Sunday, February 7, 2010

Postmodern Christianity: The Snakes on a Plane of Christian “Teaching” About Post Modernism

O.K. its doesn’t have to be Snakes on a Plane, but we all know movies, novels or other cultural products that are so terrible that we find perverse pleasure in them. Often times this enjoyment arises from the fact that the work in question takes itself very seriously as it launches, with abandon, down the course of its own absurdities; while at the same time containing a high level of formal and or technical ineptitude. The Twilight series of books and movies being the most recent examples of kitsch so painfully bad that there is an honest – admittedly morbid- pleasure in the experience of the work.

For the philosophical / religious version of this experience I recommend Dr. Leroy W. Thompson’s power point lecture series titled “Postmodern Christianity” which is available at iTunes U for free. It may well be the worst, most poorly informed, most derivative, and just plain wrong attempt at a critique of postmodernism I have ever encountered, and yet I was riveted. I listened to the lectures in one sitting. Beyond being bad, they are actually quite instructive as to how and why a certain kind of mind needs to knock down straw men that go by the names of “postmodernism”, “Jacques Derrida” and “Michel Foucault” among others. Granted, Thompson does not address Derrida and Foucault, rather he talks about someone named “Dairy-day” and someone else named “Michael” Foucault –its actually spelled that way on the power point card. This does make me wonder what Thompson would do if a student of his started talking about “Jesus Crust” or “Pontius Captain.”

Not surprisingly Dr. Thompson relies on a set of standard issue misconceptions of postmodern and post structural thought: the idea that postmodernism teaches there is no such thing as truth, that nihilism is inherent to it, that postmodernism is inherently anti-enlightenment, anti-reason and anti-religion. And of course Thompson insists that postmodernism can’t be defined. A claim he makes with the help of a series of images of Bart Simpson. What is curious is that Thompson spends a lot of time defining characteristics of postmodernism that he does not like and yet he repeatedly says that is has no definition.

This sort of thing has been going on for years so its no surprise to find it repeated yet again, but, what I find interesting is how it is repeated here. First, the lectures provide a very good example of the way certain types of conservatives see it as their job to advance a set of propositional statements that they believe provide intellectual certainty and fully describe the truth and correctness of their own ideology. What is more, these folks seem to believe that everyone else is up to the same thing, even post structural thinkers. Thus for Thompson all of human thought is reduced to ideological competition. This helps explain why some conservatives (and perhaps some liberals as well) are so threatened by contemporary philosophy and why they can’t understand it. It’s lost on someone like Thompson that Nietzsche or Foucault aren’t advancing a simple ideological scheme, that they might be presenting detailed critiques of the concepts of God or Truth and how these concepts function historically, culturally and so on, without making broad propositional claims of their own. For Thompson Nietzsche is simply guilty of attempting the pre-meditated murder of an actual God. Similarly, Foucault is a vicious cynic, who seeks to deny reality, destroy all truth, and everything Thompson believes with it. I find this fascinating and it sheds light on what is meant when some conservatives talk about a “biblical world view”. Its less a form of religious faith than it is a competitive ideological program that sees itself as embattled and always in need of defending, while at the same time its greatest hope is to achieve ideological hegemony.

Another notable feature is the way Thompson points in the direction of phenomenology but does not recognize it or see it as salient to his own truth claims. Thompson criticizes scientists for believing that if something can’t be perceived with the senses it does not exist. His big “gotcha!” moment is when he claims to have asked a scientist if the man loved his wife. Thompson reports that the scientist answered in the affirmative that he did love his wife. Thompson insists therefore that the scientist’s worldview is inconsistent and unlivable because the scientist’s love for his wife can’t be perceived directly through the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, or hearing. What’s odd here is that Thompson seems unable to tell the difference between a crude form of phenomenology and the application of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to scientific observations. Further, while Thompson is on some level aware of the distinction between human consciousness and the objects of experience, his awareness only extends to his own misunderstanding of science. The idea that this might be a broad issue for anyone attempting to describe the nature of the world, including himself, is not present.

One final point, Christianity is also done considerable violence by Thompson. It’s interesting that pretty much all of the villains in Thompson’s scheme are philosophers. In taking on philosophy as such he can’t help but to make his argument in philosophical terms that, unfortunately, reduce Christianity to a pre-modern ontological and epistemological conglomerate that is largely free of messy things such as faith, interpretation, and theology. Although he wants to argue from a Christian point of view, its very difficult to see how Christianity as such, as a matter of faith, informs Thompson’s understanding at all. In the end its clear that the Christianity Thompson seeks to defend is synonymous with a reactionary politics that longs for the good old days of pre-modern, pre-humanism, pre- phenomenology ontology.

Enter Caputo

The good news is that we don’t have to rely on Thompson as the only source available on the Internet that describes the relationship between postmodernism and religion. In 1999 John D. Caputo gave a talk at the Sunstone Symposium on deconstruction and religion, in which he summarizes a number of sections from his 1997 book The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. You can down load an Mp3 of the presentation here.

The juxtaposition of Thompson and Caputo is stunning. Unlike the embattled, ignorant, cynicism of Thompson, Caputo’s reading of Derrida is original, and poetic. What Caputo sees at work in Derrida in general and in deconstruction in particular is the structure of the messianic, a deeply religious structure that occurs in Derrida’s work without the formal trappings of religious institutions or authority. In short messianism is a way of describing an aspect of the future. Not a future that is predictable, like going to work in the morning or keeping appointments. This is a future that exceeds our horizon of expectations. It’s the arrival of the totally other, an arrival that cannot be predicted or anticipated, it can only be welcomed. This openness, the welcoming of the other is quite clearly located in close proximity to the notion of hospitality that has a long history in religion and philosophy. It’s the idea of openness to the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider. This openness allows the other to lay claim to us, and calls us into a relationship of responsibility for the well being of the other. This openness is also called the messianic because the in the truest sense the totally other of the human is the divine. Thus the messianic in general finds specific examples in things such as the second coming of Christ, or in Jewish hopes for the arrival of a messiah.

It’s this religious structure that I find so exciting, and that provides the perfect counter to people like Thompson. Hospitality and the messianic are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition but as Christianity in America becomes more reactionary and overtly political in the narrowest sense, it has come to understand the arrival of the other as always consisting of a threat to the self. The other is always an opponent that must be defeated in order to preserve the ideological, political, social and economic position of the self. Thus, in order to preserve the institutional characteristics of formal religion, contemporary Christianity betrays one of its central and most beautiful challenges.

Postmodern Christianity then is the movement by which the entanglement of ideology and theology is put into question for the sake of allowing concepts such as hospitality, the gift, forgiveness and so on, to do their work without needing to directly serve the limited interests of political ideologies. Not that the entanglement of ideology, politics, and theology can ever be undone, it can’t be; but the impossibility of a total separation does not mean that we shouldn’t take the critique as far as it can go. Guiding us in the act of taking spiritual risks for the sake of a faith capable of finding expression in ways that we are quickly forgetting the names of.

Do listen to Thompson and Caputo and enjoy.