The Light We Have by David Mills

The Light We Have

In the last issue, S. M. Hutchens well explained how we at Touchstone treat those who promote the ordination of women (“Making an Issue of It: A Word from the Gnomes,” Touchstone 8.1, Winter 1995). Something more should be said to explain why we oppose them, when arguing against them seems not only uncharitable but also to waste time on a secondary question when the world desperately needs to hear the gospel. We act as we do in part for a reason that may surprise even our readers: because we are agnostic about human abilities to know the truth.

Since the Enlightenment, doctrinal innovators have sold themselves as friends of reason and enemies of dogma, fearless skeptics accepting nothing on blind faith, but believing only what can be proven from the facts, mature people comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, defenders of justice and equality and all other virtues—and therefore locked in mortal combat with the forces of ignorance and reaction, the gnomes and Pharisees who thoughtlessly accept simple and self-serving dogmas inherited from the dark and primitive past.

This claim is, I think, nearly the reverse of the truth. To the extent we are dogmatic, we alleged gnomes are dogmatic because we are (intellectually if not always personally) humble, and we are humble because we are comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, believe only what can be proven from the facts, accept nothing on blind faith, are friends of reason and enemies of dogma in the sense the innovators use the word.

Agnosticism & Women’s Ordination

In other words, we oppose the ordination of women because we want to keep alive within the Church the Christian understanding of man in his right place. We want to remind the Church that in this world we see as in a mirror darkly, and it is foolish, indeed ungodly, to pretend to see better than we do.

Of course many ordained women and their supporters say this too. We cannot judge their hearts, but it is obvious to us that the exegetical gymnastics and the complete rejection of tradition needed to support the innovation go beyond the evidence—claim more light—than we have been given. The innovator must claim to know what the Bible really means and to know that better than nearly everyone else who has ever read it. And if I had the space I could show from the books of the most conservative of innovators a dogmatic insistence on what they believe God must intend, particularly that he intends equality understood in the modern sense of interchangeability.

In contrast, we at Touchstone, and I think the “ecumenically orthodox” generally, will gladly admit to knowing very little about the ways of man and even less about the ways of God, and to being (on our own) naturally agnostic about the answers to most questions that face us. We confess to being small and sinful creatures with an astonishing capacity to get things wrong and to deceive ourselves when it is useful, and (such is the nature of sin) even when it isn’t useful. When feminists claim that “God is beyond all our categories,” we respond: “well, yes, of course, we never said he wasn’t.” But we will then add that something more must be said: that God has given us his categories. It really isn’t very bright to stop at “God is beyond our categories” without investigating the possibility that the Incomprehensible has made Himself comprehensible.

In other words, our agnosticism is the reason we depend on Scripture and Tradition, because it makes us understand that only in these are God’s categories to be found. We do not pretend to know the truth on our own. This agnosticism about ourselves produces a confidence in the truth that even our friends misinterpret as self-righteousness, fear of change, or simple stupidity.

The Sensible Person

The one who knows he does not understand how to work his new VCR will, if he has any sense at all, read the owner’s manual and ask other owners for help in interpreting it. He will not say “Electronics is beyond all my categories” and return the VCR to the store. If the manual seems to say put wire A into connection A, and people who have had the same VCR for years tell us to do so, we (being sensible people) put wire A into connection A.

We should do so—we must do so, if we want our VCR to work right—even if friends whose sincerity and knowledge of such things we generally trust, tell us that they put wire A into connection B. We would be wrong to ignore the manual and the experts simply at our friends’ urging and on the basis of their recent experience. Besides, they do not seem to read the manual very well or take it as seriously as they ought. Many are inclined to ignore or even resent the help of more experienced owners, and others, a surprisingly large number, automatically do the opposite of whatever experienced owners suggest.

David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

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