I believe that I believe

Research log:
I finished James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? earlier this week and am wrapping up Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernim Serves (My) Faith (“Question Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art”). In the back of the book she has a list of resources that were helpful to her and one of them is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern” by one Gary Percesepe. The name jumped out at me because Gary Percesepe taught philosophy at Cedarville for a number of years and, I think, is the founder of CU’s Honors program. I could only find the article on microfiche (Dec ’90 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review) and I’d highly recommend it to you, my enterprising readers. The article is more amazing in light of how controversial postmodernism has been at Cedarville in the last couple years — yet here’s a sympathetic voice from 17 years earlier. I may try to put the whole thing online soon, but here’s an excerpt:

“The postmodern conversation after all is our conversation, and it is we postmoderns who shall have to live amidst the fragments of a world whose unraveling can be traced back to the work of our own hands, doing what we have always done — making and unmaking texts of meaning. This is no mindless, deathlike nihilism; it is merely the realization that it is the discourse of modernity, after all, that has put forward the unpresentable in its own presentation, moving the conversation along until now. The mark of the postmodern is the stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable. Rather than strive for the unattainable in the shadow of the total, the postmodern searches for newer presentations, if for no other reason than to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. The postmodern marshals resistance to the totality, knowing that the price of the illusion that one can have it all is terror. And we have had enough of the terror of the totality, we moderns” (pg 129).

Also particularly good is his discussion at the end of Kundera and the lightness/play of postmodernism vs. the heaviness/gravitas of modernism.

So now I’m reading lots of Dr Percesepe. Intertext published a good (if uneven) short story of his called “Missionary” and I very much enjoyed an Enterzone piece entitled “The Way You Live Now” (and three poems of his at Enterzone). Also recommended is the short essay Reflections on the Integration of Faith, Learning and Life” which features a story from his Cedarville days. Percesepe was editor for a time of Antioch Review but I haven’t yet located any of his work published therein. OTOH, The Mississipi Review has published nine pieces, mostly prose. None of it philosophy per se, so take a look. I’m still wading through the MR stuff myself.

Here’s a schedule of what’s next:

Deconstruction: A Reader, will probably skip most essays except:

  • “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing” – Richard Rorty
  • “Jacques Derrida: Wholly otherwise” – Emmanuel Levinas
  • “God is not differance” – John Caputo
    The whole end of this reader has eulogies by Derrida which I’ll probably get to, plus an “Open Letter to Bill Clinton” from Derrida.Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology looks good through-and-through (features John Searle, William Alston, Roderick Chisolm, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman). The last chapter is Richard Rorty’s critique/response to all five essays so I may skip them and just read him to save time and just because Rorty is my homeboy.

    I will probably read a lot in Postmodernism: A Reader just because of who’s in it (Baudrillard, Rorty, Lyotard, Habermas) and I’m particlarly excited to read Gianni Vattimo’s “The Structure of Artistic Revolutions.” Vattimo has intrigued me since his collaboration with Rorty in The Future of Religion. Vattimo’s Belief also contains a fantastic story of postmodern faith:

    “…One hot afternoon I made a telephone call, from an ice-cream shop near a bus stop in Milan, to Gustavo Bontadini, a distinguished representative of ‘neoclassical’ Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Although I did not share his theoretical theses, I felt bound to him by deep affection and admiration. The call was about the competitive examination for a university chair. As we were both members of the examining commission, we had some confidential academic business to discuss. But while we were still greeting each other, Bontadini, with whom I had not spoken for a long time, shifted to fundamental matters, asking me suddenly whether at bottom I still believed in God. I don’t know whether my response was conditioned by the paradoxical situation in which the question aros: next to the telephone was a table of women, eating ice cream and drinking orange juice in the heat. So I answered that I believed that I believed” (pg 69-70).

  • The New Opiate

    Lately I’ve been thinking about an old friend of mine, Jean Baudrillard. He was kind of a smart dude so I only understand a little of his rock and some of his roll. What I do know though is that his deal was “hyper-reality,” or the idea that reality is being superceded by a procession of copies, of perfectly simulated spectacles mimicing the original from which it is now virtually indistinguishable.

    I often think about hyper-reality when I read the internet and find out what those wacky kids are up to these days. Turns out some young Chinese girl decided her childhood would best be spent playing an online role-playing game for three days straight, only to end up dying. Like, in reality. The funny thing is that she was probably missed more online than in “real life” – hundreds and hundreds of other gamers gathered at a virtual cathedral to mourn the passing of their virtual clansman, their wizard or sage or goblin or whatever the hell she was in this RPG. This is hyper-reality.

    It’s a reality in which thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent via eBay to acquire virtual weapons and talismans. This means transferring actual funds from an actual bank to someone else in order to acquire the bits and bytes that form a pixellated image that has no value whatsoever outside of the context of the game. It’s a reality in which humans – Asian women and kids usually – become wage slaves to harvest gold (or whatever currency) so their masters can in turn sell it for real currency and/or buy in-game items which are then sold. These people sit at their computer 12+ hours every day repeatedly clicking the same thing, running the same scenario, in order to free up more time for their boss to…well, go slay more dragons to get – you guessed it – more virtual money.

    Baudrillard isn’t exclusively, or even hardly, concerned with online gaming. It just comes to mind for me. Boggles my mind really. Just think what it says about our culture when there’s an extremely lucrative business in buying and selling virtual real estate, where capitalistic consumerism has reached such a high that acquiring fake property takes precedence over groceries, rent, or charitable giving.

    Online communities, especially gaming ones, are too easy of target. I’m also reminded of hyper-reality when I look closer at my “real” life, at my school, with my friends. Anybody born within the last 25-30 years has had their entire existence lived out in the context of pop culture and media. It’s been a life mediated by constructed images. TV and movies have very literally lived our lives for us. In any setting, at any moment, it’s often hard to tell if I’m “being myself” or simply playing a role. But it’s not hypocrisy, or drama. It’s that we’ve lost what it means to be human and how to live authentically and instead live life as we’ve been told it’s supposed to happen. Here, you play the role of tough-thug-with-a-heart, you be the spoiled-brat-with-intimacy-problems, and I’ll be our introspective-skeptic-with-authority-issues. It’s not just – as conservatives charge – that kids are learning about sex from pop culture, they’re learning about everything from pop culture. We quote movies because they better define our own lives than we can. We furiously scribble down favorite song lyrics, storing them in heart and mind while completely unsure whether we identify because we feel or we feel because we want to identify. Media blurs the line so well that we’ve forgotten it’s there. We buy products to buy images and we buy into these images in order to better portray the role we’ve chosen and/or been given. In any situation the doubts and perpetual self-awareness can be paralyzing: am I saying this because I think it’s funny, because I think I want to think it’s funny, because I think this is supposed to be funny, or because I know others will think it’s funny?

    And is the asking of these questions, the writing of this essay, the jumbled thoughts in my head – are these even genuine or simply one more aspect of the game I’m playing?

    This is hyper-reality. This is the new opiate of the masses. It’s the loss of meaning, the trivialization of life, the elevation of the banal. And it’s eating our souls, stealing our lives.

    Books I Still Need for My Senior Thesis

    ::wah wah warning::

    Partly to help me keep track, partly for the curious – books I really ought to buy and read for my senior thesis:

  • After Christianity by Gianni Vattimo
  • Richard Rorty ed. by Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley
  • Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism by Robert Brandom
  • Truth, Language, and History: Philosophical Essays by Donald Davidson
  • Religion by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo
  • Faith After Foundationalism by D.Z. Phillips with Plantinga, Rorty, Lindbeck, and Berger
  • Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor
  • Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories by Daniel Taylor
  • Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views ed. by Myron B. Penner
    I started to list all the Christianity-and-postmodernism books I want to read but the list was getting too long. Penner’s was recommended to me and I already mentioned the Reclaiming the Center book. Which reminds me that I really should read more by Stanley Grenz.
  • Blazing New Trails… Or Not.

    My senior seminar is sucking hard. I wish I had a sympathetic voice to bounce ideas off of. There’s this nagging fear in me that my entire project – my goals or thesis – may be entirely wrong. The problem is that my paper is fairly uncharted territory for an Evangelical, especially one from this university.

    The guys who might resonate most with my ideas – guys like Brian McLaren & Co. – all write on such a surface level. They aren’t doing serious, rigorous philosophy of the kind I need. Just today an example came up where McLaren misappropriates Quine – gesturing at Quineian notions without really grasping what he’s saying nor the implications. Even a key article in my thinking, Phillip Kenneson’s “There’s No Such Thing As Objective Truth, And It’s a Good Thing Too” is really disappointingly shallow. Great introduction to these themes and I’d recommend to everyone, but not exactly the highest quality source for a senior thesis.

    On a related note, I noticed a funny comparison between Dave Eggers and Richard Rorty. Like the former in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Rorty (et al) can sometimes be painfully self-aware or annoyingly reflective – they often frustrate by qualifying every statement to nth degree.

    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.'”

    Heidegger on Faith

    Guest entry today by Martin Heidegger, via his Introduction to Metaphysics:

    “[If faith] does not continually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith, it is not faith but a convenience. It becomes an agreement with oneself to adhere in the future to a doctrines as something that has somehow been handed down.”

    On being a philosophy major:

    “Philosophy is essentially untimely because it is one of those few things whose fate it remains never to be able to find a direct resonance in their own time, and never to be permitted to find such a resonance. Whenever this seemingly does take place, whenever a philosophy becomes fashion, either there is no actual philsopohy or else philosophy is misinterpreted and, acording to some intentions alien to it, misused for the needs of the day…

    It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, “You can’t do anything with philosophy.” The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgment concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it?”

    Mills’ Response to D.A. Carson

    The Emergent Church – Another Perspective: A Critical Response to D.A. Carson’s Staley Lectures (at Cedarville University) by David M. Mills, Ph.D.

    Link is to an Adobe PDF file. Here is Dr. Mills’ own disclaimer:

    Feel free to pass it along to others that may be interested, but please understand that my desire in this response is not to produce further polarizations, but to foster genuine, honest dialogue about matters of importance. So please read it and/or pass it along in that spirit, not in a spirit of divisiveness. If any of you want to talk more about any of this, I’d be glad to. Just let me know.

    Thanks to Allison Martin for sending me this.