29 July 2010

Some thoughts on what is meant by ‘orthodoxy’

One of the most fascinating (and at the same time most dangerous) aspects of language is that you can have two people or two groups of people using the same lexeme and yet ascribing to that lexeme two different sets of meaning and connotation such that they mean completely different things. When I use words like ‘orthodoxy’ or even ‘religion’, it can conjure up for different groups of people very different assumptions, impressions and images. Sadly, for too many people in the Western world, ‘orthodoxy’ means a set of inflexible, intractable, exclusionary dogmas imposed tyrannically upon a body of believers, and ‘religion’ is too often automatically associated with the most violent, mindless, poisonous and destructive excesses of the Abrahamic faiths, including Christianity. But as someone who considers himself ‘religious’ – specifically Christian – and as someone who tries to be ‘orthodox’, this isn’t what I mean when I use these words. It would probably be best if I first describe some of the connotations I bring to the term when I use it.

1.) Orthodoxy is historical. By this, I mean both that orthodoxy makes reference to its own history and that it has an awareness of the historical conditions in which it is rooted. To use just one example from the Christian faith, in the Anglican tradition, we identify ourselves by the elements of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral: the Holy Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist and the Episcopate as defined through Apostolic Succession. Through these elements, we can assemble a cogent narrative about who we are as a community, what our role has been through history and what it ought to be moving forward.
2.) Orthodoxy is communicative. By this, I mean that orthodoxy is a dialogue between us believers and our sources of authority, rather than a monologue of inflexible dogmas upon us. This is actually true of any healthy faith – the most valuable insight of religious existentialism is that no matter what we do, we always bring ourselves to the task; no matter what the text is saying, we have to treat it as though it is speaking to us and to our own conditions. Without a reader the text is meaningless; without dialogue between the text and the reader, the text is dead. (What is interesting to note, also, is that the central question within the early Gospels, particularly the Gospel of St Mark, is exactly this sort of existential poking at the reader: ‘Who do you say that I am?’) Though Holy Scripture is primary to our faith, we also require the communicative mediations of Church tradition and our own faculties of reason and personal experience.
3.) Orthodoxy is dialectical. The Gospel provides us with no easy answers to the pressing existential question it poses – even St Peter’s answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, earns him a stern rebuke from the asker. Looking back also at the debates in the Early Church about (among other things) the nature of Christ, it actually somewhat startled me to discover how reluctant the Church Fathers were to leap to the quick and easy answers, to the glib explanations which may have made the faith more palatable or simple to explain. The extremist Christologies were both ultimately rejected in orthodox thinking – that is, Docetism (which denied Jesus’ humanity in favour of his divinity) and Arianism (which denied Jesus’ divinity in favour of his humanity). Instead, Athanasian Christology, with its dialectical emphasis on the both-and, held the day; we are left even today with a Trinitarian belief system which rests on a set of paradoxes which do not lend themselves easily to simplistic answers, but rather to the reflection of the believer.
4.) Orthodoxy is humane. One of the inescapable suppositions of the Gospel, of Trinitarianism and of the Sacraments seems to be that there is the potential for salvation within the world generally, and within humanity specifically. That God was capable of taking on our human existence, able not only to relate to us but to participate fully in our shared experience – even that aspect which most disquiets us, namely death – points to a conclusion that we human beings do have an element of intrinsic value and dignity in our existence that must be encouraged. It is upon this ground, as Jürgen Habermas acknowledged, that such worthy ideals as social egalitarianism, human rights and democracy were built.
5.) Orthodoxy is subversive. Another inescapable supposition of the Scriptures is that, even though we human beings were meant for a more dignified existence, we nevertheless participate in a domination-system which keeps us in bondage, and from which we require salvation. One of the functions of orthodoxy, in its historical communicative dialectical humanity, is to challenge and resist that system. Orthodoxy is a continual reorientation of values: it challenges such unhealthy and broadly-accepted idols as the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of power, and it challenges us to renounce and subvert them where we see them.

Note that these connotations of ‘orthodoxy’ would not seem to lend it easily to the service of its abusers. Oftentimes, fundamentalists and violent exploiters of religion who cloak what they do and how they behave in the language of ‘orthodoxy’ will overlook the humanistic and paradoxical aspects of orthodoxy. From my view, it would be a mistake to think that ‘orthodoxy’ consists primarily in systematically stigmatising and excluding women and homosexuals from the life of the Church.

However, it is also worth noting that orthodoxy doesn’t really lend itself easily to any of our modern political projects or systems, having both radical-egalitarian and conservative tendencies. Though Christian orthodoxy is by nature ‘conservative’ in the sense that it is conserving a historical narrative in Scripture and in Church tradition, it offers grounds for devastating critiques of modern American conservatism (which in its values and priorities is completely oriented toward the idolatrous worship and concentration of power) and libertarianism (which in its values and priorities is completely oriented toward the idolatrous worship and concentration of wealth). However, orthodoxy also offers grounds for a deep, if not as devastating, critique of modern American cultural liberalism, which a.) offers us only a few relatively weak and ‘top-heavy’ means of resisting these dehumanising trends in the culture and b.) has incredibly few safeguards against the debasement of the human body through the treatment of sex in the culture as a mere consumer commodity (or as a means of selling consumer commodities).

Anyway, just a few loosely-organised thoughts here. I’ll likely try to expand on it a bit more later.

25 July 2010

Just to reassure...

This blog is not quite dead, sir. I'm not throwing it on the cart just yet.

I did have quite a few weeks of inactivity on account of being in upstate New York on family business and generally trying to get ready for grad school. Sadly haven't made much progress at all on my reading list, though I have gotten electricity and rent and insurance sorted out for my move to Pittsburgh - now all I have left is packing, a task at which I am (I believe understandably) baulking. (The sole criterion would seem to be, what can be fit in the back of the truck?)

Quite a bit happened while I was out, it would seem. On the 12th, the Church of England passed legislation which will clear the way for women to be consecrated as bishops. My initial reaction is that this is very much a step in the right direction for the Church, even though it still has some ways to go (the Parliament having to approve the legislation first, before any women are permitted to be consecrated). I pray that the Mother Church will not suffer further division and loss because of this legislation, though it naturally depends upon the wills of those who opposed the measure, whether or not they will remain faithful to the Church.

Also, one of my old Anabaptist friends from Madison linked me to a story wherein Archbishop Williams delivered an address to the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, which was convening to address, apologise and seek forgiveness for the deadly wrongs which had been done by Lutherans and by other magisterial Reformed groups to the Anabaptists during and after the Reformation. He proceeded to highlight two concerns, both of which are very close to me on an intellectual level: the dark side of the legacy of European colonialism and religious proselytisation in East Asia, and the dark side of the historic mistreatment of Anabaptists by the churches in the Magisterial Reformation. He very astutely articulates, through the imagery of the Holy Eucharist, what we need to comprehend in how we offer ourselves and our wrongs for forgiveness by those by whom we have done wrong. It isn't simply an act of meaningless collective guilt or score-settling, but rather a way of realistically approaching our shared history so that we may learn how to better approach the social and theological problems which we approached wrongly in the first place. It's an address well worth reading; it may be found here.

I think I'll go for a walk now...

09 July 2010

Review of The A-Team and updated reading list

In general, I'm not a fan of remakes. Almost by virtue of their existence, they lack in originality and creativity, and as homages it would be far better to use the original as moral or artistic inspiration for something different than to simply pour new wine into old wineskins. That said, sometimes remakes can be fun, entertaining and even original (like Batman Begins, Casino Royale or the Star Trek reboot).

The A-Team was certainly the first two, if not the last. Hat tips to the original TV show and cast are very nice to catch if done subtly and in moderation, but The A-Team went well over the top with them, from the van to the reel of the original TV show shown to the wards of the psychiatric unit in Germany (where Murdock was sent after his wrongful sentencing). Actually, come to think of it, The A-Team kind of went well over the top on everything, and the pinnacle moments of the movie were those when it realised that it was over the top, and turned around and winked at you for it. (The scene where they fly a tank into a Swiss lake using its main gun and a failed parachute - after which they roll out of the lake asking for directions from an old woman who just watched the whole thing - is a perfect example of this.)

It really was a big, noisy mess of an action film, though - and given to the kinds of tropified plot twists you could spot coming well in advance (the return to life and betrayal by someone thought dead, for example). The characters were well-done; I liked Copley's Murdock particularly well; Jackson's BA Baracus and Neeson's Hannibal were also very deftly done. Cooper's Face was smarmy and annoying for the most part, but since that was the way he was portrayed in the original TV show, I didn't have too much of a problem with that. I did enjoy the none-too-subtle backhanding of private military contractors (Blackwater having undergone a fictive name change to Black Forest), but as Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw pointed out in his review of Tom Clancy's HAWX (I do seem to enjoy linking his videos; can hardly imagine why), the private military contractor is indeed the most popular all-purpose bogeyman of our time in both cinema and video games. Also, as dastardly as the CIA has been in real life, why would the CIA need one of their operatives to steal treasury plates? As one arm of our opaque and jumbled mess of a national security state, wouldn't their coffers already have all of the money they can possibly find a use for, and then some? What would they do, paper their walls and wipe their bottoms with funny hundreds? And even if Lynch was a rogue agent, why would the CIA be trying to cover his arse at the end of the film instead of plausibly denying his affiliation with them? As with most action films nowadays, it's probably best if one doesn't ask too many deep questions about the plot and accept that it's going to be four guys causing massive crashes and explosions. All in all, it earned a solid 'meh' from me - entertaining, but not likely to go down in the same breath as Batman Begins and Casino Royale as far as remakes go.


My updated reading list is as follows: Mirror dance by Lois Bujold, Doctrine of the mean by Confucius, On being a Christian by Hans Küng and The liberation of theology by Juan Luis Segundo. I'm looking forward in particular to reading the Küng and Segundo - getting two ends of the modern Catholic perspective, both New Theology and classic Liberation Theology. Even where they agree they will probably also have vastly different things to say given their different backgrounds, trainings and philosophical proclivities.

I'm probably going to be taking a break from my blog for another week or so - I'm going to be visiting family out in Western New York and the internet there will likely be quite spotty. Sorry also for being so long with my latest update; I hope to be writing more regularly when I return.