Friday, August 18, 2006

The "always" of liberalism

An interesting sideline to the summer meltdown of the Episcopal Church has been the way language itself has been pressed into combat. It isn’t just the attempt by both sides to get “their” terminology adopted: “reappraisers”, “reasserters”, “enduring”, “innovating” – take your pick. Like the terminology of the abortion fight, each side struggles against any word that seems to give the enemy an advantage, and refuses to acknowledge the other viewpoint even to the extent of allowing people to describe themselves.

More interesting to me is the way language already in use is being conscripted in this battle. Katherine Jefferts-Schori started things off with her controversial blood-sweat-and-afterbirth sermon on June 21. When the inevitable outrage sprang up in conservative circles, she blandly announced that this was "straight-down-the-middle orthodox thinking,” This managed to doubly antagonize her opponents: not only were they shocked by the initial image, they were then informed that their shock stemmed from ignorance of the standard repertoire of their own religion. In the past, it would have been enough to intone “Julian of Norwich” to silence objections, but no longer. The Internet not only allowed anyone who wanted to do research and discover just how minor and obscure the original source was, it also reassured objectors that they were not alone.

The progress of liberal innovation has also been too rapid to be able to pull off this faux-orthodox pose. A mere 30 years ago, the Episcopal Church looked and sounded very different, and considering the average age of your typical Episcopalian, the majority of Episcopalians have very clear memories of what things were like “before”. They cannot be bamboozled by bland reassurances that this is the way things have always been done – their own senses tell them differently. “If nothing has changed, then why is everything different?” is not a question that will be answered by murmuring the name of an obscure medieval mystic known, if at all, for a few pious riddles.

Of course, this assertion of the impeccable pedigree of liberal fancies manages to trot along comfortably with a mania for the “new things” that the Holy Spirit is perpetually doing. But it is interesting that for once, “newness” is not a selling point, and this time the liberals are taking pains to lay claim to the long heritage of Anglicanism for all their innovations, at least in public. Thus, we no longer hear much about how benighted our ancestors were, with their all-male priesthood and their disdain for sodomy. Instead, we are told that having female priests and bishops is no big deal at all – why, in the first century, there were female deacons and that means that nobody would have ever objected to making a woman the head of the church. Nor is brazen homosexuality something to be rejected; homosexuals have always been priests, it’s just that now they don’t have to hide it. Nothing new, though.

The one thing that is genuinely not new is this liberal tactic of trying to tranquillize and lull to sleep the opposition by pretending that this is just “business as usual”. I’ve heard it all my life, to explain away any particularly glaring depravity that makes the Brave New World of liberalism look shabby. Promiscuity? Abortion? Child abuse? An increasingly crude and vulgar public culture? Oh, nothing to worry about – it’s ALWAYS been like this. It’s just that now we have better statistics.

A sign of the detachment from reality afflicting liberals in the Episcopal Church is their increasing tendency to try to redefine words to suit themselves. Thus, the liberal wife of a liberal bishop in Californiafeels bold enough to write an essay informing conservatives of her requirements for those who wish to call themselves by that descriptive term. Not surprisingly, high on her list is docility in the presence of liberalism. Indeed, some liberals go so far as to imply that they are the REAL conservatives, as this essay demonstrates. A sudden fondness for Renaissance realpolitik and royal despotism is the hallmark of this sort of “new” Orthodoxy. It is never explained how the arbitrary decree of a monarch could prove to be so salutary for Anglicanism in the 16th century, and yet the mild remonstrance of an English archbishop is such an intolerable infringement on independence and liberty in the 20th. But then, liberals have never been embarrassed to hold a number of contradictory ideas at the same time.

It is worth asking why liberals feel compelled to put on this clumsy charade, especially as it fools no one. Of course, they could be doing it just to be annoying. But I think there is a deeper impulse at work. In Orwell’s ‘1984’ language and history were rewritten not just to clean up contradictions, but to render subversive thoughts literally unthinkable. It only works in a totalitarian society, where the individual has no independent access to information, and the widespread communication and access to information provided by the Internet quickly sabotages this attempt to control the debate. But the totalitarian impulse is not far from the surface in the Left; we see it erupting almost daily now, in demands to force compliance at almost any price from dissidents. The attempt to wrest words from conservatives is an attempt not only to silence their annoying protests, but to make protest itself impossible by locking away the very language that could articulate it.

Thus, Christians have ALWAYS thought of Jesus as feminine; women have ALWAYS been rulers and governors in the Church; homosexuality has ALWAYS been innocent; and Oceania has ALWAYS been at war with Eastasia.


Blogger Nasty, Brutish & Short said...

"It is worth asking why liberals feel compelled to put on this clumsy charade, especially as it fools no one."

Unfortunately, I think it fools a lot of people.

A fine essay, though.

12:14 pm  
Blogger JohnR said...

Great essay! I think a lot of the problem for people who want to change the church is their post-modern view of reality, namely, that there isn't any. If all history is merely a narrative used to assist in oppression, then no historical narrative is true. Therefore, we can make up any history we want to achieve a desired end. As you point out, this runs aground on the shoals of reality. People know that the past is not infinitely malleable. Churchgoers know what is new and what is not. While I like Julian of Norwich, and think she is a brilliant theologian, especially her Trinitarian theology, it is absurd to speak of her as a major figure in Church history. I took a Church history class at a major Protestant seminary in the Reformed tradition and we spent two weeks on Hildegaard of Bingen, one on Julian, and no class time on John Calvin. The professor said that this was because the women in the class would want to hear about women. This assumes that they do not want to know about the people (mostly men, due to the times) that really influenced the course of Christian history. Anyone who thought about this, and a few of the students did, would see right through this blatant propaganda. I say argue for change honestly. It is the right thing to do, gives people proper respect for their intelligence, and would be more effective in the end.

12:53 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

But john, you at least took a course on Church history! Most of us haven't, and have read nothing by either of those ladies. My only exposure to Julian of Norwich was in a couple of quotes by C.S. Lewis. And I suspect that 95% of laypeople who've even heard of Hildegard of Bingen know of her, like me, through some plainsong recordings. I've barely heard of them, and frankly, I'm pretty well-read compared to the average person in my parish. These are *minor* figures in the Church as it is lived, as opposed to what scholars can draw out of books. The distorted sense of history is very remarkable among reappraisers and liberals; you can tell by their writing and language that they really do think of themselves as the "establishment" - the guardians of "the way things are" and are supposed to be, against upstarts and revolutionaries. They're like C.S. Lewis's typical uneducated Englishman: "In his mind the Present occupies almost the whole field of vision. Beyond it, isolated from it, and quite unimportant, is something called 'The Old Days'--a small, comic jungle in which highwaymen, Queen Elizabeth, knights-in-armour, etc. wander about."

1:50 pm  
Blogger JohnR said...

Actually, I'm in a PhD program in Church history, so I know a lot more Church history than most people. When I got my MDiv (at an Episcopal seminary, though at the time I was preparing for ordination in the ELCA), I was amazed at the lack of interest in history among my classmates. This was also true at the Lutheran Seminary when I was there for a year. True, Church history is of little use in parish ministry but it's distortion bothers me. I think that one of the challenges the Church faces is how to retain a distinctly Christian identity in an increasingly secular, even impious, age. Clergy have increasingly abandoned Christian language for the language of the social sciences, such as psychology and sociology, and the language and categories of socialism. Wolfhart Pannenburg, the Lutheran theologian, rightly states the the main problem for the mainline Churches is the atheism of much of their clergy. I find great comfort in the Christianity of the past, when the faith was taught clearly and theology, not psychology or politics, was the center of Christian teaching. Those who twist history to support a secularist agenda damage the Church. I think that part of the problem is the general comtempt for the past that exists in a culture that believes in continual progress. But the clergy should at least be aware of the traditional teaching, and not mouth obvious distortions. As you wrote, recent changes are so sweeping they run into lay people's living memory. Faithful priests and pastors accept the tradition with humility. Those seeking radical change are full of a sense of their own authority. They rewrite history, set themselves up as the judge of Scripture, and confront opposition with a naked claim of authority rather than with reasoned argument. Their abuse of history is part of a general arrogance - one not justified by any depth of knowledge or faith. The philosophical/theological errors that lead to this are less important than their atitude, which most lay people can recognize for what it is.

11:53 pm  

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