Wednesday, 8 August 2007

A Postmodern Stance

I don't normally reproduce writings that have gone elsewhere, such as on to Thinking Anglicans, but I will break that here to reproduce this, and then add a little that would otherwise break its 400 words limitation.

Something old hat [outlook of John Spong] is still there; my point is that having lost its novelty it's part of the fabric. I don't spit this out at all, I rather take from (and add to) what Spong writes. The people who want to narrow it all down are a bit like those who want to uninvent technology: the biblical criticism is done and more is being done; the doctrinal histories are not quite as they were once presented; there has been a wholesale cultural shift or five since [St.] Paul was relating this to that in his cultural situations.

I've no idea if this is elitist - it's available to anyone in a church who can read or listen or indeed speak. What should we be - like baby birds in a nest with mouths open taking what is handed out? Pew fodder? No, grow up and go and find your own food, with a bit of help here and there.

I don't use postmodern expressions because they are novel, they are used because they make sense in a pluralistic world, and one where knowledge (especially in the arts) is problematic. There are limits to the postmodern, such social scientific grounded research, and the science processes of falsifiability, none of which apply to religious belief.

Religious faith is like a narrative, and this is why postmodern insights are important. Incarnation is not an alternative history, and it is not psuedo-science. It falls into the area of religious believing and insight: the Jesus(es) we forever reconstruct are about the ethical and inner life, community and direction, the immediacy of right decision making and trying to put away wrong decision making, of not condemning and not excluding - in relationship. Of course there is some fantasy element to this, as in any story-telling, in that it comes via a construct, but the postmodernist inhabits that point of telling a story and awareness of the story.

John Spong is old hat in he sense that the structure is pretty much as was, with modernist criticism; I'm saying it needs a more dynamic turn, from wine alone to a collection of juices in the punchbowl.

The key to this is the cultural shifts we have undergone. We cannot reconstruct as a whole (some sects try it) of having a last days culture in which Paul made sense to his followers, as well as managing the disappointment in his lifetime when the last days failed to materialise. Nor do we think with Jesus that some utter other entity of a Kingdom of God is about to break in, so close that you could taste it. We do not have their intensely premodern views. We replaced them, and then replaced them again, and again.

The Christian tradition is like a big river that has come from a number of small rivers, and rain that was once part of other rivers and the sea. It is mature - this river - and a lot has happened. Because we can look backwards, and add to our language-makes-possible library, and picture gallery, we can see where the river has been, and it and its surroundings have changed. We can also compare it with other rivers, their various paths, seeing similarities and differences. And, more than this, some of these rivers are joining into one huge, swirling, estuary, with all sorts of islands and meanders in the big river.

Modernism was a kind of rationalising process, a thought-world that believed it could get at the truth, and this became truth through various subject disciplines according to rules of method in each case, and towards, ultimately, a higher truth. Modernism is still powerful, and we have Jürgen Habermas who claims that disinterested (from economic pressures) talkers can come together in communicative reason and arrive at a rational truth. Postmodernism says that you can never find that pure, neutral, disinterested space, and therefore will never arrive at a pure, disinterested truth. More than this, the mechanisms by which we imagined language has been no more than a filter towards achieving truth turn out to be distorters of such a process, and that language itself (and I add symbolism in general, not just words) is part of that internal creation of world-views that exist in their own linguistic formations.

This means a relativity of knowledge between one construction and another, between one faith and another, and there are a number of possible outcomes if this postmodernism is followed through for a religious system like Christianity (or, indeed, any).

The first possibility is that whilst there is no objective anchoring of the system in anything outside, the system remains true to itself within itself. Indeed, an adherent can use this system as his or her own rationality. This is the position of John Milbank, a conservative postmodern theologian. Therefore he regards the social sciences as secular theology. He turns it all around. He promotes an "everything" Anglo-Catholicism in his postmodern bubble, and the bubble is where he is. A lesser version of this is the intended ecumenical frozen cultural-linguistic system established by George Lindbeck that regards Christianity as a kind of dramatic performance, where Christians are identified as performers within this cultural-linguistic system. Again, there is no outside anchoring.

The second possibility is that the awareness of the relativity deconstructs the Christian system so that ones attachment to it is loose and free floating. This is like Don Cupitt's, or Mark C. Taylor's, where the linguistic system tends to collapse in on itself over and over again. It is a sort of Baudrillard religion, a simulacra of the rituals and meanings that play around with each other. The cultural-linguistic system is open, like in Daniel Liechty's version, and so there tends to be a focusing on ethics. Religions bump into each other, and share, and lose, and become reunderstood, and ethics are discussed and compared. Nothing is certain. Doctrines are like surface features that appear, disappear and reappear again. There are no secure walls between this and any other system, because language and symbolism go right across them all, so that borrowing and re-fitting can even become furious and constant, in a kind of choice of remoulded jigsaw pieces. The dictionary of connected words - one definition giving meaning to the next word (as in incarnation, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, revelation...) - starts to stretch off in new chains of meaning, all altered by admitting new words and chains into the meaning situation.

A third possibility - and it strains as a possibility - is that outside either of the above is some extra-linguistic external entity, that can never be identified or even named or imagined (because as soon as you do it becames another subsystem of the cultural-linguistic system). This is a kind of ultimate realism behind all the postmodernism. John Hick, the Presbyerian theologian, has this view (and he rejects the complete postmodern). Each religious system suits the followers concepturally and in pactice, and each privides a deep, meaningful, religious system. However, religions are but pointers to transcendence. If you try to describe what this transcendence is, you end up with a higher level religion, a kind of super-religion. The offence committed, of course, is to say to religious followers, "Your faith is not the complete deal - it just points beyond itself into mystery." The difficulty is that by even stating this John Hick (and others) is producing a kind of ultimate, syncretistic, universalism, as well as offending Buddhists by saying their non-God approach is, ultimately, the same outcome as those with a personal God, and those with an impersonal God approach. Plus, whatever is said, because it is said, it cannot lie outside the cultural-linguistic system. Too much has been said and imagined already. And, supposing John Hick has access to this reality, how come he, unlike the rest of us, can step outside the cultural-linguistic system? Has he received revelation?

[The same point was made about Karl Marx. How come we are all prisoners under false consciousness, and yet you are so privileged to see it as false consciousness?]

This is why I cannot agree with John Hick. I never made a good Unitarian nor agreed with syncretistic universalism. I could never be a Bahai and Bahaism produced a separate religion.

Nor am I a complete postmodernist! The reason why not, quite, is this. Social science involves research, and this process narrows the options and anchors truth in a culture with a possibility of a real outcome (though in the end culture wins out - you have to defer to social anthropology here and then only the very limited possibility of universal human structures). In science, falsifiability points to regularity and, again, limitation, although its direction and description is massively cultural-lingusitic and is not value-neutral. Against falsifiability (and towards the postmodern) is that facts aren't much without hypotheses that keep them connected, giving rise to paradigms that function at the useful meaning-level which, thanks to falsifiability and research over a range of facts, can suddenlyadd up to a new paradigm of understanding. These may be truthful in intention, but only for a time; paradigms may exist as pointing to a real, but they do change! Furthermore, whilst something like fractals suggest simplicity behind complexity, powerful mathematics and geometry cannot prove its logical systems, and cannot demonstrate timeless absolute proofs of some major issues.

Religion, though, is not like any of this. Religion is much more like art. No religion can function as alternative history, even if for sections of it historiographic methods are brought into play. No religion functions as alternative science, because religions conserve and continue with the same insight-giving stories and myths. So what is religion? Religion, as suggested above, is a round-about way of dealing symbolically with the inner life, using story and symbol as an enchanter and enricher of the ethical quest in the same way as art is used to enrich. This is why, I think, religion ought to be about symbol and not just words via a sermon and readings and limited music. It ought to be imprecise, symbolic and enriched. Yes, it can be stark, but stark suggests purity when life is messy.

A modernist view is that religion is unnecessary and just fades away, and a religious modernist view is that we kind find via some poetic clarity the essence of religion, but I think otherwise that religion via enchantment and enrichment is about taking stock, relating self to society, binding oneself to the other, and how to behave to advance both self and society, and to see the better from the gratuitous. It is indeed about the ethical, but also about passing on a symbolic token one to another (a gift-exchange) that, by this act, relates the material of where we are (and the problems that beset us) with the spiritual absorbed within the material in order to renew the material, transitory existence.

I am aware of the contradiction in this thought - that I have explained a denial of an essence of religion by producing a structuralist essence of religion. However, I collapse that because the structuralist essence does nothing itself - you must have the round-about content, the means of enchanting, and, also, let it work on you. It somehow needs to be enough to project out and then do the pulling you along. Religion is projection, and this awareness of the process of course limits its pulling power (like seeing how the magician does his magic trick - but what skill is involved!). So, yes, there is an explanation, but it would be a mistake to think the explanation is it - it is not. It has to be done. I am not unhappy about having such contradiction: the Buddhists teach us (and not only they) that with the deepest plunges into religious understanding comes nothing but paradox: samsara and nirvana cannot be one, but are one.

This is my explanation of doing religion, and it holds - for now. Everything, after all, is for now.

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