Wednesday 14 December 2011

The Postmodern and Religion - What are they Like?

Modernity springs from the consequence of Kant's subject centred reason that produces a means to truth and a being of the self. This shift to the individual is a major change from trying to locate truth in the idealised heavens or in the realities of earth, the old Plato and Aristotle division. It is the trancendental subject. Christianity is inescapably Platonic, but Aquinas did a good job in grounding it in the greater earthly means of reasoning, following on from the same that had happened in Islam with Ibn Sina. If you go from Kant you need strategies to secure reasoning, as the transcendent individual is a hard act to sustain, but Habermas is the most contemporary modernist to argue that conversation between disinterested subjects is the means to truth. The alternative of Hegel was a synthesising of contrasting positions, an initerated binary to unity principle of eventual pure spirit upwards, and the binary contrast itself has been a vital means to structure truth (that what is is defined by what it is not). But if one extends these concerns to social institutions, then the objective becomes those collective, somewhat demanding even compulsive institutions that make us who we are. So my subjectivity as a reasoning person comes up against the objectivity of today's sociology of knowledge. Objectivity is well secured, but as one of those concrete realities that limits the subject, and does so because of the extent of institutional arrangements all around us. For many argue that these institutions are of all pervading capitalism, shaping economic arrangements into social identity including the functions of the modern Western family.

The postmodern is the multiplicity of the self as fragmented identity, the transience of the self and therefore the question of being itself. The Hindus were pretty clever at relating the self and its being to Being as pure, and both of these in postmodernity break down; the Buddhists understand this, in that no-self attaches to no-being. But here care is needed. Postmodernism is not a form of Buddhism because Buddhism has a (in a Western sense) realist method, that of right practice that reveals right truth, that being is transient. Postmodernism does not allow for right practice, but a variation so many in identities that there is no right anything. But are we in postmodernity or rather a position where the secular has so undermined inherited platonic and earthly reasoning that some other modernity is active. After all, science still discovers even if it can't quite get its overall Einstein and Quantum paradigm secured.

A number of more practical claims to postmodernity follow economics, culture and religion. In economics the ex-mercantilist system released into the ways of the invisible hand produced, in the end, mass production, labour organisation, classes, mass consumption and an ordered ideology of capitalism that all would improve for all via inequality. Capitalists produce their own moderating tendencies: the rule of law to protect property, but also equal voting leads to systems of education, health and reproduction which its ideology can swamp and shape, even when those institutions are free at the point of use or made easier to pay. The bureaucracy was the rational ordering principle: the trained individual rising through the corporation apparently on merit to fill each office. Charismatic power is essentially revolutionary power, and can be religious or political, Jesus or Gandhi or Marx or Lenin. Sacred power is always premodern and about tradition - reason is its own. Culture, then, is consistent, but may be divided by class, and there are several lesser identities of gender, ethnicity and youth, that again are seen shaped by capitalism from a history of exploitation.

Religion, being sacred, was feudal, and was so at the Reformation (still attached to States) but the rise of the denomination created a Middle Class religion of capitalist values. At first the mercantilists argued for their inclusion in the political class, and later the capitalists or liberal ideologues. Progressives and socialists also agitated, some religious and fewer secularist, but the Keynesian and welfare dream of inclusion allowed capitalism to develop further and went well beyond religion if consistent with some theologians' calls for economic justice.

First of all there is the need to identify claims that high modernity has become postmodernity. In terms of the economy, it means a whole direction towards consumption and by style. Care is needed as there is still mass manufacturing, even if much has gone east. Nevertheless, manufacturing has become more selective, and just in time, as have services. Have mass brands vanished, as guarantors of quality?

An economic sector of increasing impact is the information society. Whereas the mass media produced edited versions of reality for large scale consumption, now anyone and everyone can produce media (from text to video) for instant consumption. In this sense the global can be local, and the local global - giving voice to every regional extremist. Regions of censorship struggle to keep out individualist and small group speech that contradicts overall policy. There is no doubt here that space has shrunk and time has become concentrated.

But in addition style wins over substance, and the appearance of things becomes as important as content. Content is transient, so longevity hardly matters. What is the point in having an electronic instrument that can last years, when it will be superseded. Better that it looks good, and the next item looks good. But this then becomes the all pervading principle for everything, even that which could last.

It is then the intensity of time shifting that changes the perception of time. The sense that we want it and want it now affects groceries that come from across the world, and so nothing is ever 'in season' any more.

The subjectivity of opinion breaks down distinctions between high art and popular culture, so that popular culture can become art objects. Trash is pretty too. It is realised that there is no way one can assert the quality of art, only (perhaps) the quality of work - but then machines can produce quality and the machine is value free. Many an artist has a concept and allows a little factory to make the object: other people's skills.

Architecture mixes past, present and future. It is produced quickly and much looks plastic, but its styles borrow pleasant shapes from an ordered past. The move to modernist functionality and minimalism is too boring and soulless, so there is a re-enchantment by visual appearances.

Economy, society and culture become detached. The economy no longer provides competing metanarratives. Communism (that upheld socialism, however much socialists wanted a democratic alternative) fell, and capitalism was victorious, though arguably capitalism itself is failing and falling. Media saturation carries its own multiple ideologies. The decline of a western working class is a decline of mass keynesian consumption, and an underclass lacks purchasing power. The middle class is choice making, but aimless in its cultural choices.

More specifically, rational bureaucracies of economic power defer to technical experts within the organisation and many of these disagree and compete on interests, and team working deliberate decentralises and empowers, though much of this is illusory.

The linguistic turn has impacted upon many disciplines, so that there are critics of close correlations of research: constantly a question of and a breakdown in meaning. The limitations and criticisms of science and history lead to a focus upon texts and language, and academia can become sterile in this focus. The story becomes important as a means of coherence, but there are lots and lots of stories, and they can be history-like and biography-like when they cannot be history and biography. Indeed science can tell its story, even as its paradigm seems to be coming apart weighed down by dark matter and dark energy and neutrinos that go faster than light.

BUT... Surely people can still tell the difference between saturated images and their reality, even understand that 'reality television' isn't real and is a construction. Criticism here has a positive and still worthwhile function. Science may have lost much of its linear optimism, but it can still be done, as can mathematics, as can social science research - and the latter has not been reduced to the same as the novel. As capitalism fails, tensions over scarcity resume, and a compassionate society can be a critical society that needs to take power back. This needs collective organising, and more than just dissipated movements of interests divorced from the big political push (say Green, animal rights). The capitalist organising by experts is still ideologically secure - promote the profit principle for capital - and the fact that team working is an illusory empowerment suggests a false consciousness may be quite active. There is still mass unemployment and the underclass is not always in and out of inadequate levels of work: supply side labour market measures cannot make up for a lack of paid work. Bad housing is always bad housing: style doesn't come into it and basic needs do. If postmodernity is simply a more intense subjectivity, and set against the unaffordable, and there is still discrimination between style and substance, then really there is more that is continuous than discontinuous with modernity. There always were many narratives, choices, and consumption, and to some extent we always had a fragmented self.

The real test, perhaps, is to the extent that space and time are confused, and the extent to which transience is underlined. Derrida showed that binary systems are not as secure as they think they are: that each opposite contains a bit of what they deny, as revealed when reading between the lines. Metanarratives are filled with doubt but, as for metanarratives, I would suggest that the secular metanarrative as a sociology of knowledge is very powerful, of a belief in science underlined by technology that achieves solutions, and giving explanations that are naturalistic. There is no equality of explanation between the secular, the supernatural and the magical, no space for Radical Orthodoxy to muscle in and start proclaiming that sociology is some form of secular theology. The supernatural and magical are in serious decline as explainers of anything at all, whether in the Bible, Qur'an, Bhagavad Gita or Church traditions. Research, either for regularity or validity, remains vitally important.

It is the power of the secular that leads all religion into choices. The once big Christian world explains as little as other religious choices. What are the mechanisms, for example, of understanding atonement as all around one man: how do these work? The inability to explain these in any meaningful sense undermines such doctrinal religion. There is no comparative historical base for investigating a supremacy of one person as a God-man: it can only be a doctrinal assertion from the beginning. Magic or supernatural intervention does not overcome brain death and the instant work of maggots.

Religion then is going to be both modernist and postmodern, to the extent that it is both experiential and subjective, and of varied and different texts and stories. What they are going to do is focus upon one's own, or one's group's, direction in constructing a life and an ethic. When someone says, I am convinced I am right because of my experience, then they will hear an account just as valid to itself and its own experience. Indeed the other person will have a belief and experience that might simply change in themselves. The issue for postmodernism or high modernism is whether it will work as a society, and perhaps the task of religion is to show that it can. So religion is to serve the world, and to show the world that it can work together in its diversity. Rather than being performers of doctrines, religion should perhaps be open and creative. Paul Lakeland wants still a distinctive Christian religion in postmodernity but sees it as serving in providential care with both Christ and the silent and distant God in the background (1995, Postmodernity: A Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 110, 109). Christ is the other of God and a historically particular person in which I can see myself reflected (110). Christ as such is les the focus and becomes more the revealer of God (as once was) (111). Well, maybe, but under postmodernity Being itself is compromised and any Christ as any self is going to be multiple in reflections.

Open and liberal, this postmodern faith checks itself, but even if more conservative it can be said that if Christ is the only way to the Father, then Buddha is the only way to that Enlightenment, and Islam is the only submission to the pure transcendence that wills what it wants, and Hinduism unites being with Being. When conservative, packages are themselves and their own languages; when more open constructions of religion can take a bit of this experience and that, often from several people in conversation, and find ways that jigsaws parts together. In a plural setting you make your own packages, but the existence of others is a means to doubt and hold back on your own or group's tendency to imperialism.

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