opening sequences evocative of as many aspects of ordinary life on the island of Manhattan as possible, creating the impression that Manhattan is a place where you might find a murdered corpse at any moment.  Then they go on to explore the relationships the murdered person had with people still living; any relationship, between spouses, lovers, friends, relatives, business associates, anything, is established as a potential prelude to murder.  Having thus painted Manhattan as Hell, as the ultimate disorder, they move on through the police and courtroom procedural to culminate in a jury verdict, a symbol of Order.  So it’s a ritual that dramatizes the survival of order in a world of disorder.  As such, it can function as a substitute for a conventional religion.

I was quite sure from the beginning that this insight was not new with me, but was recently jolted when I saw a movie I’d heard about for many years and saw that it was already so familiar that it was the topic of a filmed spoof as long ago as 1979.   The movie was Mr Mike’s Mondo Video.  The police procedural in the sketch isn’t Law & Order; in 1979, Law & Order was still eleven years from its debut.**   Instead, it was Hawaii Five-O.  In the sketch, there is a religious group that worships Jack Lord, star of Hawaii Five-O.  The sketch goes on too long; if they’d cut after the singer finishes the first line of the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified Jack Lord,” it would have been a lot better.  Still makes the point, though:

*The dog is still around, and I still say that to him whenever I happen on the opening of Law & Order.  He still isn’t talking.

**Eleven years is less time than has passed since 2002 and now, and less time than passed between the debut of the show in 1990 and 2002.

“A Tree of World Religions,” by Dzvenislava Novakіvska and others

tree

Click to see the whole thing

I was looking for something else a moment ago, and stumbled on something terrific that’s been online for years.  It’s a zoomable chart called “A Tree of World Religions,” and according to Hemant Mehta it was created by a team at Funk Consulting led by Dzvenislava Novakivska.

Who is qualified to say, “That is not Islamic”?

I’ve always found it alarming that so many American politicians are quick to declare that particular groups are or are not Islamic.  I’m referring to the sort of thing that reached dizzying proportions in late 2001, when such figures as George W. Bush and Charles Krauthammer and Madeleine (Not-At-) Albright went on television not only to declare that the terrorists responsible for that year’s attacks on New York and Washington were not true Muslims, but to tell the world the true meaning of the word “jihad,” and in Professor (Not-At-) Albright’s case to go on at length about the concept of “reopening the gate of ijtihad,” which they apparently regarded as a necessary step in the revival of true Islam.  No one in the media in those days seemed inclined to ask who had appointed these people as imams and asked them to issue such monumental fatwas.

Anyway, Elizabeth Stoker Bruening seems to feel the same way I do about this kind of thing.   Juan Cole is more sanguine, arguing that it should be possible for a reasonably well-informed outside observer to figure out where the “center of gravity” is in a religious tradition and to recognize that this group or that is very distant from that center.  Professor Cole may be right, though I suspect he would agree with me that the Bushes and Krauthammers and (Not-At-) Albirights of the world would be well advised to be more circumspect in their commentary.

Blasphemy in America

Many in the West have spent the week and a half since the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo rehearsing the same conversations about Islam and the concept of blasphemy that have been cropping up regularly since 14 February 1989.  One theme that appears with regularity in these conversations is that the elite culture of the West has been generating a continual flow of extreme blasphemy, mostly directed at Christianity and its symbols, for over two centuries.

I think this is true, but I haven’t recently seen what I think is the obvious conclusion to draw from this fact.  As a result of all the anti-religious talk and imagery that has been booming out since the Enlightenment, the educated classes in Western countries are divided into two large categories: nonbelievers, for whom “blasphemy” is a word that cannot have any meaning; and believers whose faith has survived so much mockery and insult that they cannot seriously suppose that any further blasphemy will pose an urgent threat to anything that needs preserving.  Neither category can sympathize with the demand for prohibition of blasphemy that emanates from the Muslim world, as embodied for example in the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s tireless advocacy of an International Convention Against Blasphemy, much less with the extreme violence that marginal figures like the gunmen in Paris employ to penalize blasphemy.

If freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate,” and we in the West, believers and unbelievers alike, do not in fact hate blasphemy (though believers certainly dislike it, and nonbelievers can often see harm in it,) then it is no wonder that phrases like “free speech” and “freedom of expression” have come to sound like dirty words to many who live in societies which have not experienced hundreds of years of irreligion.

The Branch Theory of the Church

From Wikipedia (click image for article)

One of the major contributions the English Reformation made to Christian thought is the “Branch Theory” of the church.  The idea is that there are degrees of unity among Christians, so that not every formal division between groups forces us to label those on one or both sides of the break as un-Christian.  In a blog post last year, The Reverend Mr Jonathan Mitchican, a priest of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, sums up the branch theory quite lucidly.  Mr Mitchican writes:

The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. [William] Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”

He goes on to cite the most famous early theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker:

In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:

How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…

Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.

In this paragraph, Mr Mitchican mentions alternatives to the branch theory:

Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.

To amplify these remarks, I would quote from rather an old publication of the Church of England, Doctrine in the Church of England: The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957; reprint of the original 1938 edition.)  Where Mr Mitchican says that Rome and the churches of the East “declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church,” the Commission phrased it rather more precisely:

Since the date of the Great Schism, 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have each claimed to be the one Catholic Church, at least in the sense of being the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition. (page 109)

This statement makes it clear that a theory of the unity of the church must address two closely related, yet quite distinct questions: 1, who is a Christian; 2, what is the church?  Among the great strengths of the branch theory is that it makes it possible to consider these questions separately without dismissing either of them.  For example, a friend of mine was once serving as a minister in a church in an area where many people were Hindu.  The place was usually quite empty, but on Christmas Day the neighbors crowded in. He asked them what brought them.  They told him that they had come to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  “He’s one of our gods,” they cheerfully explained.  Were they Christians?  In a sense, yes.  One of the ways Jesus defines his movement in the Gospels, after all, is that where two or more are gathered in his name, there will he be (Matthew 18:20.)  But this sense hardly tells the whole story. For one thing, Jesus himself gives several other, far more restrictive definitions of who his followers are.  For another, I doubt that many of those gathered in the name of Jesus the avatar of Vishnu would be interested in claiming the title of “Christian” for themselves, and few indeed would be the self-described Christians who were prepared to yield to their authority as interpreters of the Gospel. So, “Christian” they may have been, in some special and severely limited sense of the word, but in no sense would we include them in “the church,” still less expect them to function as “the sole authoritative guardian[s] of the apostolic tradition.”

It is the rootedness in history of the branch theory that makes this distinction clear.  The worship of Vishnu, the identification of such major figures of the Hindu pantheon as Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, and the rest of the ideological and ceremonial system into which Hindu devotees of Vishnu-Jesus fit their beliefs and practices long predate the exposure of India to the story of Jesus and the presence in that country of representatives of “the apostolic tradition.”  This devotion, venerable and admirable as it no doubt is, stands apart from “the church” in a way that groups that were once in communion with the Patriarchs of both Constantinople and Rome do not.  The separation of those groups from each other represent a different challenge to followers of Jesus than do the separation of groups, even groups that revere Jesus, that have never been united under any institutional umbrella.

Doctrine in the Church of England includes two lengthy paragraphs about the unity of the church that I would like to quote in full:

The divisions among Christians, as a result of which Christendom is split up into a number of competing and rival “denominations” and “communions,” are not the least grievous among the scandals that have been mentioned.  There is a long history behind them; and in some cases, at least, there are serious divergences of principle involved, such as must needs make the way to reconciliation neither easy nor obvious.  It is, moreover, to be remembered that the life of the Christian Body is enriched by varieties of emphases and interpretation, and that historically these have been developed in their familiar forms in the several communions which have resulted from the divisions in the Church.  Yet it often happens that in developing one valuable interpretation of the Gospel, a particular communion becomes unduly restricted to this interpretation, while others may fail to receive the benefit as a result of their separation from that communion.  Further, there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.  Thus any gain due to division is offset by loss to the whole Body and to its parts.  The gain can be secured without loss only through a real combination of unity with liberty.

The term “schism” has historically been used with some fluctuation of meaning.  It should, however, be recognised that “schism” is, in fact, a division within the Christian Body.  That Body is not to be thought of as a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it, but as a whole which is in a state of division or “schism.”  The various “denominations” may and do differ in the degree in which they approximate either to orthodoxy of doctrine or to fullness of organised life; but, just in so far as their very existence as separate organisations constitutes a real division within Christendom, it becomes true to affirm that if any are is schism, all are in schism, so long as the breaches remain unhealed, and are affected by its consequences, at least in the sense that each in its own degree suffers the loss or defect involved in schism; and this irrespective of the question on which side rests the major responsibility for the schism.

(pages 111-112; emphasis added)

Certainly a theory of ecclesiology which identifies “the Church” with a particular organization that has a headquarters, a table of organization, and a pension fund does place some rather severe restrictions on Christian thinkers who survey the world at large.  I would cite Joseph Ratzinger as one who has made clear his dissatisfaction with the view that his particular church is “in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with [it] is outside of the Church.”  In his 1960 book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

This discussion of Christian brotherhood has endeavored to apply what the New Testament says to the world today, even when what it says seems unexpected, even alien, to us.  As I followed up the references, sometimes with surprise, in my mind there arose the question of the “separated brethren,” the popular designation of Christians of differing confessions who thus express, across the gulf of their separation, their common adherence in faith to Jesus Christ, their brother.  Must this formula be discarded because the New Testament restricts brotherhood, in the narrower sense, to those who share one table, united through their common communion, which cannot exist among separated Christians?   But then, what is the relation of these Christians to one another?  Is a non-Catholic Christian, for a Catholic, the “other” brother only in the sense in which an unbaptized person is?  Or does the community of baptism and the confession of the one Lord not, in fact, impart to him a greater share of fellowship?  It is not easy to answer such questions, especially as they have seldom been asked in a sufficiently radical way, for fear of touching wounds that are still open.  And yet it is necessary to ask this, just as truth is necessary for love.

The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one.  Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East.)  It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value.  Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way.  This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian.  In the course of a now centuries-old tradition, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of the Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy.  Perhaps we may here invert an old saying of Saint Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy.  The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one.  Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic.  This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole.  The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.

(from pages 88-89 of the 1993 translation by W. A. Glen-Doepel)

Here we see the future pontiff proposing a theory that works in the opposite way of the branch theory.  The branch theory posits a time when Christian organizations were formally united, and holds that a kind of informal unity can survive formal division.   The Ratzingerian theory does not depend on any particular answer to the historical question of whether two denominations split off from an older, united denomination.  For him, the kind of unity that Anglican divines have described from the days of Hooker to Mr Mitchican and his colleagues today can exist even between groups whose organizational structures do not spring from a common genealogy.

In his career since 1960, Joseph Ratzinger has returned to this theory time and again as an attempt to supply the “appropriate category in Catholic thought” which was still missing in that year.  He has done this both in his own writing, and in his influence on others.  We can find the signs of this theory in Pope John Paul II’s letter, Ut Unum Sintissued when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, especially in the famous paragraphs about relations between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (paragraphs 50-70, including the line “The Church must breathe with both lungs!” in paragraph 54,) and in John Paul’s comments about the Lutherans in paragraph 72.  And paragraph 87 is pretty nearly a paraphrase of the quote from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood above:

87. Along the way that leads to full unity, ecumenical dialogue works to awaken a reciprocal fraternal assistance, whereby Communities strive to give in mutual exchange what each one needs in order to grow towards definitive fullness in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Eph 4:11-13). I have said how we are aware, as the Catholic Church, that we have received much from the witness borne by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to certain common Christian values, from their study of those values, and even from the way in which they have emphasized and experienced them. Among the achievements of the last thirty years, this reciprocal fraternal influence has had an important place. At the stage which we have now reached, this process of mutual enrichment must be taken seriously into account. Based on the communion which already exists as a result of the ecclesial elements present in the Christian communities, this process will certainly be a force impelling towards full and visible communion, the desired goal of the journey we are making. Here we have the ecumenical expression of the Gospel law of sharing. This leads me to state once more: “We must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities … The talents of each must be developed for the utility and the advantage of all”.

Here again, we see the idea that Christian groups, separated from the mainstream, can grow beyond that separation, eventually to merge into a new mainstream.

As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke in 2011 to Lutheran leaders at Martin Luther’s old monastery in Erfurt.    Praising Luther’s theological prowess and the depth of his commitment to Christ, the pontiff went on to imply that today’s Lutherans face the same challenge that Roman Catholics faced in 1517:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

Here Pope Benedict shows that he has reached the same conclusion as did the Church of England’s 1922 Commission.  Recall their words, quoted above: “there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.”  In this passage and elsewhere, Pope Benedict has suggested that the occasional inability of the Church’s human ministers to distinguish between the indispensable heart of the Christian mission and the incidental forms that mission may take from time to time was responsible for the crises that issued in the Protestant Reformation.  Here, he suggests that the same weakness which prevented Rome responding as it may have done to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may today be preventing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies from recognizing and fully meeting a similar challenge from the global South.  It is precisely the same chronological depth and richness of tradition that has, in Benedict’s view, ennobled Lutheranism that may also have blinded it to the need to cast aside many of the most treasured inheritances in answer to Christ’s call to enter a new world radically different from the ones in which those legacies were crafted.

I am in no position to judge between the Anglican theory and the Ratzingerian theory.  I can express only my personal preferences.  These incline me somewhat toward the Anglicans.   I suspect that Pope Benedict falls between the two stools Mr Mitchican describes.  Certainly he is in no danger of reaching the logical endpoint of the extreme Protestant rejection of historical relations among organized groups as the basis of church unity, that “what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies,” since his theory is embedded within a defense of a particular, actually existing Christian denomination as the best venue for the formation and expression of the human person.  That is a point in his favor; if all that unites Christians is “correct faith,” and faith is a matter, not of social action, but of assent to and defense of particular abstract propositions, then the proper life for a human being is that of an internet comment box warriors, sitting alone, prepared to take all to task if they express incorrect ideas.  A path that leads to such a life can hardly be one worth traveling.

However, to the extent that his theory does not draw a distinction between the two questions “Who is a Christian?” and “What is the Church?,” Benedict cannot lead one entirely clear either of that danger or of the opposite danger, the denial that groups with which one is not in full communion are not at all Christian and the refusal to learn anything from them about the meaning of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.  For him, the Church is and can only be what the 1922 Commission explicitly said in the quote above it was not, “a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it,” since it is that “single true Church” that, however corrupted it may from time to time be by the stupidity or wickedness of its ministers, however richly it may from time to time be instructed by the witness of those outside its communion, must ultimately remain “the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition.”  The difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand and Protestants or Orthodox on the other, therefore, varies only in degree from the difference between Roman Catholics and Hindus who pay homage to Vishnu-Jesus.  If Benedict concedes that a non-Roman Catholic can be a full-fledged Christian, therefore, he is conceding that Christians can be fully formed altogether outside the influence of the historic Church.  In that case, it is difficult to see how he could explain why the worship of Vishnu-Jesus should not be classified as one of the schismatic bodies gathered around the communion of which he claims for eight years to have been the earthly head, unless by assigning to the creeds a significance that would throw us back into the world of the combox warrior.

Let us consider how Christian groups have justified claims to be “the sole authoritative guardians of the apostolic tradition.”  Many groups have done what Rome does, what Eastern Orthodoxy does, what Oriental Orthodoxy does, and claim that their hierarchies represent an unbroken succession dating back to Jesus and the Apostles, so that they are and have always been The Church.  Others claim, as William Penn claimed of his fellow Quakers, to be the embodiment of “Primitive Christianity revived,” the restoration of the original church as presented in Scripture.  These are the “Restorationists” of the chart at the top of this post.  A few groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, claim to have received new revelations that are to be added to Scripture, and base their claim to authority on their status as recipients of these revelations.

The new revelations crowd include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; honestly, I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Mormon, and I’ve met hundreds of them.  But their founding premises are such that formal union between them and other Christian groups must surely be a most distant prospect.  Perhaps the nearest approach to such union is to be found in the Community of Christ, originally the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which seems to be well on its way to becoming a liberal mainstream Protestant denomination.  In the course of that reinvention, the Community of Christ has deemphasized all of its Mormon distinctives. It still affirms that the Book of Mormon and the Latter Day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants are two of the “three books of Scripture,” but places the other of these three, the Bible, above them and no longer mandates the use of the Mormon writings in worship or as tests of membership.  Their name change marked a similar movement.  It may well happen that the Community of Christ will sooner or later enter into some kind of formal union with a Protestant denomination, but if it does, that will likely be because that Protestant denomination is convinced that the Community of Christ has severed all its ties to its Mormon origins.

The Restorationists have had more success in building ecumenical bridges, but they too have had to moderate their founding principles in order to do so.  If two distinct movements build themselves on the belief that they are accurate recreations of the church Christ intended to found, then a merger between them can only represent a concession that at least one of them has been wrong all along.  That seems like rather a steep hurdle in the way of formal union, though perhaps not a major obstacle practical cooperation.

That leaves the Traditionalists as the best hope for Christian unity.  And, in my not especially well-informed opinion, it seems that the branch theory is the best starting point for any project that would turn that hope into reality.

What started me thinking about all of this was a humorous little exchange I participated in yesterday on Twitter.  Nathaniel Torrey tweeted this:

(A spoof of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn’t recognize the reference.)

In response to an inquiry from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, Mr Torrey gave an example of an episode:

This prompted my reply:

Micah Meadowcroft, a student at conservative bastion Hillsdale College, apparently found in the reference to sexual minorities an issue that might chop some branches off the tree of Christendom; he expressed this in the most effective possible way, through a link to a video produced a couple of decades before he was born:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The unliked and uninjured

Earlier this week, Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern wrote a piece asking incredulously “Do Anti-Gay Christians Really Face Employment Discrimination?”  Mr Stern cites blog posts by Princeton Professor Robert George and The American Conservatives always interesting, often apoplectic blogger Rod Dreher about a survey in which investment bank JP Morgan-Chase recently inquired into its employees positions with regard to the rights of sexual minorities.  Finding the survey a perfectly routine bit of corporate boilerplate, Mr Stern shows impatience with the concerns that Professor George and Mr Dreher voice.  “All of this is extravagantly silly, and I respect Dreher and George’s intellects too much to believe that they’re actually taking it seriously,” he writes.

I would agree that Professor George, Mr Dreher, and their fellows have made many hyperbolic statements regarding this and similar matters.  At the same time, I do think they are onto something.  I would refer to an item the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Reverend Mr V. Gene Robinsonposted on The Daily Beast several months ago.  The Rt. Rev. Mr R, himself the first openly gay person consecrated a bishop in a traditional denomination, denied that anti-gay Christians in the USA are the targets of anything that should be called “persecution.”  At the same time he did acknowledge that they are coming to be a minority, not only numerically, but in the sense that they bear a stigma which sets them apart from the mainstream:

Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying and discrimination they face. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children. And did I mention the everyday threat of violence?

Compare that to the very painful realization that one’s view of something like homosexuality is in the minority after countless centuries of being in the majority. It may feel like victimization to hang a shingle out to sell something or provide some service to the public, only to find that the “public” includes people one disagrees with or finds immoral in some way. It may feel like it has happened practically overnight, when it has actually been changing over a period of decades. Being pressed to conform to such a change in majority opinion must feel like victimization. But as a society, we would do well to distinguish between real victimization and the also-very-real discouragement felt by those who now find themselves in the minority.

I do not mean to brush aside as inconsequential the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority, whether it be around the topic of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But I do mean to question characterizing such feelings as discrimination, violation of religious freedom, and victimization. It’s time we called out our religious brothers and sisters for misunderstanding their recently-acquired status as members of a shrinking minority as victims.

I would amplify the good bishop’s remarks about “the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority.”  I would say that “feelings” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words here, being as it is a word that often figures in non-apology apologies such as “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” which is a polite way of saying “I wish you hadn’t become upset when I was doing what any sensible person would regard as that right thing, you crybaby.”  The beliefs that motivate people who disapprove of homosexuality may be wrong; I am quite sure they are wrong, as a matter of fact, though I am chastened by Mr Robinson’s* own willingness to suspend final judgment on the theological ins and outs of the issue.  However, it is hardly reasonable to expect the members of this new minority group not to share the experience of every established minority group, who are from time to time frustrated when the image of the world that is presented to them in every movie, every book, every TV show, every presidential address, every classroom, every other place where the voice of The Mainstream is heard, is so much at odds with what they have seen and heard and felt in their own lives, from their own point of view, that it begins to seem as if they have been transported to a parallel universe.

I believe Mr Robinson would be quick to agree with this.  I heard him make a speech a few years ago in which he told an audience made up primarily of same-sexers that “we will never be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority we may form in this room at this moment.”  He went on to talk about the challenges inherent in minority status, especially the sense of not being heard that comes when an element so central to personal identity as one’s sexuality takes a form that is basically alien to most of the people one meets on a daily basis.  So when he tells his opponents that their new status as members of an unpopular minority does not by itself mean that they are victims of injustice, he is not trivializing their experiences or concerns.  Rather, he is suggesting that in the future he and they will have something in common.  Anti-gay Christians may never again be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority they may form in their own worship spaces.  And they can no longer expect culture high and low to be dominated by a worldview in which male and female are categories created by God and inscribed by God with specific meanings, meanings that include a concept of complementarity that exhausts the legitimate purposes of sexual activity.  Nor can they even expect the average person to have the vaguest knowledge of what their views are, or to be at all interested in learning about them.  They can hardly be faulted for considering this an unattractive prospect, yet it is no different from what any other minority group experiences.  On Mr Robinson’s account, the reduced visibility and inadvertent exclusions that come with minority status do not by themselves constitute unjust discrimination.

I don’t want to put words in Mr Robinson’s mouth; I’m sure he would be the first to concede that there is such a thing as institutional discrimination, and that injustices no one in the majority intends to commit or even knows are happening can at times wreak horrific consequences in the lives of the minority.  And while Mr Stern is blithely confident that laws against religious discrimination will give anti-gay Christians all the protection they need against any mistreatment they may suffer in the future, Mr Dreher’s American Conservative colleague Samuel Goldman** links to a recent article raising the question of whether “religious freedom” is even a coherent category in our current legal system.   So I see more grounds to the fears of this new minority than does Mr Stern.  I cannot be of much help to them; in the unlikely event that anti-gay Christians were to ask me how they could be sure of receiving fair treatment in a strongly pro-gay America, my suggestion would be that they abandon their false beliefs and join the rest of us in affirming the diversity of sexual expression in today’s world.  I’m sure that would be about as pointless as a Christian telling Muslims that if they don’t want to be smeared by association with terrorists, all they have to do is to be baptized.

*To avoid confusion, let me explain: The customary form in which the names of Anglican clergy are presented is “[Ecclesiastical Honorific] [Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at first reference, and “[Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at subsequent references.  That’s why I introduced Mr Robinson as “the Right Reverend Mr Robinson,” then switched to plain “Mr Robinson.”  My wife works for the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally read the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I’m aware of all these things.

**Like Mr Dreher, Mr Goldman is always interesting.  Unlike him, he is never apoplectic.

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