That Which is Not Negotiable

The sad news yesterday of Rowan Williams’s impending departure from Canterbury seems to call for a tribute of sorts, which, purely by coincidence, I was planning to post this week anyway.  The following is a fantastic passage from his essay, “Hooker: Philosopher, Anglican, Contemporary” in Richard Hooker and the Construction of Christian Community.  

Having summarized Hooker’s account of the mutability of human affairs, the need for a readiness always to revisit our conceptions of what God calls us to do in the realm of practical action, he asks why it is that the same liberty to innovate should not be permitted to us in doctrinal affairs, as in matters of action?  After all, few moderns are still prepared to take seriously Hooker’s happy confidence that Scripture affords us perspicuous access to objective truth, unconditioned by historical circumstance, when it comes to the fundamentals of faith.  Williams’s response constitutes a thoughtful and sensitive attempt to defend Hooker’s basic distinction, while translating it into theological terms more intelligible to our age:

“We cannot pretend that we are theological innocents, timelessly confronting the mystery of God’s action.  We are not here talking about a voluntary self-limitation, but about a call or imperative or transforming gift that ‘limits’ us, whether we choose or no.  There can be no beginning all over again here—the determinations have, in some sense, been made for us, first of all in creation, in our being the sort of beings we are, and then in a redemption whose point is to free us to be such beings.  It is not up to us to ‘choose’ our final ends, because we do not choose our nature.  In this case, then, even more than with matters of polity, how we act and talk is conditioned by a history—not a history, this time, of our decisions and their consequences, but a history of attempts to bring to speech that which determines us.  Doctrine, in other words, is always a catching up with something prior to us: we do not (in both the technical and the colloquial senses of the words) ‘have priority’ when we try to speak doctrinally.  When we reckon with the ways in which doctrinal history, like political history, conditions the questions we ask and how we ask them, the essential difference, in Hooker’s perspective, between the two kinds of conditioning is that political history is about means to the ends that doctrinal language specifies.  If we treat our doctrinal language as revisable in the same sense as our talk about polity, we risk treating our human ends as negotiable, as potentially under human control or at the mercy of human circumstances, and this fragments the whole underlying sapiential model, depending as this model does on our final determination by the nature of God as the object we find our bliss in contemplating, the life we are fulfilled in sharing.  

Hooker’s proscription of doctrinal revision, then, has a clear logic to it.  We may have more problems than he did about the historical conceptualities of doctrinal statement, we may well want to say that doctrinal utterance does involve human choices, human self-determination, unless we believe that revelation comes in well-formed statements to start with.  But the question Hooker poses for the doctrinal revisionist is a serious one, one that needs articulation in our contemporary theological debates.  Doctrine is about our end (and our beginning); about what in our humanity is not negotiable, dispensable, vulnerable to revision according to political convenience or cultural chance and fashion.  Deny this, and you must say that humanity or the human good is, in some significant way, within our power to determine: which may sound emancipatory for a few minutes, until you remember that, in a violent and oppressive world, it is neither good news nor good sense to propose that definitions of the human lie in human hands, when those hands are by no means guaranteed to be the instruments of a mind formed by contemplative reason—or even what passes for reason in the liberal and universalist ethos of ‘our’ democracies.  Doctrine purports to tell us what we are for, and what the shape is of a life lived in accordance with the way things are, and how such a life becomes accessible to us, even in the middle of the corruptions and unfreedom of a shadowed history.  Hooker’s general apologetic for revealed religion would need a fair amount of reworking in our more ironic age, but his general challenge is still worth listening to.  If we are not somehow bound by what God is and what we are, however stumblingly inadequately we can speak of these things, what possibility is there of sustaining a belief in the common good of human creatures beyond the terms of a minimalist discourse about survival?”

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