Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hoist On My Own Petard

(For those fascinated by poo-poo words, BTW, petard is a small bomb which has its etymology in a word for breaking wind and traces back to Indo-European. The Indo-Europeans actually had two separate words for breaking wind. These seems excessive, but likely provided double the opportunity for stupid jokes around the campfires)

Over at Atlantic Review, I criticized a comment by one john b chilton, who has since come over and commented here. He was wise to do that, as I take more notice of folks who come to my salon, and think more about what they have said, even in the context of discussions that take place elsewhere.

John b made the claim that doubt was the defining characteristic for Episcopalians, which I scoffed at. When I think of Episcopalians I think of Hooker, Cranmer, the three-legged stool, CS Lewis, the Society For The Propogation of the Gospel, and the assent to the orthodox doctrines of 2000 years of Christian theology. An argument might be made that the 39 (I think) articles under Elizabeth I allowed for some doubt, but I felt that Episcopalians were no more closely associated with doubt than any other branch of the Church, until the 20th C.

Chilton noted that his history as a cradle Episcopalian gave him some standing as an authority, to which I responded that cradle versions of anything overvalue the views of their own time and place, and were in the longer sense less reliable. I didn’t say that anywhere near as well the first time.

I still think those points are generally true. Yet when I applied that standard to my own thought, I found that the truth was less distinct, a little softer around the edges, than I had originally contended. I have noted recently that I am by heritage a member of the Arts and Humanities tribe. I am a cradle A&H member, and I used this knowledge, this penetrating of its values into my bones, to make enormous generalizations about it. I know these people, was my refrain. I am one of them. Wasn’t I, then, making exactly the same kind of argument that I had criticized john b chilton for?

Well, hmm. Things look different when you do that, don’t they? I think I now have a little better understanding of his argument, and its strengths, and some weaknesses of my own previous argument.

Those brought up in a group understand its meaning in their generation at a deep level. We are likely to understand the generation immediately preceding us as well, as parts of it went into our formation. The generation following our own, not so much. Two generations previous to us, not so much. We perhaps think we understand more than we do, because some commonalities remain superficially the same while they change underneath. The several tribes I claim membership in for any length of time, I know well for that time. I have lived in the borderland between evangelical and mainstream Christianity these last 30 years. That is a larger group on the ground than one might expect from reading popular media, by the way, as the conventional wisdom divides those two groups fairly sharply. They are greatly different at the extremes, of course, but not everyone lives there. In that borderland, I know what people of my generation and the one before it read, what music they listen to and sing, how far they range in social attitudes, what doctrines they focus on, and a hundred smaller things.

What are the beliefs of a church? If 97% of its members would agree with a certain idea, does it matter what the official documents say? How about 100%? How about 55%? How much meaning does it have that people generally believed the same things 50 years ago, but not 200 years ago? If we were to stumble upon a group we had no prior understanding of and asked them what their ceremonies meant, wouldn’t we simply accept at face value their current consensus? Or we would attend to the two old guys in the corner who insisted that the ceremonies had meant one thing for a thousand years, but had recently changed under this pack of idiots?

If New Englanders did something for 350 years, but no one has done it since 1990, can we say it is something “New Englanders do?” There aren’t hard lines in these answers. Some answers might be definitely wrong, but no answer is going to be completely right.

As a cradle member of the A&H tribe, I have made rash declarations of what that tribe believes. They are true, within limitations. I don’t need to know what the sales figures are for the various books of my own era, for my tribe. We read Soul On Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we didn’t read Witness. We always looked very much to Europe for cultural signals, but multiculturalism has made this problematic. I believe the current A & H crowd has solved this by noting that Europe is very permissive sexually, giving some cover to the idea that it is the center of multicultural tolerance, and still worthy of worship. That’s crap for anything other than sexual permission, of course. Ask a French businesswoman how open her society is to her advancement.

But the Arts & Humanities tribe is old. Mine is not the only generation. Some of the reasons for my defection from the tribe as currently constituted come from my identification with its earlier incarnations. I must speak with less assurance when describing the rising generation. I know more of where their ideas come from that what they are.


Anonymous said...

And here all these years I thought petard was a French liquor! I was so convinced that I went and looked it up in two dictionaries, including the Shorter OED!

Anonymous said...

Avi, I'm always delightfully surprised at the depth of your ruminations (from the Latin meaning to chew over and over again as in one's cud, or to meditate thoughtfully on a topic or idea). (But I always thought petard was a pike like weapon)

Anonymous said...

And I thought petard was a piece of clothing

Anonymous said...

...I had a co-worker who used the phrase "Planted my pedatarsal on the petard" when he screwed up...


John B. Chilton said...

Hoisted on your own petard? Seems doubtful.

Anonymous said...

I'll refrain from making a doody joke, and merely say that I think that it is the ability to recognize truth when one sees it that seperates the truly wise from the merely learned. I've always respected you most for your ability and willingness to revise your worldview, despite the fact that you're smarter than most everyone.

Anonymous said...

To survive, a tribe needs to pass down its values and traditions to succeeding generations in a manner agreed to by a consensus of the members. Otherwise, each individual and generation ends up with transmitting their own version, divorced from historical continuity. The result is fragmentation and potential extinction as the tribe's raison d'etre is overwhelmed by self-doubt and confusion as to their identity.

In history, the Biblical book of Judges provides an vivid illustration. We see this process going on today within the tribes of Western Europe and the U.S. of which the A&H tribe and the Episopalian Church are examples. (Hence your friend's perceptive comment about doubt.)

The most dramatic contrast today is provided by the Islamists promoting sharia.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

bs king - yeah, that trick usually convinces people I'm open-minded.