Monday, February 10, 2014

Some Preconditions for Valid Theological Exploration

Recently I read a fascinating, relatively new biography about Bishop James A. Pike. As most people know, Pike was a brilliant and charismatic man who was born Roman Catholic, drifted into agnosticism, and later returned to the faith as an episcopalian layman. Of interest to continuing Anglican churchmen, Pike was a member of and first married at St. Mary of the Angels in Hollywood, which is now a continuing church. (He eventually divorced this woman and later married two more times. The status of his first marriage and whether he actually got an ecclesiastical annulment was never resolved.) Also of interest to continuers were his run ins with the future Bishop Morse (APCK) who was a priest in his diocese.

Pike had a very successful career as a lawyer and was a highly educated and noted legal scholar before taking Holy Orders in the Diocese of Washington, being ordained by Bishop Angus Dunn. Interestingly, he never took a theological degree, though he did take some classes at Virginia, General, and Union. This, like his divorce, would later come back to haunt him when he was nominated for Bishop of California.

Because of the heterodox theological positions he began to hold Pike faced four "heresy" trials.... though they were not actually formal ecclesiastical trials, but more like investigative commissions. It was during these "trials" that he raised the interesting and important question of what level of theological exploration was allowed in the Episcopal Church at the time. While it seems to me that that is a valid question to be asked in any church I would suggest that there are certain preconditions that are necessary for authentic and valid theological exploration. These are just a few that I have come up with, and most of them are interrelated.

First, one has to have a proper theological education, and be a proven scholar who has mastered the major movements and theologians of the tradition. Pike was more educated in the field of law than in theology. Though influenced by first-rate theologians, such as William Temple, and though he later proved himself to be a gifted theologian - at least early on - he was certainly not distinctive in this field in the way Ramsey, Mascall, or even Francis Hall were. Very tellingly, these men who were much more gifted as theologians than Pike didn't engage in any major theological speculation.

Second, theological speculation must always proceed from within the trajectory of the great catholic tradition and seek to build on it and further articulate it. It should not seek redefine it, or in a spirit of cultural and historical arrogance, do away with the wisdom of earlier ages. Novelty, as St. Vincent of Lerins reminds us, is one of the elements of heterodoxy. Pike seemed all too eager as he went on to jettison the tradition for the sake of making a name from himself. What is fascinating though was that even Pike's strange views became passe during his lifetime, as the "death of God" movement began.

Third, one should have proven experience in the praxis of ministry. Theological reflection never occurs within a vacuum. Just as it takes place within the theological tradition of the Church, so it does within the ministry, liturgy, and worship of the Church. The insights gained from the life of the Church and/or being part of a religious community shed a huge amount of light on the theological mind. The reality about Pike was that he never really had much pastoral experience. The biography notes how he stayed in places for what were really short amounts of time and the only parish of which he was rector was in Poughkeepsie... and that for a very brief time.

Fourth, extreme caution should be taken as far as appropriating the ideas of new theologians, particularly those who are alien to one's own tradition. Concepts and categories from one tradition do not always easily translate into another tradition. Pike was an avid student of Paul Tillich, who was of a liberal Lutheran tradition and also hugely influenced by Heidegger. Many of Tillich's positions are fundamentally at odds with the Anglican tradition, governed as it is by the notion of "lex orandi, lex crdendi" and fidelity to patristic and medieval tradition. The way Pike and others recklessly imported the theological speculations of Tillich has, in my opinion, proven very bad for the Church.

Fifth, the motivations for theological inquiry and exploration must be carefully evaluated. Much reckless theological speculation proceeds from the standpoint that the great tradition no longer speaks to contemporary man and/or is irrelevant to his life. But these are two highly questionable assumptions and the fact is that any age can make them. One of the problems with this assumption, which Pike had, is that the person making it presumes to be able to "know" the hearts and minds of an entire generation of people. But it is really ludicrous to make a blanket statement that ancient dogmas and definitions are completely invalid to a whole swath of people, and very dangerous to proceed to "reimagine" and "redefine" the entire tradition based on this faulty assumption. Before presuming to explore a deep question - especially one that has the potential to be dangerous and divisive to the Church - one must ask whether such speculation is even necessary.

Sixth, people whose spiritual lives are out of order have no business being involved in theological exploration. Pike's life spiraled out of control spiritually. He began to practice new age spiritualism (seances especially), which has always been condemned by the Scriptures and the Church. And he was also a chain smoking alcoholic who ran around on his second wife. If one cannot grasp the meaning of "Thou shalt not commit adultery," or God's commands regarding contacting the dead, etc. then how on earth will he be able to grasp the meaning of the deeper truths he is purporting to explore?

There are surely many more preconditions necessary for valid and authentic theological exploration. But we should bear in mind that even if such preconditions are met it does not necessarily follow that the conclusions that may be reached are orthodox and/or important for the Church. If such preconditions are met then the chances of that being the case are high, I believe, but not necessarily guaranteed. Pike and people like him have done great damage to the Church (and themselves in some cases) by their reckless speculations that were doomed from the start.

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