Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More on Confessions and Unending Conversations

            I am not crazy about official Creeds, Confessions, or Statements of Faith. This is especially so if I have to officially subscribe to them in some way. However well-intentioned, a subscription requirement is coercive in that it is meant to set limits on what Christian Reformed (CRC) pastors—and pastors in many other denominations—may discuss, believe, or publish. The usually unspoken threat behind such subscription is deposition from ministry by church councils that decide you have strayed too far from the path of orthodoxy. Few, if any pastors go there. Mostly, they keep their doubts or disagreements to themselves, expressing them only privately. In the Christian Reformed Church I heard many, many such expressions of doubt going back many years. Even now, I note that a previous post on this issue in my blog has received nearly 10,000 unique visits (see Many CRC members are obviously not all that happy with the status quo.

            At first, as a young seminarian who had never had opportunity or occasion to think differently, the subscription requirement wasn’t a problem. In seminary, I even challenged the confessions, a bit, on the fringes, arguing for example that the doctrines of election and reprobation as stated in the Canons of Dordt were not equally ultimate (which, by the way, is a hard sell given the language of the Canons!). This was a safe adventure, given that well-known Christian Reformed theologians had made similar arguments before and gotten away with it. But focus on these sort of fringe issues was also a sort of rut on the way to ministry, in that they helped keep students focused on a very narrow set of safe issues, rather than giving permission to dream of real doctrinal innovation.

            But as time passed, I found that my private arguments with the confessions were becoming more substantive. I wanted to pass on election as well as reprobation. In my final few years in the CRC, I realized I questioned Reformed doctrines concerning hell, substitutionary atonement, eschatology, the historicity of Adam and Even, original sin, and so on.

            In the end I felt I had to come clean with my church council and peers in ministry. By then I had also changed my mind about moral issues such as homosexuality, reproductive choice, and marriage. I resigned from the CRC and moved to the liberal United Church of Canada.

            But leaving the denomination I grew up in, one that I was for many years a visible leader of, that I continue to love, was hard. It felt, on one level, like I was forced to disown myself from membership in my own family. How is it that the confessions should count for so much? Compared to the love I had for my parishioners, for example, or compared to my freedom in Christ? In any case, by now the very word “confession,” triggers me, no matter how it is used. I become unaccountably angry and depressed when I hear the word. I still wish there was an alternative measure for faithfulness in the CRC than subscribing to a list of sixteenth century doctrinal formulations.

            Perhaps in the metaphor of “unending conversation,” I’ve found that alternate.

            The American philosopher Kenneth Burke first came up with the metaphor that describes history, and especially the history of ideas, as an “unending conversation.” He puts it this way in his The Philosophy of Literary Form.

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110,111)

            I resonate with Burke’s metaphor. From Ebionism to Arianism to Docetism to Nestorianism—and that’s just a few options with respect to the nature of Christ, for example—the church as a whole has rarely been sure for long or lacked thoughtful alternative guesses about issues impossible to resolve. We debate such doctrines in treatises, call church councils to try and forge a consensus, publish resulting creeds or confessions to rally our side, form smaller factions pro and con the sub-points, and then write more treatises, sometime reinvigorating the conversation, at other times changing the topic. All is flux.

            Or is it? Creeds and Confessions (Statements of faith in the United Church of Canada), though part of the discussion, have historically also been understood as repositories for the non-negotiables when it comes to the unending conversation about faith and theology in the church. That is ultimately why, in the CRC (and many other denominations), leaders are asked to subscribe to the creeds and confessions.

            It is not so, however, in the United Church of Canada (UCC). That is not to say everyone in the United Church agrees on the force that confessions should have, or even whether or not there is an unchanging core at the heart of our theology.

            On the one hand, old UCC stalwarts such as T.B. Kilpatrick, in his Our Common Faith, insists that even though the church must give expression to its faith in “the language and the forms of present-day experience and reflection,” (67) it has also, on the other hand, “conserved all that is vital and permanent in the creeds of the past (67f).

            An early moderator, however, Richard Roberts, was less sure. Writing in the late 1920s, Roberts was influenced by the Process Theology of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, in turn, was influenced by the new science of Quantum Mechanics, with its uncertainty principle and recognition that all data is perspective- and value-laden. According to this perspective theology must be tentative rather than final, and is relative rather than objective. So, although Roberts loves the systems of the past—Calvinism, for example, and especially the Westminster Confession, “the greatest of all confessional instruments,”—Roberts also champions the constant creation of new systems. Every old system is at best (in a memorable turn of phrase), “a wayside inn, a bivouac” (11). Leaning on the poetry of William Blake, Roberts seems almost prescient about paradigm shifts, even celebrating them, long before Thomas Kuhn first described the concept. It is no wonder, then, that Roberts believes confessions or statements of faith need to be reviewed from time to time, and no one ought to be forced to subscribe to anything other than their “general substance.”

            But there it is again, something that doesn’t change, “the general substance,” a doctrinal deposit for all times. And certainly, references in both documents to the divinity of Jesus, as well as his resurrection, and the role of the Holy Spirit, suggest that some theological matters are not open for discussion or paradigm shift. Perhaps Process Theology was so new that Roberts wasn’t yet ready to dive in with both feet, or perhaps he couldn’t conceive of just how much even his relatively liberal theological presuppositions might come to be questioned by a new generation of UCC pastors and theologians.

            Roberts’ and Kilpatrick’s different perspectives on the status and weight of the church’s confessions and creeds—and scripture—has been practically decided, in the United Church, mostly in Robert’s favor—though perhaps to a degree that even Roberts would have been uncomfortable with. So, for example, we live in an era where post-theistic theology is openly discussed and promoted by United Church pastors such as Greta Vosper and critically examined in the United Church’s magazine, The Observer, as in its February 2011 issue.

            So, as statements of faith for the denomination to rally around, UCC confessions (or statements of faith) such as the Basis of Union or A Song of Faith are obviously problematic. As a matter of fact, while many people will still nod in their direction, it has been a long time since anyone has been compelled to do so.

            Perhaps this is understandable. By their nature confessions are really personal statements, not corporate ones—at least if the word “confession,” is used in its plain English sense. A confession is something that lives in the heart but must necessarily find expression on the lips. A confession is personal, deeply felt, and one’s own. It is hard to imagine that where two or three people gather they could ever have the same confession. People make up their own minds.

            The idea that a corporate entity, like the church, can make a confession belies this fact, trading on the fiction that corporations are persons. We know that as soon as some idea is put to paper, it divides all readers into pro and con camps. When a confession is written down on behalf of many, it will be only a short time before we start arguing what the authors meant. Such arguments, in turn, have almost no traction or weight in the pew. The chancel needs to be painted and a color chosen, after all. Now there is something to get excited about!
            So confessions are, one a key level, elaborate fictions. They are documents usually conceived of and written in committee, not confessions or personal statements at all. Or if they are written by a person—like the Belgic Confession was written by Guido de Bres—they were later adopted by committees for entire denominations. As corporate documents they do not live in more than a few people’s hearts. Sales of books and pamphlets about the Confessions in the CRC show that subscription surely isn’t the same as heart conviction. Confessions rarely can inspire much by way of unity, unless that unity is coerced by forced subscription.

            So, where does that leave us in the UCC? Well, for one thing, it leaves us in Burke’s parlor, where the conversation takes place, with our friends and acquaintances having the conversation. The ongoing and shared substance of our heritage is not so much any particular theological formulation as the fact that we talk about such formulations within the context of a church community we love and a book, The Bible, which we look to for guidance. That church is a unitive place where we want to be and party and do good, and converse. The unity is rooted in the loving community trying to follow Jesus’ example, and not in sixteenth or even twentieth century statements of faith. The conversation in our parlors will go where it will. Perhaps, in recognition of the primacy of community over “statements of faith,” we ought to give the statements a new name. “Our Conversation So Far.” A bit awkward, I know. But no more awkward than the name another series of statements of Faith: “The Fundamentals.” At least “Our Conversation,” is more humble and realistic take on what we can know of God, and demand that others agree with us on.

1 comment:

  1. Are texts useful in helping communities travel through time? This seems to be a question behind your question. How does commitment to texts work out in communities traveling through time?

    The questions regarding the confessions are of course a smaller one compared to the commitment to the larger text of the Bible. Confessions are of course attempts to focus because the Biblical text is large and far more alien.

    Deep within communities that bind themselves to texts is a fear of strong blinders that immediate life imposes on us. All such texts are in some ways a Ulysses wager, a tying onself to the mast in fear of the luring song of the harpies. It is an attempt to appropriate the wisdom of the past to help navigate through uncertain waters.

    Do you offer alternatives? Will we simply become the church of "what's happening now"?


What do you think?