Revelation vs Mystery

This is a response that I gave at the first Episcopal Church Foundation Fellows Conference at House Of Redeemer in New York in I think December of 2000. All the papers and responses were ultimately published in the ATR. Without too much difficulty you can reconstruct the outlines of the paper to which I am responding. Dr. Pressler is arguing for an inductive definition of communion. That is he is for looking at the churches that claim membership in the communion and asking what are the minimal conditions for communion that can be discerned from this investigation. In this article I identify the reasons that cause first world and two thirds world Anglicans to categorize their opponents as inherently immoral in their approach to theology. I make some suggestions for a theological rationale for a pastoral response by the South to the irregularities in the churches of the North.

A Reply to Titus Presler’s “Old and New In Worship and Community”
by Leander S. Harding

1. Titus Presler and I were colleagues in the Diocese of Massachusetts and I remember being spellbound as he recounted some of his missionary experience. I am very appreciative of Dr. Presler’s capacity to enter deeply into the experience of African Christianity and the art with which he is able to convey that experience to us. I remember many years ago being inspired and challenged by his experience in Zimbabwe. Something vital and refreshing of the Spirit of Christ had touched him and through his talk touched me as well. It is wonderful to have a chance to hear more of that story.

2. I am quite struck by Dr. Presler’s quote from the Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls,”that Africa is appearing as the Christian heartland.” This seems to me more than an arresting observation in terms of the sociology of religions. It has something of the judgment of God about it and suggests that in the West we have lost touch with the Gospel in some important ways. We should be more willing to be corrected than we appear to be. We in the West ought not to assume that differences only arise because of a gap in intellectual and cultural perspectives. Differences may also arise because of a gap in the vitality and dynamism of Christian life. Differences may arise because of a gap in what Martin Thornton has called Christian Proficiency. This recognition ought to bring a note of humility to any exchange of views.

3. I want to put Dr. Presler’s call for a more inductive approach to the question of who or what is Anglican and his minimalist proposal for the definition of communion within the context of a clash of two competing hermeneutics. There is a clash in Anglicanism and in the Christian world in general between a hermeneutics of revelation and a hermeneutics of the hidden-ness of God. The hermeneutics of revelation witnesses to a God who is fundamentally characterized by the will to be known. God is a god of self-disclosure and God has revealed God’s self in a definitive and unsurpassable way in Jesus Christ. In the witness to Christ in the scriptures and in the dogmatic tradition of the universal church we have accessible, reliable knowledge about God and God’s will. We must also use the light of reason but since all truth comes from God, right reason formed and informed by scripture and the practice of prayer will at the end be found to be congruent with revelation. We do not know everything there is to be known about God. This God is mysterious because there is a superabundance of meaning in God and a superabundance of knowledge which can be had about God. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally God’s will that we should know God and we have in the scriptures and the great Christian teachers of ages past cogent and dependable knowledge about God. The role of hermeneutics is to bring the text alive in our context but there is an inherent confidence in what Evangelicals call the perspicacity of the scriptures and the Great Tradition. It is from within this model that the traditional and now hotly contested model of Anglican biblical interpretation has emerged, using tradition and reason as cards in the game but scripture itself as the trump card. In this perspective the glue that holds the community together is the willingness to surrender to a common authority. This is the perspective of traditional theology and the perspective in which most of the two thirds world’s Anglicans have been formed. In this perspective, it is immoral not to assert the truth which we all know and receive.

Opposing this perspective is a hermeneutics of the hidden-ness of God. In this perspective the fundamental characteristic of God is not revelation, not self-disclosure but mystery. The familiar category of the mystery of God is being used in a very different way from traditional theology. Here God is encountered and revealed primarily in an ineffable inner experience, the experience of the mystery of God. God is inherently and in principle unknowable. The scriptures and dogmas of all the great world religions arise as an attempt to express the ineffable. They are all by definition partial and incomplete. They serve a useful role as guides and clues to our search for the experience of God but they do not provide dependable and reliable knowledge of God and God’s will. Such knowledge as we can have of God comes from our own experience and from sharing the experience of others. Within this perspective there can be a real commitment to Jesus and a profound interest in scripture as a catalyst for religious experience. Scripture, tradition and reason are cards in the game but experience is the trump card, trumping even the results of scientific investigation. It is shared experience which is seen as having the power to hold the community together. This is the theological ethos in which many of the leaders of the church in the West have been formed. It is important to note that in this perspective to assert that you are in possession of dependable knowledge about God or God’s will is a dishonest and immoral act. There are elements in this perspective that correct imbalances in traditional perspectives but the foundational assumptions of this hermeneutics of the hidden-ness of God seem to me to simply contradict New Testament belief in the definitive act of God in Jesus Christ. On the basis of this hermeneutic it is hard to see how a missionary spirit can be kept alive and how it is possible to cast a compelling moral vision that can inspire common consent. The moral and missional failure of this perspective creates an environment that is ripe for a reaction of dogmatism and legalism.

When there is a dispute about whether some innovation is an authentic or inauthentic expression of the Gospel, the practitioners of each hermeneutics invoke their authorities. Traditionalists call for the reassertion of an authoritative tradition. Adherents of the hermeneutics of hidden-ness call for the opportunity to recount their experience and hear the experience of others. Traditionalists point to the unbroken witness of the church and their antagonists reply “but that is not our experience. Come and see.” The adherents of the hermeneutics of revelation are mystified by an apparent indifference to issues of truth, and the adherents of a hermeneutics of the hidden-ness of God. are perplexed that the invitation to an exciting exchange of experience which has the possibility of provoking new common experiences of God should be met with such a lack of enthusiasm. Each side views the other’s solution to a crisis of authority as inherently immoral and irresponsible. In such a climate it is easy to take offense.

When invited to hear experience, the traditionalist is suspicious and wonders if accepting a radically relativist view of the truth is a prerequisite to the encounter? Is a deal being offered? You affirm my experience and I will affirm yours and neither of us will challenge the other with transcendent norms. Invitations to dialogue and the sharing of experience, with the suspension of theological and ethical norms, while we build the community, often strike me as an invitation to exchange a hermeneutics of revelation for a hermeneutics of mystery without a debate or a struggle. ( From our correspondence I know that this is not Dr. Presler’s intention at all. Nevertheless, I want to point to the climate that any proposal must take into account.) I suspect many in the two thirds world hear it in this way as well and therefore I doubt this proposal will be well received by the African Bishops who are concerned about apostasy in the West.

To be credible a proposal to share experience must include a willingness to turn from pure subjectivity to some objective standard of judgment. Proposals from the traditionalist side must include a willingness to include experience as one of the cards to be played in the interpretive hand though, not the trump card. It is very important in crafting discussions that hope to end in anything other than mutual condemnation to have a sensitivity to this hermeneutical tension which I have described and to search for points contact.

Here I make a plea for the renewal of the use of reason as an authority in theological argument. It may in the present circumstance be easier to agree on what is right reason than it is to agree on a right reading of scripture or the tradition. For example, the case for innovation in Christian sexual ethics is pressed primarily on the basis of experience and opposed primarily on the basis scriptural revelation. A more serious discussion of the scientific and clinical state of the question might diminish anxiety about an unwillingness to submit to any objective criteria.

4. I would like to suggest a second hermeneutical clash that illuminates the tension within our communion. I call this the tension between a hermeneutics of soteriological urgency and a hermeneutics of soteriological confidence. This can be seen in Dr. Presler’s application of Roland Allen’s comments on innovation as a positive sign of the reception of the Gospel. Allen is worried by the alien character of much in the young churches and is concerned that real enculturation has yet to take place. The late missionary bishop Leslie Newbigin traces a common conflict between first and second generation Christians. The first generation of converts have a horror of much that is associated with their culture. The songs, dances, masks, musical instruments and even clothes seem to them inextricably associated with the powers of darkness from which the Gospel has liberated them. These Christians are not ignorantly aping their missionary teachers they are fleeing evil. There may be a time in a young church’s life when a certain cultural incongruity is necessary, even vital. The children of these converts grow up in a world in which the spell has been broken and the artifacts of the folk culture have become disenchanted. The children are fascinated with their roots and want legitimately to develop an indigenous form of Christianity that celebrates the glory of their culture. To the older generation, it appears that the tools of the devil are being used. There is a collision between a hermeneutics of soteriological urgency and a hermeneutics of soteriological confidence.1

It sounds like something of this dynamic was at work in the example cited by Presler when the Bishop forbade all night vigils. We can detect a certain paranoia and over reaction on the one hand, and a certain complacency and non chalance about the powers of darkness on the other hand. The Bishop is not just being a slave to formalism. He is worried about the health of the souls in his charge. It is exactly the situation addressed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, 8 in his treatment of food offered to idols.

For many in the two thirds world, we in the West seem to be flirting with dark and dangerous things from which they have just recently struggled to be delivered. In the the two thirds world the sense of soteriological urgency is high and highly focused on the reality of supernatural evil and the hope for heaven and the fear of hell. In the West an implicit, if not explicit universalism, reigns. The sense of the reality of supernatural evil is weak. We have a sense of soteriological confidence with regard to eternal judgment bordering on presumption. Such soteriological urgency as we have tends to be this worldly and focused on “human flourishing” in this life.

There is a possibility of mutual correction here. The traditional interest in Patristic thought comes in part because these authors are so close to the original experience. We ought to have a great interest in the experience of places where the Gospel is young, as having the potential of placing churches that have become overconfident back in touch with important dynamics in the drama of salvation. Younger churches will also have to face the problems of establishment that have been the challenge of the West. My own view is that it is impossible to maintain a sense of soteriological urgency for human flourishing without a sense of urgency about things supernatural and eternal.

In the meantime what do we make of St. Paul’s determination to do nothing, even though he has the right, which would cause the weaker brother to stumble? This should prevent us from a precipitous and unilateral changing of symbols and formularies until the Holy Spirit has more time to bring to light who the weaker brother really is.

5. Having pointed to this tension, I want to affirm Dr. Presler’s invocation of Roland Allens’s insight that innovation is part of the real reception of the Gospel into a culture. Leslie Newbigin captures something of Allen’s point in a slightly different way. Newbigin observes that missionaries frequently confuse the ethical response to the Gospel for the Gospel itself and substitute an attempt to “predetermine the ethical response to the Gospel” for the preaching of the Gospel. One example comes from the early mission to Uganda.2 The missionaries came to the court of the Ugandan King and were offended by the practice of polygamy. They proceed to preach against polygamy thus confusing the preaching of a predetermined ethical response to the Gospel for the Gospel itself. The young men of the Ugandan court were indifferent to this preaching but they were struck by the humility of Jesus and came to abhor the pomp of the court and the slavery that was necessary to support these excesses. The ethical response was more profound than the one that was expected. Innovation in this sense is to be hoped for and eagerly anticipated. Polygamy remained a pastoral and practical problem standing under the judgment of the New Testament.

I think this story of Newbigin should lead to us to expectancy about authentic Gospel innovation in those cultures where Christianity is just taking hold. But it is also contains the dynamic of mutual criticism. The missionaries were quite right to object to polygamy but were wrong to place a decision about that issue ahead of a decision about the Gospel and very ethically obtuse to be more offended by polygamy than by chattel slavery. There is a mutual criticism and enrichment in Christ here that comes from cross cultural mission and which presumes that there is a dependable and transcendent light of revelation in the light of which true judgments can be made.

6. It is the case that one part of the church can not dictate to another in the way colonial missionaries could. (This I take it was the context of Allen’s original point.) And even if it could, should not. The Archbishop of Singapore is wrong to try to force matters and so are threats to cut off aid to African Anglicans if they do not become more accepting of an “enlightened” sexual ethic. But this is not to say that one part of the church cannot challenge another with norms and standards of Christian belief and practice that transcend cultural and ecclesiastical boundaries. Another missionary story may illustrate this point.

One of the most helpful books I have read for my own missionary activity among the lapsed Christians of New England is that remarkable book by the Holy Ghost Father, Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered.3 The person who rediscovers Christianity is Fr. Donovan as he engages in mission to the Masai. Donovan is a great student of Roland Allen and he strives to disentangle the Western cultural container from the Gospel. At one point he is teaching a newly converted village how to have their first Eucharist. They gasp when they find out that men and women are to eat from the same dish and drink from the same cup. Never in the whole history of the Masai has such a thing happened. Donovan says to them, “I reminded them that besides the law of love which I had preached to them and they had accepted, I had never tried to interpret for them how they must work out this law in their homes and in thier lives, and in their treatment of their daughters and wives and female neighbors (as sorely tempted as I had been to do just that). But here, in the eucharist, we were at the heart of the unchanging gospel that I was passing on to them. . . .in the eucharist, which is to say ‘in Christ, there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.’”4 And so there is a dramatic innovation in the life of the Masai. Later some young Masai women are talking to the padre and say to him “this gospel is good news to us indeed.” Clearly there are norms of belief and practice that need not to be inflicted by one part of the church upon another, but need to be submitted to by all who would claim the name Christian. These norms are not impossible to discern unless it is true that God is inherently a hidden God and not a God who wills to be revealed.

7. I suggest that this distinction between the Gospel and the ethical response to the Gospel might be a helpful way for all parties of framing the present tension. There will be ethical implications of the Gospel that will be hard to accept in a given culture at a given time. The Africans have theirs and we have ours. This does not mean as in the example with polygamy that an issue is irrelevant to that culture but that in God’s timing that is not an issue which is capable of being resolved at the present. But the preaching of the Gospel must go on and unexpected and profound responses in other areas may be expected. I would invite Anglicans in the two thirds world to look at our back slid church as being in a position similar to the early years of their own church and to understand that it is possible to have a basic reception of the Gospel and great irregularities in ethical life that have to do with the peculiarities of the culture. The parallel is often drawn between polygamy and homosexuality with the implication that perhaps polygamy should be allowed. But perhaps the example should be taken in the other direction and there be an acceptance of the need for a pastoral response to deeply ingrained cultural patterns during an interim period . What we in the West need from Africa and the rest of the Anglican Communion is the preaching of the Gospel combined with a pastoral missionary strategy that does not prematurely attempt to predetermine the ethical response to the Gospel. The unilateral changing of formularies would make impossible such a creative relaxation of tensions.

I would say to Anglicans in the West that we ought not to change the formularies until we have had more time to talk together as a world wide communion about the heart of the Gospel Here something like the Barnabas Project would be a helpful ingredient. This conversation would assume some temporary divergence in ethical response that has to do with the peculiarities of local culture and the development and possible regression of particular churches, but it would take place with a faith in the reality of discernible, Christian, culturally transcendent norms that can be discovered and known which will cause a convergence of Christian ethics in due time.

1. Leslie Newbigin The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1995), p. 148-149.
2. Ibid. p. 136-137.
3. Vincent J. Donovan Christianity Rediscovered, 17th printing. (Maryknoll, New York: 1999)
4. Ibid. p. 121.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s