Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Theological Elephant in the Living Room

I looked today at the new edition of Episcopal Life. On the cover is the Closer Look article, “Science and religion: Friends or foes?” Under the same category are sidebars on Darwin and on the “Catechism of Creation.” You can see them on line here .

I have to admit that until recently I thought this controversy was dead. Yes, I knew there were those who believed in the literal historicity of Genesis 1 through 4. I knew there had been some scientific efforts to demonstrate that the earth was only 6,000 years old, all of which had failed. I knew that there were those who tried to attach some technical-sounding language to that belief and called it “Creation Science.” But I never took seriously that so many people still wanted to make this work, to move the Biblical view of creation from acceptance by faith to demonstration by fact.

That changed, of course, after I moved to Kansas City. The metropolitan area and its various municipalities straddles the state line between Missouri and Kansas. I live on the Missouri side and work on the Kansas side. So, I’m a close observer of the struggles back and forth of the Kansas State Board of Education. The recent election and subsequent removal of the Dover, Pennsylvania, School Board were similar to the events in Kansas. The current Board of Education, which has leaned heavily toward Intelligent Design, replaced one that had affirmed the current scientific view of biology. And that Board had replaced an even earlier one that had also taken an Intelligent Design view. Evangelical Christian churches have organized for political effect. They are careful not to cross lines that would upset the IRS; and they are monitored by a centrist political watchdog group to make sure they don’t. There is currently a fight in the Republican Party in Kansas between social moderates and social conservatives. My general reaction to that? As O’Brien wrote often in the Aubrey/Maturin novels: “Confusion to the French!”

But, I am also conscious that this is also a factor in the current difficulties in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Those who wish to claim issues broader than human sexuality will say it began with issues of Biblical interpretation. The Episcopal Church is under attack both within and without from people who want to take a literal and unconsidered interpretation of at least some passages of Scripture.

This, too, can be described in “scientific” – which is to say, rational and philosophical – language. John H. Rodgers, a bishop of the Anglican Mission in America, presented at their recent convention a paper titled, “Where are we in the Anglican Communion and what should we in the AMIA be doing to help set things in order?” In it he states, “The intellectual currents of the rationalistic Enlightenment of the 17 and 18th Centuries, the Romanticism of the 19th Century and the naturalistic, scientistic secularism of the 20th Century have bitten deep into the thought and life of these [western] Provinces. The result is a moral and theological relativism and a view of God as "loving" defined in psychological terms such as unconditional acceptance…. Biblical study and the thoughtful examination of all sorts of helpful material concerning Scripture, usually referred to as biblical criticism, was emphasized during the Reformation of the 16th Century as a way of finding revealed truth, in order to adjust and criticize aspects of the Churches tradition and cultural thought. Subsequently in the West biblical criticism often becomes wedded to naturalistic assumptions which thereby reduce the Bible to man's thinking about God rather than God's Word to man.”

The difficulty here is that it calls into question an earlier statement in the same paper: “Anglicans tend to be intellectually confident, open to and interested in all truth, in principle. (Not fearful or uneducated or indifferent to careful analysis and comprehensive thought, aware of the call to bring every thought captive to Christ)….Since the one God is both Creator and Redeemer, all truth is God's truth. (See the Prologue to John's Gospel) Redeemed reason and faith are harmonious. (See reason as thought, reason as scholarship, reason as synthesizing world-view in relation to faith and the place of intellectual "metanoia")“ If biblical criticism was useful to adjust and criticize aspects of tradition and culture then, why is it not useful to criticize injustice now? If all truth is God’s truth, why are new understandings about what it means to be human before God, including being sexually human, not worthy of consideration? If redeemed reason and faith are harmonious, why is reason being so summarily rejected in this question?

This is the elephant in the living room of our current arguments in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. These efforts are as much an effort to return to an uncritical reading of Scripture as are those of boards that want Creation Science taught in public classrooms. True, we have not yet heard the regressives call for a literal reading of Genesis; but, then, the proponents of Intelligent Design haven’t, either. But neither position is truly internally consistent without such an interpretation, even if that assumption hasn’t been claimed. Of course, those among them who also oppose the ordination of women have come close.

So far no one among the antihomosexual voices has actually called for a position of biblical literalism, inerrancy, and infallibility. I could understand and respect them if they would. I could not agree with them; but I could respect them, just as I respect those members of my extended family who have that belief. If that is not their position, then they have the responsibility to articulate clearly why these verses deserve literal acceptance when others do not. And until they do, their efforts are simply further attempts to return to an unreasoned interpretation of Scripture, and a related uncritical view of authority and of what Christian culture ought to look like. And if John Rodgers is right - and at least in this I think he is – and the Anglican tradition is “open and interested in all truth,” seeing “all truth is God’s truth” and “redeemed reason and faith are harmonious,” it is they and not we who have departed from the tradition and chosen to walk apart.


Anonymous said...


This entry and the last one reflecting at the death of Coretta Scott King, are truly inspired. At least, in my opinion, they are. But I find myself in theological and emotional harmony with what you have to say.

With regard to the civil rights struggle, I find myself feeling like Zacchaeus all the time. I grew up in the mid to late 50s and early 60s. I told all the jokes and used the vocabulary that was common in my group. It wasn't until I got to college that I began to repent of that.

I have such difficulty seeing how the point of that struggle can be glossed over so easily here and now.

Bless you for writing. Blog on brother!

Grace and peace,

Michael Dodd said...

A word of welcome to the Reconciling Christian Bloggers ring. I have enjoyed what I have read so far.

Marshall Scott said...


Thanks for the welcome. I look forward to interaction with others on the Reconciling Christians ring.