Well, the votes are now in, and the Church of England General Synod, by only six votes in the house of laity, defeated the motion that would have approved women bishops in the old C of E. But on the issue of what the truth is about women bishops, no one, I’m afraid, is any better informed than they were before. Both sides thought they knew.
In a report this morning (which I should have bookmarked, because I now find that I cannot remember where it was) someone said, a bit contemptuously, referring to the “upcoming” vote in the Church of England General Synod about women bishops, that the truth is not determined by majority vote. Which got me to thinking, of course, because then the question arises how truth is determined in religion. On the specific question of women bishops, for example, or accepting the marriage of gay and lesbian persons, how does the church go about “discovering” the truth?
Of course, we know how truth is ordinarily determined. We search for evidence that a claim is correct. If I say it is raining outside, all you have to do is to look out the window and see. And if I respond, “Well, it’s raining somewhere in the world. Look, here’s a forecast for Matabeleland. It’s probably raining there,” you can justly say that that is not what is normally meant by saying, “It’s raining today.” So, evidence seems to be a clincher. And that goes for all sorts of evidence.
Take the meaning of words, for example. It’s hard to find hard empirical evidence that such-and-such is the meaning of the word ‘X,’ for any X, but looking it up in a dictionary usually gives a pretty good indication of what a word means, though dictionaries are sometimes wrong, especially if they haven’t kept up with common usage. In his book The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell recounts the way many words simply changed their meaning under pressure from their widespread use by the troops at the front. The word ‘lousy’, for instance, as in the expression, “The beach was lousy with tourists,” comes straight from the front lines, when soldiers, who were often ”lousy” with real lice, started using the word to describe other situations, as in “The hill was just lousy with Fritz,” speaking of a hill swarming with German soldiers. Words shift and change their meaning under the pressure of events, and the evidence that a word means something is often only determinable by seeing how it is used by a representative sampling of native speakers of the language.
But religion presents a special difficulty. How do we determine what is the truth in religion? When is it right to say, of someone who claims to be a Christian, that they are not really Christian at all? For example, in today’s Guardian, Theo Hobson questions whether or not Roger Scruton is a Christian. “Is Roger Scruton really a Christian?” he asks in his title, and he concludes that only in some Pickwickian, or, rather, pagan sense can he be called a Christian:
And yet, his approach to Christianity is so far from mine that I am not sure we belong to the same religion at all. The problem is not that he values a particular cultural expression of Christianity (who doesn’t?), but that he values it with idolatrous fervour. By so strongly identifying Christianity with one antiquated expression of it, he wilfully stands against the renewal of Christian culture. This is the grounds for my accusation: a real Christian will have some account of how the tradition can be renewed, rather than pose as the heroic last defender of one beautiful, tragically doomed cultural expression of it. That’s romantic paganism, not Christianity.
That’s a pretty heavy condemnation, but it only amounts to saying that Scruton is not a Christian in the sense in which he, Theo Hobson, is a Christian, or at least, in the sense that Hobson thinks it appropriate to be a Christian.
Does this mean, then, that anyone who is opposed to women bishops is not a Christian too, because, after all, not being open to this particular form of renewal of Christian culture? Notice, by the way, the reference to culture, for we might fairly ask whether Christianity is, any longer, a culture at all, but merely a marginal aspect of a culture that used to be largely Christian in orientation, so Christian, in fact, that people could at one time be tried, condemned and executed by the state for being Christian in the wrong way. But why should Hobson say that Roger Scruton’s Christianity is romantic paganism and not, say, romantic Christianity? Well, perhaps, as Hobson says, because holding that a particular version of Christianity is no longer a viable cultural project, and that holding onto that version with a peculiarly nostalgic tenacity is to make an idol of a particular historical exemplification of Christianity, and Christians are not supposed to be idolaters. But why, then, mightn’t Scruton answer be saying that Hobson is idolising contemporary fetishes and abandoning things that are essential to Christianity? The modern variant of Christianity that Hobson is defending against aesthetic nostalgia of Scruton’s variety is, Scruton might say, a derogation from the high point of Christian faithfulness, and a form of modern apostasy. What would show that he is right or wrong in holding such a viewpoint?
All we have here, so far, is two men who disagree, drawn up on the field of battle, but there seems no way other than force of arms, or perhaps votes, to decide between them. Is there? Who is to say, and how is it possible to say that one is right and the other wrong? It might be thought, since so much emphasis is put on the Bible in Christian theology, that the Bible has some clear answers to questions like these. In fact, a long list of bishops and priests in the Church of England have signed a declaration to this effect and it is published as an open letter in the Independent entitled “Open Letter: The Biblical case for women bishops.” Their arguments are worth quoting in full:
First, because the Bible teaches that “in Christ there is no male or female”, but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic antisemitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.
Secondly, Jesus treated women radically equally. He encouraged them as disciples, and chose a woman as the first witness to His resurrection, at a time when women’s testimony was inadmissible in law.
Thirdly, we have promised as clergy to “proclaim the faith afresh in every generation”. We fear that failing to take this step would do the opposite, proclaiming instead that the church is more interested in the past than the future.
There are a number of things that can be said in reply. First of all the idea that the Bible teaches equality of men and women is vacuous. Paul (if indeed he wrote the letter to the Galatians) says (to use the King James Version of the Bible, which would please Roger Scruton, as well as Richard Dawkins):
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. [3.28]
But that claim didn’t stop other biblical writers making it clear that women, though perhaps equal in Chirst, are still meant to be subordinate, and are not permitted to have authority over men. So, what does it amount to? Basically, it is saying that God (or Christ) doesn’t make distinctions, but that Christians do. And, in any event, it is still open to the claim that women are different, and should play different roles. They are not to be shunned and excluded from the Christian fellowship, but they may be required to play different roles within it. And there is evidence that some women did have official roles in the early church, but no clear evidence that they ever offered the Eucharistic sacrifice, or presided over the worshipping assembly, or ecclesia.
Second, it is not at all clear that Jesus treated women as radically equal. (I am just, for convenience, deferring the question of Jesus’ existence. As some claim, there may never have been an historical figure at the centre of the Jesus myth, though I think it highly like that there was, but this is not my subject here.) There are a few occasions on which Jesus seems to have departed from customary usage, and talked one-to-one to women, particularly with the woman at the well in Samaria, but this is more or less a one-off. In choosing disciples it seems clear that Jesus’ emphasis was placed on men, not women, and this does not look like someone who treated women with radical equality.
Third, while it is true that preserving the male priesthood is more backward than forward-looking, it is hard to see that this is an aspect of biblical teaching. Indeed, it is hard to see that there is any clear biblical teaching on the issue at all. If you look at the last book in the Christian Bible (prescinding for the moment from the fact that the Bible well-known in the West does not represent the only Christian canon of scripture), the Apocalypse, it is clear that the saints in that book, “those who have not defiled themselves with women,” (14.4) are men. Women do not even get a walk-on part to play in the final great drama of redemption — which makes the biblical argument for women bishops look very weak indeed.
But if the truth of the Christian religion cannot be determined in this way, by searching for proof texts in the Bible, then how is it to be done? The Roman Catholic Church solves this problem by speaking of the Magisterium, as though there is a “deposit of faith” that can be consulted without any further dispute, but it is quite clear that the so-called Magisterium is as prone to interpretation as anything else. Indeed, the contents of the Magisterium may be, and are often, disputed, even within the Catholic Church. Just supposing that the reigning pope has the last word on what the Magisterium contains is a convenient fiction, if what you need is a clear, undisputed word of “truth,” but it is a strange kind of truth that can be determined just by fiat, which is what this amounts to.
Not that long ago, as time goes, I used to argue strenuously that there is no reason that homosexuality cannot be made to square with the Bible, and there are plenty of books around that try to do just that. Yet I have to admit that the opposite side has as much support in the Bible for their anti-homosexual stand as there is for a pro-homosexual one. As even the Christian scriptures acknowledge, even the devil can quote scripture to his purpose, for that is precisely what the devil does in his temptation of Jesus. How clever of Shakespeare (in the Merchant of Venice) to have noticed. But the point is, in case the point escapes you, that, if the devil can quote scripture to his purpose, then the Bible can be made to say almost anything you care to argue. And that is precisely what is being done, almost daily, as people join in the hermeneutic auction, claiming for their own interpretations a definiteness and finality that is not possible in the realm of interpretation, as Derrida pointed out in ways that people found so confusing. Language is open-textured. There is no final closure. Even scientific language undergoes change, sometimes only subtle ones. As the evidence leads us this way and that the meanings that we give to the words ‘space’ and ‘time’, to take but one example, undergo profound changes of meaning. Even the word ‘nothing’, as Lawrence Krauss points out, must be interpreted differently. Some people accuse Krauss of playing with words, because, it seems clear, the nothing that Krauss is talking about is something, after all. But what if, as far back as you go, or as deep as you go (depending on your preference in metaphors), you keep coming upon something, not nothing, in the strict meaning of the word? When nothing looks like something, isn’t the dispute over whether there was a time when the universe began to exist a bit tenuous? Does it even make sense, with William Lane Craig — a great supporter of the Kalam Cosmological Argument — to speak about a time when the universe came to be? Or a point at which we reach beyond what exists to the necessity of a transcendent ground for all things?
The point is that we are stuck with the world as it exists, and any attempt to jump out of it to something beyond it, doesn’t really make a lot of sense, for the deeper physicists plumb the so-called “mysteries” of existence, they keep coming upon something that corresponds to their equations, which makes it difficult to understand what it means that what exists is dependent in the end upon a transcendent something that does not correspond to the equations, but is the surd which, in some sense, explains the whole. And that should give the Synod of the English Church pause, when they sit down to vote — as they may already have done — on whether to allow women bishops or not. For it is quite correct, as the conservative Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals say, that this has not been part of the church’s tradition. But it is also quite correct that this is out of tune with the way that these things are seen by increasing numbers of people, at least in the developed world. If they vote the measure for women bishops down, the Synod won’t be determining the truth, because there is simply no way to determine what the truth in Christianity is. If there were, would there be thousands of different denominations in Christianity, and then thousands more Christians who form little denominations of their own, church by church?
So, how is truth determined in religion? Idiosyncratically. It depends entirely on who is doing the determining. And that means there is no truth in religion. The whole thing is a mythical construction used, originally, to control people. And it is still often used for that purpose. However, where people are in the habit of making up their own minds, the problem of finding the truth in religion is put into sharp relief. It simply can no longer be done. Whatever the General Synod of the Church of England decides, the Roman Catholic hierarchy will be opposed, and this will be just one further reason for them to claim that the Anglican priesthood is not really a priesthood. But that, too, is simply an idiosyncratic, though widespread, illusion created by the apparent solidity of the consensus produced by the Holy Inquisition, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Hans Kung knows this. That’s why he is calling for Roman Catholics to rebel against the dictatorship of the pope. But the truth is that there is no way to establish the truth. What the churches do is to determine whatever the truth will be for them individually, seriatim, as though this is a helpful process. It’s not. It simply traps people in the continuing illusion that there is truth in religion. There isn’t. It’s all a lottery, based on whichever voice can be the loudest, but only within the small compass where the voices in that particular cacophony of voices is heeded. There are all sorts of other parliaments of fowls. If you are an Anglican, the Church of England’s decision might be important, or, alternatively, it might not be. Some branches of the church have already made up their minds. What England does is irrelevant to what the Canadian church believes is the truth about women bishops. The same goes for Nigeria, which has more Anglicans than there are in England. But the Nigerian church will continue thinking that women can’t be bishops, no matter what the church in England may decide. And this only goes to show that there is no truth in religion at all. Why can’t people see this? Theo Hobson: Eat your heart out!