Bishop John Chane and Imperial Pluralism
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
“I think it’s really very dangerous when someone stands up and says: ‘I have the way and I have the truth and I know how to interpret holy scripture and you are following what is the right way,'” he said “It’s really very, very dangerous and I think it’s demonic.” Bishop of Washington, John Chane as quoted in the English newspaper The Guardian.
This is from an interview in which the bishop of Washington was commenting on the crisis in the Anglican Communion and the charge by Anglican traditionalists that many bishops in The Episcopal Church have simply departed from the Apostolic faith.
John Chane charges the traditionalists with the crime of certainty. This is a commonplace. It is a corollary of the reigning intellectual culture among the intellectual elites of the West. It is a consequence of the dogmas of post-modernism. It is based on the conviction that there is very little that can be known with certainty, perhaps just a very few “facts” of science, perhaps not even them. The dogma at work here is the ironic post-modern dogma of the certainty of uncertainty. Consequently according to this post-modern dogma, to claim certainty in the area of beliefs and values is immoral and especially so given the huge variety of religious and philosophical options. The high dudgeon of the well educated university grad schooled in the dogmas of post-modernism is reserved for anyone who has the audacity to claim certainty in the area of religion, morals and beliefs. This is seen by people such as John Chane as an example of immorality and trying to force your beliefs on others. People who are morally and religiously certain create alarm. They are in Bishop Chane’s words, dangerous.
This protest against certainty claims the moral high ground and sounds on the surface as though it is based on a generous tolerance. This supposed moral protest in the name of tolerance needs to be unmasked as exactly the opposite, the dismissive and marginalizing rhetoric of the powerful who seek to protect their own agenda from critique on the grounds of any transcendent authority. It is precisely an attempt to force your beliefs on others before any argument is engaged by virtue of the way in which the rules of discussion are established. It is saying, in effect, ” before we talk you must agree that your beliefs and values are the sort of thing that I say they are and I say they can never be more than one opinion among others. If we are to talk, you must give up all your truth claims before you come to the table. With regard to the rules of the table, I will be the final referee.”
Lesslie Newbigin has brought forward a devastating critique of this pretended stance of tolerance. Newbigin identifies one of the foundational myths of contemporary pluralism in the parable of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men so the story goes are exploring an elephant by touch. One feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope and one feels the leg and says the elephant is like a tree and one feels the ear and says the elephant is like a large leaf. Each has a piece of the truth. No one of them has it all. To apply the parable to our current controversy, many in The Episcopal Church see the protest of traditionalist Anglicans as an attempt by one of the blind men to make his perspective the one authoritative perspective and thus a power play and an immoral case of over-reaching. Lesslie Newbigin points out that there is a problem with this parable. The parable is told from the point of view of the King and his courtiers who take in the whole scene. The parable is told from the point of view of a supposedly neutral observer who is able to see the partial and limited nature of all other perspectives from the vantage point of the one perspective which is not subject to any critique. The parable is told from the imperial point of view. The teller of the parable adopts the pose of tolerance but this is surface camouflage behind which the King asserts the right to relativize and marginalize all other claims to truth but his own. Of this Newbigin says, “In a pluralist society such as ours. . .any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation. It itself rests on assumptions which are open to radical criticisms, but which are not criticized because they are part of the reigning plausibility structure.” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, page 10.)
Bishop Chane’s protest sounds high minded and tolerant but it is in reality the rhetoric of the despot who is beyond rebuke. I do not ascribe a calculating mentality to the bishop in this but the words quoted in the Guardian are nonetheless words which express an imperial pluralism. Having once dismissed his opponents, Bishop Chane will immediately turn and announce his agenda for revision of the inherited moral teaching of the church as a “Gospel imperative.”
Now the question is this: to whom shall we turn when issues are disputed; to the whole Christian dogmatic and moral tradition of the last 2000 years or to the dogmas of skepticism and nihilism of the current Western intellectual elites?