Niacea

Rod Dreher raises an interesting point in his article about the need for doctrine in addition to the need for viable community. Although community is critical on a number of levels, in that “doctrine is not going to fill your refrigerator with food when you’re too sick to get out of bed,” we still need something else, something more permanent. As Dreher writes,

I still don’t understand how people who emphasize the communal aspect of a church find solid ground to stand on if not for doctrine. How do you decide right from wrong on a controversial church teaching? An Episcopalian in our group argued for a broad standard of tolerance, which is fine, but at some point, the community has to stand for something more than itself. Right?

On the one hand, Dreher is absolutely correct: it seems evident that if there is anything theology needs more of today it’s doctrine. We probably even need less talk about the church as community and more about ecclesiology proper.

But what Dreher misses and what makes his otherwise insightful analysis likely to fall on deaf ears is why this separation between doctrine and community arose in the first place. Failing to note this, one courts the danger of presenting an unimaginative account of how doctrine may affect our everyday lives.

If doctrine becomes too rigid, if it is conceived as a timeless interiority or hermetically sealed truth above and beyond culture (what we might refer to as the modernist understanding of truth), then the division between doctrine and community can’t help but make perfect sense. In part, it’s the nature/supernature distinction all over again with Ockham’s razor to boot. If doctrine is construed as a superstructure layered above culture, it necessarily becomes superfluous and eventually shaved off to make room for more pressing concerns, such as the “here and now.” All in all, the separation between doctrine and community was bequeathed by a faulty understanding of orthodoxy.

Rowan Williams helps us to rethink this dichotomy or thin understanding of doctrinal truth. Writing about the triumph of Nicaea over Arius, Williams writes that the episode boils down to the fact that “orthodoxy continues to be made” (Arius, 25).  The rigidity that Drher is after is always takes the form of a search as our knowledge is limited, conditioned and culturally mediated. Orthodoxy is not procured by simple intellectual ascent, but requires the arduous work of virtue and ascetical practice over time. Our ‘grasp’ on truth is therefore always late and in need of a fair bit of human poiesis or fiat. Graham Ward explains this exceptionally well in Christ and Culture A “constant shaping” takes place between the Church as the Body given in time and the revelation of Christ:

The Logos is not frozen; orthodoxy is not a frozen Logos. The Logos is a person and an operation. Christology is not a timeless holy grail handed down from fathers to sons in the purity of its form. No doctrine is. A constant shaping takes place in the interstices between human making and theopoiesis… For the mystery continually exceeds our local constructions of what it presents (177).

Orthodoxy is mediated by culture and culture gives orthodoxy its form – without the former overdetermining the latter. Some time ago we referred to this “constant shaping” dynamic as “mystery” compounded by “anagogy.”

So, by all means let us have more doctrine, but let us first understand it in light of the dynamism of cross and resurrection and the ongoing narrative of God’s involvement with the world, through his body, the Church.

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