Friday, December 12, 2008

The Emerging Church, Deconstruction and Jamie Smith's "catholic Postmodernism"

Peter Schuurman's chapter in DeRoo and Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, "Deconstructing Institutions: Derrida and the 'Emerging Church'," identifies the 'shared values' between the emerging church and deconstruction, before using Smith's critique (basically, postmodern religion is not postmodern enough, i.e. still bound to the modern trend of autonomous individualization) to propose a three-fold division in the emerging church milieu.

Describing Jacques Derrida as a 'rock star' for the emerging church (p.112), but noting that some within this milieu use the language of deconstruction without reference to it as an academic thesis or misunderstand the 'radical nature of the Derridean project' (p.113), Schuurman presents what he see as four 'significant shared values' between the emerging church and deconstruction:

1. INTERPRETATION. Multiple readings 'challenge the idea that faith is certainty, without doubts or misreadings,' therefore also opening up 'room for questioning the church and theology' (p.114). This leads to playful and experimental reinterpretations of texts and doctrines, and friendly relationships between denominations and with other religions.

2. LOVE AND JUSTICE. Readings and performances of texts, doctrines and practices with an eye for the other are acts of love and justice, which facilitates a shift which Schuurman characterizes thus: 'now it is not important (or even possible) to "get the right reading" as it is to "read in a just and loving way",' which lays the ground for co-existence and collaboration (pp.114-115).

3. MESSIANISM. Schuurman writes that, 'no reading does justice to all, and no reading ever will. The perfect interpretation, the "right reading", the truly hospitable cultural construction is always "to come" – just like the Hebrew messiah' (p.115). However, rather conservatively, he links this notion of the "to-come" to the choice of the language of emergence: the 'emergent crowd' are 'emerging - a work in process - a church that is not a church but is rather a church "to come".' (p.115). In my thesis I'm exploring several more interesting, more radical examples of "messianic structures" within the emerging church milieu. (More on that to come as I write up over the next few months, I'm sure).

4. LIBERATION FROM THE DETERMINATE. Smith's chapter in DeRoo and Lightbody's collection, which I blogged about here, distinguished between the logics of determination and incarnation. Schuurman follows Smith's characterization of Derridean deconstruction (and Caputian deconstructive theology) as seeking to 'live in the dynamic between the readings rather than in any determinate reading' (p.115). I'll blog more about why I am dubious about Smith's portrayal of deconstructive theology as following a logic of determination as I continue to write up my thoughts, but for now my gut reaction to it is that it reads Caputo as more indeterminate than I believe he is being. Caputo speaks of the tension of BOTH existing IN (rather than moving over or passing through as Mark C. Taylor might write) historical associations (i.e. particular DETERMINATE religious traditions) AND engaging in messianic disassociations. This tension affirms singularity and particularity whilst at the same time trying to resist the temptation to privilege Christian particularity.

Schuurman's acceptance of Smith's characterization of deconstructive theology as fearful of determinancy leads him to construct a three-fold typology of emerging churches based on their relationship to the particularity of the Christian religious tradition.

Firstly, Schuurman identifies the 'discontinuous emergent church.' Here, participants 'shy away from creeds and confessions, and posit a radical discontinuity between themselves and the church that has gone on before' (pp115-116). Here, there is 'freedom from restraint, particularity, tradition,' or 'freedom as autonomy' (p.116), thus sharing with Derrida a flight from the determinate towards the indeterminate. However, my thesis is going to demonstrate that even those most closely aligned with Derridean and Caputian thought are not as discontinuous (or, in the language of sociologists of religion, post-traditionalized) as Schuurman makes out here. They are, after all, as I have mentioned above, engaged in both a historical association with the Christian tradition and a messianic disassociation from it in order to keep it open to the incoming of the other.

Secondly, those within the emerging church milieu that seek a 'return to the ancient Christian tradition' are classified as the 'ancient-future emergent church.' However, Schuurman warns against this grouping's tendency to privilege eclecticism thereby baptizing another form of autonomy in relation to tradition, one based upon postmodern consumerism (pp.116-117).

Therefore, Schuurman reiterates Smith's advocacy of a 'more persistent or proper postmodernism that takes us beyond the desire for autonomy and into a community of thought and practice that stretches through time and space, in other words, a particular embodied tradition and its institutions' (p.117). Those within the emerging church milieu that exhibit this submission to 'the “catholic” Christian faith of creeds and confessional Trinitarian dogma, the sacraments, and even hierarchy' are referred to as the 'catholic emergent churches (small "c").' In contrast to the freedom-from-restraint type of autonomy extant in the other types of emerging church, here there is 'a freedom that comes when one is empowered by deep commitments and covenants, by submission to authority and mutual accountability' (p.118).

Schuurman ends by asking, 'How can we nurture a commitment and authenticity that is neither an extension of the rule of taste nor a retrenchment in embattled fundamentalist certainty?' (p.118). But the underlying assumption of this question (and of Schuurman's critique of the deconstructive elements within the emerging church milieu) is that the entire milieu operates with an understanding of truth that is an accommodation to 'the rule of taste.' Part of my thesis contends that, far from being "whatever works for me," truth in the emerging church milieu more often takes the form of "what transforms," what turns me from myself to others.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two Cheers for Postmodernism; Three for the Logic of Incarnation?

Jamie Smith's chapter, "The Logic of Incarnation: Towards a Catholic Postmodernism," in Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, begins with a clarification of the "post-" in "postmodern" and of a distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity (pp.3-4). The subtitle of the book is a little misleading as Jamie Smith has contributed lucid and entertaining expositions of philosophical postmodernism and postmodern Christianity to (evangelical) audiences who have often misunderstood and/or misrepresented both (see, for example, his chapters in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn and his monographs Jacques Derrida: Live Theory and Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church). So to describe his work as a "critique of postmodern religion" is more than a little confusing, given his engagement with postmodern thought. However, Smith helpfully summarises his position in relation to philosophical postmodernism:

"Insofar as the church (and mutatis mutandis, Christian theology and philosophy) has bought into key assumptions of modernity; And insofar as these assumptions (for instance, regarding the nature of freedom, the model of the human person, the requirements for what counts as “rational” or “true,” or what can be admitted to the “public” sphere of political or academic discourse) represent a rejection of biblical wisdom and the Christian theological heritage; And insofar as postmodernism articulates a critique of just these assumptions; Then the postmodern critique of modernity is something to be affirmed by Christians, not because it is postmodern, but because the postmodern critique of modernity can be a wake-up call for Christians to see their complicity with modernity, the inconsistency of this with a more integral understanding of discipleship, and thus actually be an occasion to creatively retrieve ancient and pre-modern theological sources and liturgical practices with new eyes, as it were." (pp.4-5)
So with his position clarified in such a manner, Smith gives "two cheers" for postmodernism - but stops short of the full three. Three cheers for postmodernism, Smith claims, is to "enthusiastically and wholeheartedly embrace all that is 'postmodern,' without critique and without reservation" (p.6). Acknowledging that the metaphor will eventually break down, Smith suggests that Christian thinkers like Merold Westphal (Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought and Overcoming Onto-theology: Towards a Postmodern Christian Faith) might also give postmodernism two cheers (or maybe two and a half), but that Jack Caputo (start with On Religion and What Would Jesus Deconstruct?) and Pete Rollins (How [Not] To Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal) give postmodernism three cheers, and do so, according to Smith, "without critique and without reservation" (p.6).

In contrast to Smith's reading of Caputo and Rollins, his own work "is meant to be a critical appropriation of postmodernism and deconstruction that walks a long way with Derrida, but parts ways at a critical juncture—not out of a timidity or an unwillingness to 'go all the way,' but because of a principled critique of what I think are problems internal to Derrida’s thought." (pp.6/7)

So, with Smith's position with regards to postmodern thought clarified for the reader, he moves on to detail the "logic of incarnation" which was first articulated in Speech and Theology: Language and the Logic of Incarnation and developed as an "incarnational ontology" in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. I blogged briefly about Smith's logic of incarnation yesterday, here. He contrasts his "two cheers" logic of incarnation with the "three cheers" logic of determination that he sees in the work of Jacques Derrida and the deconstructive theology of Jack Caputo. Though he acknowledges that there might be other strains, here's how Smith characterises these two:

The logic of determination
recognises particularity, uniqueness and difference as inescapably part of human finitude but deems this existence "regrettable, lamentable and problematic" and remains "haunted by the Enlightenment dream of universality and purity" (pp.8-9). As these dreams are understood to be constitutive of knowledge, knowledge is therefore impossible (p.9). Similarly, as particular entities, determinative religions are considered to be tribal and violent, unable to live up to the (undeconstructible) dream of pure religion (p.11; see Hent de Vries Religion and Violence). Visions of justice, for example, are determinate, and therefore exclusionary and violent, which enables Derrida to construct the notion of undeconstrucible, pure justice as necessarily always to-come. Smith views the result as "a political rhetoric with grand claims regarding justice but which is systematically unable to articulate concrete policies" (p.12). However, this logic of determination is assumed. As Smith suggests in The Fall of Interpretation, the particular and determinate is constructed as violent only on the assumption of finitude as "failure" (p.13).

Smith argues that the logic of incarnation can outnarrate that of determination. This logic does not lament particularity but rather, as a "more 'persistent' postmodernism," refuses to desire universality and purity as (modernist) requirements of knowledge (p.10). This, Smith writes, "makes it possible to conceive difference differently" (p.11). Rather than being violent, then, particularity and determination - "drawing boundaries, demarcating doctrine (as the 'grammar' of the community) and specifying it's confession" - are central to finite communities (p.18). Unlike the logic of determination's positioning of justice (or a kingdom of the kingdomless reading of the kingdom of God) beyond possibility, "the logic of incarnation, which flows from and re-affirms the goodness of creation, finds its completion in the doctrine of the resurrection and an eschatology of the new heavens and the new earth—which is not any kind of escape from finitude as if finite particularity were inherently evil; rather, it is the hope of well-ordered particularity." (18)

Smith frames these two logics as a debate between a the "religion without Religion" of Caputian Weak Theology (see Caputo's Weakness of God) and Smith's "reformed Radical Orthodoxy" (see Introducing Radical Orthodoxy) or what he is now articulating as a "Catholic postmodernism" (p.21). He argues that "religion without Religion" is not undecidable all the way down (i.e. "things have been decided with respect to the abyss" [p.24]), does not leave the question of revelation "open" enough (p.29), "makes religion a (still) largely private, individual affair" (p.32), and fails to affirm a catholic eschatology in which "a particular instantiation of the kingdom is coming and will arrive" (footnote 65, p.34).

I've skipped through Smith's critique of "religion without Religion" because there is a lot more work I want to do on his distinction between the logics of incarnation and determination. I think that the debate between Weak Theology and "catholic postmodernism" [surely it should be a lower-case "c"?] will be a very useful way to frame my thesis as I already have two theological strands which emerge from my data on the notion of truth: a modified Radical Orthodoxy (in conversation with Generous Orthodoxy) and Weak Theology. When I've done more work on this I'll let you know whether I have three cheers for Smith's logic of incarnation!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Introducing Jamie Smith

I've finally started reading Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion. Neal's introductory piece clearly presents Jamie's logic of incarnation, detailing the ways in which an emphasis on God's indwelling in the world re-affirms the value of particularity. Such a doctrine, Neal explains, means that the proclamation of specifically Christian beliefs does not entail a disservice to those who do not agree with these beliefs. Rather, it forms the basis of a belief that difference qua difference is "blessed by God" and "part of God's plan" (xviii). This is in contrast, however, to the common endeavour of seeking peace in politics and religion through emphasis on commonality and a drive towards unity. Neal writes:

"Like chefs, we should be able to stand up, as religious people, and proudly declare what makes our religion unique and special without fear of starting a fight. We should be able to add to the religious palette of the world by holding to what we believe, rather than by emphasizing how we are like others. We are not all the same… The logic of incarnation is an attempt to come up with an underlying theory of the world that makes sense of this, and enables us to see the varieties of life as a glorious spice cabinet that seasons us all differently, rather than as a battleground for war and discord." (xxi)

I'll write more about this "logic of incarnation" when I've read Jamie's chapter: "The Logic of Incarnation: Toward a Catholic Postmodernism." I'm particularly interested in this at the moment because I'm starting to think about the sections of my thesis in which I am going to address the concepts of religious pluralism and Christian uniqueness. Neal's introduction to Jamie's work will add an interesting voice to a conversation which at the moment includes John Hick (see my posts here and here) and Radical Orthodoxy (the imperialism of which troubles me, see post here).

My introduction to James K.A. Smith came through his accessible, helpful and interesting "reforming" of Radical Orthodoxy (Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology) in the first year of my PhD when I was doing a lot of work on RO. The "reformed" Radical Orthodoxy of this book is expanded and augmented in a companion edited collection (with James H. Olthuis) called Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant and Participation which I haven't yet looked into deeply - but I blogged about the former volume's "reformed" Radical Orthodoxy here. Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church is an accessible introduction to some key mantras in postmodern thought (and rejoinder to their frequent misinterpretation), although I questioned Smith's depiction of the emerging church here.

I'm particularly interested in the trajectory of Jamie Smith's work in relation to methodology in philosophy of religion. He writes on his webpage: "I am pursuing work in philosophy of religion which seeks to effect a methodological shift in the field, arguing for the importance of practices, and particularly liturgical practices, as the "site" or "topic" of philosophy of religion." This is the kind of thing that I am interested in doing in future projects. In this thesis I combine the sociology of religion with the disciplines of theology, philosophy and ethics. Though the data I am working with consists of interview transcripts, blog posts and other online texts, there are aspects of participant observation of gatherings and events which relate to ritual theory. In future projects, I hope to further explore religious practice in conversation with contemporary philosophical thought.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Transcategorial

Prof. John Hick's public lecture last week on Christianity and Other Religions (December 3rd, School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham) began with a series of slides briefly detailing orthodox Christian doctrine, particularly claims to unique revelation by God and therefore access to salvation, truth, etc.
Following the logic of these claims, Hick then asked the room the rhetorical question of whether it then follows that these claims "must show in the lives of Christians generally in distinction from non-Christians." If salvation, truth, God is to have a difference in believers lives (in contrast to non-believers) then Christians must therefore be "better human beings, morally and spiritually" than others. The truth of these claims to unique revelation and special election must therefore be judged by the fruit of believer's lives. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience... However, Hick doubts the superiority of the Christian religion because these fruits are shown in other religions. He concludes that all the world religions are "more or less equally effective and more or less equally ineffective" in changing human beings for the better.
Hick presented three options as philosophical responses to the problem of Christianity and other religions: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. However, exclusivism (truth and salvation are for Christians only) leaves the problem of reconciling this with a loving God, and inclusivism (salvation for all, in principle, through Jesus' atoning death on cross but the Holy Spirit's special presence in the Church of Christ) still leaves the problem that Christians ought to be but are frequently not better than those outside the Church: "saints and sinners seem to be pretty evenly sprinkled among the religions of the world." Hick therefore concludes that both exclusivism and inclusivism cannot be the answer.
Pluralism, on the other hand, which emphaises the ineffability of God or, in Hick's language, the "transcategorial" nature of God. He uses critical realism, which posists that "awareness of reality is mediated through our cognitive capacities and conceptual resources," to argue that God is experienced through our context specific categories but that God as Godself is also obscured by them. We can experience God, and even improve in our knowledge about God, but we can never know God fully or even well. Hick quoted Rumi, a medieval Muslim philosopher, theologian and poet to illustrate pluralism: "the lamps are different, but the Light is the same: it comes from Beyond."
As I wrote in another post, I'm going to use a bit of Hick to flesh out the philosophical implications of the first strand within my data. There is a God, but human finitude prevents us from full knowledge of God, though we have faith in both special and general revelation and might progress towards truth through interaction with others in community, both Christians and non-Christians, without ever knowing God as God knows Godself.
Although the lecture was rather basic, it's given me a bit of an idea as to where to go to explore further the Hickean aspects of this strand:
  • God and the Universe of Faiths ([1973]1993) - which launched the contemporary pluralist understanding of world religions and sees God, or the Ultimate, at the centre of the universe of faiths with Christianity as one of the religions revolving around it.

  • God Has Many Names
    ([1982]2000) - offers a global theory of religious knowledge and offers a philosophy of religious pluralism.

  • The Rainbow of Faiths: A Christian Theology of Religions
    (1995) - a collection of lectures which uses the metaphor of a rainbow to argue that our awareness of the divine Presence is refracted by our human religious cultures.

  • Who or What is God?
    (2007) - a collection of essays centering on the themes of the search for truth (the ultimate reality to which all world religions point) and the search for justice and peace.
The main argument of my thesis attempts to connect the two themes of Hick's Who or What is God?: the search for truth and the search for justice. I'm in the middle of writing my abstract, so more of this anon!!!