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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I believe about the Church--a muddled manifesto

A year or two ago, on my friend Chris Armstrong's blog (Grateful to the Dead), I got in an argument about whether there was such a thing as "mere Anglicanism." As a result, I started writing what I called "An Anglican Manifesto," laying out what I believe as an Anglican. A very disgruntled one, but as a Methodist theologian once said to my wife when she described me that way, "Is there any other kind?"

The problem was, though, that what I was writing didn't seem very Anglican. Well, that was the point in a way--that I don't think there is a coherent "Anglicanism." Still, this isn't so much of an "Anglican manifesto" as a "Catholic manifesto by an Anglican"--a statement of what I understand historic Christianity to believe about the Church, and the problems that poses for Anglicanism.

I've held this in the "drafts" section of my blog for a long while for various reasons. But here it goes:

1. There is one, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, to which all baptized Christians belong, but in which we all participate imperfectly due to our sins and errors.

2. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the form common to Eastern and Western Christians (that is, without the Filioque), is the basic doctrinal statement of the Church. Those Christians who do not subscribe to this Creed may fairly be described as heretics.

3. The Seven Ecumenical Councils, and generally the doctrines and practices commonly accepted during the first millennium of Christian history (which coincides with the doctrines and practices agreed on by the Christian bodies commonly known as the "Catholic Church" and the "Orthodox Church"), flesh out the implications of the faith defined in the Creed and are rightfully binding on all Christians. This body of faith and practice can justifiably be called "the Catholic Faith." To reject such doctrines and practices, or to adopt others fundamentally incompatible with them, is to reject historic Christianity and to render one's participation in the Church more imperfect than it would otherwise be. I will refer to such Christians as "unorthodox," to distinguish them from non-Trinitarian heretics. (What I'm calling "unorthodoxy" is traditionally considered heresy, but there are degrees of heresy, which I'm indicating by using two different words.) Ambiguity about this point--which is the case within Anglicanism, with some holding the position I've just described and others rejecting it--makes a particular church's claim to the title "Catholic" highly dubious at best, even in the absence of other factors.

4. Since the Reformation broke with the consensus of the Church as defined above, it was an unorthodox movement. Churches who base their identity on the Reformation are to some degree cutting themselves off from historic, orthodox Christianity, and ought to repent.That doesn't mean that all the doctrines and practices of the Reformation were wrong by any means, or that the Reformation was not provoked by serious disorders within the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. It means that the Reformation is to be judged by Catholic teaching as defined in the previous point, and not the other way round.

5. Although, as stated in point 1, all baptized Christians belong to the Catholic Church, the term "Catholic Church" or "the Church" is most properly used for that body of Christians which has preserved the Catholic Faith--that is to say, which has not rejected some part of it or adopted formally a doctrine or practice incompatible with it. Even within the Catholic Church as so defined, there will be much sin and error. Outside it, there are many holy Christians with much to contribute to the Church. (That's without getting into the question of non-Christians!) Nonetheless, there is a clear, qualitative difference between the Catholic Church in the strict sense and those Christian churches which have rejected some part of the historic Faith.

6. The consensus of the Christian tradition (as defined in point 3) holds that the Catholic Church can subsist only in one body of Christians. In principle, any division among Christians involves the sin of schism, and there is always one group of Christians not formally guilty of schism (even though many members of that group may have done much to provoke the schism, being sinful like everybody else). The only justifiable reason for separating from another group of Christians is heresy/unorthodoxy. If some part of the Church no longer teaches the historic Catholic Faith, then the rest of the Church needs to discipline the erring members. In the present state of the Church, that means that either the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church must be the body in which the Catholic Church (as defined in point 1) most fully subsists. Obviously there are a lot of problems with this conclusion:

a. Most obviously, there are good arguments pointing toward both possibilities (technically, there's also the "Oriental Orthodox" and the "Church of the East," but let's keep things relatively simple). So the poor ecclesiological inquirer is left in limbo, unless one just closes one's eyes and takes a leap, or finds a "smoking gun" to point in one direction or the other. For me, the importance of unity and communion, and the concrete evidence pointing toward the importance of communion with Rome, make the "Catholic Church" the most likely candidate for being, well, the Catholic Church. But on the other hand, the Orthodox seem on the whole to be far more, well, orthodox, preserving a theological method that is recognizably that of the Fathers, and free from the legalistic over-definition that plagues the Roman Communion.

b. Whichever of the two "candidates" one is inclined to choose, one is faced with the fact that "the Catholic Church subsisting fully in this communion" is a lot more abstract than one might like, to put it mildly. (Note: I'm using RC terminology throughout--the term "subsists" comes out of Vatican II--but the Orthodox, as far as I can see, use different language to say similar things, except for their ultra-traditionalist wing, which is admittedly much stronger than its RC counterpart.) Roman Catholics like to talk about "the fullness of the Faith." But it's pretty obvious to anyone not completely eaten away by triumphalism that there are plenty of legitimate expressions of the Faith not found in the Roman Communion, and that it would be pretty hard to introduce under present circumstances. While the Orthodox, in my opinion, have a much more compelling core set of beliefs and practices, they also have much less room for diversity (ironically), insisting that the Tradition hangs together in all its details. So the same problem arises--as my advisor put it, one can't be Orthodox and sing Charles Wesley (well, maybe a few "Western Rite" parishes do--I'm not sure). And whatever the fullness of the Faith may be, I'm pretty sure it includes Charles Wesley.

c. Similarly, on the negative side of the equation, while both the RCC and the EOs can make a case for infallibility (stronger for the Orthodox, but not completely unbelievable for the Roman Communion either, if properly nuanced), it's pretty obvious that both Communions, as historic institutions, have messed up royally on a number of occasions. And it's pretty clear to me that these failings aren't just the result of generic human sinfulness, but of attitudes and patterns of behavior characteristic of the traditions in question. The Orthodox do seem to have a particular propensity toward cultural idolatry, identifying the Faith with cultural traditions and giving far too much weight to civil authorities in Church matters. And the Roman Communion does seem to have a propensity toward "putting on the Ring," using the weapons of worldly power in its own right and putting the interests of the Church as an institution above the claims of the Gospel. Are either of these failings really compatible with being the Catholic Church in sense 1? Not just part of the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church in a way that excludes and supersedes the claim of other Christian communities?

If Anglicanism has any place at all, it is the space that exists between the competing claims of Rome and the East. Anglicans have no business arguing for a "mere Anglicanism" or staking out even a modest claim to Catholicity. Rather, we witness through our very existence to the brokenness of the Church. We ought to devote our energies not to defending our own claims but to admitting our own historic idolatry and witnessing humbly to the grace of God that exists even in what Ephraim Radner has memorably called "the ruins of the Church."

This is why I find Anglo-Catholicism to be a fundamentally mistaken project. Anglo-Catholics claim to be Catholic, and traditionally condemn Protestantism in terms that would make a modern Pope blush with embarrassment. But when it comes to addressing the errors of the Reformation, Anglicans need to admit that we have met the enemy and he is us. The same is true when addressing the juridical obsessions of Western Christianity (the Episcopal Church's present attempt to function as a religious equivalent of modern American democracy is no improvement over the Roman "tyranny" we are so quick to criticize) or the cultural captivity of the Orthodox (the Episcopal Church is largely a club of Anglophile snobs).

Our only "advantage" over other Christians is that we do not have to claim an advantage. We can admit to being orphaned Catholics, rootless Orthodox, petrified evangelicals. Instead of being the folks who have it right, we should claim to be the folks who know that we have it wrong. And even that does not give us an advantage. It's nothing to be proud of. In our brokenness and our disunion we bear witness to the crucified Jesus. But let's not kid ourselves. We could be in union with Rome or in full continuity with the historic riches of Orthodoxy and still be plenty broken. Precisely because our brokenness is what we share most fully with other Christians, we should not turn our admission of brokenness into a further excuse for separation.

This is my Anglican manifesto, which is neither very Anglican nor much of a manifesto. But it's where I am.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Religion and art--followup to a Facebook discussion

Yet again I return to this blog after a very long absence (the longest yet). I hope to post regularly, but we'll see what happens. At any rate, the occasion for this post is a recent Facebook conversation. One of my friends asked why Christians no longer produce great art. I replied that this wasn't entirely a fair generalization, but that the proportion of good art to "kitsch" probably is higher than it used to be, for the following reasons:

1. Both the Church and society in general are much more democratic and anti-elitist than they used to be, and
2. The elites are more secular than they were a few hundred years ago (maybe more so even than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, though that's a more dubious proposition.
So we have an elite "avant-garde" art that is largely secular; a pop culture whose movers and shakers are also largely secular but which has room for significant religious elements, often distorted and watered down by commercialism and the desire not to offend; and a Christian "subculture" (particularly among evangelical Protestants) that subordinates artistic standards to the demands of simple piety crossed with commercialism.

In this post, I'd like to expand and clarify what I meant by "kitsch" and how I think populism affects the production of art in modern Christianity (especially American evangelicalism).

First of all (not to rush in where angels fear to tread or anything), I'll define art. Art, as I use the term, anything produced by human beings which stimulates the imagination and thus causes us to experience reality in a different or more intense way. The peculiar virtue of art is its ability to transform our experience by uniting thought and feeling. The more radically it transforms our experience of reality, and the more profoundly it unites in itself the various other ways in which we experience the world, the greater it is.

A work of art is "bad" (aesthetically) insofar as it simply triggers an emotional or intellectual response without uniting and transforming our normal responses to reality. Both emotionally and intellectually, art can fail in two very different directions, either in the direction of excessive simplicity or excessive complexity. In both cases, bad art fails to stimulate the imagination in a transformative way, instead producing a response that owes its strength almost entirely to non-imaginative sources.

Emotionally, an excessively simple work of art appeals to one of the basic human emotions in a way that simply reiterates and confirms our non-imaginative response to reality. So, for instance, a bad love song does nothing to expand and transform the experience of romantic love. Someone who enjoys an unimaginative, artistically poor love song is doing so because the mere use of a crude formula pointing at romantic emotion is enough to awaken the emotion. Someone who enjoys a bad hymn or worship song, and feels closer to God as a result, does so because they already have pious emotions and enjoy feeling those emotions awakened and confirmed. As I use the term, "kitsch" is an excessively simple work of art that appeals directly to the emotions in this way.

Similarly, an excessively simple work of art may appeal directly to one's beliefs. Bad art is often didactic--that is, it simply reiterates what the hearers/readers/viewers already believe (or what they can be made to believe through non-imaginative means, including valid argument).

Therefore, a good rule of thumb is that art escapes the vice of excessive simplicity insofar as it can be appreciated by people not emotionally or intellectually well disposed toward its theme and/or argument. Great love poetry may be appreciated by people who have never been in love and do not want to be. Great religious art may be appreciated by atheists, or people of another religion, or simply people who don't agree with the particular theological claim being made. When James Weldon Johnson's God says, "I'm lonely, I'll make me a world," I recognize this as good art because I find it powerful and appealing even though I think I have very good theological reasons to reject the picture of God being offered.

But there is another kind of badness into which art may fall. An artist may seek so assiduously to evade excessive simplicity that he/she produces art which relies for its effect _solely_ on its complexity, on its failure to appeal to common emotions or accepted beliefs. Such art is in fact relying on the pride of its consumers: "this must be good because most people don't like it." In the case of religious art, a Christian with pretensions to sophistication may actually value a blasphemous or perverse work of art beyond what it deserves, even though it goes against the Christian's normal emotions and sincerely held beliefs. There may be atheists who similarly value religious art more than it deserves, but I have never met one.

Note that when I speak of "excessive simplicity" or "excessive complexity" I'm not claiming that there is some ideal level of complexity--indeed, I think simplicity and complexity are hard to define. I'm using the word "simplicity" to mean the direct appeal to emotion or belief, bypassing the transformative and unitive power of the imagination. And I'm using "complexity" to mean the avoidance of such a simple appeal--the deliberate choice of a tortuous path for the sake of an imaginative effect.

T.S. Eliot, reacting against what he rightly saw as the "dissociation" of intellect from feeling, attempted to reunite the two by means of deliberate obscurity, the use of unusual metaphors whose relationship to the emotions was remote and often paradoxical, and so on. C. S. Lewis ridiculed Eliot for comparing the evening to a patient etherized on a table. And in fact I agree with Lewis that this isn't one of Eliot's better choices. But Lewis was so hostile to Eliot that in my opinion he radically undervalued the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" taken as a whole. And Lewis himself was a much poorer poet than Eliot (not that this is a reason to discount his critical judgments).

The two errors--excessive simplicity and excessive complexity--feed on each other. The more anti-intellectual and simplistic the popular art of a culture is, the more deliberately obscure and self-referential and complacent its elite art will become, and vice versa. But kitsch and didacticism (using the word here for bad didactic art--in my opinion there is also good didactic art, but that's another conversation) are always going to be far more common than their counterparts. Not only are the cultural elites, who are prone to excessive complexity, by definition a minority of any society, but it is harder for even a member of the elites to fall into the vice of excessive complexity than it is for people who do not worship sophistication to fall into the vice of excessive simplicity. A highly sophisticated person may enjoy simple art more than its imaginative value warrants, although this will be experienced as a "guilty pleasure" (and really sophisticated people may make a point of enjoying "guilty pleasures" as a way of flaunting their sophistication, especially since the advent of postmodernism, since one of the perverse sophistications of postmodernism is the claim that artistic value is purely arbitrary). But most people are never going to be tempted to enjoy bad art that errs in the direction of perverse sophistication. The emotions awakened by bad art are emotions that even sophisticated people feel.

Hence, cultural sophistication does make it relatively easier to produce and experience great art. One of the purposes of a liberal arts education is to give people the tools (and habituate them to the effort) necessary to appreciate art that takes a somewhat roundabout path to the mind and heart (especially when the difficulty in appreciating a work of art arises largely from cultural unfamiliarity, as is often the case). And the more one learns to appreciate the great art human beings have already produced, the more likely it is (by and large) that one will produce great art oneself.

Therefore, even though plenty of good art has been produced by people who were not highly educated or among the elites of their society, a society that generally devalues elitism and sees democracy as a spiritual value is going to produce poorer art on the whole. And a religious community that deliberately crafts its worship to appeal to the "masses" will not, generally, produce great art.

I want to expand further on this concept of "deliberate crafting to appeal to the masses" and its relationship to commercialism and the mass production of popular culture. But this has already been a very wordy post.