Archive for October, 2011

Last night’s entertainment was a sold out Benjamin Francis Leftwich gig at The Fleece with support provided by Daughter. I would’ve liked a longer set from Daughter and actually was in the mood for something a bit heavier overall but here’s my two highlights… (there’s more Daughter here if you want it!)

Daughter – Landfill

Benjamin Francis Leftwich – Atlas Hands

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I saw Dave Hause and others on The Revival Tour at the Academy last week. Since then I’ve been enjoying his album, Resolutions. Here he is with Chuck Ragan’s fiddler and double bass player (who has an awesome moustache)…

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In part 2 I looked at some of the challenges of postmodern thought to parts of the church or particular faith constructs. We should certainly pause to consider these challenges and indeed to push back at the validity of postmodernism’s challenges (as the underlying thought itself allows us to) but in part 3 I’d like to consider some of the positive ideas and affirmations coming from the application of postmodern thought within the church…

Orthopraxis over Orthodoxy

After the postmodern challenge to the concept of right belief and the potential disempowerment that comes with it there has been a focus on the idea of orthopraxis (right practice). If we can’t know what we’re supposed to think, perhaps we can at least find a way to live that is in some way self-consistent. Søren Kierkegaard, one of the early existentialist philosophers, and a Christian, expressed it as follows…

Kierkegaard Finger Puppet“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. … I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.”

- Søren Kierkegaard [1]

Faced with the suggestion that we cannot make objectively right decisions, we can either be paralysed by unknowing or allow ourselves to be freed and empowered to choose our values, beliefs and priorities, in the knowledge that we will probably do so unconsciously anyway[2], and then focus on how our behaviours are to follow in a way that’s doesn’t betray our professed beliefs. Instead of wondering about the theology of generosity, we can focus on being generous, instead of discussing “who is my neighbour?”, we can go outside and meet our neighbours. It has been said before that perhaps the church should say nothing for a year and just go out and do good works.

It seems that Jesus had a lot of time for people with practical needs and generally didn’t get on that well with the people who had (or claimed to have) the right theology. Yes, I recognise the irony of me sitting here writing thousands of words about all this!

A Universal(ist) Priesthood?

The doctrine of universal priesthood or “The Priesthood of All Believers” seems very much in keeping with postmodern thought. If we all struggle to access truth (seeing as through a glass, darkly), then we should certainly value everyone’s contribution, and humbly offer our own, knowing that together we can grow our understanding beyond where we could go alone.

I’m tempted to extend this thought to suggest that perhaps Christianity might not have a monopoly on understanding or experience of God but that crazy suggestion has recently got certain famous preachers in trouble so I won’t go there!

At least we can accept that there are signposts to God outside the church. The idea of separation of sacred and secular is one that would seem quite odd to the early church. Either everything is sacred or nothing is sacred. Sure, there are spheres of life where it’s good to create something that stands apart from any individual’s faiths but I’m talking about valuing the conversations about meaning, life, love and God that are constantly going on within our culture and sub-cultures rather than dismissing anything that isn’t explicitly Christian or faith-based. How awful to restrict ourselves to only finding God in “Christian” music or “Christian” films.

Perhaps taking on the idea that truth is not as easily accessible as we might hope could at least protect us against complacency that we’ve worked out some kind of formula for God. At the point where we think we’ve figured it all out, we might close our minds and stand still and how could the pursuit of God be anything but a life-long one?

The Theology of Catastrope and The Restoration of Mystery

Outside the church, people are fairly ok with the idea that sometimes crazy, unexpected things happen in life. Shit happens. For Christians, these events have often posed a problem – why would God allow this? – and so we’ve come up with a whole theology of disaster – a way to make excuses for God on his behalf for the things that happen that we don’t like or that don’t fit in with the plan we thought he had for us. Again, this is orthodoxy vs orthopraxis – if we can let go of having to have explanations for the inexplicable, we can focus on dealing with the consequences. I suspect that the feeling within church that we have to justify God in the midst of catastrophe comes from the classic question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people (or good things to happen to bad people). To me the only answer to this question that doesn’t feel like sleight-of-hand these days is “I don’t know”. Postmodernism certainly gives us permission to say that without denying any other of our beliefs.

As I said in part 1, if we see God only as a way to explain life’s mysteries then we’ll find our God continually shrinking. Saying that though, there is still something good about being aware that there’s still a whole lot we don’t know. In a society where we, our politicians, our scientist and our colleagues are constantly trying to convince each other that we have all the best answers to all sorts of questions, accepting that there are answers we don’t have can be quite a relief! Of course I’m not advocating intellectual laziness, just saying that we should be honest about the things we don’t know rather than bluffing and blagging our way around them.

The Paradox and The Grey

The church has sometimes been afraid of not having all the answers. I suppose this comes from the problem that as soon as we start making suggestions about some of the answers there will be a pressure to come up with a set of answers to all life’s difficult questions and the questions will certainly escalate further than our answers ever can. Just like anything complex, there are things we understand, things we think we understand and things we don’t understand. If one thing we thought we knew turns out to be wrong, that doesn’t necessarily negate everything.

We commonly hear the phrases “both…and…” or “now…not yet” or “hold these things in tension” within the church these days. In wider culture we’ve become fairly comfortable with holding two ideas that are seemingly contradictory and working in the grey area between them. The church is catching up on this but there’s still a significant element within and outside of the church who find it more comfortable to compartmentalise everything into discrete categories rather than any kind of spectrum. This certainly isn’t exclusive to Christians but for people who profess humility and love as guiding values, we’re often very quick to put those values aside so that we can persecute those who don’t agree with us.

An Affirmation of Doubt

If we can get away from the “house of cards” mentality that if we struggle with one part of our faith then the whole thing risks tumbling down then we can start to be a bit more honest about the doubts that we do have and church can become the place where we are able to bring those out into the open. The tighter we cling to our certainty, the further we have to fall when the unexpected comes along and shakes our foundations. As I said in part 2, perhaps our church can become the place where we encounter our brokenness and our doubts, not so that we may conquer them necessarily but so that we may share in them and deepen our relationships through them – the place where we can say to each other “I want to believe – help me with my unbelief” and where we encourage each other to act on those things for which we would live and die.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kierkegaard finger puppet available from here – it’ll make teaching existential philosophy to your kids a whole lot easier!
  2. That is not to say that we can or will just pick the beliefs we like and ignore those that challenge us or just run wild and do whatever we feel like doing, but that our culture, history, traditions, community and wider society will all influence the choices we can/will make – as William James says, we must all start from those ideas that are to some extent viable for us – “live hypotheses” (discussed in The Will To Believe). We would do well to be open to the potential value in the words of those that disagree with us as much as those that agree with us.
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