If This Be Heresy
The Bishop Pike Affair
For eleven months, between the meeting of the Episcopalian House of Bishops in Wheeling, West Virginia, of October 1966, and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Seattle last month, Bishop James Pike had his fellow bishops virtually at his mercy. One of the few serious faults in the absorbing study William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne have written about their friend Bishop Pike’s skirmishes with his colleagues was their decision to cast him as the underdog in a battle for freedom of expression.
That the former, now resigned, Bishop of California—who has since become a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara—was battling for freedom of expression cannot be doubted. That he has during the past two years undergone a series of personal upsets and misfortunes that would have crushed lesser men cannot be denied: his resignation from his diocese, his separation from his wife, divorce proceedings, the suicides of his son and also of a close associate. But that he was the underdog in this particular battle with his fellow bishops is almost wholly imaginary.
As is well known, Pike was censured or “rebuked” by the bishops at Wheeling for such alleged faults as “irresponsible” and “often obscure and contradictory” utterances, “cheap vulgarization of great expressions of faith,” and insufficient pastoral concern. The censure motion was a very hastily thought out compromise, aimed—successfully, as it turned out—to persuade a small group of bishops headed by the Bishop of South Florida, Henry I. Louttit, not to press heresy charges against Pike. Explicitly disassociating itself from any judgment either for or against those charges, the censure motion rejected the idea of a heresy trial on the most pragmatic grounds: the damage that such a public trial, of a prelate of Pike’s standing, would have on the image of the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church clearly could not have afforded to try Pike for heresy. Like most religious denominations, it is in deep trouble. For example, during the past two years the total number of Episcopal clergy not engaged in parish work has increased from 25 percent to 40 percent. Among those who remain there is comparatively little vitality or promise of improvement in quality in the foreseeable future. In 1966, a commission headed by Nathan Marsh Pusey, President of Harvard, revealed that 66 percent of Episcopal seminarians had a C average or less in college—or held no degree at all. The adverse effect a heresy trial would likely have had on the morale of an already demoralized clergy and on recruitment of new clergy can hardly be overstated.
Yet Bishop Louttit—to the dismay of most of his fellow bishops—was apparently breathing fire in his determination to try Pike. Moreover, there was virtually no legal way to prevent him from initiating practically irreversible steps toward such a trial. In view of this, and considering that Louttit sprang his plan on his fellow bishops only a few weeks prior to their meeting in Wheeling, their blundering appeasement of him is perhaps understandable. But blunder it was, if only because the bishops, in their haste, gave Pike no proper opportunity to answer the charges listed in the censure report, and thereby inadvertently enabled him to charge—with some justice—that he had been denied “due process.” He was not permitted to face the committee which drew up the censure report; debate on it was limited to one hour; Pike was allowed only ten minutes to reply to the report, and had little if any advance warning about its content.
IF THAT WERE not enough, Pike happened to have another, decisive, card up his sleeve: as soon as the censure motion against him was passed, he demanded—as was his privilege—that he be tried for heresy in view of the charges that had been made against him. Thereby, shrewdly and at one stroke, he rendered ineffectual the intent of the compromise censure—which had sought to avoid a heresy trial—and put himself in command of the situation. Within days the high officials of his church were at work again to head off proceedings—their task however, now being to reach a compromise which would satisfy not Louttit but Pike.
The eventual compromise, one which Pike had indicated acceptable long in advance of the Seattle convention, was to adopt legislation which would render heresy trials virtually impossible within the Episcopal Church: ten bishops (instead of three) would be required to initiate a request for a heresy trial: and two-thirds of the House of Bishops would have to give their approval before such a trial could proceed. Moreover, the new legislation explicitly calls for the exercise of due process of law in all cases involving the censure of a bishop.
That Pike was now calling the tune was demonstrated again, if it needed any demonstration, when the Seattle Convention finally met. When some bishops made a last-ditch attempt to dilute the effect of the proposed legislation by “affirming” rather than adopting it, Pike immediately pressed his demand for a trial—whereupon the opposition collapsed. Within hours the original legislation was passed and Pike declared himself contented. No doubt he had a right to be: the effect of the new legislation in practice, although not in principle, is to make virtually any belief doctrinally permissible within the Episcopal Church. To a free-thinking bishop such a result must have seemed worth a censure.
Stringfellow and Towne’s book, published simultaneously with Pike’s new book just one week prior to the Seattle Convention, reports in detail the rather complicated background of the events I have just sketched here, and comments at length on the implications, both in canon law and in civil law, of the Pike dispute. In addition to their vigorous defense of Pike, the authors endorse some fears about the political future of the Episcopal Church which have been voiced several times in recent years, but which hardly were borne out at the Seattle Convention. Of these the most widely reported and discussed has been the prediction of what can only be called a coup d’église by the political right-wing. Taking for granted the assumption—which I find dubious—that an institution so generally ineffectual as the Episcopal Church would be a prime catch for right-wing extremists, Stringfellow and Towne attribute the attack on Pike chiefly to his outspoken advocacy of liberal political views, rather than to his radical theology.
The Episcopal Church does number among its members an unusually high proportion of affluent and politically conservative WASPS, and some dioceses and individual churches—particularly in the South, and notoriously in Louisiana—are indeed close to being under the control of Bircher-type groups. Doubtless many Episcopalians find Pike’s liberal politics offensive. But these elements barely showed their presence or influence at the Seattle Convention, let alone “took over” the church. For example, the outspokenly liberal dean of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Very Rev. John B. Coburn, was elected President of the House of Deputies by a wide margin of votes over his nearest rival, a conservative Southern lawyer. To be sure, the General Convention did not call for an end to the bombing in Vietnam, as some would have liked it to do; but then it did not endorse the bombing either. One doubts that any different action could have been reasonably expected from a body as divided on almost all issues, from liturgy to doctrine to politics, as the Episcopal Church.
Whatever maneuvers may be open to a House of Bishops in dealing with a maverick member, a reviewer must always ask of a new book whether it is indeed “obscure and contradictory.” Of The Bishop Pike Affair the question can immediately be answered in the negative. Stringfellow, a well-known Episcopalian lawyer and civil rights advocate, and Towne, a New York poet whose work has appeared in The New Yorker but who is not yet widely known, have produced a lucid piece of reportage and analysis. If their pessimistic predictions about the immediate political future of their church were to prove incorrect, it might well be argued that they themselves were at least partly responsible for this. The mere publication of their book, with its discussion of the possibility of a right-wing coup d’église, not to mention the personal interviewing of most of the bishops which they carried out prior to the Convention, may have helped sway the bishops in a more liberal direction.
OF BISHOP PIKE’S own book, If This Be Heresy, one can say only that it is probably no more obscure and contradictory than are his earlier works. But it is a very poor book, if, indeed, it can be called a book at all; it is more a scrapbook of Pike’s recent reflections. Despite the title, there is comparatively little theology, particularly of a controversial sort, contained in the book. Critical discussions of the doctrine of the virgin birth and of the Trinity, for instance, both of which Pike had challenged in the past, are absent, yet some rather startling matters are dealt with. One of its chapters, which defends belief in extra-sensory perception, psycho-kinesis, telekinesis, communication with the dead, and similar phenomena, has been widely reported, in a rather sensational way, in newspapers and weeklies throughout the world. For in the very middle of the General Convention; it was announced in the newspapers that Pike had been able to communicate with his dead son, James, Jr. (who had committed suicide in February 1966) during a televised séance with the medium Arthur Ford.
Any body of evidence or “data” can be explained or interpreted in a variety of different ways. Of those data which are commonly used to support belief in extra-sensory perception, pre-cognition, and other so-called “psychic phenomena,” the least one can say is that they are very mysterious indeed, and that brushing them all off as “coincidence” is as unscientific as gullibly accepting them all. Outlandish as some of the conclusions of C. G. Jung, J. B. Rhine, and others may appear, and bewildering as some of the results obtained at Duke University, and at other centers such as those in Cambridge and in London do seem, it would be grossly irresponsible and unfair to dismiss them as the products of charlatanry. Some of the hypotheses of Jung, Rhine, and others—embryonic and counter-intuitive as they are—may plausibly be described as at least as good as any rival interpretations of the same data. It may be added, also plausibly, that any hypothesis is better than no hypothesis—simply because only after a hypothesis has been articulated can it be examined, criticized, tested—and perhaps rejected.
Nor can theologians be blamed for being interested in these phenomena. For if communication with the dead is possible, then clearly there is an after-life, at least for some persons. It is, however, one thing to be moderately tolerant and open-minded toward such research, or even absorbingly preoccupied with it; it is quite another thing to suffer the nonsense that some persons, including, in this instance, the resigned Bishop of California, may spin out about it—nonsense that surely must embarrass the more responsible professional workers in this “field.”
Pike begins his nonsense with the picture of scientific method which he glibly sets out as the basis of his conclusions. Scientific method, he says, is “Facts + Faith.” We are told that given collections of data do not logically entail hypotheses which are based upon them—here Pike is presumably referring to the “problem of induction” made famous by David Hume—and that we must make “leaps of faith” in affirming hypotheses, Pike’s reference here being explicitly to Kierkegaard. So scientific method is to assemble facts and then to make “plausible inferences,” which may be called “leaps of faith,” from that evidence.
Referring to a problem is a rather different thing from developing a methodology. Pike has referred, in a rather bumbling and confused manner, to the problem of induction, one of the most serious in philosophy, which has preoccupied philosophers of science from Hume and Kant, through Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, and which is still being heatedly debated by contemporary American philosophers of the distinction of C. G. Hempel, Hilary Putnam, and Wilfrid Sellars. One of the problems these philosophers face is not simply how to get hypotheses out of data, but to state the relationships between hypotheses and supporting data. Pike gives no evidence of even being aware that this is an area of controversy.
AS SUPPORT for my impression that Pike’s attitude toward the relationship between the very limited data of “psychic phenomena” and the hypothesis of an “after-life” is an irresponsibly credulous one, I shall cite one passage he has written about personal immortality, and comment briefly on his public statements about his recent “communication” with his dead son. In his earlier book, What Is This Treasure (1966), Pike reasons as follows: “For every basic and universal human desire there is a corresponding reality. This is obviously true of hunger, thirst, and the urge for sexual fulfillment. Therefore, more plausible than the alternative is the assumption that this is true likewise of the well-nigh universal yearning for personal ongoingness.” If I understand him correctly—and admittedly the passage is obscure: “basic,” for example, Is not defined—Pike is saying that it is plausible to believe that anything “basic” that everybody desires exists! This is a bizarre claim, which many would dismiss out of hand as a crude expression of wish-fulfillment.
One is reluctant to scoff at Pike’s televised communication with his dead son, who committed suicide under tragic circumstances. But Pike has invited us to take him absolutely seriously. One of the most widely discussed details given to Pike from the “other side” during his television séance was that Pike’s friend Professor Donald MacKenzie Mackinnon, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, had been given two cats many years ago—a detail which, as it turned out, was true. Pike’s response, as quoted in the dailies, was as follows: “I don’t see how research by the medium could very well have brought out the role of Donald MacKinnon in my life, or the fact of his having had two cats.”
I have no way of knowing how the medium actually obtained this information. But I do certainly see how perfectly ordinary research could have come up with it. For MacKinnon’s friendship with Pike is described briefly in Time Magazine’s cover-story on Pike of November 11, 1966. And MacKinnon’s entry in Who’s Who, a handy research-reference tool, lists his hobbies as: “cats, walking, the cinema.”
IT IS PERHAPS worthwhile to note that the kind of thinking that one finds in Pike’s discussion of psychic phenomena is present in his discussion of other matters as well. For example, in If This Be Heresy, immediately preceding his chapter on “Life After Death” is a chapter on “The Style of Life,” in which the reader is treated to brief vignettes of the lives of several “honored figures”: Samuel Schereschewsky, Mohandas Gandhi, David Livingstone, and James Reeb (the Unitarian minister who was bludgeoned to death in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965). Pike calmly proclaims—appealing to scientific method—that “it is plausible for one to infer from all these data” that this is the best style of life.
One in no way does a disservice to the memory of these four heroic men by objecting to Pike’s bizarre treatment of them. It is impossible to discern much in common in the lives of these very different men—at least from Pike’s few superficial paragraphs on each—other than that they were all in some way “self-sacrificing” or “men for others,” to use the vague phrase coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But if one admits, as the most elementary student of psychology would admit, that there are widely different ways—styles—of self-sacrifice, and widely different motivations for it; and that these difference are hardly likely to be brought out from a superficial account of a few of the external details of the lives of “self-sacrificing individuals,” one is forced to challenge Pike’s misuse of the stories of these men in order to enforce his argument. I am convinced that the widespread flip invocation of Bonhoeffer’s category of “the man for others” has become a way for many theologians and other writers to stop thinking critically about the complex questions of sacrifice, exploitation, manipulation, moral and psychological masochism—and a cheap way not only to find easy examples of Christ-like figures, but even to avoid pondering the complex historiographical and Christo logical questions involved in the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth himself.
To add what ought to be obvious: even if it were found that Pike’s four exemplars did share some profound characteristic that might be called a “style of life,” it hardly follows, as Pike appears to claim, that this is the best style of life. Indeed, it might behoove a bishop-theologian to be rather more imaginative about the styles in which men might live and die.
I find it difficult to discern from the details of Bishop Pike’s biography whether he is a “man for others”—even if I understood better than I do what Bonhoeffer meant by that phrase. It is less difficult to reject Pike’s writings as amateurish, contradictory, obscure. But in his case at least, one reacts to the whole man, not just to his literary output. This attractive maverick bishop is a man of a most complicated style of life, troubled and contradictory, brave and shrewd, a man burning with a sense of social justice. Yet, something has to be said in favor of his fellow bishops too. For however foolishly they acted in Wheeling, they were right when they solemnly declared: “We do not think his often obscure and contradictory utterances warrant the time and the work and the wounds of a trial. The Church has more important things to get on with.” One of these, which the Episcopal Church might well get on with, is to grapple more profoundly with Pike’s challenges not on theological questions but on social issues.