Monday, February 05, 2007

The big squeeze

Don Cupitt writes a succinct but thought-provoking piece in the Guardian about Christianity in the 'post-Derrida' world:

Much more than any of their recent predecessors, the Pope and the archbishop are trained academics who know the score. They know that mainline western belief in God was tied up with all the founding ideas of western thought first laid down by Parmenides and Plato. We used to assume that behind the flux of experience there had to be something Real, one, intelligible to us, and perfect. We used to assume that we were presented with a ready-made world, with a built-in order that we were predesigned to be able to grasp. But since Kant, and especially through the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida, the old western metaphysics has now been radically destabilised, deconstructed. The old west has gone.

The upshot of all this is very severe; so severe that from the point of view of modern philosophy even Richard Dawkins believes in God. He has abandoned popular belief in God (Derrida's "restricted theology"), but clings to what Derrida calls "general theology", a belief in one ready-made truth of things out there, waiting to be copied into our language. Unfortunately, Dawkins' god is now dead too.

So the great churchmen know that sooner or later Christian thought must undergo a very great transformation. A handful of writers are already describing it, but they are not popular, for it is a change far too big for the church to contemplate as yet. In the short run most of Christianity will choose to go fundamentalist and countercultural, and in the short run church leaders cannot give us a worked-out rational alternative to fundamentalism. It would be much too radical, and people would not accept it. Hence the impotence of liberal theology.




I disagree with his underlying premise that objective truth is dead. This is a post-post-Derrida world. Deconstruction is no longer de rigeur. But he is right that moderate, donnish, intellectual Christianity is in a fix: squeezed between fundamentalism and anything-goes truth relativism.

That is, it is very difficult for the likes of Rowan Williams to attack Bible literalism without sanctioning as valid 'Christianity' any old conception of God that anybody likes.

9 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hell, why didn't he include Rosenberg, too?

If you look to Nazi philosophers, I can almost predict you're going to get yourself in a bind.

February 05, 2007 8:26 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I disagree with his underlying premise that objective truth is dead.

Yes, I rather expect you do. One of the charms of you Duckians is watching you square off over the question of "what works", oblivious that almost everybody around you is asking "What works for me?".

February 05, 2007 5:38 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ah, well, some things are if not objectively true, so far beyond dispute that it doesn't pay to worry about them.

February 05, 2007 6:32 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

One of the charms of you Duckians is watching you square off over the question of "what works", oblivious that almost everybody around you is asking "What works for me?".

And "what works for me" is often what works for others. That's how capitalism works. Religious attempts to define morality as the denial of self-interest have not worked. Look at the Muslim world. Look what the prohibition on interest bearing loans, to cite just one example, has done for their society. Your post on the immorality of charging money for water is another example of this mindset.

Discussions about the objectivity of morality are hopelessly confused. People who say that they follow obective rules really aren't. They define objective as meaning someone else's rules, not their own. But hardly anyone yields absolutely to written laws or rules. People generally do not stray too far from their conscience, and obey those rules that are in agreement to it, or interpreted in a way to be in agreement. And who can argue that the conscience is objective?

February 06, 2007 8:54 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Hey Duck, easy on the Java.

I never said charging money for water was immoral. Not even close. What I said was that, as there was no private property in water, any mega-development of water transfer projects would essentially be government-to-government deals driven by political, market-insensitive factors that ignored supply, demand and fiscal sanity. Pure Adam Smith railing against the East India Company.

February 06, 2007 1:07 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
I wasn't saying that you did, I was pointing to the guy in the article you referenced on your blog as an example of the mindset that says morality = self denial. Now morality does require that the individual deny his own interests in certain circumstances, but I think you get the point.

I get frustrated with these discussions about objectivity because people use the word without defining what they mean by it. Here's my definition - something is objectively known when it is perceived in the same way irregardless of the subject. We can say that the speed of light is objective knowledge because every observer, or subject who measure it will get the same answer.

We can't say the same of morality. Right and wrong are not perceived the same way across subjects. The subject's psychological makeup, his feelings and his experiences color his perception of what is right and wrong. Morality cannot be otherwise, because in its most basic formulation, the Golden Rule, it depends on a subjective definition of good, of what I want done to me.

February 06, 2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Prayer, he said, is like maintaining an attentive, reverent and loving attitude in the dark. He did not reaffirm the old doctrine that the human mind is naturally created for the knowledge of transcendent and eternal Being, so that deep down we must in a certain sense know God already, the knowledge of God being the basis of all our knowledge about anything. No: we are only human, and we live after Darwin. Faith cannot now be more than a practical orientation of our attention, our affections, our life towards One who is hoped for and believed in, but is not actually known.

That is the crux of the matter, and it really has nothing to do with Derrida.

Once the doctrine of specific revelation stops holding water, and people take on board that God and religion are not the same thing, then universalist claims on fealty completely fail.

The moment one acknowledges that good works are sufficient -- as (IIRC) the Catholic Church has done -- the case for organized religion collapses.

The sooner Islam recognizes its revelatory claims are bunk, the better it will be for everybody.

February 06, 2007 6:11 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Once the doctrine of specific revelation stops holding water, and people take on board that God and religion are not the same thing, then universalist claims on fealty completely fail.

You would think so, but obviously we are foolish to believe that revealed truth be either all that it says it is or it cannot be believed for anything it says. But believers are very creatinve in the way they rationalize those parts of revelation that inconveniently turn out to be verifiably false. Just read the following back and forth that I had with a non-fundamentalist Chrisian on evangelicaloutpost:


Robert Duquette writes:
107Therefore, to accept the testimony of the Bible regarding the resurrection (the only primary source evidence for the resurrection) while rejecting its statements about other historical events requires some pretty tortured logic.

I would have to agree with this. Without a historical fall involving Adam and Eve, then the necessity of Christ's death and resurrection to pay the price for that original sin is moot. The two events are bookends, you can't have one without the other. If the Fall is metaphorical, then so is the Resurrection. Which is why I thing that the only logically consistent Christians are the literalists.

posted on 02.03.2007 2:50 PM

Boonton writes:
108Robert,

Let's take the fall as a literal historical event. It is about eating an apple against orders from God and punishment was that Adam & Eve would suffer life on earth as would their children. Christian theology, though, treats Christs death as redemption for sin. Not one sin from long ago but all sins that humans do. Since those sins are voluntary humans had a choice all along. In theory at least, they could have sinned no more after the garden but every sin since was a choice.

So while it is simple to treat the two stories as 'bookends' the fact is they are not. The first story is something like a fairy tale while the last story is more like the headline on last weeks newspaper. Tolkein captures some of this nature in his work, the stories that happen in the distant past have a hazy fairy tale feeling to them while his Lord of the Rings books are packed full of real life sounding detail.

Whether or not you believe it I think this effect was intentional.

posted on 02.03.2007 4:00 PM

Robert Duquette writes:
109Whether or not you believe it I think this effect was intentional.

Intentional by who? Did God inspire this fairy-tale like creation myth, or are you saying that the author of Genesis, like Tolkein, was indulging in conscious myth-making?

That's not a very strong foundation to base a faith on the Bible's divine inspiration. Is the rest of the Pentateuch likewise myth? Is it all myth up until the New Testament? Then what about the fulfillment of prophecies by Jesus? God wouldn't send his son down to fulfill mythical prophecies, would he?

Christianity cannot stand without a non-mythological Old Testament.

The first story is something like a fairy tale while the last story is more like the headline on last weeks newspaper.

Did you ever consider the possibility that Jesus was engaged in mythmaking, that his story of being reborn was metaphorical, and that the disciples and Paul didn't "get" it? Once you introduce metaphor and myth into the equation, then you've thrown objectivity out the door. Since you can't interview the authors of each of the books to find out if their intention was literal or metaphorical, then you've taken it upon yourself to craft your own view of the truth. Isn't that what Christians accuse non-believers of?

posted on 02.03.2007 5:23 PM

Boonton writes:
111Intentional by who? Did God inspire this fairy-tale like creation myth, or are you saying that the author of Genesis, like Tolkein, was indulging in conscious myth-making?

Intentional by the Bible's author.

That's not a very strong foundation to base a faith on the Bible's divine inspiration. Is the rest of the Pentateuch likewise myth? Is it all myth up until the New Testament? Then what about the fulfillment of prophecies by Jesus? God wouldn't send his son down to fulfill mythical prophecies, would he?

I think you're too addicted to 'science' and 'news reporting'. A lot of the wisdom humans have passed down to future generations has been thru the art of literature and not 'textbook style' history. In fact textbook or news report style history is an aquired taste at best. We communicate better through stories, myths, legends and so on. Why wouldn't God use that medium to therefore communicate with us?

You seem to be equating mythical with untrue or a lie but that's not what myth means.

Did you ever consider the possibility that Jesus was engaged in mythmaking, that his story of being reborn was metaphorical, and that the disciples and Paul didn't "get" it? Once you introduce metaphor and myth into the equation, then you've thrown objectivity out the door.

Until you actually read it (or at least parts of it). The story of Jesus is written more like a news report with names, dates, and locations and very specific details. The theme is hammered home several times that "we are telling you this literally happened". Now why hammer that home if it was understood that everything else in the Bible literally happened?

Since you can't interview the authors of each of the books to find out if their intention was literal or metaphorical, then you've taken it upon yourself to craft your own view of the truth. Isn't that what Christians accuse non-believers of?

Perhaps but that is no different than any other piece of text. We cannot ask Shakespear what mental illness he thought Hamlet but we must instead read the text and understand it for ourselves. Our understandings will differ but only to a degree. Even if we cannot come to 100% agreement there are wrong answers so to speak.

posted on 02.04.2007 9:26 AM

Robert Duquette writes:
112Until you actually read it (or at least parts of it). The story of Jesus is written more like a news report with names, dates, and locations and very specific details. The theme is hammered home several times that "we are telling you this literally happened".

Yes, the news reports were written by the gospel writers to describe something that literally happened, Jesus's death. That doesn't mean that Jesus's words of rebirth were meant by him, Jesus, to be taken literally. Jesus is the author of his words, which he didn't write down. The gospel writers authored their account of his words, his death, and what they believed happened after his death. It wouldn't be the first time that a disciple misunderstood the intentions of his teacher.

posted on 02.04.2007 1:22 PM

Boonton writes:
113That's very true but unfortunately we don't have much to tell us about Jesus besides the Gospels, the books that were rejected from the Gospels and very few fragments of 'unbiased' historical records. If the Gospel writers did misunderstand what Jesus was saying we'll probably never know because there is no original document, transcript or video tape to tell us.

posted on 02.04.2007 4:10 PM

February 07, 2007 2:57 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Time out.

The gospels are not news reporting (sez the news reporter) because the authors were not there. Probably they were not even alive when the alleged events allegedly happened.

So they repeated fairy tales they had heard and stated, even vehemently, that they really knew it had happened because it happened to the brother-in-law of their second cousin. So what?

The Donation of Constantine was written with equally positive assertion, but it was all lies anyway.

February 07, 2007 4:14 PM  

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