Christianity and the Problem of Choice

Charles Taylor’s ground-breaking book, A Secular Age, claims ‘choice’ as a prime value. Choice, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain it exists, is how people make truth claims today. In other words, whatever I choose to be true must be respected and cannot be challenged by anyone else’s religious belief system, philosophy, or claim to reason. Why choice is regularly invoked in our society as an all-trumping argument. Other words, such as ‘freedom,’ ‘rights,’ and ‘non-discrimination’ function in a similar way.

For instance, J.K. Rowling, well-known author of the Harry Potter books, argues that a woman may decide to call herself whatever one wishes, but the facts of one’s biological make up cannot be simply denied and dismissed. For her comments she has been ostracized and called all sorts of things, including a ‘TERF’ – an acronym coined by trans activists, which stands for ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’. In nothing that I’ve read from what Rowling says, does she reject or disrespect the right of anyone to ‘choose’ whatever identity they wish. But what she questions is the ease with which physical transitioning is encouraged amongst other women by trans activists without considering the longer term physical and emotional implications. Rowling in no way wishes to condemn anybody’s choice but does question telling people that making the decision to physically transition sexually is straight forward.

The point of my example is not to get into a debate about LGBTQ+ politics. That is for another essay. Instead, this essay focuses on what’s behind today’s LGBTQ+ movement, and its assumption that ‘my choice’ has ultimate authority and cannot be challenged. As an Anglican parish priest, I am interested this issue because I believe it is the reason why many of my fellow clergy no longer believe in the traditional doctrinal and creedal teachings of the Anglican Church. Many clergy believe they must accommodate their preaching and teaching to appease their parishioners’ secularly shaped understanding of choice. It is not because Christians are against the freedom to choose, nor is it unimportant in Anglican theology. It very much is. The real issue is the difference between a Christian versus a secular notion of choice. Once we get at the root of the difference, the question of how the Anglican Church (or any other institution for that matter) can remain faithful to its traditional core, doctrinal commitments can be addressed.

Choice and ‘Social Imaginary’

Both the Christian and secular understandings of choice assume what Taylor calls a ‘social imaginary’. What does Taylor mean by ‘social imaginary’? It is the way people “imagine” their social surroundings, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellow human beings, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations. Everyone has an assumed ‘social imaginary’ that is largely unstructured and an inarticulate understanding of one’s whole situation that is not expressed in explicit doctrines or confessions of faith. Humans operate with a social imaginary, well before they ever get into the business of theorizing about themselves. If Charles Taylor is right that our choices are framed by our social imaginary, then what differentiates the Christian from the secular understanding of choice is the former’s social imaginary is simply different from the latter.

The Creation of Social Imaginary

What determines someone’s social imaginary? Taylor’s social imaginary assumes an Augustinian anthropology that says all human beings are oriented by their desires or what they love. Everyone is committed to and steered by a vision of the good life that is often not consciously reflected on, even though it governs, and controls our being and our doing. Whatever understanding of the good life we assume and thus desire is not formed at the cognitive level. You can’t simply teach people to desire a particular vision of the good life. Rather, whatever vision of the good life we imagine is inscribed and infused in our habits and dispositions – woven into our precognitive nature. It is the habit-forming practices we engage in daily whether they be secular or church ones. This is what shapes the direction of our desires towards a vision of human flourishing and turns us into certain kinds of people.

Social Imaginary and Choice

How does our social imaginary frame and influence our choices? If your social imaginary assumes a vision of the good life that has nothing to do with God, the only player in whatever choices you make to realize your vision is yourself. Without God only you can decide what is the good life for you and how to get it. Whereas if you assume a traditional, creedal Christian social imaginary, that is you are made in the image of God and the only good life is to realize that image, then your choices are determined by what God’s vision of the good life is for you. When Jesus tells His first disciples to come and follow me, He’s saying, since I created you, only I know what it means to flourish as a human being. Therefore, I invite you to make choices so I can help you realize the good life I’ve created you for.

‘Me’ Theology of Today’s Church

But unfortunately, many Christians today are shaped by the social imaginary of a self-determining self rather than one informed by the Incarnate Word. Let’s consider how people choose a church to attend today. No longer do we choose a particular denomination or church based on theological grounds, as did our ancestors. It was not too long ago for Anglicans that choice was determined by theology as reflected in a church’s liturgy and its moral compass. I came across a copy of an article from the local newspaper in the town of my first church printed sometime in the mid-1900s. The article recorded a scandal that took place at the church. What was the ‘scandal’? It had nothing to do, as you might think, with any sexual impropriety. Instead, the local priest had dared to put candles on the communion table in a church that historically practised a very ‘low church’ and evangelically informed application of the Anglican Prayer Book liturgy. Any ‘thing’ (such as candles), or ‘practice’ (such as genuflecting), in the liturgy that even hinted at ‘Romish’ tendencies was considered completely out of bounds.

You might think arguing about whether putting candles on the table is silly. Fortunately, we’re beyond that sort of silly theological debate. But I dare say we are certainly not as theologically attuned as were our Anglicans ancestors. At least they understood what they theologically believed in and wanted to make sure their liturgical practice reflected that belief. The differences back then between ‘low’ versus ‘high’ church, or ‘evangelical’ versus ‘Anglo-Catholic liturgical practices were not just a matter of style, comfort, and what felt right, as is the case for many today. The differences were fundamentally theological; how is God present in the liturgy, what is priestly versus lay ministry, what role does the bible play in the Church’s life, or the importance of the once and for all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. For many Anglicans today, on the other hand, the determining factor for attending a church is no longer the theology of a church, as expressed in its liturgical practices, but instead, what seems, or better feels right to me and my spiritual development. What connects me to God is whatever I choose is the best spiritual path for me irrespective of any theological inaccuracies.

It is not surprising then to see in many Anglican Churches today a disregard for theological accuracy in its preaching and teaching. A few years ago, a senior Muslim cleric told the following anecdote to a small audience. At a conference of religious leaders, he had asked a C of E bishop what one had to believe to be a member of his church. After a pause, the bishop answered, ‘That’s a very interesting question’ and remarked to his audience that he found it easier to deal with Catholics. We can’t completely blame clergy for their lack of theological backbone. When you are dealing with a laity who expect their clergy to feed my spiritual development, it’s no wonder many clergy are tenuous about preaching with any creedal or doctrinal certainty. And heaven forbid you talk about sin!

Living by the Gospel Social Imaginary

How can the Church and its leaders combat the secular influences on the imaginations of their members? We cannot do it with just more biblically centred preaching and teaching that is theologically faithful to the Church’s traditional doctrines and creeds. That is only part of the answer. More importantly, Anglican Church leaders must emulate and encourage others to join them in certain Christian habit-forming practices that will shape their imaginations, as well as their minds, to love the God of the Gospel. And this happens primarily in how we worship.

If we are fundamentally creatures of desire and love, the people we become is determined by God we worship. We all worship something or someone whether we know it cognitively or not. Here James K. A. Smith and his ‘Liturgies Project’ is helpful. Adopting the Augustinian notion that we all worship whatever we ultimately love, Smith broadens the definition of liturgy to include secular as well as religious ones. Accompanying whatever secular god or vision of the good life we worship – e.g., consumerism, wealth, political power, beauty etc. – are corresponding secular liturgies to help us in our task. For instance, if physical beauty is the god we worship, we will engage in the liturgy of going to the gym, partaking in certain diets, reading certain beauty magazines, and hanging out with certain people. And these habit-forming liturgical practices reinforce our desire to be a physically beautiful person.  People partake in whichever secular habit-forming liturgical practices that will help them realize whatever vision of the good life they desire.

If we, as Church leaders, are to counteract the influences of these habit-forming secular liturgical practices, we must retrieve and offer traditional Anglican habit-forming liturgical practices so that they will make choices to accept and realize God’s vision of the good life for them. They may include offering the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, Sunday morning worship that engages all the senses (e.g., chanting, use of incense, attention to priestly movements, sung liturgical responses, etc.), teaching and equipping laity with Christian meditation techniques as practiced by the early Church Fathers, celebrating Saints days, re-introducing the Anglican office of confession, encourage fasting, abstinence, and prayer during the season of Lent and Advent. This is not to say good, biblically based preaching and teaching is no longer important. Far from it. But preaching and teaching cannot on its own shape the social imaginary of people and thus capture their imaginations so that their ultimate love is God.

 

Christianity and the Problem of Choice