Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Smell the Coffee

I divert myself from what I should be doing (all part of moving, getting things done) and what I end up doing. I take the view - sod it, I live a crap life as it is (materially) so I may as well entertain myself by diversion once in a while. I have after all tried to sort out the dustbins today and why mine (those I have) get ignored.

So to my diversion, and sorting out why my other computer (only now switched on for the first time since moving) did not come on, then came on but the drawing pad did not work, and then drawing something with a pen that now seems to fly around the screen. Yes I've tried to slow it down, but it is a puzzle.

On to my diversion then and a picture of Gavin D'Costa to accompany my irritation with such theologians. Rachel, for her good or ill, is an ordinand and a 'friend' of mine on Facebook. Maybe she might want to review this because she posts her theological progress and I have developed a tendency to comment. I did over Schleiermacher, and the rush of comments that called him a heretic. How silly. He is not setting out to think in one way or another or seek or reject another's approval, but to ask what would be the mental (biological-cultural) minimum foundation for religious objectivity, and where it meets subjectivity. He produces a kind of phenomenology, that which has been summarised as 'dependence'. It's a sort of theological equivalence of Descartes' "I think therefore I am." Now if you don't like objectivity in the world of humans and the other evolved, then do a Karl Barth or join a dogmatic postmodern cult - indeed, just as Schleiermacher is the grandfather of liberalism, Karl Barth is the grandfather of later evangelical postmodernism, of which, round the corner, is a Church form of postmodernism. I call them both 'bubbles'.

D'Costa is right to see that exclusivism (and Karl Barth is mentioned again), inclusivism (as in Karl Rahner) and Pluralism (as apparently in Hick - but Hick is a universalist not a pluralist) have their exclusivities. They have their starting points and assumptions. D'Costa still wants people beyond saved and still thinks they would be by a graceful God. He assumes that these who fall outside the Roman Catholic checklist of beliefs and stances are ignorant, or don't get it, and so there is an afterlife chance that they will cotton on to what he understands as to what his institution preaches.

This is not exclusivism or a form of inclusivism: it is arrogance. We are not ignorant nor passed by (though you could argue that on Karl Barth's main view we are the unchosen and goodnight). We have studied the theology and we have done the work, and found his scheme lacking.

For example, let's take the position of Christ: after all, apparently, this makes the salvic difference between the various religious positions we might occupy. Presumably if Christ is God and Man then it matters what his life is like; he has to be an exemplar and exhibit moral perfection. But did he? How do we know? We do not have the data. Those theologians who followed Schleiermacher realised this - the limitations and techniques of doing proper history according to methods of historiography. Now if we are basing this on moral perfection, we further do not know either the existences of Fred Bloggs's around the world that were potentially morally better.

It's no good saying this is a matter of faith: it is either historically realisable or it is not. Faith that something else happens is just fancy. It's like people who say they believe in the virgin birth: who cares? You can have such a fanciful belief: you do have to overcome how DNA processes itself. What some other hard-headed theologians did was say, well it's not really about doing history, it is about the texts. Bultmann's position, which was a cultural shift problem, was all about the texts. There was actually a shift of focus away from history (and indeed science). But then it becomes not about the man, but about the texts of the man, and then actually about the community about whom these texts were primary evidence. So all the resurrection stuff is actually about a community memory and a community intention, about words and beliefs, and then a lot of these texts involve this Greek cultural shift in it anyway, never mind Roman power (or rejecting Roman power).

You can do lots with the texts, but they don't overcome the problem that got you to them in the first place.

The moral conundrums are everywhere. For example, we are told that Jesus Christ died to save our sins. I've no idea by what mechanics this should work, but let's leave that one aside for the time being. Now we must assume this is a universal, if limited to the one man, and yet it is utterly dependent on a brutal regime being in power (unless we can add a cult of suicide). So if we assume an interventionist God, such a God has to set up or allow a brutal regime to be installed so that he, as the transferred deity, gets himself killed in order to carry out a sacrificial transfer from us to him. It is morally repugnant of course, because the real victims are those who had to suffer such a rotten regime in order that the deity could appear, heal, preach a different message entirely and then get picked up by the authorities as intended.

Now of course I don't believe any of this. I believe that Jesus had a very high sense of himself and his ego, and preached some interesting ethical issues in the context of his strange endtime beliefs, and was picked up fairly casually by the authorities as they picked up so many of such minor irritants at the edge of empire. If he was following the suffering servant model in his scriptures, he is then obviously being very noble in the face of his own destruction, and would have felt it necessary (if very burdensome) to face destruction - but he did it to either be transformed himself or to have another figure coming as the Son of Man to put an end to all suffering. The early Jewish Christians thought he was coming back as Messiah, assisted by religious experiences in the context of their faith and available language that became 'resurrection'. The Greek approach gave it all a rapid salvation facelift as his titles escalated within the community, becoming a rapid movement towards binitarian worship. But that's all about them. Those of us who don't just 'join the community' and adopt its rules (e.g. "preach the gospel") then think there are times when being a martyr is less useful, indeed being a martyr is often less useful than you think. The demonstration of the living is more fruitful than the escalations of desires imposed on to a person after their death and all relying on a cultural passing moment of intense supernatural endtime belief.

So far from there being moral and ethical perfection, there are just sets of questions, and all based on limited knowledge. Of course people can then retreat to privileging Greek culture, or saying the Romans were civilised (for the later faith and its structures), or saying these texts are normative, or you must have incarnation. Why? D'Costa does what he knows he must do - he retreats to the dogmas of the Church as a precondition. It keeps his system afloat.

Hick is a universalist. He says there is a Real that is salvic, towards which all religions of ethical content point. His attachment to Christianity is like someone being attached to the wife: she is his most beautiful woman in the world. Fair enough, for a bit of subjective preference. But Hick is a realist, and does not like the implication of pluralism, that we all have our languages and our positions, and there is a kind of liberal postmodernism barrier between them, or else a clash of objective values that must be battled over with no one having the political right to impose. Hick does impose: he says the Trinity is not the highest, but the Real is.

What I do is different. I'm a pluralist. I have my own arguments, of relative realism and non-realism from the sciences to the arts; and then if I come into your parlour or you into mine, I will defend my arguments. I'll debate with Rachel and Jody and anyone. To D'Costa I say, "You can think what you like, but understand that you are a theological imperialist, and as long as you recognise that and have no power over another, we can get along." In my view, his arguments all fall down except by retreat into substantive dogma as a starting point, whereas my starting points are inclusive, somewhat inductive and limited, based on evidence, argument and common paradigms.

Someone tell me what I want to drink some coffee.


Erika Baker said...

You want to drink some coffee!

But I am so bored with this blanket accusation that someone is a heretic if we're too lazy or too threatened to engage with what he's saying!

Milk? Sugar?

Rachel said...

We consider D'Costa this Thursday - expect posting...