Monday, February 12, 2007

Base Two

I was in the eighth grade when something called the "new math" was introduced to schools across America. I don't think I ever learned what was "new" about it, but one thing I do remember was that we were suddenly being taught counting systems that don't use the familiar decimal base--such as "base twelve," where you have to add the numerals 'T' and 'E' after 9 in order to make it work, such that '10' represents a dozen, not ten. Of course, I wondered what practical reason anyone would ever have to depart from "base ten," and to this day the only one I know is the one that pretty much now makes the world go 'round, which is "base two," where the only numerals are '0' and '1' and '10' really means "two." That makes for some very complicated arithmetic that would drive you and me mad if we had to use it. But computers love it. They eat it up. The fact that I can write what I'm writing in this medium and you can read it is made possible by "base two." This is the binary age.

I wish that were truly only literally, but, alas, there are signs that it is true in many ways metaphorically as well. On the eve of a meeting of the Anglican Primates that will certainly turn out to be important, even if it doesn't qualify as "historic," many Anglicans are in a binary frame of mind. There is only '0' and '1', nothing or something. Either the Primates will accept Katharine Jefferts Schori as a peer or they will send her packing. Either they will pronounce the Episcopal Church in good standing or impose severe discipline. Either they will hang the ACN dioceses and parishes out to dry, or create the makings of an alternative American province.

More fundamentally--and this is nothing new--there are many on the starboard side of the boat (which is to say, my side) who openly state that there are "two religions" in the Episcopal Church. The "orthodox" (conservatives) believe in the authority of scripture, the uniqueness of Christ, the bodily resurrection, and, among several other things, an ethic that recognizes (intentionally) lifelong heterosexual marriage as the only context for sexual intercourse that is not inherently sinful. Christian mission consists of calling people to repentance, faith, and discipleship in the fellowship of the Church. The "revisionists" (liberals) believe that scripture is understood best as a human document, Jesus is one of several ways to God, the Virgin Birth is poetic metaphor rather than an actual fact, Christ is "risen" but his body never actually came out of the grave, and in an ethic that sees sexual orientation not merely as a fact but as a creative divine gift, and therefore makes room for the formation of intimate homosexual bonds when both partners are oriented that way. Christian mission consists of social ministry and political advocacy to create a "just society."

Are there Episcopalians whose views are described by one of these two positions? Certainly. Can all Episcopalians be described by one category or the other? Certainly not. "Base two" cannot account for the theological views of all, or even most, of the members of the Episcopal Church.

The rhetoric of "two religions" is of understandable etiology. Decisions within the church are made, more or less, according to political processes. Political processes are by nature binary. You vote Yes or No on the proposition. You vote for the Democrat or the Republican. (Cut me some slack here; I know there are other parties, but let's be real.) The motion carries or the motion is defeated. (We don't call them "resolutions" for nothing; they resolve a question one way or another.) In times of church conflict, we lean more and more heavily on political processes, so we are all the more susceptible to binary thinking.

Binary thinking, and the binary rhetoric that flows from it, serves a political end by taking questions that are complex, as questions worth fighting about invariably are, and giving them simple answers. Everybody, of every political persuasion, does it; given enough time and energy I could cite numerous examples from both ends of the spectrum within TEC. Then, when those who generate the rhetoric start to believe their own propaganda, that things are actually that simple, as invariably happens, we get entrenched positions and intractable conflict. The polemics become veritably cosmic, with the forces of Good arrayed against the forces of Evil on the plain of Armageddon.

But there's a small problem with binary thinking. It very seldom is an accurate representation of the truth. Sometimes it's a helpful construct for the purpose of analysis and discussion and strategizing, but it is at best a crude model of actual reality. OK, that isn't such a small problem after all. It's kind of a big problem. Because not fully representing the truth is to actually purvey falsehood. And when the corporeal integrity of the Body of Christ is at stake, we need to have a fairly low tolerance for falsehood.

We can perhaps say that there is one religion in the Episcopal Church and still make a plausible case for being truthful. If the proverbial "man from Mars" and his cloned siblings were to visit every parish in TEC on a given Sunday, and then get together to compare notes, they would, in the midst of all the differences they witness, find plenty that is in common. No rational person can deny that. Or, conversely, we might say that there are many religions ("Let me count the ways") in the Episcopal Church and credibly contend to be telling the truth. The one thing we cannot truthfully say is that there are two--one on the side of the angels and the other in league with the legions of Hell.

If any find this disappointing, I'm first in line. There's an immensely gratifying feeling of righteousness that accompanies armoring up to smite the enemies of the Lord. I am dismayed and wearied by the need to constantly contend for even the most basic elements of Christian faith and practice within my own household of faith. That we should even be having to discuss most of what comes up at General Convention, for example, is beyond exasperating. It makes me want to weep and gnash my teeth. But the problem is, we work up a much more impressive lather at the prospect of crossing swords with our opponents within the Body of Christ than we do by the vision of combat with the real enemies of the Lord--the spiritual forces of wickedness the rebel against God, the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.

I wrestle daily with the temptation to surrender to binary thinking. It is very appealing. But I also pray daily for the grace not to give in. Something I wrote to my parishioners last June, right after returning from General Convention seem apposite here:
I recognize that Christians in good faith, desiring to serve the same Lord Jesus Christ whom I desire to serve, disagree with me. These people are not my enemies. Many of them are my friends. I do not think of them as “heretics” or “apostate.” Should the course of events place us on different paths—and I think there is a very good chance of that—I will grieve. The life of whatever church I’m in will be impoverished by not having them in it.
I hope it is not thought either perverse or exploitative to say that I "need" liberals in my church. In a different, but analogous context, Edward Oakes, SJ observes,
When the Western Church fissiparated in the sixteenth century, the Reformers took a portion of the essential patrimony of the Church with them, and they thereby left both the Roman Church and themselves the poorer for it.
I'm not happy about liberals in the Episcopal Church holding the reins of power, but if they disappeared, it would be a loss--a loss for them and a loss for me. I need to be intellectually challenged. I need to have my social conscience pricked. If the end game in the coming Anglican realignment creates circumstances in which they feel the need to exclude themselves, I will be sorry.

In the meantime, I embrace the discipline of not losing sight of all the fractions between '0' and '1' in the universe of the Episcopal Church. I do so in vicarious solidarity with those who cannot or will not see those fractions.

13 comments:

Ann said...

Thanks Dan. I too would grieve if we walk different paths. If, God forbid, that should happen I would pray that our paths would in the end come to the same place - which I believe will happen.
btw on base 2 - it was not until I went to a workshop on the "new math" and bases, as a 4th grade teacher, that I fully understood base 10. I could teach base 10 addition, subtraction, muliplication, and division to my 4th graders, and it worked for them and for me. When I learned base 8 (what we used in this workshop) - the lights came on -- how had I missed this key thing about math and "place" --- talk about seeing through a mirror dimly. Don't know if there is a theological lesson - but do think that will be how it is in the "kingdom of heaven."

Matt Gunter said...

Dan,

This is one of the best things you've posted on this blog (and I think you've posted some good stuff in the past). I hope it gets widely read and even more widely heeded.

Anonymous said...

With your "two religions" stereotype, you engage in the very binarism you decry, while counseling everyone else to rise above it. I am singularly unimpressed.

Josh Thomas

Lisa said...

I think it is a brilliant assessment of the challenges, not only in the church, but in the world we live in today. This is the first time I've stumbled on your blog, but I will come back.

Having said that, you had me 100% until "If the end game in the coming Anglican realignment creates circumstances in which they [referring to liberals] feel the need to exclude themselves, I will be sorry."

I understand that this is your view, and it is valid as such, but isn't that binary thinking? Many would consider that statement a mischaracterization of facts from a "1 or 0" perspective - again - not saying whether that is right or wrong.

It is so very human to do this - we ALL do it. I'm probably at about 10 times today alone (and maybe someone can point out where I've done it right here in my post). I think your post is so brilliant because you have worked so very hard to avoid doing it.

We poorly serve "loving our neighbor" when we have a hair-trigger focus on when someone else is doing it rather than thinking of our own errors.

I pray that as the Primates proceed this week, they will think first of when they themselves are thinking in base 2. We might then see real progress.

I truly think this is an inspired post you've written. Thank you.

Marshall said...

Dan:

This is certainly worthwhile. We are heirs, we Anglicans, of a remarkably broad flow within the Christian tradition. Unfortunately, it is entirely too tempting to move from, "This is how I understand it best," to "This is how we must understand it, and the only way we must understand it."

I think there is a "sin of memory," when we remember those things that make our point and forget or ignore or deny those things, equally part of our tradition, that do not.

Dan Martins said...

To Josh Thomas:
I honestly don't know what you're accusing me of. I wish you could have been more specific about the inconsistency you perceive. Help me open my eyes on this.

To Lisa:
Are you perhaps pointing out (in your second paragraph) what Josh was referring to? In any case, I'm still not sure I understand. I was intending to reference a possibility, not a certainty.

Anonymous said...

I think Josh might be reading from the beginning of paragraph 3:
"More fundamentally--and this is nothing new--there are many on the starboard side of the boat (which is to say, my side) who openly state that there are "two religions" in the Episcopal Church"
but it seems that he missed the fact that you were reconstructing the view of others in detail while not espousing the view yourself.

Anonymous said...

It is clear by now that liberals are not going to exclude themselves from "the coming realignment." They are going to BE excluded by Akinola, who then will blame them for his own aggression.

Then Dan and all the other graduates of the Ahmanson-Rove Institute for Religion and Spin will profess to "regret" that 2 million Episcopalians "chose to walk apart." This allows them to appear kindly and full of sympathy, while secretly gloating over their glorious victory. Tell a lie often enough and the gullible will start to believe it.

Cut the crap, padre. Try the truth for once.

Josh Thomas

drdanfee said...

Hello Fr. Dan, I am from what I guess is supposed to be called, the other side of the careening Anglican boat. If the conservative-evangelical realignment campaign has it way in Tanzania, then of course I will be explicitly or implicitly asked to leave - or what amounts to the same thing, have officially ensconced in Anglican institutions all my alleged pagan-ness, shallowness, and of course that ultimate accusation: Oh dear God, he is queer-friendly and will not define his family members or friends or coworkers as nothing but innately horrible, nasty, disgusting, and - well sit back the legacy lists go on and on and on and I haven't the heart to repeat it all compleat.

I have little against anybody who wishes to make the mother of Jesus' hymenal tissues into a literal sign from God except that I really do not in the last analysis yet understand it as all that important to my daily walk with Jesus and in love of my neigbhors.

Lisa said...

Fr. Dan,

Those wishing to remain with the Episcopal church have a good argument that they are not having a lot to do with the excluding that is going on. Your view that they are in fact choosing to exclude themselves (by not doing as told, although parenthetically it's worth remembering that in a democracy it is hard to MAKE people do things) just seemed a slip by you into binary thinking in what was otherwise simply brilliant writing.

I believe that right now the world is breaking up into pieces in the places where people disagree. Base Two is running rampant. Personally, I think that what America has to offer the rest of the world is our long history of disagreeing, often profoundly, yet staying connected. There is much of great worth we have created by that discipline, a discipline that is frequently challenging and quite uncomfortable.

I would like nothing more than if the Episcopal Church, so poetically parallel in its birth to America's, so like it in our diversity and democracy, could be the message that the world is hungry for - "we disagree, but we are - nonetheless - One Church, seeking to serve One God."

That message could even be offered in schism, if more respect were offered by the "1's" of the "0's."

Dan Martins said...

To Lisa and others, re "excluding":
Perhaps I should make clear that what I was referring to in my original post when I talked about "liberals" in TEC feeling the need to "exclude themsemves" from the re-aligned Anglicanism that I believe is coming, I was referring specifically to the Anglican Covenant that is in the process of being drafted and refined. It is my understanding that it will be on the table this week in Tanzania and that it will then be vetted to the provinces between now and Lambeth 2008, where some version of it will be adopted and then returned to the provinces for final opt-in or not. My hunch--and I may be wrong/hope I'm wrong--is that General Convention 2009 will decline the opportunity to opt in. If this happens, it will amount to exclusion. We can play spin games till the wee hours about who would be excluding whom, but it will still be exclusion.

JCF said...

The "orthodox" (conservatives) believe in the authority of scripture, the uniqueness of Christ, the bodily resurrection . . . Christian mission consists of calling people to repentance, faith, and discipleship in the fellowship of the Church.

Hey, Starboard Guy: *I* believe all of the above...

...and yet I'm a liberal. Why? Simply because I don't want to (here's that word again) EXCLUDE anyone else because they

... believe that scripture is understood best as a human document, Jesus is one of several ways to God, the Virgin Birth is poetic metaphor rather than an actual fact, Christ is "risen" but his body never actually came out of the grave... Christian mission consists of social ministry and political advocacy to create a "just society."

[You *do* realize, don't you Dan, that your above "revisionist (liberal)" description is a GROSS stereotype, whom in its individual points would cover few democratic-majority Episcopalians, and collectively, slim & none? ("and Slim just left town" ;-/)]

Meaning, therefore---

{sigh]

strip all the above away

{Double sigh}

and we're left with:

an ethic that recognizes (intentionally) lifelong heterosexual marriage as the only context for sexual intercourse that is not inherently sinful.

VERSUS

an ethic that sees sexual orientation not merely as a fact but as a creative divine gift, and therefore makes room for the formation of intimate homosexual bonds when both partners are oriented that way.

[Funny, how "(intentionally) lifelong" and "marriage" didn't make it into the revisionist/liberal understanding, in YOUR take on it??? What's up w/ that? And DON'T you see your heterosexuality as a "creative divine gift" (at least as channelled/covenanted in Christian marriage)? Or is it only the source of phrases like that, which make them, um, icky?]

"It's not about homosexuality!" is the constant "orthodox" (conservative)" cry...

...except it IS. Sadly. It always is. :-/

Lord have mercy!

[JCF, Native of the Great Sac-SJ Valley (not as an entrancing claim as being a "Carioca", but there you are!)]

Dan Martins said...

To JCF:
I suspect that you mistook my characterization of the poles, which are intentionally exaggerated, for my own position (and my perception of those on the "other side"). Not so. I was trying to illustrate, through caricature, what the the partisans of the right think of themselves (and by implication what they think of their opponents).