Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thesis Abstract - April 2009

For our annual Panel Reviews (here and here for posts on last year's panel review process and here for this year's comments!) we have to submit a number of documents for the panel to read and evaluate prior to the review itself. One of the things they ask for is a one page summary of your thesis, the title of which is (at the moment) going to be Emerging Truth/Justice: Towards a Poetic Understanding of (Christian) Truth, focusing on central arguments and main findings. I thought I'd post my one page summary here, so you can see what I'm hoping to argue and also compare it to another thesis abstract I wrote only a few months ago (here) to see how it is changing as I continue to write up. So it's a little longer than an abstract would be but it's been really helpful for me to write - I now know that not only do I know what I want to say in my head, I can actually get it out onto a piece of paper for other people to see!!! Along with the central argument, I decided to try to hone my keywords:

This thesis explores how the notion of truth is conceptualized within the UK emerging church milieu, a diverse network of individuals and communities connected by the Internet and often particularly interested in the relationship between Christianity and the postmodern turn. Participants’ post- or late modern context of religious pluralism and individualism has impacted the ways in which the truth claims of the Christian religion are understood. Further, the theological turn of contemporary philosophy has also brought participants in contact with thinkers like Nietzsche, Derrida, Marion, Lévinas and Žižek, whose work in relation to religion raises questions of the nature of truth. This project therefore sought to discover not only what the philosophical, theological and ethical implications of participants’ conceptualizations of truth might be for Christian belief and practice, but what these notions of truth reveal about the viability of academic theologies like Radical Orthodoxy and deconstructive theology for the UK emerging church milieu.

Qualitative data was gathered from emerging church literature, emerging church blogs and interviews with a variety of UK milieu participants. This data displayed a conceptual pluralism about truth: truth is not only a concept that could be manifest differently in particular propositional domains, but is also understood non-propositionally as an event of truth itself. Participants identified both this truth-event and the truth of religious and spiritual propositions with the transformation of subjectivity and behaviour.

The author distinguishes between two strands which arise within the UK emerging church milieu regarding the truism that truth is transformative.

For the first, religious/spiritual propositions are true just when the transformation they evoke conforms to the norm of justice, a norm that itself coheres with a durably coherent framework of moral judgements towards which human beings aim in community and dialogue with each other. This conclusion has implications for collaboration across religious/secular boundaries. Those participants within this strand often, but need not, assume a theologically realist ontology. It is, however, difficult to overcome the objection that transformation here is merely a response to truth and not inherent to the concept itself.

In relation to religious/spiritual propositions, the second detectable strand within the data connects transformative truth not to propositional content but to the way in which propositions are believed. This is a consequence of their emphasis upon transformative truth as the non-propositional event of truth itself. Here, participants endeavour to keep religious/spiritual propositions open to the auto-deconstructive event at the heart of all language. Deconstruction is therefore intrinsic to religious propositions, traditions and institutions, to all the ways in which humanity names the event. For these participants, the language of truth is often supplanted by that of the other words used for the undeconstructible event, including justice and kingdom of God, which are understood as transformational rather than representational notions. Conceiving truth in this way places transformation within the concept itself, rather than as a response distinguishable from the truth that caused it.

These findings regarding truth in the UK emerging church milieu enable the author to assess theologies that have been suggested as apt for the milieu, James K.A. Smith's Radically Orthodox 'postmodern catholicism' and John D. Caputo's deconstructive 'weak theology.' It is argued that Radical Orthodoxy needs to become more generous towards other religions if it is to be welcomed by participants, and that weak theology becomes more practically viable when communities also emphasize how beliefs are held above what beliefs are held. The author assesses Smith’s criticisms of Caputo, arguing that he overlooks the latter’s differentiation between representational logics and transformational poetics. I use this distinction to argue that an interpretation of the kingdom of God as a concept that corresponds to a reality that will either arrive (Smith) or never arrive (Smith’s reading of Caputo) mischaracterizes it as representational rather than transformational.

Key words:
  • John D. Caputo,
  • Christianity,
  • deconstructive theology,
  • emerging church,
  • justice,
  • kingdom of God,
  • poetics,
  • Radical Orthodoxy,
  • realism,
  • James K.A. Smith,
  • truth,
  • transformation.

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