The Ecclesial Future
Humphrey Lyttelton, the English jazz musician, wit, and raconteur, was once asked if he knew where jazz was going. He replied, "If I knew where jazz was going, then I would be there already." Lyttelton's quip makes two interesting assumptions. The first is the simple truth that the future is opaque. Writing about the future in any area is difficult. The second is more contestable: Lyttelton assumes that, if we have a sense of where the trends are going, then it would be good to be a part of those trends. He thinks that we all like to be on the winning side of history. This second assumption is contestable because there are trends that triumph for a season that one might see as misguided or wrong. One might be able to anticipate the growing "liberalism" of the mainline denominations, but one might not support it. There are trends regarding which one would not want to "be there already."
To anticipate the argument of this essay, in my judgment there is a battle for the future of the ecumenical movement, which mirrors the battle for the future of the interreligious conversation. The battle is between two positions: The first I am calling "tradition-constituted ecumenism"; the second I am calling "transcendent ecumenism." If "tradition-constituted ecumenism" is the future, then I would very much like to "be there already," but if "transcendent ecumenism" is going to triumph, then I would be a strong opponent--and I am very unsure about which trend will ultimately triumph.
A few initial comments might be helpful. My primary research interests are social ethics and interreligious dialogue. My assertion that there is a parallel argument in interreligious conversation is important. I am, to be candid, more confident about the literature on interreligious conversation than the literature on ecumenism. Therefore, I will be interested whether you recognize the parallels between interreligious and ecumenical.
The argument will develop as follows: I shall start by outlining the MacIntyrian framework underpinning this presentation, then I shall sketch out these two contrasting futures of the ecumenical movement, starting with transcendent ecumenism and following with tradition-constituted ecumenism. I shall explain why the former is deeply problematic and why the latter needs to be the future.
The MacIntyrian Framework
For the purposes of this presentation, I confine my discussion to two key books by Alasdair MacIntyre. The first is his After Virtue, (1) which provides a distinctive way of interpreting contemporary ethical discourse; the second is his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (2) wherein he outlines the distinctive epistemology underpinning his work. (3) There are three elements of MacIntyre's argument that serve as the framework for my subsequent argument. These are: (1) The pre-modern age had a sense of "tradition-constituted knowledge." (2) The project of liberal modernity was to seek an unobtainable vantage point, which led to the challenges of relativism and perspectivism. (3) We need to recover a "tradition-constituted" form of knowing, embedded in a community, with appropriate practices. We shall now examine these three elements in some detail.
Starting with the first element, for MacIntyre certain pre-Enlightenment traditions had a sense of "tradition-constituted enquiry." For example, Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, did not have a belief in neutral vantage points transcending the various conflicting traditions surrounding us, but he still managed to make certain "rational" judgments. This--MacIntyre argues in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?--is made possible by the ways in which traditions develop. Initially, he argues, traditions are founded within a community. A tradition can be said to begin when particular beliefs, institutions, and practices are articulated by certain people and/or in certain texts. In such a community authority will be conferred on these texts and voices. …