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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A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index

Nowadays, in the Western world, there is a widespread hunger for spirituality in all its forms. This is not confined to traditional religious people, let alone to regular churchgoers. The desire for resources to sustain the spiritual quest has led many people to seek wisdom in unfamiliar places.

So Philip Sheldrake begins his preface to each of the books in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series in the early through late 2000s. Sheldrake laments that Christianity, with a few exceptions, is not seen as such a resource. I think for many of us, the lament is more that we ourselves have trouble seeing Christianity as such a resource. That is part of why I began reading some of this series.

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Photo mine, 2016.

The first book of the series I’ve read is Alan Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition. I will be posting about it on 2 October 2016 and each Sunday after that through the month. I have a lot to say about Bartlett’s Balance; I can’t promise to have as much to say about the others.

In the meantime, I’d like to remind you that I’ve posted a schedule already and that I would be happy for guest posts, if anyone wants to join in.

Index

Alan Bartlett, A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition

  1. “The Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition
  2. Anglican Orthodoxy
  3. Anglican Reason
  4. Anglican Aesthetics
  5. Anglican Crisis – Postponed until I have something worth saying

Susan J. White, The Spirit of Worship: The Liturgical Tradition

  1. An Uninviting Invitation: White’s Liturgical Tradition

Michael L. Birkel, Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition

  1. Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition
  2. TBA
  3. TBA
  4. TBA

Steven Chase, Contemplation and Compassion: The Victorine Tradition

  1. TBA

John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition

  1. TBA

Esther de Waal, The Way of Simplicity: The Cistercian Tradition

  1. TBA

C. Arnold Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition

  1. TBA

David Lonsdale, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality

  1. TBA

Beginning the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series

One of the upshots of reading Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church—which, by the way, I heartily recommend and not just for the entire chapter relating two of my favourite things: Pando and denominationalism—is that I feel acutely the need to take my spirituality more seriously. As always, I approach this problem by doing research. I decided to start with a book on Anglicanism that my former church, St. Faith’s of Vancouver, had read in a book club I skipped out on: Alan Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (Amazon and Goodreads). When looking it up to order it, I discovered it was part of a much larger series on traditions of Christian spirituality… almost a third of which I ordered.

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Photograph my own, 2016.

Now that A Passionate Balance has arrived, I’m announcing my intention to read eight of the books over a period of between eight to sixteen months, writing a minimum of one post per book. I think I can manage one book per month (understanding that I will surely want to read other books between them) and write and edit one post within a month of finishing each book. If I cannot keep up this pace, I will add one month to each book’s timeline.

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Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.

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Source: Cristian Viarisio at flic.kr/p/7fmue7; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share. Continue reading

Tzimtzum and Inherent Vice: A Personal Myth of Pattern

The last time I wrote about the pattern-based worldview I’m trying to work out, I got on the topic of afterlives and religion, in a way very brief, casual, and personally unsatisfying way. I do not have a strong sense of my audience yet, so I can’t say whether that’s something that would bore or bother you; nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about my personal religious attitudes for at least a few more posts while I talk about living and thinking in this world I’m working out. For this post I’m going to pick up where I left off when I was talking about digital phylacteries: if resurrection is “easy,” why would Christianity suggest that it is difficult for God to effect?

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“Order. Chaos. Order.” Source: Mike Mahaffie at flic.kr/p/q37UpB

But first I want to make something clear: what follows is on the order of myth. I do not mean to offer it as a complete, literal cosmology, not even of a highly speculative variety. Certainly it is no replacement for physics as a description of the cosmos. Moreover, I am open to correction on how compatible this myth is with other bodies of knowledge; if you see problems, let me know.

A second thing I should make clear is that this account is stitched together from Richard Beck’s “Warfare and Weakness,” a series of posts on his blog Experimental Theology, in which Beck looks to combine the insights of John D. Caputo’s The Weakness of God and Greg Boyd’s God at War to create an invigorating, enabling warfare theology that will rescue progressive theology from its doldrums.1 In particular, I am drawing on “Part 5, The Weakness of God,” “Part 6, Let There Be Light,” and “Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb.” I have also layered it with my own views on emergence, reality-as-reliability, and other pattern-based worldview work, which don’t appear in Beck’s version nor, as far as I know, in Caputo’s and Boyd’s books.

Without further ado, the myth:

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Digital Phylacteries and the Simulated Afterlife

If I’m right to endorse the Hofstatderean idea of the self (that is, that self is a pattern, and any instance of that pattern is an instance of the self), then I probably have to support the idea that if my pattern were replicated in a computer, it would also be a version of myself. Again, as always, it might be a poor-quality or imperfect version, but it would still be a version (instance? copy?). As a consequence, a person might want to extend their lives after death by uploading their consciousness to a hard-drive. If you believe in some sort of essential self that is not contained in any pattern, or if you require some historical continuity in order for identity to persist from one instance to the next,1 then you might not identify with a copy of your consciousness (and sub-consciousness, presumably) on a computer. But if you ultimately accept Hofstadter’s idea, then you should accept that the simulation on the computer really is you, to the extent that it is a faithful representation of your pattern.

So let’s talk about afterlives.

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Christian Hendriks 2015; detail of a diorama at the Field Museum

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An Early Question about Churchpunk

I would like to add a periodic feature to this blog: whenever I have a question for which I would like to know the answer, I will not just ask it in a single post, lost to time; I will also add it to a master list linked in the upper header of the blog. If I ever get an answer to a question, I’ll share the answer in a new post and link from the master list to the new post.

I bring this up because I have a question about what I’m calling churchpunk.

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Source: Robby D at flic.kr/p/sfaEf

(I am not sure about the name churchpunk, since “church” is a Christian and Christian-derived word. Other contenders might be faithpunk, ritepunk, religionpunk, relspunk, or cultpunk, but these also have problems for me. “Faith” is not an important or meaningful concept in all religions; ritual is only one component of religion; religionpunk sounds awful; not enough people will know that “rels” is shorthand for “religious studies”; the English “cult” has not just connotations but also denotations that the Latin “cultus” does not. Until I settle on another name, I’m going to stick with churchpunk.)

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The Shape of Truth and of Error

Even if you’ve only been paying attention to me since I started this blog, one thing you might have noticed is that I am interested in other people’s various worldviews. In particular I find myself compelled by their structures or their shapes.* I enjoy looking at these worldviews on their own, but I also like gathering together different tools for analyzing each worldview. For instance, I wrote about contextual and idiosyncratic theology and philosophy, and in the course of that I described W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds. Even more than Jones, Richard Beck’s writing at Experimental Theology on Terror Management Theory, derived from the insights of Ernest Becker, especially influences my thought. Beyond my own favourites there are many ways of describing the shape of a worldview.

Source: Rob Deutscher at flic.kr/p/dLctyw

Source: Rob Deutscher at flic.kr/p/bF8brf

When I mention these general ways of organizing worldviews to friends, family, and acquaintances, some people respond well and some people are resistant. I suspect that many people resist because looking at the forms and functions worldviews generally take calls into question how true those worldviews can or might be. Should we be suspicious of a worldview that looks quite generic in its shape, if not in its details? What are the odds that a worldview is true if it is good at resolving psychological tensions, what many people call wish-fulfillment? I think, though, that this is the wrong way of looking at the problem.

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Idiosyncratic Philosophy?

[Note: An unedited version of this post slipped my notice and was published. The changes were in the order of the material presented, in correcting typos, and in adding links.]

I have another question for you.

Last week I asked about a possible analogy in philosophy for contextual theology; if all theology is contextual, because in different contexts people have different questions and people who ask different questions find different answers, surely the same must be true for other forms of inquiry, like philosophy? And if some theology makes explicit its origins in a particular context, is there or could there be some philosophy that makes explicit its own origins in its own context?

Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR

Source: Steve Rhodes at flic.kr/p/e8p8tR

Well, now I have a new question.

While describing W. Paul Jones’s 1989 Theological Worlds with my brother the other day, it occurred to me that psychology, personality, or idiosyncrasy might play a role in a person’s philosophy as well. Of course it is obvious to say this in the sense of lay philosophy, of the attitudes and approaches all people carry about with them, but I’d like to think about how academic philosophy might be idiosyncratic as well. Bear in mind, of course, that my experience of academic philosophy is distant at best (I read it now and again, and I took a few courses in my undergraduate: an Intro to Philosophy, the Philosophy of Mathematics, and an Ethics and Social Philosophy course).

Let’s begin with Theological Worlds and then move on to more general ideas. (I am going to describe the Worlds at some length in order to help you get a sense of what Jones means; if it becomes too much, read only the next three paragraphs and then skip to the bottom.)

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Sacred Ideas Are Those You Know Are Wrong

What does it mean for a thing to be sacred?

Stonehenge Sunrise Mid-Summer

Source: Stonehenge Stone Circle at flic.kr/p/nWfuev

At Fred Clark’s blog slacktivist (the motto of which is, “Test everything: hold on to what is good”), there has been an argument over the definition of the words holy and sacred. In “If nothing is sacred, then everything is for sale,” the first of the three posts over which this argument so far stretches, Clark discusses Lawrence M. Krauss’s article in The New Yorker, which argues among other things that science is fundamentally atheistic because it holds no ideas as sacred; Clark disagrees, on the grounds that Krauss’s use of the word sacred is incorrect.

Here is an excerpt that shows Krauss’s use of the word:

In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise.

Here is an excerpt from Clark, showing his understanding of the word:

And “sacred” does not mean that something “is beyond question.” It means that something is beyond price.

[…]

Sacred means more than that. It means we’re talking about something that cannot be bought and sold — something for which the very idea of price would be obscene.

To say that nothing is “sacred,” then, is to say that everything is for sale. This is not just a deeply cynical thing to say about the world, but a bitterly cynical thing to say about oneself.

Clark goes on to argue that science’s process relies on this sense of the sacred, on the fact that scientists are unwilling to sell their integrity. It is an interesting and clever argument, but almost certainly a flawed one.

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