Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Letting the fundamentalists have it their own way?

At the heart of the rifts over gay marriage in the Anglican communion and Methodist church is a problem about community structure. What do you do when another party of the church disagrees with the creeds you say or the way you live? How often do you disagree? How much should the church as a single body have in agreement? How do you share ideas about new phenomena (and sexuality as a political identity is certainly new with the nineteenth century), while still leaving open room to grow in dialogue?

The traditional church had ways of coping with disparate levels of integration and learning, or people from different traditions: this is the Catholic principle of subsidiary -- that each local church has its own governing structure, and that a bishop in England had a lot of say over what his people believed, while a bishop in Africa could believe something else. Only when the mass of believers were in concert over a principle could the church in general adopt it.

As a way of handling different geographies, it worked splendidly. A kind of 5th-century proto-federalism.

The church isn't necessarily as good at promoting learning over time, for either individuals or nations. Do we assume that all those learning about God will end up with the same picture in the end, in which case the answer is to beat them to study harder until they agree with you? Or do we assume that they may start learning in a different direction and enrich or surpass one's own knowledge, in which case the answer is to throw endless resources at every individual until they reach their own truth (if they reach their own truth)?

In a sense, these are larger issues for democracies, not just the church. And the way our democracies in the West have handled them since the Enlightenment is through the free market of ideas in the public sphere. You may be a gun-toting fundamentalist redneck, whilst I am free to be a vegan tree-huger, and which ever side gets more converts at the end of the day can have the state.

But this system isn't necessarily very good at promoting loving relationships between members of the same community, nor at encouraging each side to hear the other's ideas, nor at promoting the best truth for the whole polis. What it tends to reward is the most evangelical, the most convert-based, media-active religion. We might see that as meeting people where they are, or we might see it as a kind of wanton demagoguery.

What would a Godly church do, faced with a kind of market in which the louder extremists always win? How would it seek to cushion its most earnest believers against being seduced by extremisms that serve not God but publicity? How would it encourage extremists to dialogue with each other?

Well, these are the issues that the Anglican communion is having issues with about homosexuality. This is one of the reasons that the African church's extremist stance -- no homosexual marriage anywhere or we leave -- is being countenanced by Canterbury. Canterbury thinks that they need to keep the family in dialogue. Rightly, they assume that Africa is willing to leave on a trigger, while peaceable leftist tree-huggers in America will maintain dialogue no matter what.

One solution is more extremism: that the Left needs to articulate loudly why being a Christian requires you to endorse gay marriage. More extremism could be seen to be good for the exchange of ideas. Between extremisms, the free market of ideas will let truth win out.

The other solution is a concerted campaign by moderates to ostracize extremist viewpoints of both right and left, and to re-endorse a form of psychological subsidiary for the church as a whole, allowing each individual to be more tribal or more democratic, more publicity-biased or more historically-informed, as he or she is prone to be: all the while insisting on a Christian message of understanding, reconciliation, and compassion appropriate for any of these vantage-points.


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