Monday, December 15, 2008

Shifting sands and fancy footwork

A book review by my brother, David Bentley Hart, which appeared in First Things almost two years ago, entitled Daniel Dennet Hunts the Snark, has a few things that apply not only to the hapless target of his criticism in that review, but that apply equally to the many confident critics of our position. His target was one Daniel Dennet, who he describes as a "Darwinian Fundamentalist."

Too often he shows a preference for the cumulative argument over the cogent and for repetition over demonstration. The Bellman’s 1 maxim, “What I tell you three times is true,” is not alien to Dennett’s method. He seems to work on the supposition that an assertion made with sufficient force and frequency is soon transformed, by some subtle alchemy, into a settled principle. And there are rather too many instances when Dennett seems either clumsily to miss or willfully to ignore pertinent objections to his views and so races past them with a perfunctory wave in what he takes to be their general direction—though usually in another direction altogether....

There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions—indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.

His target was a book by a man trying to combine science and philosophy to attack some undefined thing called "religion," as well as the book's author. My targets are critics of something more specific, but which they define as poorly as Dennet defines "religion."

The best defense is a good offense, and in light of what critics of Continuing Anglicanism are saying, all over the internet, I am always ready to resist their offensive actions by being more offensive still. Not only is it the best defense, but a lot more fun (and, as soon as I get back from Confession I will continue this essay). Inasmuch as I have acquired a reputation for being about as nice a guy as Sheridan Whiteside (undeserved really), why should I hide or disguise the offensive nature of my tactics any longer? To strike a blow for the benefit of Anglicans who need relief from constant sniping at their patrimony, someone must be the bad cop-a dirty job, but somebody has to so it.

So, let us now see how my baby brother's remarks apply to those fearless marksmen who claim to take aim at Anglicanism as such, shooting, really, only at straw men.

1. "A preference for the cumulative argument over the cogent and for repetition over demonstration."

Indeed, the cumulative argument is also a regularly employed tactic by the people who write blog tomes about Anglicans like us. Frankly, they seem to believe that we can be worn out by essays long enough to qualify as books, because such long and tedious arguments must be, if they are so wordy, self-evident. They seem not to know that "brevity is the soul of wit," nor to have read that famous letter that says, "I am sorry to have written so long a letter, but I had not the time to write a short one." If the argument is at least 6,000 words in length, they may find that no one can reply to it, especially because it is hard to reply when snoring.

Obnoxious as the long argument is, the deeper problem is that length does not compensate for lack of content, and that lack of content does not hinder such wordy writers from drawing a grand, if not grandiose, conclusion from all the empty and meaningless things that they have pontificated. Generally, that conclusion is not simply that we are wrong, but that we are so obviously wrong that we just, in the words of Michael Liccione, "don't get it." And, what is it that we just "don't get?" Usually nothing more than this: We just don't get how a long string of quotations out of context, run through a mill of pseudo-academic sophistry about non-binding little councils here and there, without regard to alternative patristic points of view, somehow proves that Anglican teaching is incoherent, or that our orders cannot be valid, or something equally absurd. After all of their convolutions about history (that is carefully selected bits from history instead of real history), and whole schools of thought or the works of great men rendered idiotically and embarrassingly simplistic, distilled into parochial summaries, they make me homesick for the genuine simplicity of a preacher in Baptist vestments (suit and tie), with a leather bound volume in his hand, who can say "The Bahble says..!" Did I say homesick? Odd, because that was never my home. But, at least the backwoods preacher draws from some kind of real authority, even if he does so with an obvious impairment (not knowing the Church and its Tradition). Instead of invoking local councils that were never universally received, or waving about deceptively simplified formulas like "the Thomist view," "Anselmian theory of atonement," or something else about which the writer demonstrates the damage done by reading the briefs of academics instead of Primary Sources (like Thomas himself, or Anselm himself), the backwoods preacher in his shirt and tie quotes God. "For God so loved the world..." This he has in common, of course, with both the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and Billy Graham. Meanwhile the blogosphere Tome-ist provides plenty of clouds without rain.

And, as for repetition, it shares the premise of Bulverism, 2 namely that "refutation is no necessary part of argument." Whereas Ezekiel Bulver created a form of argument that seeks to analyze the motivation of one's opponent, and thereby diagnose why he takes his stand, the method of repetition is just as handy and just as evasive. So it has been our experience that once we give an answer to those who present some case against the Anglican patrimony, they ignore our refutation, give no counter argument, and simply repeat themselves. Now, this works for them, especially since it helps to fortify bias. But, if some Anglican has only just stumbled onto this blog after being savagely trampled by people who want to push him into the Tiber, or into an Anabaptist swimming pool, or something, he will find here many theological resources from our archives that are designed to restore his faith, and allow his conscience to have the well deserved peace that valid sacraments and pure doctrine have been provided for him and to him, and he need take no plunge.

2. "...either clumsily to miss or willfully to ignore pertinent objections to his views and so races past them with a perfunctory wave in what he takes to be their general direction—though usually in another direction altogether."

Let me clue some of our critics in to something. It is not an answer to one of our theological statements to bring up what a bad dude Henry VIII was. Neither is it sufficient to wave around words like "Catholic" and "Protestant" until you have learned that Anglicanism has a distinct usage that gives a unique definition to both of these words, transforming their meaning as if into a different language altogether. Oh yes, we know what you mean, but you do not understand our language. Neither will you convince us that the English Reformers were Calvinists, or that they were confused. The fact is, you keep trying to understand Anglicans by studying the Lutherans, the Zwinglians, the Calvinists and by the definitions produced among Roman Catholics between Trent and Vatican I. Yes, we know what those other people meant by their use of words and theological terms. But, a careful study of our formularies will reveal that the Church of England never went all the way over into any of the other camps, but instead managed to avoid erring into the extremes of bad doctrine. No, this was not confusion, and it was not weakness, and it was not a compromise by men who failed to stand for anything, no matter how many modern academics exhibit great amounts of severely limited knowledge by essays and books to the contrary. No. Classic Anglicanism was the alternative road of very clear thinkers who walked a tightrope and managed not to fall in any of these directions, despite the strong pull of their gravity.

Our archives are full of apologetics, and you need only look at the relevant headings, like "Theology" or "Anglicanism," or "Roman Catholicism" or "Sacraments," etc. It was not my purpose to recreate them here. We have provided them already, and you need only begin clicking and reading, and learning what all those blogosphere Tome-ists cannot teach you.

1. A Character in The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll
2. "Bulverism" is an essay from God in the Dock, by C.S. Lewis. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI


poetreader said...

Father Hart,
I wish I'd said that!
And I probably will.
Meantime I thought my monitor was going to catch fire.
Seriously, you've expressed clearly and concisely just what is wrong with the style of declamation that so often tries to pass itself off as 'apologetics'.


Unknown said...

Fahter Hart,
Well said. I'm returning to the Episcopal church after having been away for some time.
It's a strange place.
I am not trained in theology but enjoy reading it, and find in my church an alarming mish-mosh of ideas offered as christian thought... and I think I'm pretty tolerant! I mean, I can read almost anything as an excercise and a challenge.
Thank you for the blog.

Anonymous said...

Father Hart said:

"It is not an answer to one of our theological statements to bring up what a bad dude Henry VIII was"

As a "papist", may I add that the same can be said of papacy.

Papacy is the common dividing line among those who call themselves Christian. In my view, many of us fall short of critically examining our pasts. Thus we are stuck with the questions and dividing lines of bygone eras.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

John Sullivan:

I do not know how long you were away from the Episcopal Church; but, if you are looking for the faith it practiced decades ago, you will not find it there. It will not return to you there, even if you try to return to it. That is why the Continuing Church was formed thirty years ago. To return to what the Episcopal Church was, you need to come to us.

Unknown said...

I may do that eventually; I definitely long for that older and truer expression of what I know as the Episcopal Church. I served as an acolyte when I was a kid for a priest who was a very good man… who knew Jesus and lived in faith.
I was away from about 1975 till just 5 years ago. I knew what I was returning to in many respects (I had kept in touch from time to time... and "secular" news was more than happy to print the latest in any case). I had been worshipping with evangelical/charismatic fellowships for 20 years when I felt a tug back which I “successfully” resisted for at least three years… but that’s a long story.
I have no allusions about changing minds or battling for the right cause or of this church returning to what it once was… I read an open letter from John R.W. Stott a few years ago that I took as a call to stay and serve. That’s where my heart is right now (I can’t recall the date of the letter…it may have been written some time ago… and obviously things have gotten much stranger lately).
Thanks for the comment. I would agree with you. I am simply trying to hear what the Spirit is saying to me right now.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

John Sullivan:

If I can help you in any way in the future, you can find my e-mail address in my profile. I would be glad to hear from you.