Monday, January 6, 2014

Calling All Hesychats! Set 6 Goes Apophatic.

[Disclaimer:  You know, Crusty can be serious at times (well, often, actually) and here is a very special message from COD:  These  blog postings are really about me arguing with the questions, and really are not intended to be a kind of GOE forum.  Crusty welcomes comments and feedback, but please do not discuss answers in the comments section, since the GOEs are a double-blind process -- readers aren't supposed to know who you are, God forbid any of them should stumble across this site.  While Crusty thinks the GOEs need some pretty substantial if not radical revamping and restructuring, he's also a firm believer in them, or something like them, and feels we need to follow the process in place while having discussions about what changes might be needed.  We do need a GOE forum, and Crusty has tried at times to try to get one going, and would welcome anyone who wants to grab their torch and pitchfork and join him.]

In the morning briefing after the 8 am Eucharist, Crusty asked the students to remind him which canonical areas were being assessed today.  Keep in mind, Crusty ends up spending more words and perhaps even more time drafting these blog posts than the students do in their answers, and COD tends to get a bit foggy by the end of all of this.  Throw in preaching and presiding yesterday at a church that was a 90 minute drive away each direction, and a -15 wind chill walking in to the seminary today, and you'd be feeling like Crusty, too.  "Theology in the morning," one student called out. "Maybe they'll ask us a church history question in the theology section since they asked us a theology question in the church history section," another called out.

Well, at least they did ask a theology question in the set on Christian Theology and Missiology.  Keep in mind, while we have shorthand for some of these sections, in reality the definitions of the canonical areas are often longer.  Since General Convention decided additional things were important, but couldn't keep adding canonical areas, they just periodically add to
Actual photo of COD after walking to seminary at 730 am in -15 wind chill.
the descriptions of the canonical areas.  For instance, while it's called "Church History" on the GOE, in the Constitution and Canons it's "Church History, including the ecumenical movement." On the GOE it's "Contemporary Society" whereas in the canons it's "Studies in contemporary society, including the historical and contemporary experience of racial and minority groups, and cross-cultural ministry skills. Cross-cultural ministry skills may include the ability to communicate in a contemporary language other than one's first language."  While Set 6 describes itself as "Christian Theology and Missiology," it's actually "Christian Theology, including Missionary Theology and Missiology."  Just once, Crusty would like them to ask a question about Missionary Theology and Missiology, he includes modules in the Anglican & Episcopal History and Anglican Theology courses at the seminary on the history and theology of Anglican missions.  If they're never going to test people on certain aspects (like the ecumenical movement, which hardly anybody teaches about anymore), why keep them in the canons?  If they're in the canons, let's prep people for them!  Crusty's students could throw down on an ecumenism question (they better be able to or GOEs will be the least of their problems).

Anyway, here's Set 6:

Set 6: Christian Theology and Missiology


Within the history of Christian theology, one can find two views of the knowability of God that seem incompatible. One is a view of God as active in history and knowable through divine acts. The other is a view of God as ontologically transcendent and therefore beyond all categories of human understanding and explication. You want to understand the relationship between these two views of God, which may appear to many in your congregation to be in conflict with each other.

Using two theological traditions within the history of Western Christianity that you think are appropriate, explain in an essay of 1,500 words how you would explicate the relationship between these two views to members of your congregation.

Maybe Crusty's just starting to get a little brain-dead at this stage in the process, or looking forward to the GOE party at 5pm, but he really didn't have much to quibble about with this question.  It's a pretty straightforward theological question:  there are indeed elements in the history of Christian theology which do speak of a God active in history and knowable; and the other where God is hopelessly other and transcendent.  COD found his thoughts crystallizing mainly in three areas:

1)  Again with the setup.  The whole "You want to understand the relationship between these two views of God, which may appear to many in your congregation to be in conflict with each other.which may appear to many in your congregation to be in conflict with each other" just seems tacked on and forced.  Are these two things related, your interest in the issue and your congregation's interest?  Or is this some kind of divine synergy, where you want to understand these issues and lo and behold, your congregation is grappling with them, too.  Were the drafters of the question thinking, "Gosh, we don't want this just to be some kind of theological exercise, let's get them to ground it in some way and apply it to a context" and so they came up with this?  I "want to understand the relationship"?  And I need to be able to explain it to my congregation, who are having discussions about how these views are in conflict with one another?  Crusty's been part of lots of congregations, urban and rural, East and MIwest and West Coast; also served as a college chaplain.   Can't say as he's come across the debate about how God is knowable or not in many of them.  COD has found often times theological conversations in congregations come out of personal, pastoral situations.   Someone whose healthy wife suddenly comes down with ovarian cancer can start asking questions about why these things are happening.  Someone who loves nature and fly fishing can feel that they find God there.  But COD doubts the first example would say, "I have some questions about theodicy," and the second, "Do you think we can only know God apophatically?"  9/11was also one of those times people were having theological discussions, though not necessarily using the kind of terminology and phraseology.  The setup here is a bit facile and forced.  Either just ask the student to explain the differences, or spend the time coming up with a real scenario and a real question about to apply a theological issue to a specific scenario.

2)  Because the problem is compounded in section 2.  Since we don't know much about the context in which these issues arise in the congregation, how are we to explain?  A sermon series?  Adult ed forum?  Crusty was no bones with asking students to explain the relationship between these two views (because in COD's mind this whole question is a bit of a red herring, since the two views are not incompatible).  COD personally would have done something like sketch out an adult ed forum; he certainly wouldn't want the readers to say, "We asked you to explicate it, not outline an adult ed forum.  You should have spent more time on explication."  In the Set-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, while COD thought the question deserved its WTF ranking, at least explained very specifically what it was asking students to do.

3)  COD is also intrigued by the restriction to "Theological Traditions of Western Christianity."  Is this intentional, or just boilerplate without really thinking, or is it intended specifically to exclude other theological traditions?  Crusty has a Master of Theology degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and he would have gone all Gregory of Palamas and Hesychast on this question.  Because the Hesychasts figured it all out
You might remember me from such films as "Calling All Hesychasts!"
(drawing upon some previous concepts laid out in Basil of Caesarea, among other things) by drawing distinctions between essence (God's own self) and energies (God's actions in the world).  We can experience God's energies, but not God's essences.  Palamas is a central figure in the development of Orthodox theology.  In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the First Sunday of Lent is the "Triumph of Orthodoxy," commemorating the final restoration of icons to the church after decades of bitter dispute between iconoclasts and iconodules, with icons at times banned from churches.  The Second Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of Gregory of Palamas; the church council in 1351 which gave its approval to hesychast theology is called a "Second Triumph of Orthodoxy" and Gregory and Hesychast theology is celebrated every year on the Second Sunday of Lent.  Orthodox choirs will intone a capella on March 16, 2014:

"O Gregory the miracle worker, light of Orthodoxy, supporter and teacher of the Church, invincible defender of theologians, the pride of Thessalonica, and preacher of grace, intercede for us forever that our souls may be saved."


"With one accord, we praise you as the sacred and divine vessel of wisdom and clear trumpet of theology, O our righteous Father Gregory of divine speech.  As a mind that stands now
Pray for the GOE takers, O Holy Gregory.
before the Primal Mind, you do ever guide aright and lead our mind to Him, that we all may cry:   Hail, o herald of grace divine."

[Taken from; slight different translations in different Orthodox jurisidictions.]

But this would specifically seem to have been excluded here.  Crusty might chalk it up to, "We can't assess people on things they might not know," but they've already shown themselves in Set 4 and Set 5 to be quite ready to do that.  So why not let someone who might have familiarity with Eastern Orthodox theology to apply that here?  

Overall, COD gives this a ranking of:  Meh.  The theological question being asked -- are the strands in Christian theology which say God is knowable in conflict with those that say God is other? -- is fairly straightforward.  But the setup/scenario ("explain this to your congregation flummoxed by apophaticism") seems tacked on and poorly defined, and the exclusion of Eastern Orthodox theology is perplexing.


  1. EfM is addressing this with Diogenes Allen "Troubled Believer" book.

  2. So I have a question for COD about what this question was asking. Does he think that it was an epistemological question or an otological question. It seems as though one could read this question as saying that one should follow two traditional understandings of how we know God. If that is the case, the question is not merely a red herring, but appears to be repeating itself: if God is incomprehensible, then the only way to know God is through divine revelation (Christ). It is the other side of the argument which says that God is knowable through natural theology, or so I thought. On the other hand, some have read this question as being about ontology, drawing on a comparison between Process and Classical theology. God interacting actively with the world (e.g. Whitehead) vs. God's immutability (Aquinas). This seems to be more of an answer about ontology than epistemology. What does COD think?

    1. Alex, if Crusty could determine what questions were really about, this blog would be unnecessary. To your question, tho, seems this [hopefully] is epistemological, since kataphatic v. apophatic has nothing to do with God's nature but our ability to discern God's nature.

    2. Awesome! Thanks!

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  4. As a former Examining Chaplain in two dioceses (Western Michigan before ECs were declawed; Ohio thereafter) I have followed your comments on the GOEs with great interest and considerable admiration. When I was in "the process" (back before the earth's crust cooled and deans were considerably crustier even than you!) we took our chances with diocesan Boards—some of which (including my own diocese at the time: Michigan) were exceptionally good and some of which were execrable. But, like several you have cited, many of the questions were generic, and ungrounded. I remember my examiner in Church History (Rector of a "sub-cardinal" parish in the diocese) asking how I would "explain the English Reformation to a layman." I responded that, in my experience, "laymen" came in all sorts and conditions, and asked him to tell me a little about this "layman." He seemed stunned for a moment and then said, "OK; he's a line foreman at an auto plant." ("Industrial mission" was then much in vogue.)

    "Well," I responded, "in that case, I'd start by explaining it as a change of management that wouldn't, in the short run, affect production but which eventually resulted in a series of new models being introduced and then see how much further he would want to go."

    I cite this as an advantage of a process which provided for actual interaction—pretty much the polar opposite of the current "anonymous" process, which seems designed more to give the readers deniability than to promote real assessment. The Michigan process, circa 1962, began with a series of written "test borings" designed to find out what one knew, followed by two or three days of oral exams in all the canonical areas, which were designed to find out what one *didn't* know. I still think it was a better process than any of the ones I've been a part of on "the other side" since.

    1. Robert - while a face-to-face process may have worked out well for you, for many more it was fraught with all kinds of bias, and 'gotcha' questions. The anonymous process ensures evenhandedness. As to it being designed to give us 'deniability' - I'm not sure why we'd be interested in that.
      On a side note - my late father would have been in the 'Michigan process' you reference, although by 1962 he was in Baltimore. I don't think I ever asked him what his canonical examination process was like, even though he knew I'd been a GOE reader for many years.
      - Anne LeVeque

    2. Oh, pooh, one can't edit after posting. I meant to add 'in 1955' to what I said about my dad. - AL

    3. Robert, the GOEs were established, in part, to mitigate some of the over-personal nature of a diocesan based system (e.g. if you don't bow your head at the incarnatus we're not passing you). Personally COD thinks we're capable of a hybrid: an exam that could be written and/or administered by a tertium quid, but solely assessed locally, since, even in our current system, in the end that's the only opinion that matters.

  5. My confidence in the GOE continues to be swathed in the cloud of unknowing. Thank you, Rev'd Crusty in God, for your contributions, but I become more convinced each year that this is the trip not worth taking. Not that I don't believe there is a good destination, but that the vehicle seems less and less well designed to reach it. I know you suggested elsewhere in this set that you might like to see the Big Project of Reform uptaken also elsewhere. I'd be happy to lend a hand, such as it is...

  6. Tobias, as a General Convention deputy, Crusty is looking to all y'all. Frankly Crusty would also prefer not to lament the system Sisyphus-like each year but finally to have the conversation about what a competency based assessment system looks like in the 21st century church. But 2012 GC refused to go anywhere near that conversation.

    1. Tom, I wish I had your confidence in GC. Unfortunately I fear this is one of those Fox and Henhouse moments. I'm sure the GBEC think they are doing a fine job, but there is literally no one to monitor them directly, a task not at all suited in any case to GC as a body. GC is much better at the broad brush than the details of such management.

      What I think would be more helpful is a grass-roots, response from those the GOE is designed explicitly to serve. (I serve on my diocesan Examining Chaplains board, so like you I get to see more of the results than the average Deputy to GC.) I think one can rely on the canons (the real work of GC) in this, as it is only to be administered to "to those Candidates for Holy Orders who have been identified to the Board by their several Bishops" (III.15.2.a) and the results thereof are recommendatory (and there's supposed to be a pointer to remediation, which I've never seen [according to III.15.2.b -- and I will add that the answer guidelines produced for the grading of the 2012 set were ludicrous]). The old requirement for an "examination" has been gently edged from place in any case, replaced with a "formational" model leading to a certificate of proficiency. The ultimate responsibility for the certificate of proficiency now belongs to the COM.

      Perhaps if there is more pressure from the dioceses, something might change. As it stands, it seems the best approach is to let the GOE stand, but for the local Examiners to make of the exam and the responses what they will. In past years my own group has found some of the grading to be whimsical if not dead wrong, and we've been happy to reverse the assessments, or provide supplemental work where really needed, in some cases crafting our own exam questions to replace those of the GBEC. But this does seem to be a very inefficient way of coming to the goal, and it ultimately -- and here is the real rub -- undercuts the purported virtue of a "standard" -- since the final call will be made locally. The supposedly objective is fictive, and becomes more and more subjective.

      So I propose a discussion of what the competency assessment should look like be carried out by those who actually have to end up with the "buck" on their desk, rather than GC, as the canons are already flexible enough to allow the Bishops, COMs, local Chaplains, etc. to take the lead and let the GBEC know they are not pleased.

      Thanks again for your reviews of the exams, though. Your comments are a huge help in dealing with the local ordinands and the work of my own chaplains group as we face the inevitable and sometimes inscrutable grading.

    2. Obviously Crusty was not being snarky enough -- anyone reading this blog I figured would realize COD has about as much trust in GC handling complex theological issues as he does in Congress handling complex political issues. We're stuck in that the GBEC is canonically mandated, and only GC can change the Canons. By all means I think we need to convene some summit and it's got to come from dioceses -- not only letting GBEC know people aren't pleased but saying instead, "What kind of competency based system do we think we need at this time in the life of the church?" Crusty always wary of jumping straight to problem solving. I've said all along the one thing clearly a step down from the GOE would be 100 diocesan GOEs.

    3. Oh, dear. I never thought I'd have to say, "Dial up the snark," but I suppose the day has come. I am glad and relieved to know that you had not fallen prey to the delusion some seem to have about the omnicompetence of General Convention!

      Thanks as well for framing the question as it needs to be framed. I'd put it a bit differently, reflecting the canonical requirement, by asking, "What is proficiency? And how is that demonstrated." It seems to me the current GOE fails to address either issue well. When every batch has at least one WTF and several borderline cases, and maybe only one or two that seem actually to address and test for what competency in the relevant areas, there is clear need for reform. Perhaps the problem is in part the form -- as if a suite of seven essays could possibly show "proficiency" (though they might prove incompetence...)

      But just as you are chary and wary of "problem solving" I am wary of the Eggs in One Basket syndrome that seems to dominate so much of the ordination process; that is, resting major liminal or fulcrum decisions on very narrow bases. For instance, I've long been distressed that so much is put on a COM "weekend" of interviews balanced against the year-long discernment in a parish; so too, the GOE balanced against the assessment of a whole 3-year course of seminary study. I fear that we almost hope for a magic wand that will assess in a few days what should be given weeks, months and years. It seems a very narrow eye for any hopeful camel to slip through.

      On the other hand, getting back to the canonical reality: it is true the GOE is mandated -- that is, its existence. Yet as I noted above there is no mandate that anyone take it! What if it truly were mandatory... and decisive: that is to say, if you flunk, you flunk? Might that not put the pressure on to see to it that it is written and graded much more effectively? The present system seems to me to be part of what encourages both the WTF questions and the less than equitable evaluations.

      Again, many thanks for this opportunity to converse on an important topic! All the best in this frigid weather....


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