Faith and modernity
Commenter Tim A had this to say about some of my arguments the other day regarding Leviticus and theology:
Come back in a year or two when you’re ready to expound on important matters that you clearly haven’t begun to understand.
Men of greater faith and intellect than anyone here have been grappling with this “theology stuff” for thousands of years. Is it really wise for us to be dismissing this inheritance with an arrogant wave of the hand, and ignarantly [sic] build from scratch.
More on this in a while. A little bit further up-thread, commenter paul h, in response to my questioning whether the Church could incorporate homosexuality into its theological framework (and in particular its sexual theological framework) wrote:
as an Orthodox, I can’t conceivably agree with you that we can somehow “include” another “sort of love” in the Church’s teachings; whether one can recognize (essentially secular) civil marriages, well, that’s a whole other question.
All of this stemmed from my arguments for a sort of progressive traditionalism – which, in effect, is simply my own search for a way to at once embrace tradition, history, etc. while at the same time embracing scientific discovery, revelations about our own humanity, and so forth. It’s tricky. It’s pretty easy – and understandable – for people to write this off as a sort of relativist ad hoc approach to religion; a buffet of sorts, or as John Henry put it:
The main problem with it, from my perspective, is that it’s the creation of a synthetic tapestry of personally appealing beliefs, rather than the acceptance of a faith. Any bit that doesn’t conform to our personal sensibilities is discarded because it isn’t congenial, or in keeping with our idiosyncratic definition of love. Chesterton, I believe, remarked that faith freed him “from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” In contrast, the progressive theological tradition generally views the present age as freedom from the degrading slavery of tradition.
So my question is how do we reconcile the two – modernity and tradition – or does the one negate the other? Is acceptance of the modern world’s revelations in science and so forth really just the “creation of a synthetic tapestry of personally appealing beliefs” or is it just a part of the way tradition naturally evolves? I suppose what appeals to me about conservatism in general is its hesitancy and skepticism. What appeals to me about liberalism or progressivism is its ability to allow new evidence to change our opinion and our outlook toward the world. Both, I would argue, have value.
I would say that tradition and even the theological tradition of Catholocism is always subject to “the age” we live in. After all, the Church today is not the Church of the Middle Ages; it isn’t the Church of late Antiquity either – it isn’t even the Church of 1959. And if we look at the two oldest Churches – the East Orthodox and the Latin – we see at least one major theological split (and there are more, I realize); that is, that in the Eastern Church priests are allowed to marry. Is it possible that both these traditions have, in some sense, chosen different paths or perhaps different “personally appealing beliefs” over time?
Perhaps it’s foolish to think that somewhere in all this tradition an acceptance of homosexuality can be found. Perhaps it’s absurd or relativistic to think that anything less than a radical break from tradition can achieve this; but that’s tragic, too, in some sense. Homosexuals are pushing for rights to traditional marriage, I think, not just for the civil rights, but because human beings do have a deep need for tradition and those institutions that are old and lasting and powerful. There are some who would depart entirely from history, who embrace a modern world as divorced from the past as possible; but most of us – whether we recognize it or not – are in some manner spiritually and psychologically bound to the history of our civilization, our species, our faith.
But accepting faith and dogma entirely without critique strikes me as paradoxical to the very great tradition in Catholicism of a quite rigorous intellectualism. If we discover that certain aspects of our theological traditions are wrong – like our past foibles with astronomical bodies, for instance – is it not essential to the preservation of the tradition as well as the institutions to accept these mistakes and then incorporate the new findings? Evolution, the shape of the world – these were at one time disputed, but are now generally accepted facts that do nothing to cheapen Christianity.
William Brafford wrote the other day:
I find myself caught between traditions, and I often wish I could commit to one. In short, I find myself wishing I were a better partisan. When you’re a part of a tradition, you need to commit to it. When I satisfy my doubts about which political tradition I’m entitled to claim, I’ll join the struggle of hashing out the central conflicts of that tradition and arguing for its superiority over other traditions. But contributing to the growth of one’s tradition requires the virtue of proper confidence.
I, too, find myself “caught between traditions” or in some sense trying to determine whether the struggle to preserve tradition in light of modernity is worthwhile. Picking and choosing personally appealing bits and pieces of a faith is, after all, essentially what we all do to one extent or another. It might be easier to just say to hell with it, which is what many Americans are doing as they walk away from traditions which seem too rigid, too unyielding – often too ideologically bound, not truly alive. Likewise, as Chesterton pointed out, it is liberating to not have to take the modern world into account, to embrace one’s faith wholly rather than be a slave to the ages.
Actually trying to reconcile the larger tradition and the core tenets of one’s faith with the modern world is more difficult, I’d say, but also probably more valuable. I think it makes faith all that much more meaningful, though I understand why people believe that it is little more than relativism and convenience. A fine balance exists.
And maybe, as Tim A points out, I’m just too woefully ignorant in my understanding of theology to really expound on this with much credibility. Such is the sad reality of the blogger – inexpert at everything, I wind my way from one subject to the next, ever meandering. I suppose what I’m doing is looking for answers, asking questions, thinking out loud. That’s the best I can do. I’m not going to become an expert on these subjects before I write about them – I have a life to juggle, after all, and only so much time to read the myriad books I keep meaning to get through – and if that leads to the occasional embarrassing moment, so be it. I don’t have time to become an expert on everything. That’s why I blog. Blogging is the new Renaissance.
As Andrew puts it, gay marriage
requires no concession from anyone else; it requires no individual recognition from anyone who disapproves; it coerces no one; it taxes no one; it spends nothing; it takes not an iota from the rights and dignity of heterosexual marriages, which gave birth to gay people and give many of us our sense of morality and duty and civility.
It would be easy for me – easiest – to just fall into the comforting arms of unquestioning faith; to accept Church teachings and humble myself before God and tradition. But in my heart I would know the betrayal. In my heart of hearts I believe that gays are every bit as entitled not only to equal rights, but to their own place in this tradition, in this civilization – past, present and future. There are some things I am woefully ignorant about, true. I just don’t see that it matters much to me on this front, and in the end I suppose I will go the ad hoc route, and unabashedly so, because I want this tradition, but I don’t want this exclusivity.