Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I'm feeling kind of religious this Sunday morning, wanting to go to church but just cannot find one compatible with my postmetaphysical "beliefs." Which led me to realize, yet again, that this virtual online monastery/seminary is as close as I get to going to church so I might as well share where my religious impulse led this morning. The following reminds me of some of the discussions of late in the Big Stories thread, the differences between religious (or spiritual) and scientific cosmological stories, and how sometimes their mix just leads to a muddle (but not necessarily). Anywho, here is my Sunday Sermon by Saint Caputo from the brief essay "Radical Hermeneutics":
"By "radical hermeneutics" I mean a theory of radical interpretation, and by radical interpretation I mean that interpretation goes all the way down, that there are no uninterpreted facts of the matter that settle silently at the bottom that can be unearthed by patiently peeling away the layers of interpretation. To say that interpretation matters all the way down is not to say that "anything goes;" it is simply to recognize that we are not God. The charge of "relativism" thrown up against theories of radical interpretation is a confusion and an obfuscation. "Relativism" is a red herring used by the God-and-apple-piety crowd; it does service for thinking when the discussion gets too complicated.
When it is rightly framed the debate about interpretation matters is not between "relativism" and "objective truth" but between conditional and unconditional understanding. True understanding is never unconditional, but always a matter of finding the right conditions under which understanding can take place-like possessing the complex preconditions involved in understanding an ancient language and a long gone historical context. Understanding is always interpreting, and to interpret means to locate and acknowledge the relevant presuppositions. Absolutely unconditional understanding means understanding under no conditions. Just so: Under no condition is this possible: we are not hardwired to assume an absolute standpoint. We are not omniscient eternal beings outside every context. We are not God, but what Soren Kierkegaard liked to call "poor existing individuals," people who pull on their pants one leg at a time. Understanding always has a point of view, otherwise it has no point and it has no view.
The radicals who attacked the World Trade Center, for example, were not radicals of the sort I am describing, but exactly the opposite. They had among other things swallowed a bad line about how to read, about how to understand what one reads, and about what it means to say that a text is sacred. The latter is a complicated business. It involves getting to know what the conditions were under which the text was written, what has changed since then, and above all sorting out what is human and what is divine in the text-what has the ring of God about it and what has the ring of men (sic!). Killing in the name of God, killing because God is on your side, is the human-all too human-part of these texts, which has to be sorted out from the divine side.
The Bible itself warns us that idolatry is one of the most fundamental perversions of the God relationship: confusing a golden calf with the living God, confusing humankind made in the image of God with a God made in the image of humankind, confusing our politics, our preferences, our institutions, our hierarchies, our power-plays, our religion, our gender, our egos, or our science with God. That's idolatry. If hermeneuticists could be said to have a religious view of life, interpretation would constitute a powerful and systematic critique of idolatry. Two potential idols to worry about are science and religion, both of which are humanly constructed interpretations, one of the world, the other of the relationship between the world and God. When physicists explain the world in terms of the principles of a mathematical science, that's an interpretation. When the unknown authors of the opening pages of Genesis carved out highly Mesopotamian myths about the genesis of the kosmos, that was an interpretation as well, but it was not a theory. It was an imaginative and poetic act of affirming God's lordship over things, but it was not a testable mathematical theory. They were both interpretations, but only one was a theory. Neither was an uninterpreted fact of the matter. The overarching point in any debate between science and religion is to get one level or layer of interpretation out of the way of the other so that each one can get a clean shot at doing what it does, the one imagining our relation to God in poetico-religious categories, the other calculating (with no little imagination) the way the world runs in mathematical categories. They don't conflict because they don't compete and they don't compete because their interpretative schemas don't play on the same plane.
The problem in scientific interpretation is figuring out what is good science without being too rigidly rule bound, lest you dismiss groundbreaking discoveries as mere anomalies. The problem in religious interpretation is figuring out what is divine and what is human, what is a human construction and what is from God. The solution to these problems is not available in some overarching formula that covers everything. But the precondition to finding a solution is to keep in mind that interpretation goes all the way down, so that the notion of absolute scientific truth or absolute religious truth, as if physicists were but the mouthpiece of nature, or religious people were but the mouthpiece of God, makes no sense."
More sermon, from Chapter 8, "Toward a postmetaphysical rationality" p. 211:
"Heidegger said that the play is at once the "deepest" for structures are but inscribed upon the flux and the "highest"for joining in the play is a free, productive release, the highest and best wisdom, the last and best stand one can make (SG 188). The one god that Nietzsche could tolerate was one that laughed and danced, and some of Heidegger's best pages have to do with the play of the fourfold and with finding a God before whom one can sing and dance. The difficulty, however, is that the world places little confidence in the play of things and a great deal of reliance on constraints, authority, and institutional structures, and that is why we are overrun with creeds and criteria, rules of life and rules of method. The fact is that the advocates of free play meet resistance at every step. They are suspected of anarchism, nihilism, of intellectual, social, and moral irresponsibility. Those who would dance and play before their God have constantly to dodge the theological bullets aimed their way by the defenders of the true faith. The free play of the faculties is checked by the demand for aesthetic standards. No matter how much or how well we are counseled to enjoy the play, there are always those who are threatened by such emancipation and who insist on knowing what the "criteria" are for determining exactly what that is."
So I did go to church today. The Bishop of the west coast diocese was visiting. We had a beautiful liturgy with Byzantine chant that lasted approximately 2 hours followed by a middle eastern feast. The occasion was the commemoration of our 84 year old Palestinian priest who was celebrated for 50 years in the priesthood. Father Iskander, (we call him Father Alex) is a true believer. He spent several years in a monastary in order to attend seminary. He served multiple churches in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, traveling between them at great personal peril. For the last 17 years or so he has served a fractured & contentious community of Palestinian-Americans. He does this with kindness, hospitality & humility. I will never be a simple believer, thank God. I am very much a 'second naivete' Christian. But I remain deeply inspired by Father Alex.
I've been watching a few DVDs on Tibetan Buddhism lately. One I recommend is Words Of My Perfect Teacher, done by a student of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He is a very postmodern Tibetan teacher, having directed several films, traveled internationally, & seems quite at home with the latest communication technology. He's written a book titled Why You Are Not A Buddhist. Part of the film takes place in Bhutan, where he is forced into a very traditional role under royal patronage. He blesses people, & gives their children names. It's obvious that he feels constrained by this role, but is willing to play it because it is expected of him.
I don't think there is going to be a postmetaphysical church or sangha. Certainly there are practitioners or teachers who come to some sort of postmetaphysical awareness, but this occurs in the context of a tradition. Many who embody the best of various traditions are not particularly postmetaphysical.
"True understanding is never unconditional, but always a matter of finding the right conditions under which understanding can take place-like possessing the complex preconditions involved in understanding an ancient language and a long gone historical context." It may be that true understanding may also involve embracing & ennacting an ancient, historical tradition of religious praxis.
Regarding the different methodologies of religion and science, Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Nonoverlapping magisteria" is relevant. It is akin to the kennilingus principle of nonexclusion, btw.) While Gould acknowledges that they have different validity criteria and methods of apprehension he nonetheless also knows that
This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.
Not only do these two domains bump up against each other, there are certain ideas or memes that permeate through all of the different methodological boundaries, certain big stories that make coherent sense of them all. For example the article by Sellars kela referenced in the Big Stories thread notes that while there certainly is NOMA for specific diciplines nevertheless philosophy's job is to “understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” That it, how we might create broad, orienting generalizations and/or narratives about how the big picture coheres.
For example, one such generalizing meme that cut across all disciplines was what is often referred to as postmodernism. The idea that there is no fixed center, no absolute, pre-given reality, runs through science to literature to religion, i.e. postmetaphysics. Postmetaphysics is not limited to any specific genre but is one of those overall cohering big pictures necessary to generate meaning. Contrary to popular kennlingist belief, pomo is not about total fragmentation and blind relativism, for it too has its own big picture story about how big pictures operate, albeit one that is non-metaphysical. So while there is no doubt some pomo relativists caught in a performative contradiction that there is no big story while advancing one, the better pomosexuals like Derrida and Caputo espouse no such nonsense.
Joseph, your post reminds me of something I said on p.2 of the "what 'is' the difference" thread:
"For [Derrida] 'tradition' was not something to run away from but rather to embrace. At the same time though one had to find those cracks or openings in the tradition from which something new could emerge. Hence deconstruction was not about eliminating the tradition but rather carrying it forward, building new layers on its firm foundation. So indeed old wineskins can be made anew, but not completely so."
That there are many fine Catholic theologians (like Caputo) exploring deconstruction and revitalizing their faith therein is testament to such opening and renewal.
"A common complaint against what is often called 'post-modernism' is that it has done away with universals. This paper will explore the contention that, on the contrary, there is within post modern thought a concern to recover the universal not so much as a limit upon humanity but a call to transcendence in which the nature of the universal is one of mediation.
"Post-modernism is often understood simply to be a reversal of the many over the one. And although that may be the case with many post-modern thinkers this is simply modernity in another guise. Both Luce Irigaray and Raimon Panikkar have observed that the hegemony of the one can also take the guise of a multiplicity of private or relative truths. For Irigaray especially, breaking the hegemony of the one does not entail an abandonment of the idea of the universal but rather a recovery of a concept of the universal freed from its metaphysical pretensions.
"Deconstruction is often misunderstood to be a sort of relativistic anarchy, but it would perhaps be better to understand deconstruction also as agitating for the impossible. Derrida even goes so far as to equate deconstruction with justice. Justice is not the law, but is that which gives us the impulse to change and improve the law. It is the condition of the possibility of the challenge and critique of the law, the laws, society as it is currently ordered. Justice for Derrida is that which spurs us on. It is a messianic concept that disappears when we attempt to tie it to a this worldly order."
We've touched on the postmetaphysical police lately in a couple of threads so let's return to Caputo on this theme, from an interview:
Post-modernism is a catchword that has caught on. I use the word “post-modernism” when I want to draw a crowd. So when I run a conference, I always say it’s about post-modernism.
It’s not the best word in the world. It’s a word that belongs to architecture originally. The more technical word, I think, to describe the state of philosophy these days is “post-structuralism.” Which is a critique of structuralist ways of thinking. But let’s just stick with the word “post-modernism, ” and let’s say that modernism means the tradition running roughly from Descartes through the first half of the 20th century. It’s a tradition that recognizes, that draws very sharp lines between subject and object, private and public, professional and amateur, knowledge and emotion, faith and reason.
But when you use the word “post-modernism,” the sort paradigmatic modernist would be Kant, who divides the world up into three critical domains, where the Greek word “krisis” means boundary or divider. So that you have knowledge which is pure knowledge, you have ethics which is pure ethics, and you have art which is pure art. So you get art for the sake of art, ethics as pure duty, knowledge as a purely cognitive undertaking.
And so modernism is very emphatic about drawing borders between things and enforcing those borders, policing those borders. Kant’s philosophy is a kind of meta-philosophy of meta-critique, which is a kind of science of science which polices borders. So it makes for very strong distinctions between subject and object, between politics and between public and private.
What post-modernism is, Jean-Francois Lyotard described as a kind of incredulity with all of that. It just seriously doubts all of that. And in the process, it puts into the doubt the attempt to build comprehensive conceptual systems which count things either with an epistemological bent – the way Kant does – or with a metaphysical bent, the way the German idealists would.
And so Lyotard says it’s incredulity toward all those big stories and rigorous policing of our experience. “Incredulity” is a good word, because it doesn’t say a “refutation.” If you want to refute the position, you need another metaphysics to refute it with, which you see in Kant.
Lyotard says, “Incredulity means we greet it with a yawn.” We just don’t believe that stuff anymore and we’re going to spend out time doing something more constructive. We’re not going to get caught up in those kinds of modernist projects, and we’re going to do things that can be done. We don’t want big stories, we want small ones.
Now, having said that, it’s not to attack modernity. It doesn’t want to go back to pre-modern ways of thinking about things. So it’s a continuation of modernity by another means. It wants to emancipate human thought and inquiry, scientific inquiry, from the hegemony of the medieval and of the church and of theocracy and of this strong theological view of the world, which goes hand-in-hand with a strong theocracy and a monarchical way of thinking about things. That top-down power structure, et cetera.
So everything that modernity tried to dispel, post-modernists also want to dispel, but they want to do it in another way. They want to do it without the overarching, very strong epistemological and metaphysical claims that modernist philosophers embraced.The kind of dissolving of rigorous, dogmatic distinctions of the sort you see in Quine is quintessentially deconstructive. That’s exactly the kind of thing deconstruction does. Deconstruction, which is my favorite flavor of post-modernism, is a very affirmative operation, despite the fact that it’s about dissolving those kinds of borders, because it’s trying to get at something which the borders tend to close off, and which are blocked by rigorously formalistic conceptions of things.
So it’s way of opening things up, of reinventing them, of giving them a future. The negative tone of the word “deconstruction, ” that it’s grammatically a negation, throws you off. If somebody deconstructs you they’re doing you a favor. But they’re breaking the rigidity of beliefs that are being held too tightly and to fiercely. They want to open you up into the ways in which things can reinvented.
I like this word “reinvented.” Deconstruction is a way to reinvent things. Which means you need something to invent to begin with. You need some kind of tradition, inherited belief, structures, et cetera, which is where you start.
So you start where you find yourself, you start in the middle of things – in media res – in the middle of all the things you’ve inherited: the language which you speak, the time in which you live, your body, your gender, et cetera.
What he’s talking about is a theory of radical reading, radical interpretation, radical practice, which is conservative in the sense that is keeps something going, it keeps it alive. But it keeps it alive by realizing that the only way to keep it alive is to reconfigure it, reinvent it.
So it’s an extremely good way to think about traditions, institutions, inherited beliefs, et cetera because it keeps them on the move. That’s why it has it has a value in thinking about religious traditions because it breaks into religious debates and allows you to open them up, give them a future. And so it makes conservatives in the religious tradition nervous. But you’ve always had people who were interested in keeping religious traditions open, and they are in constant tension with conservatives.