This is the ninth post of a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule, along with links to previous posts, can be found here.
I am faced with the difficult task of summarizing the excess of discussion about phenomenological excess over the past couple of months. The journey thus far has given me much to read and consider. I’ve learned both from both those of you involved in this discussion and from the various thinkers we’ve engaged in this process. I have enjoyed digging deeper into some of the foundational thinkers of contemporary critical theory. Conversely, I have learned by following out an unfamiliar and different line of thinking influenced more directly by Heidegger than Nietzsche. I find myself resonating deeply with many of the thinkers we’ve encountered because they are concerned with the same question(s) with which I am concerned. Gschwandtner summarizes these driving concerns as “an emphasis on abundance and excess” (209) and “the hermeneutic dimension” (210). I continue to find these two emphases compelling because they provide a powerful way of approaching the significant (religious) differences and conflicts which are shaping our world today. My driving concern is this: “How do we live together when our stories are so different?” This is especially relevant in terms of the three monotheistic siblings—Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Although the thinkers we’ve considered approach the discussion from a Christian perspective, I find great hope in the line(s) of thinking they trace out.
Before considering Gschwandtner’s own summary, I want to consider the two driving concerns she points out—excess and hermeneutics (questions of interpretation). I see these as complimentary, especially in terms of story, because they remind us first that we cannot contain all of reality or “truth” within any particular discourse, language, speech (act), or story, and second, that even if we could, there would remain varying fragmentary, and potentially competing, interpretations of that story. For example, we might ask what the “true” story of 9/11 is. While some might produce a list of facts — times, flight numbers, casualty counts, etc. — that list would fail to account for the immense psychological impact of the event. But if we wish to produce a story which accounts for that psychological impact, whose interpretation, whose experience, do we accept? We cannot account for the experiences of those who died — terrorist or otherwise, but even aside from that, do we ask one of the emergency responders? A family member? An American? A Canadian? An Iraqi? A Jew? A Muslim? A news reporter? A news watcher? Whose story is true? Or perhaps more accurately, whose interpretation is true? The story fragments and we are left with the much more pressing question of how we live (together) after this event. How do we continue to value life and rebuild trust in each other? Fighting over (ownership of) the story provides little guidance in this regard, and even less hope — less of the psychological resources necessary for survival (in the Derridean sense), for abundant, overcoming life.
In terms of “postmodern apologetics,” we might ask: How do we live and move and breathe in a world where the Christian God has become unbelievable? Or how do we live and move and breathe together when there are so many names for God? Certainly that discussion must continue, but perhaps it is time to reconsider the ways we define God. Gschwandtner, in Chapter 10, explores how each of the thinkers she’s written about engages more or less explicitly with Anselm and his definition of God as, to quote my undergrad philosophy professor, “that than which no greater can be conceived.” The thinkers presented thus far offer no singular, authoritative response to this definition, but rather a plurality of responses which differ significantly even insofar as they range from reading Anselm’s statement as personal prayer to rational proof. Yet, as Gschwandtner points out, for all of them,
the very idea of a rational proof for God’s existence is consistently rejected as futile, unhelpful, or even blasphemous. To speak of God with the language of certainty and verification is to succumb to the idea that science has the only access to truth and that truth is only about facts. Such a belief (and it is indeed a ‘belief’) reduces humanity and everything that really matters to it to data or excludes it from discussion altogether. It excludes not only the divine or religious experience, but all meaning and values, all art and creativity, anything that cannot be demonstrated in a lab (219).
Herein lies the answer to one question which continually resurfaced in our early discussions: What is the point of these complex, meandering, critical explorations? Quite simply, how we speak is as important as what we say. Challenging the limitations of science (or any linguistic domain) is a doomed project if we blindly redeploy the very language we are challenging. Certainly there is room for a critical, subversive redeployment of the story to make a new point, but that redeployment necessarily changes the story. These phenomenological thinkers are making a radical move in that direction — building new stories in a mode of bricolage (collage) which interrogates what is taken for granted in the very act of speaking, of making an argument, of making an apology (an apologetics).
In addition, Gschwandtner’s identification of the impact of the language of science and certainty explains a certain curiosity I have found in my own studies: a number of these contemporary thinkers of God begin or are deeply engaged with a critique of techno-science as being that mode of understanding which reduces “true” knowledge to performativity, in the sense of maximum (productive) efficiency (as Lyotard puts it). An example of this is the ongoing mega-church movement, where the justification for their existence is grounded in membership statistics. Jacques Ellul and Emmanuel Falque are particularly interesting for the way their concerns with techno-science and with religion are entangled; in part, they turn to Christianity as a particularly powerful way of responding to techno-science. That same idea seems to haunt each of the thinkers we have considered.
But the question remains: how shall we speak of God and of faith if not in the modern (apologetic) sense of certainty and verification? Put another way, if our religion cannot be (scientifically) proven as true, what use is it? These thinkers are apologetic insofar as they respond to these questions by attempting to articulate various apologies (explanations) for faith which recognize the ways in which it exceeds scientific discourse and as they attempt to enact approaches which would allow us to speak to each other about our values and differences without resorting to power games — without speaking in terms of a true story/false story binary. Indeed they argue that religion and faith, by their nature, exceed such formulations; only insofar as we recover the language(s) of religion and faith can we hope to live together. I find this exceedingly hopeful and I look forward to the conclusion of this journey together as we consider what a “postmodern” practice of religion might look like—as we consider the three remaining thinkers who are more directly engaged in the act of narrating stories about God (and/as the other) with us, rather than over us or apart from us.
David Barrett lives in Victoria, BC and co-produces the “Storying Life” podcast which explores theology, critical theory, and contemporary culture. He is planning to pursue an interdisciplinary Ph.D. interrogating the intersections between critical theory and (Adventist) thought.