Author Archives: Mike Higton

Disagreeing about Marriage

As you might possibly be aware by now, especially if you’re a member of the Church of England, there has been some fuss about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage over the past few days.

That guidance was published on February 15th, and was followed by a flash flood of reaction from all sides.  If you want to explore those reactions, get your waders on and head over to the  Thinking Anglicans blog, where they’ve been collecting links.

In amongst all this, there has been one very specific bit of fuss which has been dominating my Twitter feed , because it involves quite a few of my friends and colleagues.

It arose in this way.  The Pastoral Guidance contains the following paragraph:

9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

This prompted Linda Woodhead and others to raise a question about whether this was historically accurate.  After all, they said (quite rightly) haven’t civil law and church teaching diverged before?  There was a divergence over the question of marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, and again over the remarriage of divorcees.  Doesn’t that make the Guidance’s claim inaccurate?

Linda raised the question first on Twitter, then in email correspondence (for which see here and here), and finally in a formal letter, signed by 24 academics, including several heavyweight church historians.  And the raising of these questions, and the Church’s response, have generated a torrent of comment and discussion.

 

Mutual Incomprehension

The more I have thought about these exchanges, the more it has seemed to me that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension at the heart of them.

Of course, you should immediately distrust me when I say something like that, because it involves me pretending to an airy overview, as if I can see more clearly and truly than all those poor saps down in the trenches – and because it might allow me to adopt an avuncular neutrality that refuses to make judgments about the actual arguments and evidence involved.  So let me say immediately that I am broadly with the 24 who signed Linda’s letter.  I think that paragraph 9 of the Bishops’ Guidance will continue to be misleading unless replaced with a more carefully qualified statement. And I think that it does matter, and that it would have been far, far better had there been a quick and cheerful admission of inadequate drafting, and the promise of a speedy revision.

I am  more interested, however, in trying to understand why such a speedy resolution of the issue didn’t happen, and why (if I am right) it was always unlikely to happen.  And, as I say, I begin to suspect that there is a case of genuine mutual incomprehension here – and the more I think about it, the more revealing I think it is.

 

Criticising the bishops

On the one hand, there is incomprehension from the side of the letter-writers as to how the House of Bishops could say what they said, and then fail to see that it needed revising once the error was pointed out.

To provide some context to this, look back to the ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England‘, published in June 2012, and note two things about it.

First, one of the fundamental criticisms of the proposed legislation made in that response was that civil and religious law are not separate institutions (‘The consultation paper wrongly implies that there are two categories of marriage, “civil” and “religious”‘), and that the legislation will have the effect of ‘introducing such a distinction for the first time.’  This claim is made in one of only two bold paragraphs in the central section of the response, ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’.  It has undeniably been, therefore, presented as a central argument in the Church’s response to this whole issue.

Second, note that in the opening of that section, the response states that ‘In common with almost all other Churches, the Church of England holds, as a matter of doctrine and derived from the teaching of Christ himself, that marriage in general – and not just the marriage of Christians – is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman.’  The word ‘lifelong’ appears right there in the general definition of marriage used in the report.

Now to Linda, to the twenty-four signatories of the letter, and to me, it seems perfectly clear from an examination of the relevant legal history that there has at times in the past been some kind of distinction between civil and religious law relating to marriage, and that when this has had to do with the remarriage of divorcees it  has had at least something to do with lifelong nature of marriage – and therefore with the ‘the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’.  It therefore seems perfectly clear (a) that anyone who wants to say that there has been no divergence in the past ‘between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England’ is going to need to qualify that statement quite carefully, if it is not to be misleading, and (b) that this is not a peripheral issue, but has to do with the strength of one of the pillars used to support the Church’s public response to the same-sex marriage issue.

If this is where you are coming from, the refusal to admit that there’s any problem with the wording of the Guidance, and the willingness to portray those making the criticism as mischief-makers seeking to score a cheap point for ideological reasons – well, that is bound to look like unjustifiable and brittle defensiveness, a form of leadership by bluster that refuses to take serious responsibility for the accuracy of what it says.  It is hard to see it as anything else.

 

Criticising the critics

There is, however, another side to this story.  I think that at least some of the response to this criticism  really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism of the Guidance looks like a wilful missing of the point – an attempt to create a fuss about a detail for the sake of calling into doubt an argument that does not materially depend on that detail.  I think it really does emerge from a vantage point from which this criticism looks like deliberate mischief-making which is itself barely honest or at least lacking in integrity.

To get the clue to this, look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance.  The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point.  The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point.

 

Where next?

I have already said that I’m not a neutral observer on this.  I fall quite firmly into the former camp.  I think the Guidance contained an error, the error mattered, and that the document should be revised.  I think that the response to the criticism has been a damaging PR own goal.  But I think that very fact gives me an obligation to try to understand the point of view from which this could genuinely and obviously look like irrelevant mischief-making.  I’ve only gestured towards that understanding below; doing the job properly is going to take a bit more time.

So, in the next post, I plan to dig a bit more deeply into that 2012 ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation – “Equal Civil Marriage” – from the Church of England’.  It’s not the only document I need to examine, but it’s not, I think, a bad place to start.  And I’m going to look a bit harder at what it says about the complementarity of men and women, because that, I think, is the issue right at the heart of our current disagreements.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 20: Barth’s sensibility

[T]he decision as to what is or is not true in dogmatics is always a matter of the divine election of grace.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 21.

So, I’ve come to the end (I think) of my posts on §1 of the Church Dogmatics – which is all that I originally promised to do.  The jury is still out on whether I’m going to carry on into §2…

Most of what I have read so far I have found very congenial – so much so that there must be a good chance that I am reading my own views into Barth’s prose.  The idea of dogmatics as a reparative discipline that begins in media res, that stands under discipline and under judgment, that is determined by attention to the criterion to which the church points, its Lord – all that makes sense to me, and is what I would want to say of myself, to the extent that I too am a dogmatic or doctrinal theologian.

And yet – there’s something less easily assimilable here, for me.  I don’t think I can put it any more precisely than to say that Barth’s whole conception of dogmatics is embedded within a certain spirituality – by which I mean that it is embedded within a certain deeply felt construal of the nature of the Christian life, of what the church is about.  That construal is focused on election and assurance, on divine decision, the spoken promise, and our response in trust.  I don’t mean to say that this spirituality is prior to Barth’s dogmatic exploration, simply that there is a coherence between his conception of dogmatics and this theological sensibility.  Barth’s dogmatics is one part of a settlement that has this overall flavour to it.

It is, I suggest, precisely because Barth’s conception of dogmatics is so thoroughly, so seamlessly embedded in this spirituality that he can take it as read that proclamation of the Word is the heart of the life of the church, and that the content of the preaching of God’s promise in Jesus Christ is the primary subject matter of dogmatics.  And so it is only because his conception of dogmatics is so deeply embedded in this particular Protestant spirituality, this particular flavour of soteriological imagination, that he can practice the relative abstraction of content that gives his work its dogmatic character.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing.  But I think I do need to ask what happens if one is operating with a different spirituality, a different soteriological imagination, a different church?  Dogmatics, after all, if it begins in media res, cannot begin within an invented church, an ideal church constructed from first principles.  Precisely if I am to follow along the dogmatic path Barth has set out here, I have to take seriously this question about the difference between my own ecclesial context and his.  And in my context, I don’t think I can pursue a dogmatics in which proclamation can have quite such an untroubled supremacy, in which the doctrine of the Word is the obvious starting point for dogmatic reflection – or a form of dogmatics in which there can be quite so clear an abstraction of conceptual content from ecclesial practice.

 

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 19: Depending on Grace

Hence, if we say that dogmatics presupposes faith . . . we say that at every step and with every statement it presupposes the free grace of God which may at any time be given or refused as the object and meaning of this human action. It always rests with God and not with us whether our hearing is real hearing and our obedience real obedience, whether our dogmatics is blessed and sanctified as knowledge of the true content of Christian utterances or whether it is idle speculation.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p.18

I remember my bewilderment the first time I read this.  Was Barth saying that one day God might decide that the Nicene Creed was no longer going to be true, and another day decide to go the whole hog and decide that all statements about God being triune are wrong? Was Barth imagining a shape-shifting God, arbitrary and capricious, who each morning decides what will be true of him?

We could only take this to be Barth’s meaning here if we understood the task of dogmatics to be the production of accurate descriptions of God – of texts that, in and of themselves, successfully refer or correspond to God. If that were the case, a claim about the truth of dogmatics would be a claim about a relationship between the text, or the text’s content, and God.  But dogmatics doesn’t deal with descriptions in the abstract; it deals with the church’s speech – the church’s life as its speech.

The fundamental task of dogmatics is to ensure that the church in all its speech places its trust in God and not in itself.  But the same words that, spoken yesterday, were a lively protest against some way in which the church has been trusting itself might today have hardened to become part of our self-protection.  Think of my previous two posts (here and here).  Yesterday’s necessary protest against a focus on religious feeling, a focus that had placed the church in judgment over the gospel, might become today’s failure to allow the whole person to be caught up in response to the gospel – and might conspire in making us theologians feel like we are capable of an intellectual mastery of that gospel.

This is why Barth, a little earlier, could say that ‘dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’ (16).  In dogmatics, identical repetition of what we have heard is always in danger of being a betrayal of what we have heard.

The prayer that accompanies dogmatics is, therefore, not prayer to a capricious God, asking that today that God might deign to smile on our descriptions.  Nor is it a prayer for arbitrary and fickle inspiration – a miraculous ability to guess today’s divine password.  It is, rather, a prayer to be shown – and to be shown truly, by the one who sees truly – where our trust, our faith, has curved in on itself, even when we have not changed our words.  It is, in other words, a prayer to hear the judgment under which we stand, and be shown how to respond.

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Surprising Emotional Sense

Frances Spufford’s book Unapologetic (subtitled Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, and published by Faber and Faber in 2012) is wonderful.

My paperback copy has a puff from John Gray on the front, saying that it is ‘a rare book, a book that carries conviction by being honest all the way through’, and that seems about right to me – though I recognise that I might be being swayed by the deep, almost eery familiarity of the voice in which it is written. One of Spufford’s earlier books, the equally (though differently) wonderful The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading (Faber and Faber, 2002) perhaps explains why: it shows that he and I grew up reading many of the same things (at least until our teens), captivated by the same stories and the same worlds. One recurrent emotion I had when reading Unapologetic was therefore jealousy: I would finish a passage and think, ‘Damn, I wish I’d written that – and I would have done, too, if it hadn’t been for your peskily slipping in first.’

There is one central respect, though, in which the book charts territory unfamiliar to me. And it is not exactly a minor facet of the book. It is the very fact that Spufford explores the sense that Christianity makes, the sense that Christian belief and practice make, by focusing on the patterns of Christian feeling, of sensibility, of emotional experience.

Now, I grew up in a charismatic church; I was (and in some strangely metabolised ways still am) a charismatic. The idea that faith was meant to be emotionally involving, sometimes emotionally overwhelming, was axiomatic for me and for those around me. But I have since been trained in forms of theological thinking and writing that don’t habitually look in this direction.

On the one hand, I work in the shadow of Karl Barth. Barth was resolute in his insistence that the truth of the Gospel is not determined by whether or not it makes emotional sense to us. Faced with the generation of his theological teachers lining up in support of the Kaiser’s aims in the First World War, and justifying that support, at least in part, on the grounds of the deep emotional sense that it made – the strange stirring of their spirit, the deepening of their prayer – Barth barked ‘No!’ We cannot (as I was saying in my previous post) use the ability to satisfy us emotionally as a criterion for the success of our interpretations of God’s Word. That Word can and does come to overthrow, to cast down, to devastate. For all we know, the expectations and habits of our emotional life may need to be derailed and led to disaster before we are in a position to hear God’s ‘Yes!’ And although Barth insisted that the whole of our existence, intellectual and emotional, is caught up in this process, in both the No and the Yes, his tendency was to focus not on what happens in us but on the Word that brings it about. And so those of us theologians who bob about in his wake have tended to be nervous of a renewed focus on the emotional sense that Christianity makes, for fear of making that emotional sense once again the criterion for the Word, rather than allowing the Word to be the criterion for the emotional sense.

On the other hand, I work in the (shorter) shadow of George Lindbeck. Lindbeck (for complex reasons that I have had fun exploring elsewhere) spoke out against what he called ‘experiential expressivism’: the idea that what is basic about Christianity, what provides its continuity, is a flow of deep religious experience – such that the doctrines, the appropriate interpretations of the scriptures, the institutional forms of Christianity should all be understood as attempts to express that experience and allow it to shape our whole existence. Lindbeck spoke in particular against the idea that the religious experience in question is one flavour, one culturally particularised form, of a universal human possibility – such that our thinking about Christianity must reckon with a fundamental hierarchy running from universal human religious experience at its pinnacle, down through that experience’s particularised cultural forms in the various religions, and so on down to the doctrines, practices and institutions in which that experience is inadequately represented. Lindbeck argued, instead, that on the whole the practices and doctrines of Christianity shape a distinctive landscape of religious experience, and that it is a mistake to structure our accounts of Christianity around the idea of a common pattern of human religious experience. The only way to understand Christianity is by way of thick description of its particularity, not by establishing an account of universal human possibilities first and turning to their particular actualisation in Christianity second. And, once again, although this account is one in which ‘experience’ still features, the tendency for those of us floating along behind Lindbeck has been to place our focus elsewhere.

(And, yes, of course there are exceptions and countervailing tendencies – in Barth and amongst Barth followers, and in Lindbeck and amongst his followers – to this tendency to face away from ‘experience’, from affect. Lindbeck’s colleague and postliberal co-agitator Hans Frei, for instance, turned in the last years of his life to thinking about religious ‘sensibility’, and the forms of description appropriate to it. But I digress.)

Spufford’s book, it seems to me, does not need to be cut by any Barthian or Lindbeckian censor. It is, precisely, a thick description of a learnt pattern of experience, a discovered landscape of emotional sense. Spufford does not say, ‘You, dear reader, already feel in such and such way; do you not see how you could, with an extra push, come to feel in this Christian way too? In fact, do you not see how, deep down, you already do feel this way?’ His book is (look at the cover!) not an apologia. Rather, it is an invitation to the reader to explore and to understand the landscape of his, Spufford’s, Christian experience, and to see what sense it makes, how it hangs together.

Yes, Spufford is concerned to explain how this way of making emotional sense is more interesting and complex than his readers’ caricatures may have allowed them to recognise; yes, he is concerned to say ‘Come on in, the water’s – well – bracing!’. But that is no different from the work another writer might do to display the internal intellectual sense that Christianity makes: the ways in which its ideas hang together. The latter author might, of course, make use of all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of understanding that he assumes his readers already have, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new world of sense will be required of those who do become Christian. So, too, Spufford makes all sorts of ad hoc connections to the patterns of emotion that he guesses might make sense to his readers, for the sake of clarity and invitation, without claiming that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated by these means either, or that anything less than the discovery of a whole new emotional landscape will be required of those who do become Christian.

You can learn a new pattern of thinking, and be surprised by the sense it makes. In much the same way, you can as a Christian learn to make new emotional sense of the world, and be surprised by the sense it makes. That you can feel this Christian way, that I can feel this Christian way, is not evidence, any more than the fact that I have learnt to say the creeds with confidence is evidence. To think of it as evidence is to make a category error. I don’t think Spufford is saying (or I don’t think he should be saying) that the patterns of feeling he describes might be a more-or-less direct sensation of the divine, but might not, and that there’s no way of saying for sure. Rather, he is (or should) be saying that this way of feeling, of making emotional sense, is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that we Christians believe that this way of making emotional sense speaks truly – just as we believe that saying ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth’ is a way of taking the world to be God’s creation, and ourselves to be God’s creatures, and that it too speaks truly. We’re not dealing with evidence, but with a lived response, a learnt response to the gospel.

So, when Spufford describes his experience in prayer in church, as he introduces his discussion of God, I take that as a route towards understanding something of what the word ‘God’ means – just as learning to say ‘thank you’ in prayer, learning to sing praises, and learning to declaim the creeds are such routes. We learn what the word ‘God’ means by being involved in these Christian habits and discourses and patterns of feeling, and in the processes of learning to explore them more deeply. And we learn more deeply the more the whole of us is caught up in these processes.

And, yes, as Barth would insist: our learning takes place under discipline, and it takes place under judgment – but that’s a whole other discussion, and not one that need make me any less grateful for Spufford’s book.

 

Edited to clarify a couple of phrases and remove some typos.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 18: Dogmatics as an Act of Faith

[D]ogmatics is quite impossible except as an act of faith, in the determination of human action by listening to Jesus Christ and as obedience to him. Without faith it would be irrelevant and meaningless.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 17.

We’ve reached the third subsection of this first article of the Church Dogmatics on ‘The Task of Dogmatics’.  The first subsection, ‘The Church, Theology, Science’, established all the key themes that we have been exploring so far: theology as a reparative activity in the midst of the life of the church, under discipline and under judgment.

The second, ‘Dogmatics as Enquiry’, discussed in more depth the possibility and necessity of Dogmatics as a form of human enquiry: it is possible because God has indeed made Godself known; and it is necessary because our reception of or involvement in that knowledge is always questionable. That subsection, in other words, worked from the certainty of God’s revelation to the unavoidably human labour of dogmatic enquiry.

The third subsection, ‘Dogmatics as an Act of Faith’, treads the same path as the second, but backwards.  That is, it begins with Dogmatics as ‘a part of the work of human knowledge’ (p. 17), a work that requires ‘attentiveness and concentration, . . . understanding and appraisal’ – but then asks what it means for this labour to be completely shaped (‘determined’) by the way in which God has made Godself known.

In one sense, this third subsection adds nothing new.  To say that Dogmatics is an act of faith is to say no more than that it takes place under discipline and under judgment.  That is, it demands ‘obedience to the call of Christ’ – it demands the discipline of discipleship, of resolving to know nothing but Christ and hum crucified, of bringing all our speech and action again and again to the foot of the cross.  And it demands the acknowledgement that truthfulness is not in our hands, that ‘It always rests with God and not with us whether our hearing is real hearing and our obedience real obedience’ (p. 18), because our apprehension of Christ is always questionable.  To say that Dogmatics is an act of faith is to say again that its criterion is Jesus Christ, and its success in conforming to that criterion is not in its own hands.

Yet Barth runs through this argument one more time in order to make a specific point.  Dogmaticians have to take their position under discipline and under judgment – the position in which dogmatics is both possible and necessary – as the whole determination of what they do.  That’s what it means to do Dogmatics – and to talk about Dogmatics, Barth has to talk about the dogmaticians commitment to that discipline and their acknowledgement of that judgment.  And yet – the nature and quality of that commitment and acknowledgement must not themselves be taken as the criterion for the truth of what the dogmatician says.  That commitment and acknowledgment must not themselves move to centre stage.

A dogmatic statement is not true because of the depth of the commitment of the dogmatician. It is not true because it makes deep existential sense to the dogmatician. It is not true because it resonates in a heart shaped by discipline and open to judgment.  It is true if and only if it conforms to Jesus Christ – and the dogmatician’s commitment is precisely to take that alone as his or her criterion.

Barth says that he or she must do this ‘for better or for worse’ (p. 18), which I take in this context to mean that he or she must follow this criterion even if it leads to dogmatic claims that make less existential sense, that resonate less clearly in the echo-chamber of her heart, that make deep existential commitment harder and drier.  We must not, says Barth, make ‘the sensus, the human determination, the experience and attitude of the knowing subject’ into ‘the criterion of theological knowledge’ (p. 19).

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 17: The Dynamics of Repair

[D]ogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and the prophets said, but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 16.

In the previous post, I picked Nick Adams’ pocket in order to describe the ‘reparative logic‘ that drives Barth’s dogmatics.  In Barth’s exposition of the necessity of dogmatics (pp. 13–17) it seems to me that he describes two contrasting dynamics that shape the work of repair.

FIrst, there is the meditative dynamic.  Having described the church as finding itself ‘challenged to know itself, and therefore . . . to ask, with all the seriousness of one who does not yet know, what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’, Barth provides a small-text paragraph on the relationship between faith and understanding in Augustine and Anselm.  He cites Augustine’s description of the need to seek understanding of what we already know by faith, and then Anselm’s description of faith’s search for intellectus fidei, a ‘genuine intus legere [inward reading] of Scripture and dogma’ (p. 16).  He even cites with (qualified!) approval, Anselm’s ‘remoto Christo‘ method in Cur deus homo – that is, Anselm’s desire to understand, of any given component of the faith handed down to him, and in the light of the whole structure of that faith, why that component stands where it does.

Anselm’s method is nothing more than an extension of monastic lectio – a lectio that is explored by meditatio. I have written a little about this elsewhere:

To say that Anselm’s meditatio is a practice of articulation, then, is to say that it provides the passage between reading and composition, between the texts of lectio and the articulated texts of the Monologion, the Proslogion and the rest. And the tools of such meditatio are ‘the rules of logic and grammar’. They allow Anselm to ask of a difficult text, ‘Why this word here?’, and ‘How does this go with that?’ They provide a set of techniques and vocabularies of conceptual distinction and connection, by which the unruly, disorganized materials discovered by lectio can be categorized and strung into chains of connected argument.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm

Such meditatio takes the jumble of truths yielded by patient reading of Scripture and dogma, and seeks to order them, to see how they hang together.  In Anselm’s description of the composition of the Proslogion, it is clear that

The . . . disorder of his earlier conclusions distressed him, and he sensed or hoped that a further articulation—a more articulate articulation— of the fruits of his earlier meditation might be possible. Its birth was not without its labour pains: a ‘restless anxious mood’ of the kind that Carruthers says ‘was regarded in monastic circles as a common, even necessary preliminary to invention’—that is, to the drawing together of the materials sorted and stored by memoria into an articulated composition. The driving force of the meditation that gives birth to the Proslogion is this restless desire for unity, for economy or elegance in articulation: ‘one single argument’.

A Theology of Higher Education, p. 27, quoting Mary Caruthers, The Craft of Thought

The meditative dynamic that is visible here is a dynamic generated from within the materials of the inherited faith, as they seek to settle into a more economical configuration.  The meditative dogmatician is the servant of this settling.

This is not dogmatics in the Barthian sense, however, even if it might be the seedbed for a Barthian dogmatics, and the labour involved might be a precondition for a Barthian dogmatics.  The meditative dynamic to which Barth alludes in this small-print section (and which can make sense of much of what he says in this section, up to p. 16) is contained within a different dynamic – one that, for lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call a contextual dynamic.  Given the many uses of the word ‘contextual’, this is potentially very misleading, but I am simply trying to do justice to the word ‘to-day’ in the phrase ‘what Christian utterance can and should say to-day’.

The energy that drives a Barthian dogmatics is only secondarily the delight of articulation, of meditative exploration of what has been received.  Before that, the primary energy is the energy of judgment – the discovery today, in some particular context, that the church stands under judgment – that the source to which it points stands over against it and calls it into question.  Barth’s reparative endeavour begins with the discovery of a problem, a failure, a contradiction.  It begins by hearing (fallibly and partially, of course) a word of judgment.  Perhaps it would be better, instead of calling this the contextual dynamic of dogmatics, to call it the penitential dynamic.

 

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

 

Reading the Church Dogmatics 16: Reparative Logic

Dogmatics is possible only as theologia crucis, in the act of obedience which is certain in faith, but which for this very reason is humble, always being thrown back to the beginning and having to make a fresh start.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 14.

‘[B]eing thrown back to the beginning’ cannot mean that dogmatics involves clearing the table of all our inherited clutter, so as to start again with a clear and distinct foundation securely in our grasp.  In the next section of small print, Barth is going to expand on the point he makes here by expounding Augustine’s idea that ‘credere must precede intelligere‘ – that dogmatics seeks to explore and order what it has received; after that he will deny that dogmatics can take the dogmas of the creeds as its inviolable starting points, or that its real concern is ‘merely to assemble, repeat and define the teaching of the Bible’ (p.16).  This ‘back to the beginning’ is not a denial of the place of dogmatics ‘in media res‘, discussed in an earlier post, because the ‘beginning’ in question is not where we began – the original simplicity of our faith, or our initial religious experience, or our secure possession of the scriptures.  The beginning is Christ, and to be thrown back to the beginning is to be called to test all our faith against the criterion to which our faith points.

The logic here is reparative (to borrow some language from Peter Ochs via Nick Adams).  That is, Barth is not operating with a logic that starts from scratch, or starts from epistemologically secure foundations. For such a ‘from scratch’ logic, the existing network of our understanding can be dismantled until all that is left is the secure starting-point. The ‘start from scratch’ dogmatician can turn his or her back on the tradition – the ongoing history of negotiation – that precedes him or her, in order to begin again, with zealous purity.

With a reparative logic, however, the dogmatician begins (and can only begin) with what is in front of him or her, and then explores the level and kind of alterations that might be required in order to solve the problems that arise from within it – the ways in which, by pointing to its source, it contradicts itself or calls itself into question. The alterations that result might end up being quite small-scale – or they might eventually require rather dramatic reworking of the whole landscape of one’s belief. They may in time amount to transformations so thoroughgoing as to fool a casual observer into thinking that the dogmatician has indeed adopted the ‘start from scratch’ strategy, after all. A reparative approach, however, remains fundamentally different in its approach from a ‘start from scratch’ approach.   The dogmatician is repairing a raft on which he or she is floating – where the materials available to plug the leaks, and the tools that he or she can use to manipulate those materials, all have to be prised from the raft itself.

Barth’s line about being ‘thrown back to the beginning’ means, I think, both that dogmatics always turns to measure the church’s present language against the source to which it points, and that there is no telling in advance how deep the resulting repair might be.  Nothing, in principle, is ‘withdrawn from further enquiry’ (p.15).

 

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Men’s brains, women’s brains, and complementarianism

Let’s suppose I believe that God has made men and women biologically different, and that this simply and directly fits them for differing but complementary roles in society and in the church.

I don’t believe this. I really don’t. But let’s suppose I did, just for the sake of argument.

So let’s suppose, purely in order to give this idea some handy labels, that I believed that God has made men for focusing, and women for multitasking. (Feel free to substitute whatever other labels you prefer, that name the supposed biologically-derived differences between male and female aptitudes, that supposedly fit them for different roles.)

And then let’s suppose that I think that giving men social (and ecclesial) roles that require focus, and giving women social (and ecclesial) roles that require multitasking, is justified precisely because it does justice to the different biological constitutions that God had given them.

And let’s even suppose that I believe that there is something natural, something fitting, about pairings of men and women, above all other kinds of pairing, precisely because it means the bringing together of God-given focus and God-given multitasking – the bringing together of the complementary expressions of the God-given biological differences between men and women.

And then, finally, let’s suppose that I believe that the kind of research recently splashed all over the headlines – research showing the differentiation in brain structure between men and women – is true in an unproblematic way, and that it identifies precisely the kind of differences between men’s and women’s biological make-up that I have been talking about, and demonstrates that they are real, in a scientifically verified kind of way.

If I were to think like this, I would (I think) be well on my way to coming unstuck.

What the research appears to show, after all, is that men’s and women’s brains tend to differ. Even if we take it at face value, all this research shows is that on average men will have brains better fitted for certain kinds of cognitive task than women, and on average women will have brains better fitted for other cognitive tasks than men. Even if we took it on face value, this research would only allow us to talk about tendencies, about averages, about overlapping bell curves of likelihood.

Take any given man, and unless you happen to have picked the most extreme of the extreme, at the deeply eccentric far end of the male spectrum, you will be able to find women who are more focusy and less multitasky than this man. Similarly, take any given woman, and unless you have once again managed to hit the nether regions of the female twilight zone, you will be able to find men who are more multitasky and less focusy than this woman.

In other words, if I did think that people should be given different roles in society and in the church, and that the reason for this was that God had given different biological constitutions, and that these differences were the kind of thing captured by this research – if I did think, in effect, that people should be given different roles in society and in the church according to whether they were more biologically focusy or more biologically multitasky, this research would suggest that my ‘more focusy’ roles should go to both men and women and my ‘more multitasky’ roles to both women and men – just that the proportions of men and women would be likely to differ in each case.

And if I really did think that there was something fitting about pairing a focusy human being with a multitasky human being – that these pairings were for this very reason natural in a way that focus-focus and multitask-multitask pairings could not be – if I thought, that is, that they were natural because of the natural complementarity of the focusing and multitasking roles – well, this research would suggest that my ‘natural’ focus-multitask pairings were likely to come in male-male, male-female, female-male, or female-female varieties – just that I might expect somewhat more of them to fall into the male-female pattern than fell into the other three patterns.

I don’t think any of this, of course. But if I did, I think my views would be well on the way to unravelling.

* * *

What do I really think?

Well, in a discussion on Facebook with Ian Paul, I first commented on the way the research had been presented as identifying essential differences between men and women. I said, ‘Let’s take a large sample of people, divide the sample roughly in half, systematically treat one half very differently from the other from birth onwards in ways that we know will alter the connections their brains develop, and then see whether their brain connections differ at the end of the process… Well, what do you know!’

Then, when Ian asked whether I denied any ‘essentialist element to gender identity’, I said, ‘Amongst the many differences that shape the development of our identities, biological differences associated with sexual differentiation are bound to be important. But I do think you would have to be very brave to say we could reliably isolate those effects from others; and I do think that, given the ways in which our societies (and our churches) are still afflicted by disastrously simplistic nonsense about the different roles and treatment appropriate to men and women, I think we could probably do with exercising some caution in this area.’ [Quote corrected slightly for clarity]

I should perhaps add, given that I’ve just dropped his name into this post, that am not at all claiming that my thought experiment above captures what Ian Paul thinks. I’m pretty sure he has a considerably more complex view than the one I set out here.

 

Reading the Church Dogmatics 15: Theological Certainty and Academic Freedom

[Dogmatics] does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures.  It sees and recognises that this is given with the Church . . . .  It stands by its claim without discussion.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 12

It sounds like dogmatics begins with a denial of academic freedom – a ‘get out of criticism free’ card.

The first thing to say is: well, if it does, it does.  That wouldn’t mean we would have to abandon dogmatics, though might mean that it could not find a home in certain kinds of academic institution.

The second thing to say, though, is that it doesn’t.  If dogmatics is an investigation of the discourse of the church, measuring that discourse against its own criterion, then the existence and importance of the endeavour as an academic discipline is not dependent upon a demonstration of the truth of that criterion.  Indeed, the existence and importance of such a discipline could even survive a demonstration of its falsity (supposing such a thing to be intelligible).  The discipline does not earn its place in the academy only when it has convinced its academic colleagues from other disciplines that Jesus truly is Lord, still less when it has convinced them that they should accept such a claim without discussion.

What the discipline of dogmatics could not easily survive is the demonstration that the church it envisages did not exist, or that the discourse it pursued was not recognised in the church.  (The discipline itself might still survive, I suppose, as a form of prophecy – the imagining of a non-existent church in the hope that it might come into being – but it is hard to see how it could then find a home in academic institutions.)

In other words, what Barth says here about the ‘certainty’ of dogmatics’ criterion is not an illegitimate academic claim – because he is not using the word ‘certainty’ as it lives in the general discourse of higher education as a term bandied around between disciplines.  This is an intrasystematic proposal: an argument about how certainty should be spoken of in the church, in relation to faith.

 

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.

Reading the Church Dogmatics 14: In Media Res

Dogmatics as an enquiry presupposes that the true content of Christian talk about God can be known by man.  It makes this assumption as in and with the Church it believes in Jesus Christ as the revealing and reconciling address of God to man.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 12

Theology begins in faith that we have received the promise of God in Jesus Christ, that this promise is truly made to us. That is not a conclusion; it is not a judgment – it is simply the basis upon which Christian theology works. Barth does not ask here (indeed, he shows no interest here in asking) how we come to take this as our basis. If we do so take it, we are doing Christian theology. If we do not, we are not.

Barth is not interested in asking whether or not this is the right place for the church (and dogmatics with it) to look for discipline and judgment; he is not interested in asking whether or not the truth has really been given here. He does not, after all, think that we have anywhere to stand if we do want to ask those questions.

So when we say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and go on to ask whether we say it well, we are not asking, ‘Is it really Jesus who is Lord, or might we find another?’ Rather, we are seeking to be more faithful to the conviction that founds theology. That is (I take it) at least part of what it means that this standard is ‘given with the church’ (12): the church is, precisely, the communion founded on this promise.

I do not, however, want to describe ‘Jesus is Lord’ (or ‘Jesus Christ is the revealing and reconciling address of God to man’) as an axiom of our theological system.  I don’t want to suggest that this first claim (‘Jesus is Lord’) is fully in our grasp, and that our dogmatic task is to see what else it implies.  It is not, in that sense, a starting point.

Dogmatics does not have a starting point.

It always begins in media res, in the midst of things.  It begins its work in the midst of a church that already says ‘Jesus is Lord’ (and says it in some particular way – or, rather, a whole range of particular ways).  And it seeks to measure that church against the standard to which all that saying points.

Yet Dogmatics is only necessary at all because the church says this ‘Jesus is Lord’ inadequately – which means that the measuring work undertaken by dogmatics must be similarly inadequate.

All that dogmatics can do is take its stand on the church’s current ways of saying ‘Jesus is Lord’, and on the ways in which this speaking places the church under discipline, and then see what refinement and repair of the church’s present speech is demanded by that discipline.  To the extent that this leads the church to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ differently, it will also alter the form of discipline to which that speech points, and so alter the work that dogmatics has to do.  In other words: Dogmatics can only work with what the material it finds around itself; it cannot conduct its work of measurement with its feet planted on any foundation that could guarantee the accuracy and relevance of its work.

It would be tempting to say instead that the pursuit of dogmatics simply involves the trust that this process forms not a vicious circle nor a random walk but a spiral: that by means of this iterative asking and re-asking of the dogmatic question, with each iteration by itself inadequate, the speaking of the church can nevertheless be brought slowly but surely to more and more adequate ways of saying ‘Jesus is Lord’.  Yet, as I noted in an earlier post, even saying this would be saying too much, for Barth.  To use the language I used in that earlier post, theology takes place not just under discipline, but also under judgment – and therefore Barth can say that dogmatics must be ‘a laborious movement from one partial human insight to another with the intention though with no guarantee of advance‘ (12, emphasis mine).

 

This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.