The Problem of Orthodoxy, Part 2--The Endless Spiral

In the last post, we looked at the idea of the Problem of Orthodoxy.  Let's take a moment to lay out exactly how this plays out.

It begins from the premise that what is primarily important to be a Christian is to believe the right stuff.  In the next post, we will tackle some of the problems with the idea of "believing," but for now, let's define "believing" to be "having the right ideas in your head and accepting those ideas as being true."  So, being a Christian under this view is first and foremost about understanding and then accepting a set of propositions about God and about the world.

But both the "understanding" and "accepting" prongs of this idea create what you might call "downward pressure."  Take for example the first line of the Apostles Creed--"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth."  If a core part of my identity as a Christian lies in "believing" this line of the Creed, it is necessary to first understand what it is I am supposed to be accepting.  To do this, I have to know what is meant by words like "God," "Father," "Almighty," and "creator," as all of those terms are capable of being understood in multiple ways.  This is what I am getting at with the idea of "downward pressure"--in order to accept Proposition A, you must understand Proposition A, and in order to understand Proposition A, you must "drop down" to Sub-propositions A1 and A2 and A3 and understand them.

But the downward pressure doesn't stop there.  We might imagine that Sub-proposition A1 is St. Anselm's definition of God, "that than which nothing greater can be thought."  But this statement can also be understood in various ways, and requires further explanation, so you then drop down again to Sub-sub-propositions A1(a), A1(b), etc.  So, the first thing to note about this schema is that there is no inherent end point or bottom to this downward pressure.  If left to its own devices it will continue to go down through and endless series of sub-levels that parse your doctrinal statements into finer and finer bits.  The only way to stop this spiral down is to draw a necessarily arbitrary line that says something like "for this question, you only have to consider these six levels of sub-propositions."  But there is nothing inherent in the scheme that tells you that you can or should stop the endless downward spiral (the drawing of the line also raises questions of adjudication as well, but more on that in a bit).

The second thing to note is that is is basically essential under this scheme to get everything right.  If we must get the mental furniture right in our heads, we have to understand what the right mental furniture is first.  And so, the process of working through the propositions and sub-propositions is rather fraught, because "getting it right" is presented as being the most important thing that we must do as a Christian.  As a result, all of this matters very much.

Which leads to the third point, which is where Bell's observations really come into play.  Going back to our original example, the word "God" is subject to multiple understandings, of which Anselm's formulation is only one.  So, it is not enough just to drop down from Proposition A to Sub-proposition A1; we have to drop down to the right version of Sub-proposition A1.  It becomes easy, and almost inevitable, for people to disagree over which version of Sub-proposition A1 is the right version.  So, each sub-proposition and sub-sub-proposition becomes a decision point, creating two or more branching paths in which your pursuit of orthodoxy can go.  The result is this enormously complicated web of options and choices that the Christian is expected to navigate.

Bell's story reflects what I would call the "protestant" solution to this problem, which is to say that protestantism has no solution to this problem (I should say that I am using the terms "protestant" and "catholic" descriptively--all churches in actual practice jump between these two poles, notwithstanding whether they consider themselves to be children of the Reformation or not).  There is no way to adjudicate between the competing versions of the various sub-propositions.  And, since it is absolutely vital to get all of this right, you will inevitably get fractures and splits between the partisans of the different versions of the sub-proposition.  When there is no way to get people to agree, and the thing they disagree about is critically important, the only way to resolve that tension is to split.

The "catholic" solution does fix the specific problem created by the protestant solution--it avoids or reduces splits and it provides a sense of doctrinal certainty.  The way it does this is through the intervention of some outside authority (whether in the form of a leader, a group of leaders, some formal process like a church council, "the Bible," or what have you) to say that this one particular version of Sub-proposition A1 is the right one and all others are wrong.  But notice two things.  First, this exercise of authority does nothing to stop the endless spiral of downward pressure, and if anything encourages it.  No matter how many times the authority adjudicates the correct answer to a sub-proposition, there is always another decision point that flows directly from that adjudication.  Authority ends up chasing a yarn ball like a cat--always reaching to resolve some issue, only to see another set of issues crop up as a result of settling the first one.

The other problem, and I think this is even more significant, is that resolving disagreements through authority makes the authority itself an issue to be adjudicated alongside any doctrinal proposition.  Once you start to rely on authority to resolve your doctrinal disputes, then authority becomes the essential glue that holds the whole project together.  If you try to tweak or modify your understanding of authority, you risk tearing down the whole edifice, since without authority you are back to the Protestant problem of having no way to resolve any dispute about anything.

As a result, there is a way in which relying on authority is to step through the looking-glass.  Authority, and your account of why this particular authority is the right one, becomes everything, and every issue that seems to be about some sub-proposition actually becomes about authority.  Notice how everything in the evangelical world ultimately becomes a discussion of the Bible--since the Bible is posited as the authority, the only way to solve anything is to first adjudicate the role and significance of the Bible.  Notice also how everything in Roman Catholicism eventually becomes a discussion of the Pope and/or the involves parsing the various strands of "the Tradition."  It's the same basic process as what goes on in the evangelical world, just displaced to a different source of authority.

The through-the-looking-glass part quality to all of this is that what started as a belief that we must understand and accept all of these disparate doctrinal propositions morphs into the idea that all we really need to do is accept the proposed authority.  Because the alternative to the authority is the chaos and confusion of endless splits over all of these sub-parts, people take refuge in the certainty of authority.  Which is why people feel that they have to defend that "authority" of the Bible over and against science or archaeology, or the "authority" of the Tradition over and against the crazy/horrible things that the church has said or done over the centuries.  You have to maintain the death-grip on the source of authority in order to ward off the chaos, leading you to double down on your claims of authority.  Which in turn leads to more downward pressure, requiring more exercises of authority--creating a kind of negative feed-back loop.

That's the endless spiral.  Down and down you go, further and further into fine gradations of doctrine, accompanied by either more and more splits or greater and greater exercises of authority to prevent those splits.  As Bell says, "it never ends, because it is all in the mind."  


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