August 18, 2011

No Way to Run...

Every time I come upon the passage from the 24th chapter of Acts (appointed for the Daily Office today) I am reminded of the resonance between references to the early church as “the Way” to the Rabbinic concept of Halakah: the law as a Way in which one walks.

This struck me particularly this morning because I have been thinking a great deal about the dangers of ideology, and how an ideology or a theory (properly understood as a “way of seeing”) can actually prevent one from seeing a deeper reality. The phenomenon is known as “perceptual set” in some circles, “paradigm blindness” in others. Put briefly, the way you see the world can come to dominate what you see. I referred in an earlier post to the old saying, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If as Thomas Kuhn suggests, we need a shift in our paradigms in order to see changes in reality, it seems to me that across the board in many areas of our lives we need a whole new shift-load of paradigms!

For both in church and state these days ideology is at the forefront and reality has become deeply shrouded in veils of preconception. From conversations on climate change to sexuality, the debt crisis to marriage equality, the verbiage — I cannot in good conscience call it conversation for the most part — appears to be dominated by ideologies and theories rather than fact. (I cannot be the only one who is appalled to see what has become of journalism these days: and there are times I long for a supply of bricks next to my easy chair to toss through the television screen when a “news” program cuts from an actual live speech by a world leader to a panel of pundits even before the speech is finished!) Whatever reality there may be is cocooned in layers of opinion, and there is no sign of a butterfly emerging. Not a chrysalis, but a mummy.

But back to Saint Paul and the rabbis, and this idea of the faith being a “way” — and of course acknowledging that the Jewish tradition had long understood various “ways” as being either wicked or good, depending. (See Psalm 1!)

The major contrast I want to note is the difference between a way and a place. In this case I am particularly thinking about how Paul’s alleged insult to the Temple (in fact baseless) led to his having to defend this new Way. And what is ironic is that the old Way of rabbinic Halakah itself turned out to be the means by which this form of Judaism was able to survive the destruction of the Temple — a Temple which God appears, from the early record, not actually to have wanted all that much; God preferring the Tent and Tabernacle, or the terrifying Chariot, to the petrified establishment on the hill of Zion. (Ezekiel sees a new Temple, Revelation assures us there is no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Take your pick.)

So it appears to me that Christianity itself could well be seen as an emergent non-Temple-based Judaism (among the many Judaisms of the first century) that gets detached and takes on a life of its own; much as rabbinic (rather than Temple) Judaism continued the life of that faith because it had come to see the living out of the Way of God was not dependent upon an external institution but an internalized (both individually and corporately) Way of life under the guidance of a transcendent God.

So does this have anything to say to our current ecclesiastical troubles — say, in relation to a proposed Anglican Covenant or the Indaba Process as “ways” of working? Or to our civic, national, or international concerns — government as institution or government as way of being?

Discuss among yourselves and report back!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

...we need a whole new shift-load of paradigms!

I read the phrase wrong first time around and had to reread. I'm still laughing.

About the covenant and in political discussions in the US, we certainly seem not to be communicating well.

Your post calls to mind a post by Rmj at Adventus in which he says:

I mean no disrespect when I say it doesn't really matter what the subject was originally, because it's a question that applies almost universally to almost any discourse. And one explanation of it is Wittgenstein's theory of language games: i.e., that we all use what seems like a common language, but we use it in particular ways, and what I interpret your use of language to mean, may not be what you intended to say. Perhaps Robert McCloskey said it best (Wittgenstein's explanation tends to get a bit technical): "“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”.

I'm not well-versed in Wittgenstein's writing, but I pick up what knowledge and understanding I can from what others more knowledgeable than I write, and I end up learning a bit from time to time. Wittenstein's theory of language makes sense to me and would serve as a reasonable explanation of the problems in discussions of the Anglican Covenant and US politics.

I can't speak to the Indaba Process, as I have only a vague idea of how the groups function. Perhaps the conversations are confidential, because I have not heard much from people who have been present.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Mimi. One need not resort to the airy realms of Wittgenstein to recognize that simple truth that words are vehicles for meaning, but often carry more than one passenger --- or are perceived to be carrying passengers other than the one the speaker or writer was attempting to "convey." At times the Klown Kar disgorges a whole procession of unintended mayhem.

Beyond this there is also the deliberate duplicitous language of political correctness (whether "liberal" or "conservative"). All of this corrupts discourse -- which is why coming to a common understanding of the words being used is vital for dialogue. This is one of the areas in which the Proposed Covenant fails miserably -- in that it fails to define crucial terminology.

The old mode of everyone "agreeing" to a text they then go off and interpret in wildly different ways is a false start or a hopeless goal. This is the main reason I've turned against the Covenant, and given up trying to "read it" in more gracious ways -- not because those ways are impossible or wrong, or even possibly what at least some of the authors intended, but -- because others will read the text in more punitive ways and then accuse "us" of being duplicitous. This is exactly what happened with Lambeth 98.1.10, which does not in fact "forbid" anything.

June Butler said...

Tobias, before I studied the Anglican Covenant in any depth, I was put off by the bad writing. I read the document once, and I thought, 'It can't be that bad.' Alas, upon a second reading, my opinion did not change.

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

I am reminded of my brief time working in the financial sector. When discussing with my wise boss (who had also been a professor at a local university) matters of customer relations, I told him my frustration that people's perceptions rarely seem to jibe with reality. He blinked twice and said with a wry grin, "But Richard, perception in this line of work is reality."

Actually, it's true in just about any line of work. There is an objective reality which God perceives. The rest of us live and deal in the land of perceptions...Rather Platonic, no?

Like you, dear Brother, I grapple with the perception that many in our society have simply given up the hard work of seeking facts. It's just become a game of "my perception is better than yours," which is a game, not a true relationship!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear RE, what you say is true -- all is perception, or as we say in communication theory, reception (though that works in theology, too!) -- but I'm addressing more the problem of perception distorted by ideology. Any perception is, necessarily, one step removed from reality, since it is not the thing in itself, but the reflection of a thing. The "meaning" is not the word, but the intent and the understanding. Still, there is a difference between a "fair" misperception of an intended meaning, and the deliberate (or conditioned) unwillingness to perceive as the speaker intends -- as a result of an ideological rationale. It is this latter I'm most concerned about as a detriment to discourse.

It arises in situations where a person lights on a possible meaning the speaker did not intend, and even after the speaker clarifies the interlocutor (driven by ideology) insists the speaker stand by the twisted understanding. One cannot really have discourse when one side (or both) insist the other mean something they did not intend! Sadly, much internet "conversation" seems to follow this course, as does much of the "commentary" on some of the 24-hour "News" channels. Misunderstanding is one thing, distortion is another.

Krista Tippet's current NPR series of discussions on civil discourse is most helpful in this regard....

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Agreed. What we have lost in some measure is a willingness to seek understanding, which I suppose is a basis for any genuine relationship!

Paul said...

The same problem recurs in the field of international diplomacy. At one time, French was the language of diplomacy because of its precision. Now, English is the official language because of its ambiguity.

One of the points of contention in the Middle East conflict is UN Security Council Resolution 242. The English version speaks of Israeli withdrawal from "occupied territories" while the French version uses the definite article (which is required in French) to say "the occupied territories", meaning all and not just some. Israelis quote the English texts and Arabs quote the French. The real intent of the Security Council is still debated to this day.

The English potential for ambiguity enables the very common practice which you rightly denounce, of agreeing to a text which no one interprets in the same way. Diplomats do this all the time when under pressure to produce an agreement. Any agreement. It creates the impression that they are doing their job. (All of us are under pressure to show this from time to time.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

RE, I would say only partially lost... there are still 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to the Baal of false uniformity, who are yet willing to celebrate a deeper unity in Christ!

Paul, I was thinking of diplomatic French even as I wrote. (I was a French major in college and learned the values of precision both in pronunciation and vocabulary!)

The pressure to find an agreeable (and flexible) text reminds me of the problem of police wanting a likely suspect rather than to find the actual guilty party. Case closed wins out over justice...

Erika Baker said...

"[The] occupied territories" seems to be a problem of translation/interpreting not of deliberate ambiguity.

It is possible to be unspecific in French just as it is possible to be specific in English.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, the motive may not be clear, but the problem remains. Closer to home, the rubrics of the BCP do contain some deliberate ambiguities (as did the 38 Articles in their day!) Perhaps my favorite coup d'esprit is the seemingly benign, "The Holy Table is spread with a clean white cloth during the celebration." The use of the passive voice and the ambigtuous "during" allows for both the altar cloth being on the "Table" throughout the liturgy and the unfolding of a corporal in the midst of the liturgy.

The requirement of the article, is, however, an important feature of French that to some extent limits its flex. Obviously the English could have been more precise by adding "the" but it is perfectly acceptable English to leave it out -- and thus open the range of meaning to greater ambiguity. Deliberate or not, we are left with two versions that can be read in incompatible ways. It is the difference between "all" and "some" -- which reminds me of the other liturgical battle (recently resettled by Rome) between "all" and "many" in reference to the shedding of Christ's blood in the institution narrative. This too hinged on the question of the article and whether "the many" means "all the rest." Touchy points, these...

It is, of course, possible to be precise and narrow in English -- the question is the willingness to do so rather than produce things capable of such a breadth of interpretation as to please everyone but settle nothing!

Erika Baker said...

I think your last sentence is the key here. There is an element of this in all hard won compromises, the latest example being our not so beloved Covenant. Some can sign up to it because of what it says, others because of what it doesn't say, but it's already clear that it will only be adopted if no party believes it will seriously need to change its way of being and doing church.

Maybe all these things give us is a breathing space in which to calm down and find our own solution.

But as you say in your main post, this only works if there is genuine integrity on both sides too and if they respect each other and the political process that brought them to the table in the first place.