7.08.2008

What did the early Church have that we don't?

I've written before about the problem of authenticity in religion traditions (see "What I'm Doing Here").

I've asserted in numerous places that inauthenticity has plagued the Christian tradition from early in its history -- not an original observation, to be sure -- and that one of the central concerns of "progressive Christianity" is the undoing of that inauthenticity.

This idea, hardly original to me, meets with a great deal of resistance by conservative Christians. If someone disagrees with doctrines originally articulated in the first few centuries of the Common Era, it's attributed to simple hubris, nothing more. That someone might have legitimate reason for finding fault with established doctrine has already been excluded as a possibility.

Underlying this is a rather curious confidence in the competence of ancient authorities -- whether biblical authors, or Church Fathers, or whoever -- apparently for no reason other than that they are ancient.

This is a curious assumption that warrants some attention. Why, for example, should Augustine's interpretation of the second creation story -- and, more specifically, the doctrine of Original Sin that derived from it -- be held as definitive against the interpretations of contemporary exegetes? Did he have access to any relevant resources that we lack? (The short answer is, "no.")

Conservatives will argue that the truth of the doctrine of Original Sin lies elsewhere than the authority of Augustine as an individual. It lies, they might argue, in the authority of the Church that accepted his doctrine, under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we'll ignore the fact that actual humans, whoever they were, actually made the judgment that Augustine got it right, and pass the buck to God himself.

And why not? We know church leaders are directed by God, because that's what they tell us -- and since they're directed by God, they can't possibly be wrong about it!

(Have you ever wondered what would happen if every human on the planet woke up one day with an awareness of the fallacy of circular reasoning, and the implications of this for their own belief systems?)

I suppose the real answer is simply that people want to believe that the very fallible humans who originally judged these doctrines to be true were somehow protected from error by the hand of God.

The absence of reason is arbitrariness. And as Bernard Lonergan points out,
"Arbitrariness is just another name for unauthenticity." (Method 122)
As much as I try to write about other things, I keep running into the same conclusion: a lot of the inauthenticity one finds in the Christian tradition is rooted in circular reasoning. Which is odd, because the fallacious nature of circular reasoning is so easy to grasp.

Why does it persist, in Christianity in particular, to such an extent? Is it just wishful thinking? That's a big part of the story, undoubtedly. But what does one do about that?

I have some thoughts about that, but I'll talk about that later.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

You raise a lot of really good questions.

Authority on religious matters has always been based on circular reasoning. I love it when people turn to the passage in Timothy that says that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching and use that to base an entire doctrine of biblical infallibility. Even aside from the fact that the passage was written before the New Testament was fully canonized, and aside from the fact that "inspired by God" and "useful for teaching" does not equate to infallible, the real circularity of using the Bible to prove its own infallibility is so glaringly obvious that I have to laugh whenever anyone tries to use that argument.

I think the question of ancient doctrines being somehow more true than newer ideas that might contradict them is really an interesting one. The Catholic Church, for example, claims that it never contradicts itself--apparently to admit an earlier error would call into question its entire basis for authority (but Hans Kung has cited an example where the church blatantly reversed itself, namely the doctrine that "there is no salvation outside the church".)

When you base a theology on an authoritarian approach, then earlier theologies can't be wrong, because that would open everything up to free inquiry.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

"Arbitrariness is just another name for unauthenticity." (Method 122)

It is quotes like this one above that actually support the existence of dogma. What else keeps you from complete arbitrariness? Dogma.

A big problem with authenticity is that often people start off with certain assumptions. They assume Christianity was better in the early days, or that which is biblical is most authentic. You have others who value what the church decided in the ecumenical councils before all the major split offs. Others value where the church is in the here and now. How do you pick?

So there lies a bigger problem of authority. Is it the Bible? The ecumenical councils? The pope? The Church? Historical scholars? Scientists? And what if no person or structure has authority? Then what? I'm not talking about "authority" in some strict, disciplinarian sense, but just in terms of who can say anything definitive about anything? How is that recognized and how is that supported by the community?

It is my belief that as time goes on, progressives will come to a better appreciation for traditional Christianity, as things like dogmas which seem so ridiculous and which we all hate are actually unavoidable. I appreciate that people have questions, I do, too. But you can't be nowhere forever. At some point, you gotta go somewhere. I think you need dogmas for that.

8:41 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Seeker,

Authority on religious matters has always been based on circular reasoning.

I would say often -- maybe even usually -- but not always.
Apart from that, I agree with what you wrote.

Frank:

What else keeps you from complete arbitrariness? Dogma.

I disagree. A dogma, as I understand the term, is an alleged "revealed" truth that one is expected to accept unquestioningly on the basis of authority rather than, say, evidence.

In other words, one is required to believe it whether one finds it reasonable or not. If the judgment is made on anything other than the basis of reason, then it is arbitrary. That's what arbitrary means.

It is my belief that as time goes on, progressives will come to a better appreciation for traditional Christianity, as things like dogmas which seem so ridiculous and which we all hate are actually unavoidable.

Judging from your comments, I suspect you understand the term "dogma" very differently than I do. To say that someone would be "nowhere" without them makes absolutely no sense to me. Perhaps you mean people need some foundation upon which they base their judgments?

In a previous entry ("On the Need for a Critical Theology"; see the link at right), I discussed the problem of asserting that a doctrine can serve as the foundation of a person's belief system. I would be interested in hearing your response to that, actually.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

Right now, my thinking concerning dogma is that it gives us a starting point to think about, discuss and meditate on, and the truth is revealed to us from within. The truth may be different than literal words of the dogma. Dogma helps traditions endure.

And traditions bring us together so we help each other understand God, because none of us has all the answers by ourselves.

Proverbs 27.17: Iron sharpens iron,
and one person sharpens the wits of another. (NRSV)

9:20 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Prickliestpear:

I’m at a beginning stage of understanding the role of dogma in religion. My suspicions are that it is not just the evil, harsh authoritarian arm of orthodoxy. I think it has a range of meaning, of which yes, there are the authoritarian folks, but that is not the only expression of dogma. Its like all Christian are not fundamentalists, well all dogma is not all . . . dogmatic. Progressives in general run screaming from anything that resembles dogma, and sometimes that is based on some harsh life experiences they have had, and I appreciate that. But I’m trying to look down the road a bit and I see that dogma may serve a real purpose. A faith movement at some point is going to have to define itself, and I don’t know if there is a way to avoid creeds and dogmas.

So yeah, I think we have different definitions of dogma. I see dogma as the handed down wisdom and traditions, but with a certain rigidness. I’m okay with that. They shouldn’t be in constant flux. However, they should be flexible enough to evolve when needed, but not at the whims of individuals but as a community acting together over time.

Maybe Phillip said it best in the comment above with “iron sharpens iron.”

My comment about arbitrariness has to do with the way many modern progressives have very little established in their faith. It seems that everything is very wide open, no beliefs, dogmas, rituals or anything, just an appreciation for pluralism and some vague sense of a God. So then what is a progressive? I wonder if progressive theology is really a movement of theolgy at all, and not rather a movement of the natural sciences to adapt religion in light of modern science. In other words, the axis point is really about 95% science (i.e. reason) and about 5% faith, not some equal blend of reason and faith, like Aquinas recommended.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Prickliestpear:

Thanks for your link to your post "In the Need for a Critical Theology." I need some time to think on that.

I wrote a piece on the role of the self in theology and I ended up with quite a different viewpoint! I think that dogmas and a faith tradition allow us a chance not to make the self the supreme theologian, even though everything we think and do gets filtered through the self and our personal frame of reference. (Ratzinger's book on Eschatology does a great job talking about this... I don't always agree with him, but this is an excellent book no matter what your political stance is).

So I agree that the self is critical to the process, but that we should work to transcend it. A lot of people begin and end their faith journey based on the self, and that would be a very short journey. If someone just looks at the word and just sees what they see and does not try to see it the way someone else has seen it, then that is very limited, in my opinion. That is why we need scholarship and faith traditions.

My post is:

http://franklesko.blogspot.com/2008/05/challenge-for-progressive-theology.html

1:23 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Frank:

My suspicions are that it is not just the evil, harsh authoritarian arm of orthodoxy.

I wouldn't say that, either, actually. A dogma, in itself, is just a proposition. There is nothing wrong with people articulating and expressing what they believe.

My problem is with the way dogmas have been used in the Christian tradition. They have been emphasised to such a great extent that, to many people, a person's acceptance or rejection of Christian dogma is considered the sole determinant of the eternal fate of his or her soul. If people want to believe that, and call it "Christianity," they are quite free to do so.

But this emphasis of dogma is hardly consistent with the teachings of Christ (the correct understanding of which being the norm by which the authenticity of a Christian tradition is to be judged, as I understand it).

If the preoccupation with dogma was simply "added on" to the teachings of Christ, and if the promulgation of said teachings survived this process, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But in actual practice, the emphasis of dogma has meant the de-emphasis (and distortion) of Christ's actual teachings. So while most Christians will probably tell you that Jesus was conceived by a virgin, many (if not most) would be surprised to hear that the central theme of his message was the kingdom of God, and not himself. Most would be equally surprised to hear that the kingdom of God has nothing to do with the afterlife. That, in my opinion, is a serious problem.

A faith movement at some point is going to have to define itself, and I don’t know if there is a way to avoid creeds and dogmas.

If by "creeds" you mean statements of faith that every adherent is required to accept, and by "dogma," beliefs that are required for salvation, then I would point out that many enduring religions have neither.

Please understand that I don't have anything against beliefs, per se. "Beliefs" are unavoidable. Telling people that their beliefs are going to determine the eternal fate of their soul, on the other hand, is what I have a problem with.

many modern progressives have very little established in their faith. It seems that everything is very wide open, no beliefs, dogmas, rituals or anything, just an appreciation for pluralism and some vague sense of a God.

That is certainly true. "Progressives," generally speaking, are people who have become aware of the flaws of their tradition and are striving for something better. This is always admirable, but does not always end happily. Some people end up in narcissistic new-age mushiness. Others find nothing, and stop searching. Looking for something better doesn't always result in finding something better. (I'll be writing something about that very soon, actually.)

There's nothing wrong with having a "vague sense of God." For many people, that's the most reasonable thing to have. I'd much prefer that someone have a "vague sense of God" than a very definite sense of the divine despot that so many people imagine God to be. Some people don't have much experience to draw from, and it's better that they stick with that, vague as their God may be, than fall prey to a tribalistic myth.

I wonder if progressive theology is really a movement of theolgy at all, and not rather a movement of the natural sciences to adapt religion in light of modern science. In other words, the axis point is really about 95% science (i.e. reason) and about 5% faith, not some equal blend of reason and faith, like Aquinas recommended.

I would strongly disagree with that, but that's too complicated to get into right now. I don't see "faith" and "reason" as discrete categories, which is something I'm going to be writing about very soon.

So I agree that the self is critical to the process, but that we should work to transcend it. A lot of people begin and end their faith journey based on the self, and that would be a very short journey.

When I say that the self is the basis for one's beliefs, I simply mean that we cannot avoid making our own judgments (and every belief involves a judgment). Many people think they are being humble in submitting to this or that authority. They fail to notice the undeniable fact that they have judged that authority to be legitimate.

The "self" that I'm talking about isn't something static. It's what you are.

If someone just looks at the word and just sees what they see and does not try to see it the way someone else has seen it, then that is very limited, in my opinion. That is why we need scholarship and faith traditions.

No one could make sense of the world (which is what I'm assuming you meant by "word") without first being socialised. We can never escape seeing things from within a cultural context. I am certainly not saying that we could ever be completely autonomous beings, because that's ludicrous. I'm simply saying that the act of judgment (of which every belief is constituted) ultimately lies with ourselves. If I believe x, it's because I have judged that x is true. It's not that my mom, or Father Bob, or the pope said to believe it. Those might influence my judgment, but the judgment is still mine to make, unavoidably.

Thank you for your comments, they were very thought-provoking.

4:21 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Frank:

BTW, I read your post that you mentioned, and I agree with much of what you say. It's not really on the same topic at all, in that you mean something quite different by the word "self" than I do.

When I say that the "self" is the basis of everyone's belief system, I'm simply highlighting the fact that we cannot avoid making judgments for ourselves. This doesn't mean, "I have all the answers, and nothing to learn from anyone." It simply means, "Even after hearing from others, I cannot avoid making my own judgment, whether I accept what they have to say or not." If I accept what others have to say, it's because I have judged that they are correct. There's no getting around that. What you're talking about is simply egotism. And I don't think this is something that afflicts progressives any more than conservatives. After all, most people only become progressive after acknowledging that their previous beliefs (and therefore judgments) were mistaken. Many conservatives remain conservative precisely because they are incapable and/or unwilling to consider that they may have been wrong. (Often, of course, they allay the fear of being wrong by ignoring the fact of having made their own judgments, and delude themselves that they are simply submitting to a higher, more enlightened authority. But one cannot do that without implicitly and simultaneously asserting one's own competence to recognise a more enlightened authority when one sees one. So much for humble submission.)

4:51 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Keep in mind I'm not demeaning the faith journies of progressives. I find myself with many of the same questions and often. However, I do think the repulsion to dogmas and creeds is shortsighted. Just like Reformers thought that the insitutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church was something to rebel against, but most reform traditions ended up with an institutionalized hierarchy of their own. Progressives are gonna end up with creeds and dogmas of their own, over time. Longstanding Churches don't always look pretty, but it is easy to judge them as flawed until you've walked a mile in their shoes. That's one reason why I hang on to my tradition--breaking away solves little and loses a lot.

I tend to fall into the group of people, like you say, who may not find anything better than what is already there. Not that we don't need reform--we certainly do. Good, critical theology and the acknowledgedment that doctrines evolve is part of that.

I think we may be more on the same page than it may seen, just a lot of definitional issues. My primary disagreement is the impression you give that dogmas are just arbitrary ideas that have no basis in reason which we are told to accept wholeheartedly with the penalty of hell if we don't. That is certainly how a lot of people sell it, and that is a problem. That is a fundamentalist approach. But all Christians aren't fundamentalists, so that argument doesn't hold against the majority of Chrisitan theology which isn't fundamentalist.

Take something like the Trinity, for example. There is no shortage of profound commentary on it. Maybe its a flawed theology. But to suggest that there is no good theology that supports it just means that a person hasn't done the reading.

As for the self, well I'm not sure why you think we're not on the same topic on this. I focused on progressives not because they are the solve group of people who fall into the trap of "egotism" as you say, but because they are in danger of assuming they are open-minded when they can be just as closed off as anyone else at times. I see this in politics a lot. American liberals often deserve the "elitist" label they are given. I am mostly liberal myself, so I say this as a critique of a crowd whose concerns I often identify with. People can often assume they are at a higher level than the people they disagree with, but a lot of times all they are doing is showing how little they understand of the people they disagree with.

The way to get around egotism is to immerse oneself in a scholarly approach, consider the totality of the faith tradition and perhaps even go along with dogmas. This is where it connects to what you are saying. You are suggesting that we never get around the self when it comes to making these jugements, and that is true... but scholarship and tradition are ways to stave of egotism.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

pardon my spelling errors... the last line should read "stave off egotism" and earlier it should be "sole group of people", not "solve group".

8:58 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Frank,

Just like Reformers thought that the insitutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church was something to rebel against, but most reform traditions ended up with an institutionalized hierarchy of their own.

Actually, a lot of them started out with institutionalised hierarchies. They weren't, by and large, opposed to hierarchical authority, per se. The problem the Protestant Reformers had with the Catholic hierarchy (apart from the corruption) was the fact that it had set itself up as a mediator between God and man, and as far as I can tell, Protestant churches have been generally successful in avoiding that particular trap.

At any rate, it's a flawed analogy. It's true that Protestants rejected some things that later crept back into their traditions. One thing would be the authority of tradition. Though many Protestants pay lip service to the idea that scripture alone has authority, the fact is that sola scriptura is an extra-biblical tradition that rejects the authority of extra-biblical traditions. So while they said they were rejecting tradition, they never really were -- they were just rejecting one extra-biblical tradition-as-authority in favour of another. So it comes as no surprise that some things they rejected crept back into the traditions, because they failed to notice that what they thought they were rejecting was an inescapable element of religion.

Progressive Christianity, as far as I can tell, does not reject anything that can be considered essential to religion. Progressive Christianity is largely about de-emphasising the concern with doctrinal orthodoxy, which I'll get to in a moment.

Progressives are gonna end up with creeds and dogmas of their own, over time.

I doubt that. But it depends on what you mean by "creeds" and "dogmas."

If by "creeds" you mean "statements of faith," then you're right. If by "creeds" you mean statements of faith that every individual has to accept to claim membership in the church," then I think you're quite wrong.

If by "dogmas" you mean "beliefs," then you're right. If you mean "beliefs that one must accept on the basis of authority" -- an essential part of the traditional definition of the term "dogma," by the way -- then I think you're quite mistaken.

Both creeds and dogmas reflect a preoccupation with doctrinal orthodoxy (by which I mean "correct beliefs"). This preoccupation is due to the second-order belief in the salvific efficacy of "believing the right things." The rejection of this second-order belief is one of the hallmarks of Progressive Christianity, and there is no reason to think it will creep back in, because it isn't essential: it is, for example, absent in teachings of Jesus, the Jewish tradition out of which he emerged, and, for that matter, most other religions as well.

My primary disagreement is the impression you give that dogmas are just arbitrary ideas that have no basis in reason which we are told to accept wholeheartedly with the penalty of hell if we don't.

Historically, that is exactly what dogmas have been. If it's not that, it's not really a dogma, it's just a doctrine. Dogmas, historically speaking, were required beliefs, and the faithful were required to accept them not on the basis of reason, but on the basis of authority. My point is that, since the claims to authority have historically been based on circular reasoning (I'd love to hear a counter-example if you can think of one), and since there is nothing reasonable about accepting something on the basis of such an authority, doing so can only be arbitrary.

That they must be accepted on the basis of authority is what separates dogmas from other beliefs. That is exactly how the term has traditionally been used, at least in the Catholic Church. If you're not talking about that, then you're not talking about dogmas as that term has traditionally been defined.

"That is a fundamentalist approach. But all Christians aren't fundamentalists, so that argument doesn't hold against the majority of Chrisitan theology which isn't fundamentalist."

If that's a "fundamentalist approach," then historically, the majority of Christians have been fundamentalists, and probably still are. Maybe not in North America and Western Europe, but in the rest of the world, it's still very prevalent.

I focused on progressives not because they are the sole group of people who fall into the trap of "egotism" as you say, but because they are in danger of assuming they are open-minded when they can be just as closed off as anyone else at times.

Which is precisely what I mean by "egotism." Essentially what you've just said is, "not because they fall into the trap of egotism...but because they fall into the trap of egotism." By "egotism" I mean simply the failure to see one's own shortcomings (such as an unacknowledged closed-mindedness that, you're right, a lot of progressives fall prey to).

But this has nothing to do with what I was talking about when I was talking about the role of the "self."

Look at it this way: can someone believe something without themselves making a judgment that it is true? No. If I believe something, it is because I have judged it to be true, not because I am humbly submitting to some authority (as many Christians imagine themselves as doing).

That's all I meant. It is something that is invariably true of all people who believe anything, by definition (because to "believe" is to have made a judgment, inevitably). This is true whether someone is a supreme egotist or the most humble, self-aware individual on the planet.

The "self" is involved in every act of coming to believe something. The difference is, some people acknowledge this, while others try to hide behind the illusion of having submitted to authority, but without having exercised their own judgment.

The affliction you're talking about may well be more prevalent among progressives than conservatives (though I doubt that). The affliction I was talking about, which was not even my central point in discussing the "self," is certainly more prevalent among conservatives. No progressive would ever deny that they exercise their own judgment in believing as they do, while conservatives often deny this.

The reason is not difficult to see: Progressives simply do not have authority figures that they can pretend to have submitted to without having exercised their own judgment, while conservatives do.

Progressives don't have the option of pretending that this is the case, while conservatives do have the option, and many of them exercise it.

5:11 PM  

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