Friday, August 7, 2009

Do We Need More Dialogue on Homosexuality?

A few days ago, in my post "What Has Rowan Williams Done?" I questioned the wisdom of endless "dialogue" over the homosexuality issue and ended by criticizing the position that a Church can include within it both those holding traditional Christiain sexual morality and also the modern revisionists who advocate the normalization of homosexuality. Because of the lack of clarity in what the Covenant process actually means for those in the "second tier" or "track" I closed with this paragraph:

If he literally means what he says here, then he is basically advocating the liberal position. The liberals want "diversity" during the interim period between when their revisionism is first accepted and the point where they acquire hegemony and can impose their agenda on everyone. It is difficult to conceive of a Covenant structure where any meaningful discipline has been imposed on TEC if all that is implied by signing or not signing the Covenant is "two styles of being Anglican."

A reader (David) commented as follows:

I recently read William's book on Dostoevsky, and it would probably be helpful to know that for him the inability to continue being open to dialogue is a mark of evil. He writes [p. 113]: 'if the Devil's aim is silence, God's is speech, the dialogic speech by which we shape each other.'

That doesn't excuse him, but it might go some way to explaining that what looks like an extremely high view of unity is in actual fact an even higher view of keeping dialogue permanently open, whatever the risk. [p. 132] ‘If we speak what we believe to be the truth - especially truth about ourselves - we must not be surprised if it is misheard or consciously distorted.

To enter into conversation is always to be in this sense at risk.’ Of course, you're right that doctrinal integrity is more important than unity though. I don't envy him at all!

David raises some interesting issues with regard to unity, dialogue and truth. On p. 113, Williams is discussing a Bakhtinian reading of Dostoevesky's understanding of truth. The sentence quoted represents Bakhtin's understanding of how D. views the role language in helping us attain truth. There are two ways of understanding and appropriating Bakhtin's theories.

1. On the one hand, we can take the approach of the legion of literary critics who, intoxicated by the postmodern relativism that we imbibe with the water these days, understand Bakhtin's observations of the polyphonic rather than monologic nature of Dostoevesky's novels as the denial of any authoritative authorial voice and even the legitimate possibility of such a voice. This is why Williams says: "So for D. in Bakhtin's reading, narrative is argument and argument is narrative." (113) Williams notes that Bakhtin labels as an "ideological approach" any suggestion that "separate thoughts, assertions, propositions that can by themselves be true or untrue, depending on their relationship to the subject and independent of the carrier to whom they belong." (112) Now, there is a trivial sense in which no proposition can be interpreted accurately in idolation; it is always the case that a proposition has to be understood in context. This is the first thing seminary students are taught about exegesis. But the question is whether Bakhtin is going further here and saying that truth cannot be expressed in propositions at all. (If so, that is a proposition and hence presumeably untrue or at least in need of qualification and modification through dialogue). The more pertinent issue, however, is whether Williams agrees with this view.

2. On the other hand, Kroeker and Ward, in Remembering the End: Dostoevesky as Prophet to Modernity, agree with Bakhtin that D's novels are polyphonic (many voices speak from their own perspectives) but they argue that "this does not preclude the orchestrating presence of the author." (150) For Kroeker and Ward, we should not look for D's view in the perspective of Ivan or the Elder Zosima or even in Alyosha, whom D. calls the "hero" of the novel. Rather, we should look for D's view in the way the whole of the book is arranged and in the interactions of the characters, not in the static view of one character at one temporal point. This, of course, makes the process of literary criticism extremely complex, but it does not necessarily imply (though it could and only study of the novel could determine this) that truth is non-existent, unknown or relative for D. It may be possible (and Kroeker and Ward think it is) to come to some conclusions about D's own perspective on the issues of God, faith and goodness. They write: "It is legitimate, then, not only to speak of the author's concern with the possible 'turning around' of his character, but also to see that concern enacted in the novel itself." (150-1)

Canon, Creed and Truth
The interesting thing for me in Kroeker and Ward's approach to criticism is that they see the narrative of the novel as indispensible for D. in communicating his perspective, yet they also see their critical work in summarizing D's perspective, as they understand it, in propositional rather than narrative form as legitimate. We have here a parallel, I think, to the relationship between the Gospels and the Nicene Creed. The Church has recognized the inspiration and authority of the Gospels (and the two-Testament Bible as a whole) and submitted herself to the sacred Scriptures as the vox Deus. However, the Creed has also been adopted as a brief summary in propositions of the true meaning of the Scriptures and is seen as also the work of the Spirit (although inspiration and authority cannot be claimed for the Creed since it purports only to be a true interpretation of Scripture and not sacred Scripture itself). Many complex points clamour for attention here. But I just want to focus on one.

The parallel between a true critical appropriation of the authorial intent in both D's novels and the Bible seems to me to be illumninating. The fact that the Church canonized four (rather than one) Gospels means that a polyphonic presentation of the life and teachings of Christ was seen as necessary for the Church. Then too, the narrative format, with many voices and characters interacting with one another, was seen as necessary to convey the fullness of the truth about Christ. On the other hand, in the face of heresies and distortions, the Creed with its propositional statements could be used to rule out certain distorting readings of Scripture. The Creed gets at the essence of the Scripture, but makes no pretense of expressing the fullness of Scripture. So Canon and Creed are both indispensible; Creed can never replace Scripture and Scripture cannot be read accurately in contradiction of the Creed.

So is Truth narrative or propositional? The answer would seem to be both. So is dialogue necessary to the discovery of truth? The answer would seem to be yes, but not totally open-ended and endless dialogue. The Canon was rightly closed after the death of the Apostles. Dialogue is necessary but not as an end in itself; dialogue itself is in service of the Truth and dialogue is not necessarily in conflict with truth stated in propositional form.

The Nature of Dialogue and the Issue of Homosexuality
Is dialogue an absolute? No. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: "There is a time for dialogue, and there is a time to refuse dialogue." Dialogue which pushes beyond the canonical text to indefinitely extend the discussion into the future with no resolution in sight (or with a resolution in sight that contradicts the essence of the Scriptural narrative as defined in the Creed) is not legitimate.

Is dialogue ever legitimate? Of course, it is. It can help us refine our understanding, help overcome misunderstandings, clarify the meaning of words, illuminate context, and help to avoid overlooking key aspects of the text. This is true both in literary criticism and biblical interpretation.

The important thing is to know the limits of dialogue. It can clarify the truth, but it cannot create new truth. This is the key point to consider when deciding if further dialogue on the issue of homosexuality in the Anglican Communion (or any other church) is needed.


Andrew said...

I think it would be helpful for conservatives to move on to discussing how they ought to relate to churches that have basically excommunicated themselves. What's the next step? Should we be trying to evangelize them? or...?

Craig Carter said...

In the early church, when a bishop was found guilty of heresy by a council the normal procedure was to depose him and install an orthodox bishop in that diocese in his stead. I don't understand why this has not been done with Pike, Spong, Robinson, Jeffert Schori etc. Anglicans are serious about trying to be catholic in the sense of being patrisitc, but not on this point it seems.

It was also possible for the heretical bishop to recant his heresies and be restored again. But it seems strange to me that Gene Robinson was never asked to step down - only that no more practicing homosexuals be appointed. This sort of compromise does not really allow for spiritual unity - only a superficial institutional unity.

David said...

The Church of Scotland has been in a similar position recently with the ordination of openly gay minister, Scott Rennie in Aberdeen. The General Assembly accepted his ordination, but then took the step of saying that there should be no more ordained homosexuals - and no discussion of it for another two years! Fortunately there is a grass-roots rebellion against this with 35 parishes uniting against the Kirk's stance of allowing the ordination of homosexuals under any circumstances. The story can be seen here:

I think that bishops who ordain homosexuals and even the homosexual priest him/herself see themselves as front-line soldiers in a battle against...what? Orthodoxy? A connection is made in their heads with the anti-slavery/civil rights movement, and other emancipatory movements of the last few hundred years. They think that history will vindicate them and prove to be on their side, making those who now oppose active homosexual involvement in the ministry look like those who supported slavery in the Church of England and were against abolition (I actually heard someone make this argument).
Regarding these American bishops though, I have heard that the TEC gives a lot of money to the Anglican Communion, which no doubt sways decision-making in Canterbury.

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