By David Beadle
I attended General Convention for the first time this past summer. The most frustrating thing about it was encountering what seemed like an overwhelming reliance on a particular kind of American political language. It was not only almost always partisan but also oversimplified in a way that made theological discussion and ecclesial decision-making nearly impossible. This is problematic, to say the least, considering with what vigor such language was employed.
I’m referring to a certain type of political language akin to that of the sophistic speechmakers in Plato’s Phaedrus. For Socrates, sophists wrote and delivered speeches in order to sway public opinion and gain power (among other things). For Socrates, this practice of speechmaking is sophistic for a few important reasons. First, it is indiscriminate, and therefore cannot appeal to anything other than what is conventional or ideological (Phaedrus 275d-e; see also Republic 492B-C). It lacks the ability to judge between unique souls and therefore is unable to address them appropriately as particular persons in search of the truth.
Second, the truth these sophistic speechmakers seek to communicate is similarly only conventional — containable, concealable, and manipulable (see Phaedrus 227B). There’s nothing mysterious about it. We all know something’s right; we’ve only got to overcome the enemies of truth.
This is the default pseudo-speech of the American political system. Because of the need for substantial representation, party lines provide the only viable paths for the politically motivated. This sort of political language makes countless compromises of nuance in order to present a unified and effective voice. It is no surprise, then, that this political method would be found too often in the language of the Episcopal Church gathered at General Convention. It precludes the task of theology when it takes over the deliberative language of the Church.
The task of theology is born from the act of worship: lex orandi, lex credendi. Theology, in other words, is always first and foremost embodied in the narrative repetition of the liturgy. Think, for example, of the specifically scriptural justifications for our form of worship; it is within a narrative tradition that we participate in the liturgy. Theology can, of course, be done through speeches, writings, and conversations outside of ritual services, but it is only done faithfully if it is done in relation to its liturgical embodiment or expression. This sort of embodiment wasn’t new to the early Church. Rather, it extends back through time, and is especially seen in Hebraic poetry, which possessed a peculiar characteristic of brevity and repetition, proving that the writings of the Old Testament were “fitted” for the liturgical (see John Milbank, The Word Made Strange, ch. 3). The language of Holy Scripture arises out of and reciprocally defines the worship of the people of God.
This liturgical remembering, or tradition, that the Church accomplishes throughout history and across the world overcomes Plato’s critique of the sophistic abuses of political language; the Church is the consummation of Plato’s dialectic. For Plato, the dialectic requires the particularity of a soul as opposed to the indiscriminate nature of sophistic speeches (Phaedrus 271B). Through dialectic particularity, participants are open vertically (to the transcendent) and horizontally (to one another), and accomplish a sort of eternality through temporality (276E-277A).
The Church, likewise, is constituted by the particularity of a people (Israel) and a person (Jesus of Nazareth) within the narrative of Scripture that figuratively defines their world. The Church is not a homogeneous mass of people who possess some concealed and manipulable truth. It is an irreducibly complex, infinitely personal body that traverses time and geography, both the living and the dead. Its words don’t float free of the concrete realities of life in order to persuade in the name of power, but carefully and patiently seek and speak the Word of God in the particular lives of its members, not to coerce, but to give life together in one body. The Church is not some apolitical body, but rather it is truly political. When sophistic homogeneity is refused, then real difference is embraced.
Where did General Convention fall prey to the temptation of sophistry? Primarily through a certain stream of activism that ran through the whole gathering. Activism is not bad, of course (it has been an essential tool for the Church’s public witness at various times and places), but the kind of activism at General Convention too often utilized current political rhetorical platitudes to overcome the language of theology. I heard — ad nauseum — appeals to inclusivity, equality, diversity, and so on. These are all very good, but only when they are theologically understood. They are not already obviously theological.
And why do I assume that such appeals were not theologically understood? Because they were not theologically stated. If the theological task requires a relationship to the worship of the Church, then our concepts need to be situated theologically when we make use of them at General Convention. In some obvious cases, these appeals were made at the expense of the inherited tradition. Doctrine may very well develop or progress, but it does not do so in contradiction with itself. That would not be development, but retraction, not restatement or remembering, but forgetting.
This isn’t an appeal to revive conservatism in the Episcopal Church, but it is an appeal to take up more insistently the task of theology. I haven’t stopped scratching my head about the lack of theological debate at General Convention. It wasn’t entirely absent, but sophistry seemed to crowd it out. In one case, during open testimony, someone said he didn’t feel the need to debate theology because the relevant task force had already done the hard work. But if a task force is responsible for the theological work of General Convention, what is the convention for? If the theological work is done, all that can remain are testimonials that lend themselves to anecdotal reasoning, emotivism, indiscriminate platitudes, and political strategizing. And, if we’re honest, at the heart of all church strategizing there is at least a hint of idolatry, a touch of a lack of faith, and an over-professionalism that should probably lead to repentance.
Is it possible for General Convention to overcome Plato’s critique of the sophists? I have to believe it is. But how? By prioritizing the theological over the political. Of course, theology is political, but it is political in a non-sophistic way. Its politics are not indiscriminate but dialectic, embodied, liturgical. A preference for the theological does not preclude activism or political engagement, but it does bind them to Scripture. And so the cries of many to sidetrack the ivory tower theologizing of the Episcopal Church in the name of social justice initiatives turn out to be, ironically, a cry for power — not the relinquishing of it. There is nothing more ivory tower than disregarding the task of theology in the name of a political agenda.
I experienced plenty of wonderful worship and prayer at General Convention, but a temptation lay at the heart of the whole thing: the development of a singular vision for pet projects and political agendas. These may express exactly where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church, but if we are to ever discover what in the world God is doing, then we must do so via the language and dialectical worship of his body. Only then might we speak a prophetic word that isn’t just a transparent tool for power, but is open and shining as the Word of the Lord.
David Beadle is director of student ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Tyler, Texas, and a student at the University of Texas, studying English, philosophy, and religious studies.