Follow by Email

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Tradition and truth

One of the positive intellectual developments of the past few decades has been an increasing appreciation of the role of tradition in our apprehension of truth. This awareness has even affected our understanding of scientific progress. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has argued that science proceeds not by an obvious and inevitable overcoming of error by objective truth, but rather through a series of "paradigm shifts" in which previous frameworks for interpreting the universe undergo crisis and are replaced by new paradigms. The old paradigms are not necessarily false--they may explain certain things better than the new paradigms do. Scientists abandon one paradigm for another in an often wrenching process which Kuhn describes as a "conversion." They experience more and more phenomena which the old paradigm cannot explain, and if these are frequent enough and important enough (for their particular purposes) they eventually feel the need to "convert" to the new paradigm, even though this may mean losing the ability to explain certain other phenomena.

This understanding of intellectual development fits in well with the view I've been defending in my previous discussions of "relativism" and "soft rationalism." It does not claim that there is no ultimate truth--simply that our access to that truth is necessarily limited and contingent. We only have access to the truth via certain paradigms which necessarily limit our perspective. Yet we cannot escape into an unlimited, unmediated vision of the truth--not in this life at least.

It follows further that we have access to the truth only via particular traditions, and that we come closer to the truth the more deeply we root ourselves in the understanding of the world given us by our particular tradition.

But it follows further, if we adopt Kuhn's basic approach and apply it to religious truth, that it is possible for us to undergo a "conversion" to a new paradigm. It may be that our former paradigm becomes unworkable and we find ourselves compelled to take the wrenching step of abandoning it for some other way of approaching the Truth. This is precisely the question faced by those of us who are concerned with the current direction of the Episcopal Church. Is the crisis faced by ECUSA, and by mainline Protestantism generally, sufficiently acute that we are obligated to abandon our current paradigm?

Of course, there are various ways of defining a "paradigm," and for many of us denominational affiliation may not be the primary source of our religious paradigm. The paradigm under which I've been operating for the past few years is best described as "ecumenical Protestantism." That is to say, I see myself as a member of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and I see all baptized Christians as being similarly members of that Church, although in varying degrees. I acknowledge the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, but I do not believe that he or any other office or structure within the Church enjoys the charism of infallibility. I am unwilling to say, as both Catholics and Orthodox say, that Protestant sacraments are in some qualitative way less valid than those of the churches enjoying apostolic succession. At the same time, I do not see myself as identifying with some unified reality called "Protestantism" over against Catholicism and/or Orthodoxy. Indeed, on most specific issues where Catholicism and Orthodoxy agree over against Protestantism, I believe Protestantism is wrong. (This is Pontificator's Somethingth Law--I forget exactly which but I think it's Third.) The major exception to this, of course, is ecclesiology. Catholicism and Orthodoxy agree in denying Protestantism full ecclesial status. This is the primary issue that marks me as a Protestant, however "Catholic" I may be in other respects.

And, of course, it is this understanding of the Church that is currently threatened. Because of the impending (or should I say current?) split in the Anglican Communion, I find myself in a situation of radically conflicted loyalty. My denomination, ECUSA, has taken a step condemned (rightly, as I believe) by the Anglican Communion as a whole--a step that furthermore increases our isolation from the tradition of the Church and from the majority of Christians worldwide (in particular, from both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, without one or both of which there can be no meaningful reunion of Christians). And yet, to side with one of the conservative Anglican bodies angling for recognition by the international Communion not only involves me in a local schism, but requires a deep loyalty to Anglican identity which I do not feel. I am not a cradle Anglican, and joined ECUSA because, from where I then stood (as an unaffiliated, nondenominational Christian of Wesleyan Holiness extraction), such a step was a movement closer to the heart of the Christian Tradition.

The current situation of ECUSA thus highlights my existing misgivings about the ecclesiological paradigm under which I've been operating. I am compelled to act in some way--to remain in ECUSA under current circumstances is an act equally radical as the act of leaving the denomination. My personal "via media," which has sheltered me for seven years, has collapsed over my head. I am forced to choose between reaffirming my commitment to my ancestral Protestantism (probably by joining the United Methodist Church), or taking the leap I've avoided so long and converting to Catholicism (or less probably Orthodoxy).

This choice presents itself to me in the form of two different approaches to the relationship between tradition and truth. I will explore these two options in subsequent posts.