Archive for September, 2011

Derrida

So, this is part 2 of the Pomophobia posts. Part 1 was broadly setting the scene with a bit of relevant history from the “God debate”. …

As I said in part 1, the term “postmodern” has been applied in all sorts of arenas to express a general movement away from the accepted ideas that have gone before. From now on I’ll largely be referring to postmodern philosophy or the particular part of postmodern philosophy that Christians most often mean when using the term – the suspicion of meta-narrative and the existence of absolute or objective truth (or our ability to know it). In this post I’ll be looking briefly at some of the reasons that the church and others have been concerned by the rise of postmodern thought (pomophobia) and have tried to discredit it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote from Wikipedia’s article on post-modern philosophy at some point so here’s a thought…

Post-modernism is arguably the most depressing philosophy ever to spring from the western mind. It is difficult to talk about post-modernism because nobody really understands it. It’s allusive to the point of being impossible to articulate. But what this philosophy basically says is that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history. That the modernist tradition of progress and ceaseless extension of the frontiers of innovation are now dead. Originality is dead. The avant-garde artistic tradition is dead. All religions and utopian visions are dead and resistance to the status quo is impossible because revolution too is now dead. Like it or not, we humans are stuck in a permanent crisis of meaning, a dark room from which we can never escape.

- Kalle Lasn (founder of Adbusters, author of Culture Jam)

Right and Wrong

Moral relativism has long been something of a go-to bogeyman for all sorts of people – the financial crisis, the holocaust, communism, liberalism – plenty of terrible things apparently wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t allowed those darned philosophers to question our secure ideas of what is right and what is wrong (ignoring, of course, the terrible acts committed by those who were very secure in their belief that they were right and someone else was wrong!).

The Pope has a particular dislike for moral relativism blaming it for (amongst other things) the recent riots in the UK. Perhaps “The German Shepherd” (as I recently heard him called) has a point – the idea that, for example, whether or not murder is wrong is only a matter of taste is certainly problematic – but it doesn’t take too long to think of examples of beliefs and practices that at certain times in history or in certain cultures have been seen as wrong but that now would be seen as acceptable or that used to be acceptable but are now seen as definitely wrong – suddenly things become a little more complicated. A number of the most divisive “conversations” in the church at the moment are around issues where the debate is very much about what is right or wrong – homosexuality, abortion, etc – but we don’t have to look to far into church history to see similarly polarised debates that have since become unimaginable – slavery, for example.

Moral relativism is a step too far for many people of faith and no faith alike but if we could at least let it encourage to be a bit more humble in the way we assert our opinions and a bit more careful about making pronouncements about what is “right” and what is “wrong”, I think that’d be quite a valuable lesson for us all.

Everything Is Smoke

Perhaps the most troubling idea that comes out of this line of thought is that if every event, every interaction, every person only has the meaning that we subjectively ascribe to them, does anything have any inherent value? When we deconstruct the very idea of “significance”, what are we left with? This of course is where the existential nihilists went with there thinking – their answer? – we are left with nothing – everything just is, life is just a series of events that happen – none of it “means” anything and any significance we ascribe to it is purely construct.

Pretty depressing stuff and with the rise of this mode of thought it is no wonder that there has been a focus in the church on the theology of significance, purpose and self-esteem that has been pretty successful – just look at the marketing of the Alpha Course[1]. Despite this, we only have to look as far as the book of Ecclesiastes to find a pretty compelling piece of existential literature. How did that get there?!

A Call to Inaction

As Kalle Lasn is insinuating above, once we fully deconstruct the narratives by which we live our lives and see everything as essentially meaningless (objectively) we may fall into a paralysing despair that there’s no point in doing anything because none of it matters – all our passions and dreams, our relationships and loves will all die, as will we – ultimately all that we build in our lives (and all that we, the human race, ever build) will in the end be wholly inconsequential.

Again, it’s at this point that many people of faith and no faith want to get off this line of thought and return to something a bit more warm and fuzzy but with all the loneliness and depression that seems to be an unfortunate side-effect of the society we’ve built, we must not live in denial of this viewpoint and we need to be comfortable naming it and wrestling with it.

Everything’s Not Lost

Well, this has all been a little bit miserable and hopeless! I don’t think pomophobia is the right approach – as I say, I think it’s important that we allow these difficult and troubling ideas to be out in the open, especially within church – they’ll be far more damaging if we try to keep them buried. Perhaps church should be the place where we encounter our brokenness – where we remove our masks of “I’m a successful human being who’s got it together” and come face-to-face with ourselves (and each other) as we are, not as we’d like others to think we are (that is how God sees us anyway and he’s OK with it – that is what we mean by “grace”) and perhaps that place of imperfection, of raw humanity is also a place of freedom and of intimate community.

In part 3 I’ll be looking at some of the more positive or affirming things that can and have come out of postmodern thought. I think it’s gonna be a good one…

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Judging from Peter Rollins’s talks at Greenbelt, his upcoming book “Insurrection” will have some pretty interesting things to say about the way the church risks presenting God (or church) as a “super-product” – the product in which we find fulfillment when all other worldly products fail to satisfy.
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With the grandly-titled retrospective exhibition “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990″ opening at the V&A next weekend there’s been a bit more talk than usual about postmodernism in the press over the last couple of weeks. Though, appropriately, even the label “postmodern” itself is fluid and without clear boundaries, I presume the V&A exhibition will focus on postmodernism’s influence in art and design which is essentially short-hand for irony, ambiguity, juxtaposition, elevation of the mundane, frivolity and many other things you might want to apply the label to.

SoPoMo - this T shirt is bound to sell out

Interestingly the fact that the V&A have a “retrospective” and have chosen to put a neat end date on postmodernism of 1990 suggests that, at least in art and design, we have progressed to something new worthy of finding a new name for. That may well be the case (though I don’t know what that name is – I hope it’s not post-postmodernism) but I’m more interested in the core of postmodernism (at least if you look it up on Wikipedia) – the rejection of meta-narrative and the objective truth – particularly with regard to Christianity (and faith and philosophy in general). Here the postmodern conversation still seems very relevant and current though there are signs, as I shall discuss, that in some places the conversation is moving on. First though, let’s talk a bit of history…

The God of the Gaps

Back in the day, it used to be quite easy to sell God (or a particular conception of God or gods) – whenever there was something we couldn’t explain we could use God to fill in the gaps in our understanding and, conversely and simultaneously, use the gaps in our understanding as evidence for the existence of God. Answering the question “why?” was as easy as “because that’s the way God made it”. Fortunately for human progress, some people didn’t find that a satisfactory answer so they began to dig deeper into the nature of things and so science and philosophy began the long process of filling in the gaps. Nevertheless, there are still those who are obsessed with finding gaps in the hope that they’ll find god within.

The Provable God

Obviously, with the gaps that god was inhabiting shrinking and disappearing all over the place, something had to be done before god was squeezed out completely. Taking a lesson from the scientists and philosophers (or in an attempt to meet/beat them on their own terms), so began a long campaign of trying to “prove” the existence of god with the tools developed by the scientists and philosophers – logic, experiments, etc.

On the logic/philosophy side, far too much anger and energy is wasted on debating this every day by people who have very solid meta-narratives, believe theirs is the right and, for people engaged in a debate, aren’t very interested in an 2-way exchange of ideas!

On the experiment side, occasionally academic papers claiming such things as “people who pray live longer” make it through to be reported in the mainstream media but I’m not sure anyone takes such things seriously who’s not already chosen a side (I don’t mean the science is necessarily bad – just that I’m not sure the papers published on either side have much/any impact on the debate).

As with the god-of-the-gaps, the search for the “provable god” remains with us and is very much alive on the internet!

Can We Have Our Ball Back?

The argument continued on these terms for some time and some interesting ideas developed within the conversation but then, somewhere around the 1920s, just in case we thought we were making progress in proving anything on either side, along came the beginnings of postmodern philosophy which eventually threw up the disturbing question “what if we, as subjective humans, can never access (or perceive) objective truth?”[1]. It didn’t move the goal posts – it tore up the rulebook, demolished the pitch and ran off with the ball.

The impact of this for the very idea of god (some would say the ultimate meta-narrative) and for the process of seeking god (a search for some kind of truth) is obvious but the conversation has by no means ended and indeed has been going in some interesting directions and it’s the current conversation and where it might go in the future that I hope to look at in future posts (hence ambitiously labelling this Part 1).

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This is a more accurate posing of the central question of postmodernism than the more often quoted “what if there is no truth?”. The distinction is that we are not questioning the existence of truth as an abstract concept or even a physical reality, but pointing out that our perceptions of truth are mediated by our imperfect senses and the subjective processes through which each individual human turns information into conclusions.
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Think about the last meal you cooked – the process of preparing the ingredients, boiling or frying them, waiting for them to cook – we remember these things in a linear process of “I did this and then I did this and then I did that”. For mechanical things such as cooking a meal, we generally see the narrative as essentially just a series of actions – there’s no real emotion attached to each of the steps and we’ll soon forget that we ever went through those instances and possibly forget the meal entirely. How many specific meals can you remember cooking last year? The actual act of cooking them? I know I cooked a lot of meals but all I have are non-specific memories of being in my kitchen that I could just as easily be dreaming up in the process of trying to recall them.

Now recall the last time you had a conversation where you strongly disagreed with someone about something you care about. Though we may not remember the words that were spoken we probably remember the frustration of our point of view being rejected by someone despite our protestation and obvious reasoning that we are right. These kind of events leave us with a different kind of story – one invested with emotion and often a judgement that we’ve imposed on the other who couldn’t understand us. We leave with a different opinion of them – they’re stubborn, they’re irrational, etc – but underneath that we’ll invent a story that belittles them or the formation of their opinion so that we can remain justified in sticking with ours – “she’s scared of facing up to the truth because she’ll have to change”, “he’s too emotionally invested in his current position to accept he might be wrong”, etc. These stories we make up may or may not be true sometimes but we need to recognise that there are equivalent stories underlying our own beliefs that we would do well to look at too. I don’t know much about psychology but I imagine one of the purposes of therapy is to help people to recognise and draw out these underlying stories in the hope that bringing them to light will effect or allow for a change in behaviour.

Equally in the way we live our lives we are often trying to live out the stories about us in other people’s heads (by which I mean trying to live up to the real or imagined expectations of others) – “if I can succeed at this, my parents will be proud of me” – or trying to live in rebellion against the stories we imagine other people have about us – “I’ll show him/her/them”.

We can’t help but tell stories to ourselves and each other about ourselves and each other. They may or may not be true. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s how we make sense of the sometimes chaotic world – we all think of ourselves as the hero in the ongoing story that is our lives – but sometimes life throws something up that makes it feel like a series of chaotic and essentially meaningless events. This is seen most clearly where life doesn’t live up to the story we thought we were writing – the death of a friend, the break-up of a relationship. When our best laid plans our taken away from us, when a story ends before we’re ready, what then? Suddenly we are orphaned – people without a story. Either we despair or we have to start again and write a new one.

To whom are we telling our stories? Ourselves? Each other? God? Is there any value in deconstructing our stories or will we just replace them with new or deeper stories? Maybe holding onto our stories, grasping them and trying to live them with integrity, is more valuable.

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Just dropping a few links here from things that were good at Greenbelt…

The Story That Loves To Be Told from ikon’s event.

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Communion Sermon

If the good news is about me doing something then I’m screwed.

The message “here’s the problem and here’s what you can do about it” has never been good news to me.

- Nadia Bolz-Weber

To tell the truth is not easy.
Especially to ourselves.
- Peter Rollins

Beckon us beyond the borders of our belonging.
- Padraig O’Tuama

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I asked…
I didn’t get what I asked for.

I still ask…
I still don’t get what I ask for.

I sought…
I’m not sure what I hoped to find.

I still seek…
But now I’m blind.

I knocked…
Defiantly closed remained the door.

I still knock…
I guess I’d better knock some more.

I stopped…
I couldn’t stop.

I waited…
I still wait.

So does he.

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