Monday, November 09, 2009

Young Theologians: On Readiness

Thanks to the generous support of some Bishops (or, more accurately, I guess, a kind bunch of people working for the Bish'es) I've just come back from a (very) quick trip to Ireland. Sadly, I both arrived and left in the dark, so I didn't get to see a whole heap of either Dublin or Maynooth.

The conference ("Interface: Being a Young Theologian in the World") was hosted by the beautiful St. Patrick's College, Maynooth. Here's a photo of the impressive Pugin Hall where we had a wine reception on the first night. Sadly, I was not able to indulge too much as I had to go finish my paper!

I'm going to post several reflections on this conference (not sure how many yet), but this is the first one on the keynote address given by Professor Michael Paul Gallagher, "Mediators of God's Meaning: A Challenging but Consoling Call."

In his paper, Professor Gallagher he suggested that the role of the theologian is a translator of God's meaning to culture. He argued for the importance of imagination, the faculty of possibility that (as for Newman) makes God real, and quoted Paul Ricoeur on imagination: "we can experience redemption only through imagination." He called for theologians to be instruments of the imagination, communicating in parables and poems that are "provocations to wonder," provocations to transformation.

With this aspect of his paper, I couldn't agree more. Theology has to be poetic. It's point is to inspire, to transform, to turn around (metanoia). I find Jack Caputo writes of poetics in contrast to logics. For him, poetics is "a certain constellation of idioms, strategies, stories, arguments, tropes, paradigms, and metaphors - a style and a tone, as well as a grammar and a vocabulary, all of which, collectively, like a great army on the move, is aimed at gaining some ground and making a point" (The Weakness of God, p.104). While logic is tied to the literal discourses of the world, and try to instantiate their propositions through representation, poetics attempts to bring to mind the event of being addressed and transformed.

However, I have a problem both with Ricoeurian hermeneutics (in which we read to determine the meaning to a text) and with Professor Gallagher's own implied assumption of the existence of a single, eternal, unchanging, unified message that is in need of contextual translation into multiple media. For Gallagher, however, unlike for Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message; the medium in which we "tell about it" does not impact the message.

He spoke about humanity's having a "receptive imagination," receptive to God's meaning, which means we should, as Mary Oliver writes in "Instructions for living a life" (and as Gallagher quoted) "pay attention, be astonished, tell about it." I have a problem with Gallagher's assumption that there is one message, one meaning of God, for the theologian to translate into a medium in which culture would understand it. "How might God's meaning be discerned?" "How is it determined to be unitary or unified?" "Is the theologian's meaning God's meaning?"

And, while we might be able to pay attention to and be on the look out for an eternal, unchanging message in the midst of different translations of it, of different tellings about it, of different performances of it, how are we ever to be truly astonished by it, if in some sense we already know the message, if the message is not going to change? We can only be truly astonished by that which we cannot be prepared for, that which we cannot look out for, that which we do not know to pay attention to. On the other hand, however, as both Derrida and Caputo argue, we would not be truly astonished by something completely other, because such a wholly other would completely pass us by, we would not pay it heed.

Therefore, we have to pay attention, but remember that we know not to what such attention must be paid. We have to be prepared for something for which we cannot be prepared, on the look-out for something but we know not what! If, as Gallaher also quoted, "the readiness is all" (Hamlet, Act V scene ii), then this means we cannot restrict what Derrida calls our "horizons of expectation," that to which we "pay attention," to the cultural translation of an eternal message.

We have to pay attention both with and without expectation. We who wait wait with expectation, how could we not? But this should also be a readiness, a paying attention, a looking-out for, without expectation. It should be a readiness that does not know what it is to be ready for, that does not know what the message might be.


53degrees said...

I read this post yesterday and thought "I'm not sure I understand this" and then read this story this morning and thought "aha!"

The readiness is all.

Ben Dare said...

I also arrived and left in the dark, which was a pity. But the nice taxi driver talked me through a bit of history on the way, which was good.
My experience of Prof. Gallagher's address was a bit distracted as I arrived late, but I definitely enjoyed it. I too might wonder about this 'single' meaning, but then again imagination is never going to come down on a single meaning; it wouldn't be very imaginative if it did!

Katharine Moody said...

Hi Ben, exactly. I hadn't connected his (problematic) emphasis on a single meaning back to his (really good) stuff on imagination, so thanks. You're right, I think - it wouldn't be very imaginative. Just think about how many gospels circulated around telling Jesus' story... How that man struck people's imaginations!!!

Francis Cousins said...

Hi Katharine,

While I was there for MPG's paper in body my mind was running around various other places but I do like your post on meaning.

I like to make a distinction between meaning and message. I have a problem with people trying to find the message in, for example, a biblical text as that is where I spend most of my time.

However texts can have a meaning, or more accurately a plurality of meanings. The challenge is to discern which meanings are valid and which meaning we try to force upon the text.

Though this may be more Sandra Schneiders than Ricouer.

Katharine Moody said...

Hi Francis,

I guess it all comes down to what kind of hermeneutic you use to determine valid and invalid meanings. And, the status that you give your hermeneutic, i.e. is yours the "only" "one", the "true" "one", etc. How does your hermeneutic relate to others? Does it (like Radical Orthodoxy) position and out-narrate them, which seems violent?

Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine

your post and these comments have set me thinking (not a good sign) -
I will come back again to -morrow


Katharine Moody said...

Excellent, looking forward to it! x

Francis Cousins said...

Yes that is the problem, people thinking that they have possession of THE truth.

I think, from a scriptural POV at least, that the meaning needs to be respectful of the meaning of the text in its own cultural setting and time and then to try to translate this to the present.

53degrees said...

Bloody liberals the lot of ye!

Katharine Moody said...