A Glut of Tradition

How many times I have written and rewritten some version of this post, I cannot say. At this point I do not even know what all of my reservations with this post are: that this is self-pitying, perhaps, or self-indulgent, or just a waste of time? I’ll publish this, I think, to keep myself honest, so that if I ever start getting too big for my britches you can link me back to this, say, “So, did you ever solve this problem?” And I’ll publish it so that if you feel the same way you’ll know that you aren’t alone. Not that seeing another person struggle the same struggle has given me any comfort that I can recall, but there are some people who are consoled by the idea. And, hey, I doubt some Silicon Sophia will resurrect us all in her microchips one day, but if it ever happens I suppose she can use this to improve her simulations.

A black and white image of a man standing before library stacks, holding a large number of books along one arm.

“Scene from the State Library” by State Library Victoria Collection

Near the beginning of this blog I had a crisis of sorts: what is the point of having opinions at all, let alone sharing them online, given how little I really know? I am far behind in the game of understanding the world. What makes me think I could ever catch up? I resolved this to some extent at the time and I mostly forgot about the affair. I regained a sense that I might stagger toward some understanding–albeit a limited understanding–and that this process might be instructive for someone or other. A little while later I had so regained my confidence that I tried to explain in a more systematic way the thinking I had been doing. Sure, this was provisional, trying on ideas rather than arguing for them, but that was more than I had been comfortable with previously. Alas, for the last year the sense of futility has returned, powerfully so, and for a more robust, theory-informed reason.

It began, however, with excitement. I had stumbled upon a suite of philosophy blogs into which I fell headlong; Speculum Criticum Traditionis and Digressions & Impressions are two notable examples. The one I’ve already mentioned here, and which prompted me to start reading Alasdair MacIntyre, is Amod Lele’s Love of All Wisdom. Lele is a comparative philosopher of a strongly synthetic bent; although more inclined to analytic philosophy than to Continental philosophy, he has the latter’s interest in putting Western and non-Western philosophical traditions into conversation. If you click through and look at his blog’s marquee you’ll see five representatives of the traditions he in particular is working through: Śāntideva, Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, Confucius, and Martha Nussbaum. What I found particularly exciting about his work is what he calls the “methodological MacIntyre,” referring to the way in which Alasdair MacIntyre adapted the work of Thomas Aquinas and, more importantly, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos to consider how to decide between incommensurable philosophical traditions.

I’ll explain.

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The Study of Anglicanism, Excerpts

Along with my first-ever set of gaming dice I recently ordered and received The Study of Anglicanism (1988), an anthology, edited by Stephen Sykes and John Booty, of articles on Anglicanism. Three or so years ago my then-priest recommended it along with A Passionate Balance as a way of getting to know the tradition better. Now that I have begun to read it, I thought I would write brief responses to its articles.

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Photograph my own.

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Anglican Aesthetics

According to Bartlett, beauty is not a luxury.

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Source: Robin Dawes at flic.kr/p/qyDLR

In the sixth chapter of A Passionate Balance, “The ‘Beauty of Holiness’: Worship as the Heart of Anglicanism,” Alan Bartlett makes this announcement:

In this chapter, we have reached the heart of Anglicanism, which is worship; the purpose of Anglicanism, which is to foster Christlike holiness, individually and socially; and the essence of Anglicanism, which is that the two cannot be separated (170).

To be frank, this seems more like Anglicanism to me than all that talk of orthodoxy, ecclesiology, and reason. “It is rightly said,” Bartlett continues, “that if you want to know what makes an Anglican tick, don’t ask her about her doctrine, worship with her” (ibid). Maybe I am being overly autobiographical in my assessment, but it was liturgy that attracted me to the Anglican Church of Canada in the first place (though moral and practical matters are keeping me here). Elsewhere Bartlett notes that Cranmer’s gift as a liturgist, not as a theologian, means that “Anglicans do not define themselves in relationship to a particular body of theological writing but in relationship to the living use of liturgical texts” (171). There’s a reason I chose an image of the Book of Common Prayer to accompany my post on Anglican orthodoxy.

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Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).

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Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

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Anglican Orthodoxy

My mother always said you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.

—Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

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Source: MyEyeSees at flic.kr/p/7XaWYk

I should admit from the outset that the very idea of orthodoxy makes me squirm. I do not think this is an unusual response these days. At any rate, Paul Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle—that all symbols for God, including doctrines, must be subject to replacement—is very attractive to me. I worry that any commitment to specific doctrinal content (that is to say, orthodoxy) is in fact a form of error: in intellectual terms, immature epistemology; in relational terms, unfair expectations; in spiritual terms, idolatry. At the same time, however, a church does need to be organized around something. I am beginning to see how practical it is to make that centre a set of doctrines; indeed, perhaps all organizations, religious or not, need some common convictions to function.

According to Bartlett, L. William Countryman, another author in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, argues that Anglicanism is defined by its historical community, not by its doctrine. In A Passionate Balance, Bartlett disagrees but, perhaps anticipating people like me, he also tries to show how Anglicanism can make orthodoxy a liberating, life-giving thing, not a stifling and idolatrous one.

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The “Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition

A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (2007) (Amazon) is Alan Barlett’s contribution to the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series edited by Philip Sheldrake and published by Darton, Longman, and Todd. Bartlett’s book is not the first on Anglicanism in the series; L. William Countryman’s The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Tradition preceded it.
Although not structured as a rebuttal, Bartlett’s book responds to Countryman’s book; Countryman’s thesis seems to be that Anglicanism does not have a doctrinal core so much as a continuous community, as seen and expressed in its poetic tradition. Bartlett disagrees. He insists that despite its reputation, and despite the attitudes of certain participants in Anglican discourse, the tradition does have central doctrinal content, as well as a set of features that may not be unique to Anglicanism but are at least distinctive of Anglicanism. Put together, these form an identifiable, if often obscured, Anglican identity and tradition. A recurring theme in these features is that of moderation, of finding the golden mean or, in the early Church of England’s phrase, the “golden mediocrity.” Mediocrity here means middle, not poor quality; I’ve taken it as the title for this post to suggest that, at least according to Bartlett, what many people see as a mediocre tradition is, rather, a golden one.

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Most of my attempts to photograph my rabbit Aswan with the book also involved her attempts to eat it. If I get a better one, I will replace it.

This post is intended as a general review and summary of the book. Future posts will tackle more specific issues that arose for me during my reading.

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