Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Episcopal Church as "more" or "less" Christian, and the notion of "conceptual organizations" in general

As most people here know, Jesus and I parted ways a long time ago. However, I have retained an interest in the Episcopal Church, both locally and internationally, mainly with respect to issues of social justice. (Plus, my mother works for the church, so technically its a contributor to my livelihood.) I don't know if anyone's been paying attention, but this year's Episcopal General Convention, held in Columbus, is particularly contentious. Basically, worldwide Anglican churches, who are very conservative compared to Americans, and some conservative American Episcopalian congregations are demanding that the U.S. Episcopal Church repent for appointing an openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson, and place a moratorium on electing any more homosexuals. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has given his support to the so-called "Windsor Report," which calls upon the liberal church to "apologize" for the Robinson affair. Many conservatives see the Report as too weak, since it demands an apology but not a signal of regret, while many liberals are complaining that the normally progressive Williams is compromising his principles for the sake of church unity. Personally I hope that the US Church sticks by its decisions, even if that results in a schism.

More interesting to me, though, is the whole idea of the debate over church doctrine and who is "more" or "less" Christian. To the conservatives, an acceptance of homosexuality runs counter to Scripture and thus fails to be Christian. The liberals see no contradictions in what they're doing. Now to me, the liberals are obviously no less Christian than the conservatives. Perhaps if the argument were over whether or not Jesus Christ was a human being or instilled with the Divine, then we could legitimately talk about "Christian" and "non-Christian" positions. But this says something about what I take to be the "core" of Christianity, which cannot be altered without doing serious damage to the system.

But then I got to thinking. The Church of today is probably leagues away from what it used to be in ancient times. (The Anglican church is a special case because it was founded by Henry VIII in relatively "modern" times. I mean the church as a whole.) Doctrines have certainly changed thanks to literacy, the Reformation, industrialization, urbanization, globalization, what have you. But I think that functionally, the fact that a huge group of people can affect practical matters through their influence (in the name of the Christianity) means there's a thriving Christian alive today, no matter what the doom-sayers might portend. At the same time, an organization claiming to act in Christianity's name but with absolutely no ideological connections to the religion at all cannot possibly be called properly "Christian," no matter how great its size. But then the core elements of Christianity remain to be explicated.

Basically, what I'm getting to is a question of how you all define "conceptual (ideological) organizations," so to speak--more along functional lines, ideological lines, or some other factor? This is sort of elementary stuff but I don't know that we've had this conversation. For example, socialists and other radical leftists often say that what occurred under Soviet Communism for most of its history, despite its extensive "functionality" (functional enough to kill millions, obviously!) and despite the fact that its adherents referred to it as "Communism," was not "true" Communism, and that actual, collectivized social living has only occurred occasionally, if ever. This would be giving strong "ideological" weight to defining conceptual organizations. Opponents counter that no matter what these idealists and utopians say, the practical consequences of Communism make talk of it in any form dangerous, or they take on the more mystical notion that there is something "inherent" or "against human nature" in socialistic thinking that "inevitably" leads to disaster. The former sort of opposition is functional, the latter more ideological. This debate has reared its head lately in talk of "conservative" ideology, as in, Is George Bush a "real" conservative? Conservative idealogues say no, that "real" conservatism as outlined by Barry Goldwater or Russell Kirk or whoever has never been actualized, while progressives either counter that talking about "true" conservatism is nonsense or that no matter what, conservatism is bad. Once again, functional vs. ideological.

Finally, a more controversial position. We might say that while the United States' form of government is nominally "representative democratic," it is in actuality a constitutional representative and bureaucratic oligarchy, or something like that. A functionalist argument could say that the United States in no way operates according to direct participation, if that is what "democracy" is supposed to functionally mean, while an ideological critique would say that we're not living up to the ideals of democracy, that to speak of the US as a democracy is to nefariously hijack "true" democratic terminology, or whatever. Looking back at what I've written, the functional and ideological stances actually seem to blur together in this instance. A counter-argument could say that what the critics refer to as "democracy" has no meaning in the contemporary world, that it's based on out-dated Greek models, whatever. So then "democracy" is just whatever we conventionally make it, no matter what its etymology or history.

Again, perhaps this is too simplistic, but I'd love to hear everyone's take--function, ideology, or something else? (And here the "function of ideology" or the "ideology of the notion of 'functioning'" are possibilities.)


Blogger Robot said...

Scantron-- Interesting questions. My first reaction -- particularly regarding the ideological unity of an organization -- is to ask whether there is any historical precedent. In the case of the Soviet Union, it becomes extremely difficult to say "that was not Communism," when besides the occasional small-scale commune, there is no symmetrical analogy. There is nothing out there to say, "no, that wasn't Communism, because THAT WAS Communism." With Bush, this criteria becomes clearer. Conservatives who say Bush isn't a real conservative are not speaking from an abstract manuscript written by Goldwater, or Burke, or Buckley. Rather, they look at Reagan and Thatcher and the Republican controlled congress under Clinton and say, "Now THAT WAS conservatism." Likewise, liberals (thankfully) don't usually turn to Locke or Mill or Rawls or Galbraith when they talk about liberal values. As Peter Beinhart's new book illustrates, they turn to these thinkers only as intellectual justifications for FDR, or Truman, or Kennedy.

The trouble with orthodox religion or orthodox Marxism is, well, the orthodoxy of it all. The task of interpreting Scripture, or of interpreting Marx (if we can say there is a difference Marx and Scripture), is that the very task of exegesis seems to supersede the more important question of "just where in our history can we point to 'real' Christianity or 'real' Marxism?" I think that beginning with this excercise -- a discussion of what historical moments were at least more "real" than others -- is the only sensible way to address some of these issues.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

The interesting thing about conservatives' critique of Bush as compared to Reagan is that substantially there is little difference between the two, policy-wise. Reagan cut taxes (initially), but his increase in military spending was so great that the national debt grew to greater proportions than it had ever been. Shades of today's policy...He then presided over the greatest tax increase this country has ever seen. I suppose then, that Bush's profligacy with economy as compared to Reagan's is ironically lambasted by conservatives precisely because he refuses to "liberalize," i.e. raise taxes. But why conservatives should think that a "balanced budget" has ever been within their purview is confusing, to say the least.

By the way, are you reading the Beinart book?

With Communism, you are absolutely right to point to the matter of historical precedent. But if Communism, or Marxism more specifically, is to be graded according to what Marx and other collectivists and socialists actually say in their writings and not necessarily what the USSR or China or Cuba did (that is, ideologically) a case can be made that experiments in Spain, for instance, during the first few years of the Spanish Civil War, when anarchists collectivized rural industry, approaches "true" Communism more than Russia ever did. The history of this episode, especially the history of Catalonia during this period, is recorded by Orwell in "Homage to Catalonia," which I very much want to read. Of course, the Communist opposition to Franco decided that the anarchists were jeopardizing solidarity and dissolved the collectives in favor of centralized control. The rest is defeat and fascism. But one tiny blip on the historical register in the form of Spanish anarchism can't really measure up to the genocidal Communist history of the 20th century.

1:17 AM  

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