Friday, June 18, 2004

Infallibility Considered Uninteresting

Infallibility arguments are mostly a waste of time. Oh, I suppose it's useful from a political perspective of suppressing endless battles within a denomination (do we need to hash out Arianism again? I didn't think so) but since the internet isn't an organization, infallibility on-line inevitably degenerates into a political battle over who "owns" the church (a subject I'll get to later).

When there's agreement, nobody cares about infallibility; it only matters if there is expression of doubt or outright disagreement. But in those cases it is ineffective as a defense of a line of argument. For the dissenter, the defects in the argument made are ipso facto evidence that the claim to infallibility is spurious. Thus, the recent attempts by some in the Vatican to claim that all papal bulls are ex cathedra infallible accomplish nothing except emphasize to outsiders how precarious some of them are. Most bulls which advance theological points do so through argument, and therefore are subject to the ordinary rules of rhetoric; the Vatican cannot really protect them from criticism, but can only refuse to listen.

The other point about infallibility on-line is that none of the usual respondents can actually claim it. I see no popes here, nor members of any magisterium. What we do is interpret what the (ostensible) infallible authorities say. These interpretations are not protected by infallibility by any standard.

Why I Bother

I think there are reasons to discuss religion on-line besides those I listed earlier. First, I think there is no point to an argument where one cannot be convinced that one is wrong. By this I don't mean that you cannot be convinced that you are right; but you have to take the argument seriously, and risk refutation.

Sometimes argument is called for when someone makes an argument that is utter nonsense. That's a point when I'm willing to cross denominational lines. When I'm doing that I try to stay within the confines of the denominational context in which the argument appeared. This is a hard stunt to pull off, I admit, and I do slip; some people have tried to argue that it's intrisically impossible and that I always argue as an Episcopalian. That's too strong a claim. When it comes to matters of historical fact, for instance, denomination doesn't matter.

Likewise, when people makes erroneous assertions about Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church, I feel no qualms about correcting them. Here I must qualify the notion of "error"; I don't mean disagreements between theologies, but caims about what Episcopalians are supposed to believe and the like.

I have no problems with these because getting your facts straight is intrinsically beneficial. Entering the subjective arena of theological disputation requires a different rationale. Here, I think the only reasonable purpose is to refine the quality of your own arguments by putting them to the test of argument. If you don't think they are subject to discussion (and possible refutation), then why bother? When you make inarguable arguments, you aren't really listening; listening requires understanding, and understanding risks agreement.

What's Going On

What's with the internet religious discussion anyway?

After all, religion is a Forbidden Topic in polite company. By this we can conclude that the internet is not polite company; then again, anyone who has seen all the flaming already knew that. So, is it academic discourse? No. Hardly anyone involved in such discussions is a scholar, and the discussion largely lacks scholarly apparatus.

Why are people doing it? Well, some people are clearly preaching, or relaying the preaching of others. Presumably this is supposed to gain converts, but since sermons are (mostly) boring, this tends to be largely about the poster gratifying himself that he's satisfied his evangelistic obligations, and they tend to have no interest in real conversation or discusssion.

Conversely, a lot of the atheists are plainly in it for the sheer bloody-minded entertainment value of it. It's rather like bear-baiting, and there are lots of Christian hardheads available to play the part of the bear.

Then there are all the people who want to continue the 30 Years War, or the Battle of Kosovo, or the Iconoclast Controversy, or choose-your-favorite-fight. These people do want to argue, and they are going to defeat you.

So who's left? More to come....

Sunday, June 13, 2004

The D Word

A lot of people get bent out of shape when I use the word "denomination" in reference to Eastern Orthodox churches or the Roman Catholic Church. They like to claim that they don't have denominations and that "denominations" are a Protestant thing.

Taking the dictionary definition straight up, they don't have an argument. PECUSA is a denomination, and OCA is a denomination, and ROAC is a denomination, and the Catholic Church is a surpassingly large denomination. The word denotes organizational units, and connotes a difference in "flavor". Objectively, it is almost trivial to draw lines between these groups.

So why do people protest? Because they want to slant the playing field in the direction of claiming that their (generally Eastern Orthodox or Catholic) church is a totally different kind of fish from a Protestant body. I'm not the least convinced-- not because I'm presuming that they are all parts of The One True Church, but because on an earthly level they obviously are different species of fish-- but all are fish.

In other contexts the constant battle over the word gets to be a waste of time and I fish for other words to describe the likeness of ROAC and ECUSA. Here I'm more interested in how the argument is carried forth, so I'll stick with "denomination", thank you.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


In the left corner we have The Right Reverend Robert Wilkes Ilhoff, Episcopal Bishop of Maryland. Definitely a liberal, and a bishop in a Protestant church at that; but at least he doesn't persecute his conservative parishes. He presides over one of the densest territories of the Episcopal Church, and has it's most conservative convent under his wing (though he is not of course their episcopal visitor).

And in the right corner we have His Eminence, Archbishop Gregory of Denver and Colorado. And, as it turns out, all the rest of North America too, at least in the schismatic sect to which he belongs. He is now on his fourth or fifth denomination-- I lost count. He has a history of e-mail/letter recruitment of more-or-less unattached young men, so that as it happens, of all the laymen who I know to have affiliation with his diocese, at most one of them was a member before I knew of them. Several are still not members and do not apparently have a way of attending liturgy weekly.

So, which of these men should you follow?

Wrong question!

If you believe in bishops in the first place, then the first thing you ought to know is that you don't follow a single bishop. And any group, Western or Eastern, Anglican or Russian, which is separated from its parent brings up questions of historical continuity. Reaching back to the Pedalion isn't really different from reaching back to Richard Hooker (short range) or scripture itself (long range)-- except that in a dispute between scripture and the Pedalion, I'm going to pick scripture every time.

One should not be choosing between Gregory's or Ilhoff's imperfections. And one shouldn't be defending the irrelevance of one's own bishop's imperfections, Nick. That's just rationalization.

Moving on to the denominations: of course, if you're a "one-true-church" member, then every other group has to have a fatal theological flaw. Obviously this is another avenue for rationalization, especially when one of the groups that has to be so defeated is your group's parent body. This presents an interesting puzzle: here I must be convinced strictly by the merits of the argument and not through authority, for that authority rests upon convincing me of the merits! Also, in the case of ROAC, the sins of which it accuses ROCOR happened long enough ago to where it is unclear that there is any untainted ROCOR for ROAC to descend from.

There's another choice available.....

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Seeing Eye Dog Controversy: Conclusion

A notable feature of the seeing eye dog controversy is the repeated statement that "dogs are unclean animals." Naturally, nobody can give me a clear citation to this effect, certainly not from the NT. (In this age of on-line bibles, there's no excuse for an inaccurate citation; if you use The Unbound Bible you can get it in a variety of versions, translations, and even different versions of the original text.)

There's something Levitical about this pronouncement, and indeed in other places I see Eastern Orthodox (generally men) reinventing menstrual purity laws, in direct contradiction to the council in Acts 15. And there's a rabbinical exactitude to limiting Peter's vision in Acts 10 to the purity of food. Unfortunately, taking that tack completely guts the point of the vision in the first place; after all, Peter wasn't going to eat Cornelius! The vision must be given an expansive interpretation for it to have the necessary meaning; it doesn't just mean that we can now eat pork chops.

Which brings up another point about theological "argument": maybe even most of the time, it's nothing better than rationalization. Most of the content of the seeing eye dog argument was about justifying a rule that everyone already "knew" but nobody could really cite. The message everyone should have gotten was, "maybe I don't really know this rule after all."

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Sermons Are (Mostly) Boring

Most sermons don't make the transition to the internet gracefully. Never mind that sermons are, shall we say, largely disposable. And they are made to be heard, not read, even when they are delivered by being read aloud. Sermons that rely on eccentric delivery-- or often, simple oratory-- don't tend to read well in any medium.

On the web, Sermons tend to run long. Web pages aren't a good medium for long documents, especially long documents that resist being broken up in the way that HTML was made to support. Also, to be frank, a lot of sermons tend to be not worth reading (a common problem with internet information). Given the way that sermons are originally delivered to a mostly captive audience, there isn't a lot of impetus to tip one's hand and get to the point quickly. It's pretty typical to come across sermons on the web whose first screenful gives no indication of whether they are worth reading at all. I do not give them the benefit of the doubt.

But they reach their nadir in forums and newsgroups. I never read them there, especially when the poster has a history of sermon posting. These venues are about interaction, and sermons do not, in general, invite interaction. Those who repeated post sermons are unlikely to respond to replies. I suppose the principle at work here is that they post sermons because they have nothing of their own to say.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Pawning the Purple

or, "A Bishop Reconsiders Profitability"

Nobody is is interested in a fully apostate bishop, which is to say, one who leaves his office. 'Bishop Denies Faith, Resigns" is a dog-bits-man story.

BUT "Episcopal Bishop Causes Outrage"- THAT sells books. So as long as John Shelby Spong could put "A Bishop Reconsiders" in his subtitles, he sold books; now that he's retired, nobody cares.

The Arrow of Theology

It's not like Time's arrow.

Infallibility is a dogma that nobody should need. If the arguments are good enough, they stand on their own. If they aren't then infalliblity won't help. Well, maybe it helps claims that are insufficiently justified (e.g., the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). For claims that have counterarguments, infallibility is useless; the counterargument itself serves as proof that infallibility is falsely claimed.

Which leads to a further conclusion. It is necessary to consider the bad theology (a.k.a. heresy) as well as the good; otherwise, you can't understand the good properly, because it forms in relationship to the bad. Nicene orthodoxy makes much less sense if you don't understand Arianism and the other errors to which it is the answer. Hence, theology consists in large part of seeing the pathway through all these arguments. And it seems to me that the orthodox tradition-- not necessarily the Eastern version thereof-- demonstrates itself to be essentially correct. Most ancient heresies, when espoused by moderns, are invented anew, particularly Arianism, which the Jehovah's Witnesses reinvented.

When you look at the details, however, the picture of inevitable progress gets severely muddled. At this late hour I see a lot of "doctrine" that has severe problems when held up against the words of Jesus. It is not too much to ask that the two be consistent. To get back to the dog: Jesus never says that dogs are unclean. But he does lift up the first great commandment. Now Nick; if you used a guide dog, would you want someone to take it from you on such a pretext?

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Donning the Cassock

Just so everyone else knows: I'm not a cleric, nor a professional theologian or religious academic. I do theology the way any layman does it: reading the texts, listening to the advice of others, and thinking. By the grace of God, the voice of the Spirit is heard. Or not.

And if you believe Richard Hooker, that's the way the clerics are doing it too.

So who gets to speak for a church? Well, in episcopal polity, certainly not laymen. You have to ask a bishop, or repeat what a bishop says-- word for word. And if what the bishop says isn't firmly grounded in tradition--

Well, how do you tell that it is so grounded? Well, um, you do theology. After all, even if one bishop is just repeating something another bishop said, the predecessor has to fulfill the same test, and so forth.

So: is it actually true that in Orthodox tradition dogs are unclean animals? Well, I don't know for sure: Nick, you aren't good enough authority on your own. And even then the same problem applies to whichever bishop you end up citing. Is what he says an integral part of the tradition, or is it just a presumption or prejudice riding the genuine merit of other canons and positions?

Friday, June 04, 2004

Who Is Tom Harpur, and Why Should We Care?

It's time to pick on the liberals.

Tom Harpur, as it turns out, is a religion reporter in Canada (and sometime Anglican priest; I don't know whether he is now or not) who has apostacized into a religiosity unbounded by any actual reality. This is a guy who regards the gospels, from end to end, as fiction. Nevertheless, he holds that there is some "truth" in there somewhere.

Scholarly apparatus makes for a book that looks more legitimate, especially for a Rhodes scholar who has been taught to do it right. (There's a lot of woo-woo "scholarship" out there which betrays itself by earnestly doing it wrong.) It is also perversely comforting to those outside the scholarly compound, who then get to pat themselves on the back for avoiding the "folly to the Greeks". Underneath all the apparatus, however, these texts solve "problems" that have a totally different character from how they are presented. The issue that they solve is this: the author becomes an unbeliever in the exegesis he knew, and invests in the ridicule that is heaped upon that exegesis. So how does he keep his religion? Well, the solution, if you are into the academic world, is to bury the whole thing in a different exegesis. The unasked question, then, is "Why do you no longer believe?"

More to come...

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Seeing Eye Dog Controversy, Continued

The newsgroups were not the only forum to have a go at the Seeing Eye Dog. The notorious "Indiana List", a famously contentious listserv discussing Eastern Orthodoxy, had its chance to try the issue out. Again, there was much the same pattern.

In Eastern Orthodox forums, the issue almost immediately divides the participants into two groups: those who focus on the charity of allowing the person the use of their dog, and those who focus on the supposed rule. Elsewhere in Christianity, it isn't even an issue: Protestants and Roman Catholics can scarcely understand why the question would even be raised.

To me, the most striking part is how the supposed rule gets rationalized by those who insist on it. Now, the canon itself doesn't address dogs, but rather refers to cattle. Nonetheless, one of the arguments that always arose was that there was something intrinsically polluting about dogs per se, though the canon doesn't address that point. Then there's the starry-eyed theory about how much more loving it is to substitute congregants for the dog. Now, I know a blind man who uses a dog, and another woman who is confined to a motorized wheelchair and who has a dog for picking up dropped items and the like. I also know a blind boy who prefers to use a cane. They use these contrivances precisely because (a) relying on the inconstant grace of strangers is both degrading and unreliable, and (b) because those that do want to help often don't know how to.

The most disturbing argument I encountered was one that said that the dog "represented the lie that the blind person could see." I could go on at length about how wrong-headed this is, but I'll limit myself to the observation that this is a rationalization that is pretty far afield of the "no dogs" issue, and one which attacks the notion of guide dogs in general. In essence, to defend a specific taboo, the arguer creates a totally wrongheaded moral obligation forbidding the use of guide dogs.

More to come.....

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The Seeing Eye Dog Controversy

Back in 1999, there was a post in alt.religion.christian.east-orthodox about how a Toronto priest was fined for turning away a woman who used a guide dog, claiming that the dog was not allowed in church. This sparked a huge furor which ran to something over 200 messages.

In between the clueless assertions about how the ushers (or parishioners) could substitute for the dog, and the vague assertions about how tehre was something false about using a dog at all, there was a running argument about how the canons barred animals from church, and another which asserted that dogs in particular defiled the church by their presence. I demanded at length that someone produce the canon, but no citation was made until a post was made which cited the council at Trullo as follows:

Canon LXXXVIII (ancient):

"Cattle shall not be led into the holy halls, unless the greatest necessity compels it."


"No one may drive any beast into a church except perhance a traveller, urged thereto by the greatest necessity, in default of a shed or resting place, may have turned aside into said church. For unless the beast had been taken inside, it would have perished, and he, by the loss of his beast of burden, and thus without means of continuing his journey, would be in peril of death. And we are taught that the Sabbath was made for man; wherefore also the safety and comfort of man are by all means to be placed first. But should anyone be detected without any necessity such as we have just mentioned, leading his beast into a church, if he be a cleric let him be deposed, and if a layman let
him be cut off."

The Law of Rule

Western religions have rules. And Western religions, as a rule, have two levels of rules.

One level is scripture. If you aren't a liberal, this level always was inarguable. But in general, scripture itself doesn't give enough; it is necessary to add at least one layer of interpretation. Here I'm not so much interested in doctrine, but in praxis.

In Judaism, you get midrash and other things argued out by rabbis. In Christianity, if you're in an episcopal-polity church, you get canons and other forms of tradition.

Church canons bring out the Junior Lawyer in people, particularly the kind of people who spend a lot of time on-line. They particularly get the "church tradition is immutable!" people going, because they offer a great opportunity for Defending The Faith in a really hard-nosed and impersonal manner. Best of all, in Orthodoxy (and often in Catholicism) you don't even really have to know them all that well, because the volume of them and the obscurity of many means that it's hard for people to check up on you.

That brings us to the Seeing Eye Dog Controversy....