Theological outlaws

If postmodernism is a disposition (and a dis/position), it is a disposition that is more instinctively comfortable for some than others. I want to give a picture for the former, but perhaps it is a picture that’s inviting – an invitation to join the “we” mentioned in the forthcoming passage. It’s a passage by Gavin Hyman in the book The Predicament of Postmodern Theology; the ‘predicament’ being the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of a Christian metanarrative. If there is a way to live in this paradox (and I’m convinced there is), what is it and where does it leave us? Hyman writes: “Neither city dwellers [theologians, believers, theists] nor desert nomads [a/theologists, unbelievers, atheists], “we are exiled to an intermediate zone.” Hyman writes:

Carl Raschke has characterized such a zone as an “Indian Territory.” Following [John] Caputo, he says that we are “outlaws”: “The outlaw moves routinely and undetected, within the ‘territory’ from which he or she is a fugitive. Whereas the nomad has no ‘home’, no territory to signify as place, the outlaw knows his, or her, ‘site’. The terrain is familiar. The postmodernist is like the habiru of ancient Egypt, an outlaw that ‘displaces’ the topos of imperial signification to the desert. Yet the desert is always a place from which to stage raids on the empire, to wander in and wander out, to settle and rule, then return.” So the outlaw “wanders in and wanders out” of (or “moves through”) theology. Theology is the “familiar” terrain from which we are fugitives. It is a terrain that can be “accessed, disrupted, and called to the bar.” But if theology is the terrain through we move, it is not our territory: “as a house is not a home, a terrain is not a territory.” …To dwell within Indian Territory is to dwell in a condition of suspension, as we find ourselves suspended in and between opposites… Faced with these opposites, we are confronted with a decision that must necessarily be left unmade. Deprived of a place where this undecidability may be unproblematically expressed, we must necessarily resort to tactics… But what will it mean to enact such tactics? We have seen that we cannot avoid the terrain of theology, and yet it is a terrain from which we are simultaneously exiled. Consequently, our tactics will be to move through theology, intellectually, ethically, and ecclesiastically…

I have bastardized Hyman’s conclusion in the name of simplicity, of presentation — the picture is key here, not the particulars. But I suspect the objections are already percolating, a suspicion supported by knowing that the majority of my readers are Evangelicals; indeed, no doubt my “site” is Evangelicalism, my “terrain” that of Protestantism. I suspect we (I, too, when within your city walls) cringe at “condition of suspension.” Don’t we, we (hyper)moderns, resist such tensions (“either/or, please sir!”) — yet isn’t this at the heart of the Christian message? Scripture is rife with paradox and tension, and more than a few sects have arisen simply by crafting a narrative that excludes the other. Was it Abraham’s faith, or God’s grace, that lead to the provision of a lamb? Is it not both? Is this not carried into the New Testament, where our salvation is both act and process, both because of works and in spite of them? A savior (both God and man) who is crucified at Golgoltha, yet also crucified once eternally for all saints? Do we not preach of a Kingdom of God that is both present and absent, one that is here and to come?

There is more to unpack here, another story that I’m emotionally and intellectually unprepared to tell presently. It is of a ragged, wandering Christ who is pursuing and being pursued, appearing and disappearing, always close and always far. It is both the “not that, not that” of Hyman and nihilism, and the “viens, oui, oui” of Derrida and deconstruction. Come, yes, yes. Beautiful vision, stay with me all the time; beautiful vision, stay ever on my mind.

The curse of Plato

Let me attempt to explain my shift in thinking during the last four years by illustrating via context-less quote-mongering. In high school when I was first “getting into” philosophy I would often come these interesting, derogatory quips about philosophy itself. For example:

“Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” – Ambrose Bierce”Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy.” – Aldous Huxley

“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” – Bertrand Russell

“There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it.” – Cicero

“If a man’s good for nothing else, he can at least teach philosophy.” – William James

“Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.” – H.L. Mencken

These will suffice, there are obviously more. The pecularity, of course, is that these quotes are by philosophers (many of whom never did shake this vice). Note that I read these and still went to university for philosophy. So for a long time my approach was one of a/bemusement; they were funny (ironic detachment, yadayada).

You might think that it is only now that I feel their bite, that I protest, that I stutter and defend my mistress. On the contrary, it is only now that I laugh harder. I’ve come to realize that the history of Western philosophy is the history of an error, and that error is Plato’s (and/or Socrates, smarmy bastard that he was). It is a “bold flight of invention” (to turn Plato against Plato) and I readily join with so-called “postmoderns” in exorcising the demon of Platonism in all it’s latent/overt forms (pun intended). Sure, I joined the Tribunal of Reason and pontificated for a while, but I’ve now resigned my post — upon discovery, of course, that the king has no clothes. After the death of philosophy, what now? It’s not all dirty nihilism and trampled orchids: whether genealogy/archaelogy (Nietzsche/Foucault), phenomenology (Heidegger), hermeneutics (Gadamer, Vattimo, et al), deconstruction (Derrida), etc it seems clear there is something post-… post-metaphysical, post-representational, post-realist, pick your poison/medicine, pick your (un)hero. Me? I gots me Rorty and I gots me Van Morrison. Your mileage may vary.

The Future of Religion

My Barnes & Noble order came yesterday; I’m about halfway through The Future of Religion already. A few choice quotes…

Gianno Vattimo:

“The existential analytic… makes us aware that knowledge is always interpretation and nothing but this. Things appear to us in the world only because we are in their midst and always already oriented toward seeking a specific meaning for them. In other words, we possess a preunderstanding that makes us interested subjects rather than neutral screens for an objective overview.””…postmodern nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity.”

“…the redemptive meaning of the Christian message makes its impact precisely by dissolving the claims of objectivity…”

“…no experience of truth can exist without some kind of participation in a community… truth comes about as the ongoing construction of communities that coincide in a ‘fusion of horizons’… truth does not consist in the correspondence between propositions and things. Even when we speak of correspondence, we have in mind propositions verfied in the context of paradigms, the truth of which consists above all in their being shared by a community.”

Richard Rorty:

“…the quest for truth and knowledge is no more and no less than the quest for intersubjective agreement. The epistemic arena is a public space, a space from which religion can and should retreat.”

Santiago Zabala:

“…truth does not occur at the level of facts but only at that of propositions.””To surpass metaphysics means, according to Rorty and Vattimo, to stop inquiring into what is real and what is not; it means recognizing that something is better understood the more one is able to say about it. Problems are resolved with irony, privately exercised vis-á-vis one’s own predecessors rather than vis-á-vis their relation to truth.”

“The space left open by metaphysics must not be filled up by new philosophies claiming to exhibit some foundation external to the ‘conversation.'”