Friday, January 19, 2018

Postchristian: A Brief Prolegomena

     The notion of something like “postchristian” has been flitting around my personal space since the 1960s. It appeared first as the so-called “death of God,1” which our pastor tended to confute by frequent citations of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Francis Schaeffer, whose European vibes were far more reassuring to me than the collection of self-righteous Moody-ites I was accustomed to hearing from elsewhere. Then I started living as an adult in the contradictions and frustrations of late modern/early postmodern evangelical Christianity, which became a personally tortuous path in and out of church-less faith, Catholicism, Episcopalianity, and on to a embracing of something that is, at last, serene, stable and as Christlike as I want to be (God has a way of kicking me in the fundament further toward that ideal).
     In an earlier entry I mentioned reading Situation Ethics, and finding it essentially unremarkable (if a bit too dependent on utilitarianism) at a time when many in my community considered it somewhat blasphemous. In many ways, their problem can be traced back to Rene Descartes, whose seventeenth-century interpretation of rationalism and humanism based all constructions of knowledge on the notion of the “axiom.” One way to describe an axiom is to call it an assumed fact, which is a bit of a contradiction in terms.
     One place I ran across this axiom business in action was upon my arrival at Ohio State University2. One of the first pieces of faculty mail to hit my desk was a booklet announcing the conduct of a total, bottom-up review of all aspects of OSU, in the interests of “improving” this rather large and unwieldy institution. On page two, the president listed several assumptions that he said would guide the review. He specifically called them 'unchallengeable' and foundational. One of the first was the idea that 'good' research produces 'good' teaching. My guess was that this review would, nevertheless, not end up gutting the existing center for improvement of faculty teaching3. Nor, on the other hand, would it bring up the increasing trend among research universities for establishing teaching lines for gaining tenure, similar to the clinical tenure line already in place in medical schools. Oops?
      Building a structure of belief on constructions built from an axiom is often called, in theology at least, 'foundationalism.' It is a metaphor that appeals both to the need of theology to claim a divinely authorized validity and to its long-time dependence on philosophy, or something resembling philosophy, for its methodology. Unfortunately for theology, modern philosophers got caught out by the destruction of careful edifices of knowledge by postmodern realizations that apprehending reality was a much more complex proposition than could by realized by axiomatic structures. To put it simply, postmodern claims can be roughly synthesized by two notions:

     One, that axioms can be successfully challenged by counterclaims.

     Two, that breakthroughs in knowledge result not from continuing chains of logic, but from the ability to significantly controvert one's own axioms.4

     Thus, a couple of centuries of systematic or foundational theological structures began listing like the Torre Pendente di Pisa, propped only up by an inevitable flurry of emergency alterations or even stubborn denial by those who found themselves too tied to their old roots to take sustenance from the new.
     At first glance, it appears that Christians, particularly those involved in instructing and informing, or preaching and writing, might find it prudent to step away from postmodern ideas of knowledge, inasmuch as the fundamental axioms of Christianity—the existence of God, the Resurrection—are a matter of revelation, not human invention. It is preferable, after all, to maintain the status of outmoded, curiously old-fashioned aliens in a non-Christian society than to deny God.5
     The problem is, however, precisely that life is not an edifice, that once built, stands forever unaltered. Life is organic. While maintaining the same identity, it nevertheless grows and changes, lives and dies, and regrows as something both old and new. My sons, with the same DNA as their mother and father, are similar (“he's got his mother's eyes”) yet vastly different from their parents and each other. As for the grandkids—you guessed it. Religion should not ignore the difference between identity and change.
     Studying rhetoric in grad school, I was amazed to find that Aristotle was as relevant, and usually more so, than the contemporary experts, even though laughably ill-informed about issues of biology or astronomy. Paul, writing to the Romans, wrote lengthy rhetorical flourishes describing their shortcomings yet continually hammered away at the distinction between conforming to the law and living a genuinely Christ-like life.
     What we have discovered in postmodernism is that life is more complex, and yet simpler, than we thought in pursuing the ideal of a universe amenable to full understanding and ultimate perfection. Consider the notion of evolution that so worried us in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (and still does, in some circles).    On the one hand, we could not imagine, either on biblical or humanist grounds, that our ancestry might include the Homidinae. Yet, in an astonishingly dense contradiction, we also accepted and even reveled in the idea that we were somehow moving upward. Remember, Darwin didn't suggest any such concept—he simply said that species adapt to change.
     Deconstructionists, for example, live to identify and poke holes in common ideas and accepted wisdom, but once a formerly specious notion fades into obscurity, they lose interest—it's the new idea that grabs their attention. What they're looking for is the beginning of new ideas and interpretations—although we see in Derrida's late-life exploration of his Sephardic heritage that does not mean ancient expressions of wisdom are without value equal to new ones.
     In short, organic means fuzzy.
     Is there—could there be—something like 'fuzzy' theology?
     Some theologians have attempted to 'do' postmodern theology, while other scholars have brought postmodern notions to the study of biblical text. If there is a stumbling block along the way, is it often the complaint that postmodernists are good at finding fault with foundational ideas and methods, but fail to offer a path forward.
       Certainly postmodernists such as Michel Foucault or Jean-Luc Nancy could be and at times have been criticized for spending too much time, in Foucault's case on writing critical 'archaeologies' without discovering moral solutions, and in Nancy's case falling in love with his own verbal virtuosity and punning.6
     Good foundationalists simply cannot grapple with explorations that don't arrive at a firm, final closure. Nonfoundationalists accept that there are ultimate truths, but insist that those truths are, in a sense, unknowable.
     We are, after all, organic beings. We cannot escape our bodily existence. What is outside that existence is a matter of faith: faith in revelation, certainly, but faith itself is outside our linguistic ability to name, or explain, or, as is the case in much theology, place limits upon.
     Karl Barth, in discussing Paul's letter to the Romans, went so far as to say that piety (including theology) “...subordinates the Word of God to human words, revelation to experience, and finally the infinite to the finite.”7 (*Which did not, of course, prevent Barth from establishing lengthy and authoritative theological pronouncements of his own.)
     Postmodern theology, then, resembles more closely our own personal experiences with the ultimate mystery of God's presence; exploring rather than establishing, and openly acknowledging and practicing that it is a human invention and thus constituted by our kerygmatic8 interaction with revelation, not by revelation itself. 

1The phrase is owed to Nietzsche, but the present movement is generally considered to begin with the publication of Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God ( NY, George Braziller, 1961).
2Sorry, I refuse to add the definite article on the grounds that its use is institutional puffery disguised as an ersatz and misguided reverence for school grammar.
3One unnamed but well-known and tenured deconstructionist scholar I met was currently working with her campus center for instructional improvement. Whether of not this impacted her subsequent appointment as a distinguished professor at a prominent Ivy League university is not reported.
4See especially the work of Michael Polanyi.
5Not intended as a not-so-sly dig at Hauerwas, Willimon or Clapp, all three of which I respect and admire.
6“Déclosion” and “éclosion,” for example, in his recent book Déclosion on deconstructing Christianity.
7Quoted by John A. Thiel, in Nonfounatinalism (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1994), p. 48.

8I also love, I admit, to invent words.

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