Friday, 7 October 2011

Postmodern Limits

Sometimes I think I have always held the same religious views, that is agnosticism. Other times, I think I keep changing. My current change seems to be a movement away from postmodernism. Then I wonder if I ever was a card-carrying postmodernist: always a soft one, never thoroughgoing.

Where I am most postmodern is at the level of critique, to use the full resources of the ambiguity of language to undermine constructions of certainty. Yet, at the same time, I see a danger of language fundamentalism, piling all forms of reality into the workings of language. Data comes through language and symbol systems, and these must be the subject of rigorous enquiry themselves, but data does, I suggest, come through and not just from.

Watching two programmes on BBC 4 on Thursday gives the place and limits of the postmodern. The Horizon programme on dark energy, dark matter and now dark flow, shows a construction of astro-physics that is getting ever tighter in its own knots of thought. Galaxies will only rotate as they do with dark matter, but also it seems that as space increases, dark energy increases and pushes the constituent parts apart ever faster (though, The Sky at Night reminded us that Andromeda out there will clash with our own galaxy in billions of years time, even if the spaces within both will make it less of a crash than descendents might fear). Then we find the cosmic background behaves as it does if there are other universes, and so there is a different flow than if we were sealed in. So all this shows the standard model, though robust from attack, is just that - a model. It has lots of tested parts, lots of mathematics that work, but it looks a bit like Ptolemy and his earth centred solar system.

We can do a lot of postmodern application to the standard model about mythic construction and the like: a lot but not wholly so.

Then we come to yet another history of science programme, where accidents and eureka moments in the mind add to actual rational processes to produce progress. This is all about the history of electricity: what it is, that it is universal, and how in contemporary physics it is the electrons of one atom moving to another so creating a flow - especially with some nice acid wetted combinations of metals. It took the accountancy insight of Benjamin Franklin to initiate the idea of positive and negative and thus apply this across. There is a metaphor stage, to be refined by application.

Ok: Professor Jim Al-Khalili's story is neat, but these are discoveries. They are not altered by different forms of story telling. Their place and significance can be inside schemes of understanding, and these paradigms shift because of the data being rather nasty to the present, perhaps a weight of falsifications tip over an explanatory scheme.

We walk on these high wires of understanding, knowing that so much is explained, but so much is begging, and suddenly another wire will cross over and take more in.

In social science data within cultures also has the power to refute. It is more complex, charting patterns of human behaviour and institutional causes and effects, but there are similar experiments of regularity and then deep textual and symbolic investigations of meaning at a more intimate level.

Another limit that exists on postmodernism is that of pain. Never mind about pleasure: that is a difficult one. If you punch a wall, it hurts, and if a big weight hits you it hurts too. One can write stories and narratives about the meaning of all this, but pain hurts and people who suffer disorders after traumas are not simply writing their own life stories in the negative for which a different story or the right amount of therapy will free them.

Where I have least sympathy with postmodernism is the notion that it gives 'space' for any old cultural construction to have the same legitimacy as any other. First of all, it is pluralism that gives space for difference, and that might just be a clash of competing objective values. Liberalism gives space for competition. But beyond that we might develop a more fluid basis of stories in space, which lack objective anchor.

Seeing as I quoted it in my recent booklist for my ministry application, I'm having another look at Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (2004) by the Lutheran James K. A. Smith, thus extending radical orthodoxy beyond its Anglo-Catholic home. Yes it is related to the Yale School postliberals, Duke, and Peter Ochs at Virginia (page 41). It sets Jerusalem against Athens and dismisses the neutrality of the secular (42).

The neutrality of the secular is a red herring. It is not about that but about research and about data. It is about getting results back that you don't like. My evangelical friend Rachel on her blog mentions her doing (with international visitors) some indaba (as now redefined) about contemporary society:

We have been discussing witness in a pluralist, postmodern context.

This means she has her collective package as a whole and wants to input it into a world of different views and stances. My point would be that a pluralistic world in all its stories is affected by the data we have received, data leaking into all these stories we hold.

Just as discoveries rewrite science, so they ought to rewrite religion. The idea that religion just carries on pumping out its sealed revelation or Church based myth into the world - taking advantage of doubt and construction - is just a form of sticking your head in the sand and, at worst, arrogance.

And just before this, just below, the same blog has those piles of myth about an apparent saviour's birth as if it is history. It is, as ever, treated as factual, though presumably a story based approach to 'reality' is dealing in stories. Of course, they will say yes, a story, if we accept all stories are equal.

But that is precisely the point. Yes your story is equal to other unsubstantiated stories, but there is a world not of intellectual constructions not that grants one neutrality as such but about where there are rules to acquire data carefully. One discipline that does this is history. We are all well aware that there are different houses of history, and whilst there is no need to call history a science as by the most extreme empiricist, most of them do put great stress on careful reading and interpretation of primary sources. The birth narratives of Jesus simply do not pass any historical test. They are just story telling. There's a good case to dismiss all those narratives separated or combined and simply think he was born, unnoticed, of two parents somewhere around Nazareth or Capernaum and he got caught up in his world of contemporary religion rather than just build many things like his dad did (assuming a great deal here). This account too lacks historical near-certainty, but I'm not going to base the meaning of the transcendent on it. Far from it: for me the transcendent would come from science and nature, from the arts, from values and ethics. It doesn't come from a supernaturalist story of specifics.

It is no good saying, "Ah but you need to have faith." Having faith doesn't make things come true; having faith in your head or mine does not overturn the limitations of the historical method. Having faith is no alternative to science when it comes to the need for two parents to give some new pairs of chromosomes or the rapid destruction of the brain after death.

Of course you can be super-sophisticated and discuss the stories in terms of the little meanings and values they reveal, for example the value of being born in poverty and thus the divine cares about poverty if we label the baby as divine. But it is all very round-about and the long way around - and one suspects the ethics come first as to what part of the stories we care to highlight. Some draw power from these stories through world-view belief, but - rather like inventing the nuclear bomb and not being able to uninvent it - once you know these are stories the branch has been sawn off already. You can still sit on it, but you are also sitting on the ground.

Of course some might be happy to negotiate the story in a liberal direction before then trying to apply it to other fields of activity. But that is not what the strong Radical Orthodox and biblical equivalents do. They just construct their own castles in the sky instead. But what fragments are left and to do what, and why then subscribe to the whole in a formal sense?

And, in any case, surely it is much more rewarding to build religious insight not on 'delivering' some fixed package at the rest of us, as if we are missing something, than to try and build religion from the wonder and awe of science and human culture at its ethical and creative best.

This is when the current stories of creation are so fantastic and visionary: opening themselves to big graphics and notions of wonder, on top of which we can plaster science fiction that motivates the doing of the science. So it's a wonderful story of bang and inflation, of spinning and acceleration, of vast distances, of the unseen and multiverse, of the bizarre tiny, and the paradoxes that light is always doing the same speed whatever speed we might be doing, even if by doing a lot of speed we get comparatively younger than others who remain stationary and yet who see light doing the same speed. Oh yes, and what of those neutrinos? That's data for you - either it is an error of the equipment, or it matters to the big story that has anchorage in reality.

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