Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review from The Anglican Theological Review

Anglican Christianity has long had a tradition of scholarly parsons. At the head of this line stands Hooker, of course, and it is Hooker who presides over Reasonable and Holy, the learned work of another learned parish priest. It is one thing to quote Hooker’s words, as Tobias Haller frequently does, and something more difficult, more admirable, and more worthwhile to emulate his approach and his temperament. Haller does that too.

Hooker’s was in the first instance controversial theology, aimed at answering and controverting a stated position, strongly held, on matters of practical import for the church as a whole. Likewise, Haller seeks to meet opponents on their own ground, assessing their arguments carefully and refuting them courteously, rather than simply dismissing them and insisting on his own alternative. The ground, in this case, is primarily biblical. However important the natural-law tradition has been or may still be in addressing the questions at issue, that is not where Anglicans who disapprove of same-sexual relations commonly take their stand. Accordingly, neither does Haller. On the one hand, he does not take the standard line of appealing to the moral virtue of justice, which would be a form of natural-law argument; on the other, he need not and does not deal with consequentialist arguments to the effect that any change in longstanding prohibitions with regard to same-sexuality will have evil effects. The arguments that are relevant here are arguments from authority, and the relevant authority is that of canonical texts.

Nevertheless, for Haller as for Hooker, it remains that not even scriptural texts are self-interpreting. They have to be understood, and understanding them calls for rationality. The relevant passages—all the usual ones—need to be examined reasonably, which is quite a different thing from submitting them to a priori judgment. In other words, there is exegetical homework to be done. It is true that Haller does not dive into the maelstrom of “higher,” historical-critical interpretation. He takes the Bible, deliberately, as it stands, and takes it as holy Scripture, in the way that the church has taken it and that Paul and Jesus took it. In that regard, as in others, Reasonable and Holy is quite a conservative book. Yet by no means does it follow that scholarly investigation is superfluous. Quite the contrary. Haller does not parade his erudition; he does exercise it. Where the nuances of Greek and Hebrew are relevant, he refers to them. He also brings into the conversation a good deal of rabbinic exegesis, with which his own has perhaps a certain affinity.

There are no sweeping judgments here. To use his own phrase, Haller does not offer a Grand Unified Theory of Sexuality, in which everything the Bible has to say finds a clear-cut, logical place. In fact much of his book is aimed, explicitly or otherwise, at those who have put forward such artificial, totalizing schemes as the answer to current disputes. That is not what he means by being reasonable. He means—to judge by what he does—drawing careful distinctions, gauging the merits of possibly relevant interpretations, and mounting a case that depends on the cumulative weight of all its components. “Judicious” might be the right word.

That being so, even if it were possible to summarize the argument, a summary would be out of place. The value of Reasonable and Holy lies not in its conclusions alone but chiefly in the way Haller reaches them. What should, however, be emphasized is the user-friendliness of his book, its learnedness notwithstanding. The sidebars and callouts will help readers keep their place. Headings are memorably phrased, and just occasionally over the top (“Don’t be so shellfish”). There are no footnotes and, more seriously, there is no index—not, that is, in the book itself. But an index of names and another of textual references can be consulted online. Now that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has committed itself to “an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships,” whoever is charged with compiling those resources will want to add this book to the list.

Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

From The Anglican Theological Review Winter 2010, Volume 92 Number 1, 225-226.

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