Saturday, January 27, 2007

Something something Dostoevsky something something

Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination.
- Max Planck

I've never been able to find this quote in the original German (thus ensuring, I suppose, that by tomorrow morning I shall have a comment from someone who has managed to find it) but in English, I can endorse it unreservedly because of those three words 'at our disposal'. Doubtless there are more true statements than those that can be found by experiment, or that can ever be verified, but the means by which we apprehend them are definitely not 'at our disposal'.

I will now attempt to construct an elaborate metaphor.

The universe which we experience, let us call the Ocean.

Let us give ourselves an instrument for sampling the universe which is at our disposal, which will give reproducible results, with which we can experiment: this is the Cup of Reason.

Let us give ourselves another instrument for sampling the universe which is not at our disposal, which will give irreproducible results: this is the Net of Poetry and Imagination.

We can dip the cup in many times, and we can learn much about the wetness of the ocean, and the saltness of the ocean, and as we focus our energies more and more on understanding what we find in the cup we will uncover splendid chemical equilibria, and wondrous plankton, and all manner of marvels, and we will understand the ocean, this little cylinder of water circumscribed by reason.

We can dip the net in many times, and many times we will find nothing, but sometimes we might pull out a Crimson Gugfish, and we can show it to our friends and say: 'Look at this image of truth I have imagined' and they will say, if they are sensible and wise and know well the use of reason: 'That thing will not fit in a little cylinder of water'. And we will go away abashed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A response to the Second Comment of Nato on the Reformation

Quoth Nato:

The key thing that the Reformation began the process of was to make clear the distinction between:

1. Church as Institution / Organisation / Structure, with truth mediated by a single divinely appointed, infallible 'priestly' human authority (i.e. the Pope);

2. Church as Body/Organism/Relationship (certainly the focus of NT Teaching), with truth freely available to all and mediated by Christ alone, through Scripture alone. The priesthood is made up of all who believe.

I think if you will look at history, Nato, you will find that the distinction between Church as Institution/Organisation/Structure and Body/Organism/Relationship has been very clear in people’s minds for a very long time before the Reformation and the relationship between the two has been the vital dynamic in all Christian societies.

I’m not seeking to defend the words ‘infallible’ or ‘i.e.’ in your definition of Church as Institution, but to attack the words ‘through Scripture alone’ in your definition of Church as Body of Christ. The words ‘infallible’ and ‘i.e.’ define the difference between the Roman Catholic church and all the other Christian churches, while the words ‘through Scripture alone’ define the difference between the Protestant churches and all the other Christian churches. But there is much more to Christianity than us and youse!

What you ought to do is find a Copt to talk to. You will find that they adhere to the same conception of authority in Christianity as Roman Catholics do, despite having been in schism for around about 1500 years. All the Eastern Churches share with Western Catholicism the conception of authority as lying in the chain of personal relationships that constitute the hierarchical bit of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic church. By holding to this Apostolic tradition, I think they have struck something like the right balance between the inflexibility of Islam and the ‘reed blowing in the wind’ mutability of Protestantism.

You will find that the Copt is pretty similar to a Catholic. I think I have written this somewhere here before, but when I heard a Coptic Priest speak when I was in Devil Bunny City I was struck by how much more Catholic he was after 1500 years of separation than Luther had been after five. Among other things, you will find the traditions of prayers for the dead and veneration for the Mother of God, which Luther dispensed with, going strong in the Coptic community.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A response to the First Comment of Nato on the Reformation

1. ‘The Reformation wasn't just about Luther. There were movements all over Europe (e.g. Switzerland, France, Scotland & England), with other key individuals all contributing to the movement (Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Cramner, & Tyndale to name a few). While I deplore some of their unbiblical methods (don't get me started on Calvin), they all contributed in their own way to the movement as a whole.’

I realised that there is a clash of worldviews here.

A Protestant naturally believe that the Reformation was the restoration of something that once existed, so all the Reformers are labourers in the same garden, petals of the same flower, tentacles of the same octopus, etc., and it is silly to focus on Luther.

A Catholic, on the other hand, sees the Reformation as the irruption of something novel into Christendom that never existed before, and thus highly dependent in all its features on the character and emphases of the man who got it rolling and was the leading Reformer for the first two or three decades of the movement. From my point of view, the four ‘solas’ in your third point are historical accidents arising from Luther’s Augustinian background, and not the central axioms of Christianity.

2. ‘Luther translated the New Testament into German, but his intent was certainly not to divorce it from the entirety of Scripture. Luther's 39 articles were a reaction against the inherent corruption of the teachings of Christ that had built up over the centuries (e.g. Indulgences, Purgatory and Mary worship to name a couple).’

Everywhere in Luther’s writings you will find a very strong dichotomy between ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’- i.e., between the Old Testament and the New Testament- with ‘Law’ playing the part of ‘scissors’ and ‘Gospel’ playing the part of ‘rock’. In this he stands solidly in the tradition of St. Augustine, St. Paul, and Christianity as a whole, so I am not intending to accuse him of anything untoward in separating the New and Old Testaments.

3. ‘The Reformation was based around a few key doctrinal issues (sometimes called the "Great Solas")Four that are key to this discussion are:
a) How can you be right with God?
By Grace Alone
(Sola Gratia)
b) How does this Grace Come?
By Christ Alone
(Solus Christus)
c) How do we find Christ?
Through Scripture Alone
(Sola Scriptura)
d) How are we 'saved'?
(jargon, I know, but scriptural
language so I'll use it)
By faith alone
(Sola Fide)’

Here’s an extract from something Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor wrote in the Spectator last month. I’ve been carrying it around in my pocket for a few days, so I should probably write it down before it gets washed:

I never hear the name of the Church without smiling at the mischievous remark of Karl Barth, the great 20th-century Swiss Calvinist theologian. For him, ‘Santa Maria sopra Minerva’ was a perfect description of what is wrong with Catholicism: it is founded, said Barth, upon ancient pagan wisdom (and not on the Gospel), is too accepting of insights which arise outside the confines of Christianity (because it is too positive about the presence of grace everywhere) and it makes too much of Mary (because it dares to think that human beings have the dignity to ‘co-operate’ with God throught the exercise of their freedom).
Now Barth was called by Pope Pius XII the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas, so we have to take him seriously; but if Barth says that these things are what is wrong with Catholicism, I think I could make a fair case for saying that these are precisely the things that are right about Catholicism. Our European Christian culture- there is such a thing and it is central to the character of Europe, and it is a misrepresentation to delete Christianity from Europe’s past, present, and future- draws upon streams of wisdom and philosophy from ancient Greece and Rome, and this is undoubtedly an enrichment. As a Catholic, I most certainly believe that grace is at work everywhere in God’s creation, and not only within the life of Christians, because God is creator of all and leaves marks of his presence in every culture. Finally, I hold that God’s approach to us, and to Mary whom he asks to become the mother of the Saviour, respects our freedom to choose and respond to him- God, after all, does not impose divine love upon us. When God comes to us in Christ, he is welcomed by Mary, the first of those to be saved by him.

4. ‘Sola Scriptura is not unscriptural: try
2 Timothy 3:16-17 & 2 Peter 1:16-21 + 3:13-16 New Testament) and Psalm 119 (Old Testament) for starters - I'm happy to unpack them a litte more another time.’

The problem is, if Christ has intended the Church to be guided by a book, he would have said so: this is something pretty important, after all. Thus your citations should be something like Matthew X1:y1-z1, Mark X2:y2-z2, Luke X3:y3-z3 and John X4:y4-z4 to be convincing. What he did say about what would happen after he left involved the sending of the ‘Comforter’ – who Muslims believe to be Muhammad, and Christians the Holy Spirit- and something ambiguous about Peter being given the keys to bind and loose.

From the Second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, 3:16-17:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Saying all scripture is profitable is not at all the same thing as saying that only scripture is profitable.

From the Second Letter of St. Peter, 1:16-1:21
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased’ and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

This seems to support the opposite point of view: ‘no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation’ implies that it is useless to read it without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This quote also certainly does not equate all Scripture with prophecy, or imply that the men moved by the Holy Spirit to make prophecies were necessarily recorded accurately.

and 3:14-16:
But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

You could equally well say ‘ignorant and unstable people distort Ikea flat pack instructions, to their own destruction’: this does not imply ‘only Ikea flat pack instructions are useful in avoiding destruction.’

Are there two ways of numbering the Psalms? My Psalm 119 is very short and does not seem appropriate:

To the Lord in the hour of my distress I call and he answers me
‘O Lord, save my soul from lying lips, from the tongue of the deceitful.’
What shall he repay you in return, O treacherous tongue?
The warrior’s arrows sharpened and coals, red-hot, blazing.
Alas, that I abide a stranger in Meshech, dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Long enough have I been dwelling with those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for fighting.

Or, maybe it is appropriate...

Should you ever think that 'when you speak, I am for fighting', remember this nifty quote attributed to Leo Szilard: ‘A scientist's aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify.’ ;)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I’m having a wonderful time but I’d rather be whistling in the dark

This is just a mild plea to Nato to expand his comment point number 2 for me. :)

Without knowing the sources upon which you base your historical analysis of the Reformation, I find your conclusions regarding church history and authority (e.g. Luther divorcing the New Testament from the rest of the Bible and the 'infallibility' of the Bible to name two) to be at significant odds with my understanding of what I would call 'evangelicalism' (the driving spirit of the Reformation).

It’s not surprising that any of my conclusions regarding church history and authority are at significant odds with the Protestant understanding of the Reformation, since my premises regarding church history and authority are at significant odds with the Protestant understanding of the Reformation! As far as I know, attributing Luther’s (unscriptural) doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ to the example of Islam is my own idea, though I may have picked it up from Belloc or another sabre-rattling Catholic apologist of yesteryear. I think if anyone really does believe in the ‘infallibility’ of the Bible, they are more than halfway to Islam if they are intellectually honest, because if they ever chance to pick up the Qur’an they will realise: ‘Whoa! So that’s how an infallible book should be written. This must be the One.’

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sources of Authority

The folly of calling for a reformation in Islam comparable with the ‘reformation’ in Christianity lies in the different sources of authority in the two religions.

In Islam, the source of authority is a single infallible book, which is considered by many Muslim scholars to predate the existence of the earth. This book explicitly claims to be infallible. It explicitly claims to be the direct word of God. It reiterates these claims often and at length. Any reformation of Islam must return to the Qur’an, which is fixed and immurable. The moving finger has written and moved on, and nothing can be changed. A Caliph has no authority to add anything to, or take anything from, what is written. His is primarily a political role, and he cannot chose to adapt Islam to suit changing conditions. It is as it is: take it or leave it. Even the tradition, or hadith, those few extra doctrines not found in the Qur’an- such as the idea that Muhammad was the last, the seal of the Prophets- is a closed canon, and has not been augmented for a thousand years.

If you were going to reform Islam, you could plausibly take a look at the Qur’an and make a serious effort to determine which suras might be supplanted by other ones. The logical way to do this would be to take the later, less-tolerant Medinan suras wherever they conflicted with the earlier, more-tolerant Meccan ones. I doubt this is what Janet Albrechtsen has in mind. This will result in a harder, fiercer, less flexible religion, which up to a point will be able to resist the modern world, but it will not be in any way a reformation which will allow Islam to adapt to the modern world.

Another thing you could do is reject the hadith, and go back to the Qur’an alone. In itself this is going to be an entirely negative reform. It can only become positive and adaptive if, in rejecting the un-Qur’anic idea of Muhammad as the seal of the Prophets, you allow a new Prophet to come in with additional teachings expanding on those of Muhammad. This is not a new idea. This is what the Druze did, and the Baha’i’s, and a number of other religions, all of which have in common the fact that through this reformation they are no longer Islam. This path will not result in a reformed Islam, simply in more daughters to join the family of Abrahamic religions.

In Christianity, the ultimate source of authority is a person. Historically, this has been understood to be mediated by an unbroken chain of personal contacts linking the hierarchical Church to the historical person called the Christ. This person never wrote a book, not commanded that any book be written about him. Many things were written about him and his teachings, nevertheless, and were collected by the Church, but these writings do not claim to be infallible, do not claim to be the direct word of God, and as they contradict each other in many places rely on the interpretation of the insititution which originally collected them. The hierarchical Church has historically claimed the power to bind and unbind: to preserve and defend a certain core of dogma, which may be extended from time to time, and to supplement it with a penumbra of disciplinary laws which can be, and are, changed from century to century to adapt to changing conditions.

Now, Christianity can and has been reformed in any number of ways, because reformation seeks to go back to the person who is the ultimate source of authority and express his will in a way which is suited to particular conditions. The hierarchical church is an intrinsically adaptive and reforming institution. On the scale of a human lifetime, it may seem as inflexible as Islam, but on a time scale of millennia you can see that it is alive.

Of course, if you want to have a ‘Martin Luther-style Reformation’, you want to reform Christianity by going outside the traditional means of mediating authority. You need to come up with something besides the hierarchical Church. Luther, having the example of Islam before him- Hungary was on the ropes, and the legions of the Sultan were marching towards the heart of Christendom- seized on the idea of a sacred book as a source of authority. Thus, he took the New Testament, a book far less suitable for such a purpose than the Qur’an or the Torah, and set it up as an infallible authority. This has been shown by events since to have been a dumb idea. Once extracted from its original context, the New Testament has given rise to a bewildering medley of sects that have almost nothing in common, because it does not have the properties of an infallible sacred book that the Qur’an has. It does not answer all the questions that need to be answered. Martin Luther’s ‘reformation’ was a catastrophe for Christendom that left us open for the cancer of moral relativism that has destroyed Western Civilisation in its ancient heartlands. But, I am getting off the track and indulging in gratuitous Prod-bashing. What is important is that it is not possible to do anything remotely analogous to what Luther did in Islam. You cannot extract anything other than the Qur’an as the ultimate source of authority without ceasing to be Islam.

There is only one way to reform Islam that I have thought of. There was once an institution somewhat analogous to the Papacy in its capacity to define and extend dogma, but it was not the Caliphate. It was the Imamate, as understood by the Shi’a, and it ceased to exist many centuries ago with the disappearance of the 12th Imam. Thus, if we truly want to reform Islam- not just open it up to the same postmodernist cancer that has infected Christendom- we need to do two things. We need to support the ascendancy of Shi’a over Sunni, like the United States has been inadvertently doing in Iraq, and we need to hope that the 12th Imam shows up soon.