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Bishop Tom Wright may be Right (Reason is in short supply right now)
Titusonenine ^ | August 19, 2005 | John P. Richardson

Posted on 08/19/2005 6:03:32 AM PDT by hiho hiho

A recent… [article] in the Guardian from Bishop Tom Wright criticised the declining quality of debate in the councils of the Church of England. ‘Reason,’ he wrote, ‘is in short supply right now,’ adding, ‘When someone says in a debate, ‘What I feel is…’ the chair ought to intervene. What people feel is neither here nor there in a debate.’ Wright is undoubtedly correct, but the rot has been allowed to go on for too long, encouraged by our educational system, not least in the area of theological ‘equipping’.


As a philosophical movement, post-modernism is both hard to define and already passé. However, as Francis Schaeffer observed, it is the tendency of intellectual systems to transfer into popular culture in an attenuated but significant form. The impact of post-modernism on our culture is thus ‘incoherent’, yet massive and likely to be enduring.

One of the key features of post-modernism is the rejection of ‘meta-narrative’ – ‘a grand overarching account, or all-encompassing story, which is thought to give order to the historical record’ (Wikipedia). The post-modern philosopher could give reasons for this which the person in the street may not share. At the popular level, nevertheless, the effect is seen in the way that all statements which might express absolute truths are reduced to the status of personal opinions. ‘This is true,’ becomes ‘I believe this is true.’ The difference is enormous.

The difficulty is that nobody can argue with such statements. As Wright observes, ‘If someone says ‘I like salt,’ and someone else says ‘I like pepper,’ they are not having a debate.’ Similarly, if someone says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ that can be gainsaid. But if someone says, ‘I believe I am the way, the truth and the life,’ there is no arguing with it. We may doubt the sanity of the person making such a statement, but to respond, ‘No you do not,’ would be presumptuous or – even worse – insensitive.

Post-modernism has introduced an apologetic tone to our conversations, whereby every statement is prefaced by qualifications: ‘In my opinion,’ ‘That’s just my personal view,’ and so on. If this meant a little more humility it would be no bad thing. Unfortunately the reverse is the case, for the statement, ‘This is only what I think’ rarely translates into ‘Tell me if I’m wrong.’ As a conversational gambit, the apologetic tone is not an acknowledgement of our own potential stupidity but a social convention which defends the speaker from criticism.

What is truth?

Yet to many people, such reticence seems appropriate. Without knowing all truth, we cannot possibly know for certain that we are right, so all absolute claims are disallowed. But as Don Carson has pointed out there is a difference between rejecting the claim to absolute knowledge and rejecting all claims to true knowledge. Just because I do not know all the depths of God’s love, for example, does not mean I know nothing of the love of God.

Unfortunately, such a recognition is missing at the popular level, where the rejection of meta-narrative translates into a rejection of any attack on the personal opinions of another. Such attacks are taken to indicate a belief that my own opinion is an absolute truth (‘I am right and you are wrong’), thereby showing me to be, at very least, boorishly arrogant.

In such an intellectual environment, critical debate becomes impossible. If ‘my opinion’ is no claim to truth but a description of how I see things, then any criticism is tantamount to criticising my tastes in music or my likes in people, and will produce not thoughtful reflection but hurt.

Instead of debate, therefore, we have a sharing of perspectives. Bible studies used to ask, ‘What does this passage mean?’ Now they ask, ‘What does this passage mean to you?’ Similarly, the question, ‘What is God like?’ becomes, ‘What is God like to you?’ And to such questions there are, of course, as many right answers as there are individuals.

In these circumstances, theological progress is impossible. We may ‘share’ what we think. We may – indeed we must – value our different perspectives. We can even agree to differ. But we cannot disagree and discard! And therefore, by the same token, we can never truly advance. On the contrary, we can only accumulate more and more viewpoints and perspectives until we are weighed down with them.

Indeed, with the ideological barriers down, we will find concepts once deemed outrageous will work their way back into our thought-world, and issues which the Church regarded as resolved will be reopened. The difference with the past, however, is that this time they will be largely irresolvable, so long as they are held by at least someone who claims the name of Christian, and includes themselves somehow in the fellowship of the Church, they will just be another ‘perspective’.


Not everyone, however, has bought completely into the post-modern perspective. One reason is that post-modern scepticism cannot apply in every area of life. When I put out a note cancelling the milk, for example, I do not expect the milkman’s reading from within ‘his’ perspective to result in me receiving five pints instead of none. Similarly, engineers and physical scientists work on the assumption that they are dealing with universal truths. An inch in London is the same as an inch in New York and a scientific theory which applies in Cape Town is equally applicable in Reykjavik.

The fact that some have accepted the post-modern framework more than others, however, means that the fracture lines within the Church are different from in the past. The impact of post-modernism on the Church means that the primary differences today are not over what people believe to be true. Rather they are over what people believe to be the nature and significance of truth.

For those who have not adopted post-modernism, questions within the Church still concern ‘true truth’ – truth which is true even for those who do not know it or believe it. They find it deeply frustrating, therefore, when others do not accept that lines should be drawn on this basis. For the post-modern, by contrast, a rejection of others with a different viewpoint indicates intolerance towards them and ignorance about the very nature of our understanding. When these viewpoints collide the ensuing conflict is inevitably bitter, particularly when the differences are not understood.

Strange alliances

Yet this explains some of the strange alliances current within Anglicanism. What brings Reform and Forward in Faith to the same table? It is clearly not an agreement on sacraments, ministry and ecclesiology. On the contrary, these areas remain as divisive as ever. What unites them is rather an intuitive sense of ‘speaking the same language.’ When a member of Reform says that reserving the Sacrament is wrong he means it is really wrong – it is wrong for the member of Forward in Faith, despite the latter’s attachment to it, as well as for the member of Reform. Yet, by the same token, the member of Forward in Faith actually agrees with the Reform member’s view of truth precisely at the point of disagreement. What is not in dispute for either of them is that one of them must be wrong!

By contrast, when a member of Reform sits across the table from someone in an ‘Open Evangelical’ group like Fulcrum, there is intense friction. Outwardly they both agree – neither would reserve the Sacrament. But whereas for the Reform member this is a principle which should apply to all and should therefore represent a dividing line in the Church, for the Fulcrum member it is precisely the sort of thing to which their ‘openness’ is open.

For the health of the Church this problem must be resolved. Post-modernism has useful lessons for us, but we must never discard all possibility of discerning ‘true truth’. Postmodernism rejects this suggestion, but in the physical sciences it is acknowledged that our understanding can truly advance through the process of negation.

In the popular mind, the aim of scientific research is to prove facts to be true. Every real scientist knows this is not strictly so. Rather, science advances on the principle of the ‘null hypothesis’ – a formal proposition which experimentation seeks to prove false. It is as new discoveries show such hypotheses to be inadequate that science progresses. But although this process leaves in its wake a series of discredited suggestions, it does not mean that the past or the present consist of utter ignorance.

The post-modern mind should find it easy to accept that our cherished notions can be challenged and refuted. But ideas which stand the test of refutation should be treated as true until proven false. And a succession of ideas which have withstood the tests of time and critical analysis should be regarded as advancing us nearer the truth the more coherent they become and the better they stand up to scrutiny.

Advances in theology

To advance in theology, we need to accept both Cromwell’s dictum, ‘Think it possible you may be mistaken’, and its antithesis, ‘Think it possible you may be correct!’ The post-modern mind finds the former so easy that it has become an excuse for the sort of intellectual laziness of which Wright complains. The possibility that you might just be right, however, lays upon you the responsibility to advocate and defend your position against ideas that differ from or disagree with it. And this is far harder than retreating behind the protestation that ‘This is only my opinion.’

Post-modernism is passing away, leaving behind a deeply destructive mistrust of all claims to truth. And unless we are to accept that the future intellectual condition of humankind will always be ignorance and an ‘agreement to differ’, we must tackle and overcome this legacy. It can be done, provided we are humble enough to be right, as well as wrong.

–This essay appears in New Directions, August 2005, pages 7-8

TOPICS: Catholic; Current Events; General Discusssion; Mainline Protestant; Moral Issues; Orthodox Christian; Religion & Science; Theology
KEYWORDS: anglican; episcopal

1 posted on 08/19/2005 6:03:34 AM PDT by hiho hiho
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To: hiho hiho
Post-modernism is a loaded term. The argument can be made that it is not post anything it is merely modernism in its decadent phase. At any rate this is a typical cycle in human societies, knowledge, mores and art; the meta-narrative or overall vision has its early Classical phase marked by a logical coherence, common culture, health and purity. The next phase, the Romantic starts to show signs of exaggerated ripeness, the emergence of a counterculture, hedonic tendencies and a florid aesthetic. The last Decadent phase ("post modernism") is marked by incoherence, the decay and dissolution of forms, multi-culturalism and sub-cultures, disease, deviancy and destruction. The cycle then starts over again with a new beginning.
2 posted on 08/19/2005 7:36:01 AM PDT by TradicalRC (In vino veritas. Folie a Deaux, Menage a Trois Red 2003.)
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To: ahadams2; Fractal Trader; Zero Sum; anselmcantuar; Agrarian; coffeecup; Paridel; keilimon; ...
Traditional Anglican ping, continued in memory of its founder Arlin Adams.

FReepmail sionnsar if you want on or off this moderately high-volume ping list (typically 3-9 pings/day).
This list is pinged by sionnsar and newheart.

Resource for Traditional Anglicans:

Humor: The Anglican Blue (by Huber)

Speak the truth in love. Eph 4:15

3 posted on 08/19/2005 8:24:08 AM PDT by sionnsar (†† || (To Libs:) You are failing to celebrate MY diversity || Iran Azadi)
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