Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ecclesiastical History and Ecclesiology

I went to an instructive open meeting of Ecclesiastical History Society at the cathedral yesterday afternoon—though not, perhaps, instructive in the way that was intended. It was the opening event of their conference, a round-table discussion by an Anglican bishop (a descendent of Dean Inge, John Inge, now Bishop of Worcester); the head of Churches Together in England, a URC minister named David Cormick; and the head of Blackfriars, Richard Finn, OP. The theme was 'What has Church History ever done for the Church?' What follows in no way does justice to what any of these participants said, but I am highlighting points for further discussion.

As one might imagine, the opening presentations were suitably anodyne, everyone bending over backwards to 'be ecumenical'. I sat there thinking how out of date it all was, how every important question was being begged. While the Anglican, sitting there in purple shirt and pectoral cross, dutifully mentioned the humbling aspects of church history, he clearly wasn't into making any adjustments in practical terms, or bringing up any embarrassing subjects (which is doubtless why he is a bishop).

The URC person spoke about church history having put an emphasis, especially since Vatican II, on churches' individual identities. I inwardly groaned. More on this in a moment. He took up the baton—the usual sort of ploy in these discussions where the most Protestant representative takes up the cause of the most RC—in defending Eamon Duffy and putting down Diarmaid McCulloch. Duffy is a good historian, but sometimes, in my view, there's just a bit too much of 'because it's Catholic it's better' (e.g., Catholic ice cream is better than other kinds of ice cream just because it's Catholic) about some of the things he says. This is an attitude that I have run into with Catholics everywhere, but is particularly pronounced in England where RCs still regard themselves (in a rather self-satisfied way) as the martyred minority. In fact, there are more practising RCs than Anglicans in this country. This speaker also deplored the side-lining of systematic theology, at which, again, I nearly groaned aloud. More on this in a moment.

Richard Finn, the Dominican, was actually the most impressive, laughing in rueful way that the Dominicans suffered fewer losses during the Reformation than anyone else.

Then the discussion was opened to the floor and after what appeared to be a planted question from a don from Cambridge, a woman stood up and asked the most wonderful awkward question. What is the relationship, she said, between ecclesiology and ecclesisastical history? Everyone gasped.

I nearly shouted for joy, because the elephant in this particular discussion was that every historian worth his or her salt knows that claims such as 'apostolic succession' as that is traditionally understood have absolutely no basis in history, nor is there any justification in the gospels for the sort of religious institutions we have today—and yet here were these professors, nodding and bobbing and weaving about each other as if it nothing were askew. This is the problem with ecumenism, and even more, trying to mix ecumenism with ecclesiastical history: for decades the discussions have been and are still being conducted on assumptions that absolutely no one who has even the slightest knowledge of church history any longer accepts. And as this knowledge is no longer confined to scholars and ecclesiastics, but is out there and available to the interested and discounted laity, the people conducting these discussions evidently have no idea how surreal their activities look to those not in the loop, or if they do, they think playing the game is more important. But the problem with this game is that they are playing with people's souls.

The impact of this awkward question created the most delicious moment. I really admired Richard Finn because he had the grace to blush; he turned beet red and was clearly embarrassed but in the best possible way; he knows the claims his magisterium makes have little factual basis or justification in light of the gospel. (I was talking to another RC scholar earlier this week who said teaching in the RC church is like living in Soviet Russia.)

Of course all the panelists talked around this awkward question; no one responded to it directly. I went over to the woman afterwards and thanked her; she and the people sitting nearby were talking about today's church as a construct of the context of the present, not really having anything to do with Christianity per se. This is one conference I would really like to sit in on but there's no possibility of that. What a great beginning—though probably not in the way the powers that be might have expected. I hoped beyond hope that they would see it as an opportunity to foreground what has been repeatedly shoved into the background.

This morning we had the proof of the would-be ecclesial pudding that refuses to acknowledge its ingredients and be mixed: after Matins the group bifurcated. On opposite sides of the cathedral, Anglican and RC Eucharists took place simultaneously, each making their own magic cookies. It was grace, surely, that dictated that the only moment the two liturgies were in sync was at the Our Father—in different translations, of course.

Lately I have been working on Pseudo-Denys (Paul Rorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols ... ), who says that our salvation is not in the elements but in the ever-deepening interpretation of symbols (a word that has far greater depth of meaning than the impoverished sense of today), and that the highest form of interpretation is without words. In light of this work, the events of yesterday afternoon and this morning were more than ironic, and very, very sad. I will be writing more on 'salvation through interpretation' in future posts.

A brief word about identity, systematic theology, and, by extension, methodology.

Identity: human beings are most themselves when they forget about themselves. We say to teenagers, 'Don't be so self-conscious: be yourself'. We are the last to know who we are; the self is not the construct we make in our self-consciousness; it is the truth that is continually unfolding in the directly inaccessible, far reaches of our minds/hearts, as I have been discussing in the current series of posts, and in my recent book Writing the Icon of the Heart. If churches really wanted to come together—and it's hard to believe that they do, for who is going to give up power, status, self-certifying authority and the self-perpetuating myths?—then they need to stop worrying about their identities. They need to start practicing the self-forgetfulness for the sake of the community that the Lord that they claim to follow teaches. This is a futile hope, as John 14 teaches (see the last paragraph of my most recent post): it is impossible for institutions or any system to behold—but the situation does not have to be as extreme a travesty as it has become. The problem is that those in power are so blind that they do not realize that they are skeletons at their own feast. If there is one truth I have learned in a lifetime's association with the Church and with Academia, it is that a single-hearted seeking of truth—and the acceptance of human finitude in the face of the elusive qualities of truth—is not high on the lists of priorities; and the humility required to undertake this task is almost unknown.

Systematic theology: Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest systematic theologian, was a contemplative. His systematic theology was an attempt to reconcile what contemplation taught and what the hierarchy wanted people to hear. It was, of course, an impossible task, as Aquinas himself recognised. More recent systematic theology has been done under the influence of positivism. Systematic theology is not only so last century, it is also completely antithetical to the content and methodology of the gospels. Systematic theology creates a hierarchy of linear thinking. It is two-dimensional. It fails to represent the religion based on beholding—in fact, it is entirely destructive to it. There has been uneasiness about systematic theology for years, but the problem is that the scholars and theologians, like hierarchs, cannot bear to give up total control. Controlling 'God' is so much exhilarating. Systematic theologians seem never to have heard of Gödel.

What Christianity needs is not more systematic theology but rather the development of a relational theology, a molecular theology, a theology that admits it can only gesture but that somehow is able to point to the global, inclusive and infinitely open character of Christianity. This would be an interdisciplinary theology that learns to be content with ambiguity and acknowledges the absurdity of ecclesial claims. To put this in McGilchrist's terms, all of the brain's tools for 'religious' processing are in the right hemisphere. By contrast, systematic theology precisely appeals to the simplistic, grandiose, repetitive and controlling views of the left hemisphere. In such a circumscribed, virtual theology there can be only absence. I have gone on about this at length in previous posts, so will not belabour the point here.

This brings me to methodology. To quote from the paper, 'Behold Not the Cloud of Experience', that will shortly appear in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England VIII (Cambridge, D.S. Brewer, 2012): 'It is folly to examine texts that teach contemplation [and I am convinced that many sayings in the gospels are doing precisely this, and that patristic and medieval writers understood them so] using the very system of thought against which they are written. To use a methodology that demands closure on a text that is leading the reader into infinite openness not only destroys it, but also locks the reader into lesser beholdings. [Privy Counselling 92/45-93/5 in Hodgson's edition]. This is a recognized problem in philosophy, and if philosophy, then even more ipsa philosophia Christus (LeClercq, Love of Learning..., p. 100). As Karmen MacKendrick notes:

"We still must use words; we still must draw out the questions that lie within philosophy. It is only that we have learned that we must use philosophy against itself, wrap our words around spaces without words, and leave them wordless, as if they could thus be kept, though we know that we lose them together with ourselves. [Karmen MacKendrick, Immemorial Silence (New York, 2001), p. 5.]"'


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How you made me smile! The thought of the two simultaneous Eucharists. Did the participants really not see how farcical it was? Farcical and very, very sad. Blinded as ever, by status, "interpretations" and fear.
It brings to mind a conversation I had a few months ago with a youmg Catholic priest.
I was raised in a Protestant, non-conformist home, but these days, the only label I wear is "Christian". My husband was born and raised a Catholic and like me, tries to live a truly Christian life, but outside of the Church.
For the last 38 years we have loved and supported each other through good times and bad. We have raised a family and cared for and nursed our dying parents together. But in the eyes of the Church we are unable to share that most fundamental sacrament, communion.
The conversation with the young priest focussed on this. He came out with the usual waffle - that the cause of Ecumenism has come such a long way, etc. etc. Then his justification for the RC church not sharing communion with other Christians, was that transubstantiation is a belief held dear to them and they are unable to deviate from it.
I was discussing this later with my husband, and asked him directly what communion means to him. His response was that in receiving the host, you are receiving the Body of Christ, but that it's not really the Body of Christ, just a representation of it.
I rest my case.

4:27 pm, August 19, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you very much for your comment. You might be interested in the account of how so-called transubstantiation came into being. There is a terrific account in a book called "Saving Paradise: How Christianity Exchanged Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire" by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker. Read the chapter called "The Expulsion of Paradise".

I think these two authors are really on to something, and that the need to justify the slaughter of the Saxons provoked a major shift that extended far beyond changes in eucharistic theology. The account of how Paschasius and Hincmar engineered some of it is absolutely mindblowing.

4:51 pm, August 19, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the book recommendation. I will try to get hold of a copy.
That is an interesting title. I also told the priest that whilst the churches are agonising over these things, there is a whole world out there crying out to know the love of God.

10:42 pm, August 19, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

This book does sound interesting.

There so often seems to be a lick of politically expedient in what ends up as dogma.

Transubstaniation was the idea most "responsible" for my refusal to take communion for almost forty years.

Perhaps it is a good time to ask for a reading list, a compilation of what you believe is really first rank reading of all the books on contemplation and silence and beholding ... ?

8:22 pm, August 22, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Changeinthewind: a tall order at the moment. If you look back through past posts you will find quite a few! I'll see what I can put together but I'm quite pressed at the moment! Thanks for asking.

8:46 pm, August 22, 2011  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Ahh. Please dont worry about it as I have been building just such a list as you suggest!

I was thinking more along the line of your "top ten" books.

Do you get out here to the Pacific NW much any more or have any plans to come out this way and speak?


1:55 am, August 23, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Changeinthewind:

My top ten books changes every few days!

As to coming to the Pacific Northwest, thanks very much for asking.

I now live in England, and at the moment have no plans to travel anywhere. Occasionally I receive invitations to speak, and if there is enough interest I can put all of you in touch with one another if you care to arrange something.

If you want to contact me privately, please make a comment that begins DO NOT POST. As I moderate all comments, your email address will not be posted on the blog.


6:14 am, August 24, 2011  

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