Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Prisoners of Belief: On Epistemic Privilege and Episcopal Fiat

By Rev’d Dr David M Willsher

What kind of a fool would dare to challenge a document (aka a press release) with the grand title of STATEMENT ON THE GLOBAL ANGLICAN FUTURE, a document that claims the approval of 1148 Anglican clergy and lay people and has the imprimatur of 291 Anglican bishops?

If numbers of supporters count for anything this would seem to be a very important document indeed; a document it would be foolish to challenge. On this day of fools, April 1, let me be that fool. You see, these 291 bishops (et al.) claim to believe some very important sounding things about the Holy Scriptures and as a priest in the church of God (that is what they said when I was ordained) I tend to listen to bishops. I said listen: that doesn’t mean I always agree. In my experience bishops in the Anglican Church are just about as likely to get things wrong as right: and I have worked with twelve of them that I can remember! Some of them are still my friends.

It fascinates me that a group of bishops could think that numbers of supporters (and numbers of Episcopal supporters!) means anything in relation to the truth of their beliefs. It is also fascinating to me that they could imagine that sincerity has anything to do with truth. It appears from the introduction to the STATEMENT that they are a lot of very sincere people. However, it must be said of human beings that a whole lot of people can be (and often are) wrong about a whole lot of things; sincerely wrong. Attendance at Anglican synods as well as any kind of search of the internet provides ample support for these contentions. There is no necessary connection between numbers or sincerity and the truth.

So, and remember I am being the fool here, if numbers and sincerity tell us nothing about the truth of the STATEMENT or the DECLARATION (JD) it contains, what then can we say about the beliefs of these people and any relationship there might be (if any) between their beliefs and truth?

Here is the now oft quoted Clause 1 of the JD:

We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.

When I read this clause great big warning lights flash before me! The text begins with the words “We believe” and that is where the trouble starts.

Now let me explain what I am NOT saying: I am not saying that I take issue with the beliefs of those who propose and support the JD. In fact I do, but that is not my topic. Others in this conference have been tackling the problematic nature of numerous beliefs espoused or implied in this statement, especially beliefs about the nature of scripture and scriptural authority. Neither do I doubt that the proponents of the JD believe that what they are saying is something really important, even historically significant. It’s just that I have to be worried about the whole thing when they get the beginning of it so very wrong! Or, if I was to be more generous, so confused. They are making their doxastic claim in a way that does not say what they think it is saying!

Now, that last sentence sounds important, and it is. So, let me clarify.

To understand what I am saying let me rewrite the clause to give a plain reading of the text by including the implied wording, to see what epistemic claims are really being made (added words are included in bold):

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God written and we believe that they contain all things necessary for salvation. We believe that the Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, provided that such translation, reading, preaching, and obeying is respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.

My plain reading highlights a problematic feature of the text that I will discuss under the heading of Epistemic Privilege and Episcopal Fiat.

We grant epistemic privilege to particular ideas when we accord them the status of truth. This is a feature of all belief systems and in itself is unremarkable. However, when the granting of that privilege is done for questionable or dubious reasons we have a responsibility to challenge it. Revolutions down the ages have been about challenging received orthodoxies that are perceived as being in the service of other then honourable purposes. Liberation theology has much to say on this.

We would be mistaken if we thought that acts or statements of belief can be considered in epistemic isolation. There are no isolated beliefs: they exist within structures variously referred to as webs or systems. However, not all beliefs are created equal! Any belief granted epistemic privilege will be called upon to do more than the usual load of truth-bearing within a belief system. It doesn’t matter whether you are a foundationalist or a relativist; such privileged beliefs have a key role in the establishment and maintenance of systems of belief.

As well, beliefs are always embedded within larger structures of human intellection and activity; things bigger than belief systems. To use Martin Marty’s term, believers are also ‘behavers.’ There is a kind of feedback loop between believing and behaving. We tend to act on our beliefs and we also tend to believe in response to the actions we find ourselves caught up in.

This suggests we can examine people’s beliefs in two ways: by studying what they claim to believe and by watching how they behave. The JD itself is a statement of beliefs. The issuing of the JD is behaviour. There isn’t room here to explore both of these, so let me say a couple of things about the former.

The JD is a response to change in the church; change that the GAFCON bishops experience as a threat to their belief system. Resistance to change depends primarily on the presence of significant anxiety in a person or group. To precipitate a response the anxiety must be a product of an enduring state of threat. The bishops are anxious because there belief system has been under threat for quite a while. The behaviour of believers in resisting change to their belief system can take two forms. The two ways that people respond to such threat are termed ‘rigidity’ (resistance to change of single beliefs) and ‘dogmatism’ (resistance to change of whole systems of beliefs). There are two consequences arising from rigidity and dogmatism in a threatened belief system: increased rigidity diminishes our ability to analyse and increased dogmatism diminishes our ability to synthesise.

I could go on a lot about these two consequences but let me make just one observation here. When a belief has been especially privileged it becomes more central to the belief system and more resistant to change. The corollary of this is that the believer depends more for their epistemic security upon such privileged beliefs and so the beliefs become more and more privileged. Such a belief carries a greater epistemic load than other beliefs and so will be better protected and more often defended. In my own research, one of the most interesting things I have learned about belief systems is that while they help us make sense of the world, at the same time they are protecting us from the world. Although it is clear that privileged beliefs are crucial to both processes, it is the case that while we hold beliefs they also hold us. We are in a sense their prisoners!

The authors of this statement are prisoners with us of their beliefs. This too is unremarkable: believing is something human beings cannot help doing. However, these bishops also claim to be orthodox believers: indeed the defenders of orthodoxy. That is something bishops are especially qualified to be: it’s part of their job description. But how well are they doing their job? It is peculiar that of the “tenets of orthodoxy” that the JD solemnly declares “underpin our Anglican identity” only one begins with the words “We believe” and, as I indicated above it’s really, “We believe that.”

What is it about scripture (I ask) that makes it an object of belief in this clause, when everything else is subject to other declarative words: rejoice, uphold, proclaim, recognise, acknowledge, commit, celebrate, reject? Surely all of the clauses entail acts of believing? I don’t think this is mere poetic variation. It would seem that ‘believe that’ is being used here in some particular way: to signal something special (privileged) about the subject of the clause. I would say extremely privileged. Philosophers distinguish (quite properly) between ‘belief in’ and ‘belief that.’ In the field of doxastics these are two quite different but related activities. To introducing a statement of belief with “believe that” says something quite different from the introductions to the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds which begin with “believe in.”

I think the phrase ‘believe that’ signifies that while Christian theology grants epistemic privilege to scripture itself, the bishops of the JD grant unwarranted epistemic privilege to their beliefs about scripture. Notice I am not talking here about granting privilege to scripture. It is their beliefs about scripture to which I refer. If I was being unkind I would suggest that this is just an Episcopal fiat or whim. Perhaps it is just a matter of theological preference. I suspect it is much more serious than that. A particular set of very privileged beliefs about scripture (signified by the phrase “believe that”) are being both defended and used as ammunition in the dogmatic defence of a threatened belief system. Rigidity and dogmatism are both at work here but the thing I want to focus on is this: the use of ‘belief that’ to signify a claim for epistemic privilege for beliefs about a text, when faith (in its biblical sense) is more properly justified in terms of ‘belief in’. This is because ‘belief that’ is about trust in an idea while ‘belief in’ is essentially about trust in and loyalty to a person.

The JD claims to be expressing a set of “tenets of orthodoxy.” Using the terminology I have presented here we can say a tenet sounds a lot like a privileged belief. A tenet is a central principle of belief and the Latin tenere means to hold. In this case we see 291 bishops being held prisoner by a specific set of ‘beliefs that’ scripture is a particular kind of thing which may only rightly be approached in a very particular kind of way.

The ultimate test of the worthiness of a belief to be granted epistemic privilege (at least within a Christian theological framework of believing) is, to me, the test of faithfulness: how well does this belief conform to the person of Jesus. Is it a truth that sets us free or one that further imprisons us? All of my ‘beliefs that’ depend ultimately on my ‘beliefs in.’ Not that other way around!

P.S. The day of fools may have gotten its name from the people who foolishly resisted the change of calendar under Gregory XIII in 1582 so that they went on celebrating New Year’s Day on the wrong day. This is how people often respond to things that threaten their system of beliefs.

Happy day of fools.

1. This discussion is based on research currently in the process of being published.

1 comment:

Phillip said...

Hi David, I can't let such a great paper go without making a few comments on it.

You make a plausible case for the position that sincerity and/or fervency of belief does not equal truth. You also claim that the more privileged a belief, the more resistant it is to change. Thus our most privileged beliefs are presumably the ones most resistant to change. I'd be interesting in hearing from you about how you think this interfaces with tradition. For it seems to me that tradition (whether living or dead) carries an implicit claim that a particular (privileged)belief hasn't really changed at all, though it may have 'developed.' But it's because of that very development, or change as I would prefer to call it more plainly, that the hermeneutical task is both necessary and appropriate. So what I'm suggesting is that insofar as hermeneutics is necessary to the theological task, to the same extent it undoes the notion of the immutability of belief and thereby deconstructs a position of alleged absolute privilege.

I found your comments about beliefs simultaneously making sense of the world while protecting us from the world, helpful, albeit in a puzzling sort of way. Part of the issue has to do with what we mean by 'world'. I suspect you don't mean that there's some sort of 'real world' onto which beliefs fit. I think Amos Wilder is right when he suggests that our language-worlds are the only worlds we know. And here I'd add 'belief-worlds' for I see language and beliefs as inextricably linked. But if there is no world independent of our beliefs then it seems to me that our privileged beliefs do not so much protect us from the world, as they protect us from other (privileged?) beliefs. I look forward to your comments

Twelve bishops, eh. And how many did you say were still your friends...