Monday, September 20, 2004

A conversation on postmodernism (Part 3)

This conversation is Part 3 of a discussion with two previous parts: Part 1 (Sept. 2nd) and Part 2 (Sept. 10th).

You didn't strike a nerve with your post-before-lost, but I did get to writing about things I respond to emotionally.
Well, that's good to know! Passion's what makes the world go 'round.
1. On lables. You seem to want to devide their meaning into strict denotation and "courtesy connotation." Forgive me if that's a reduction of your position--I don't mean it to be. Which is one way to look at it, and a rather stark one. I would want to much more generous with certain terms--for example, I can readily conceive of a Christian prostitute and would not feel called to legislate the term "Christian" away from him or her. Of course such a person might be simply a hypocrit, but he/she might also be a drug addict, or mentally ill--the person's faith in ultimate redemption might be pure and genuine. I would distinguish between justifying the person's mode of earning as a "Christian" a living and denying the person a legitimate claim to the term "Christian". I see that it would be possible to use such terms more strictly, but I seen no reason to be stricter with them. I see nothing to be gained by the strictness, and lots to be lost.
I get paid to make distinctions, of course. Sometimes these can be annoying or even unhelpful. But hopefully they can also serve, at times, to clarify. Plato knew that the world is full of gray shades that suggest the absence of any absolutes to some minds, like those of Protagoras and his fellow sophists. But he also knew that absolute Forms exist, such as numbers, and insisted that mathematics comprise a ten-year portion of his Academy's curriculum in order to dispel the sophomoric assumption that nothing is absolute. But the largest portion of his curriculum was reserved for a 15 year internship in local administration, so that his best students might acquire practical experience in applying absolute black-and-white principles to the mucky shades of gray in ordinary life that require years of difficult prudential judgments to perfect. All of which is to say that I readily recognize an array of possible shades of meaning in my distinction between a denotation and connotation. But without that distinction where would we be?

As to the prostitution question, I see no problem in what you're suggesting—that a Christian woman (or man) could, under unfortunate circumstances, fall into prostitution. In that sense I'd be willing to refer to a "Christian prostitute" in the sense of a prostitute who happens to be Christian, even though her trade would hardly be condoned by her religion. But what I said was not "Christian prostitute" but "Christian prostitution." While I can't prevent anyone from physically uttering the expression, I don't see how it can be anything other than an oxymoron, like "married bachelor" -- unless you can see a way to be more generous with your labels here too. Life and language can get pretty murky sometimes, what with such things as virgin mothers and talking asses in Bible. But short of divine intervention, aren't there limits to some sorts of murkiness?
2. You quite rightly appeal to symbolic logic:
Well, first of all, if we define position 'p' as consisting in adhering to propositions 'x, y, & z,' then I don't see any alternative but to say than a person affirming 'x, y, & z' holds 'p.' If, in addition to 'p' a person holds another set of beliefs -- call them 'a, b, and c' -- this would not seem to change the fact that he holds 'p' -- unless 'a, b, and c' contradict 'x, y, & z.' Another wrinkle could be that the person holds only part of 'p' (say 'y & z' but not 'x'), in which case one would have to qualify what one meant when saying that he holds 'p'. I see no alternatives, unless you see another way out of the labeling cul-de-sac.
To this I would say that, while your logic here is of course logical, the logical rigor undermines (perhaps this is ironic) the usefulness the the lable (p). Which I guess is why you say you are only provisionally interested in lables, right? I would personally like only to be labled with a lable that means something to me, a lable that I would actually choose and with which I would identify. One could probably compose a fairly unobjectionable definition of a Baptist, and it is quite likely that Dick would fit that definition, but I would argue that Dick is also a Baptist because he says he is and because he has spent (I assume) much of his life saying he is. If our definition were too loose, lots of people who would fit our definition of a Baptist would probably not think of themselves as such. If it were too strict, it would exclude people from a category to which they are attached. It would probably exclude most undergraduates, for example, whose understandings of faith and theology are probably not very nuanced, and if we excluded them from the category, they would probably stay not very nuanced.

Perhaps all we need to do, then, is say that position p consists in adhering to propositions x, w, z, etc., with under the necessary condition that one of the propositions, let's call it z-sub-1, have the form and effect of "I hold position p." (There's probably a more scientific way to express that.) I would so augment your formulation of the use of categories and lables. No argument concluding that John Doe is not a Baptist could have any real force to John Doe or Baptists otherwise. (I would concede that z-sub-1 could not be the only member of the proposition set, even though some probably wouldn't.) My proclaiming publicly that I am a pickle does not make me one, but your argument that I am a pickle doesn't either. The only thing that makes me a pickle is my being a pickle, and if that isn't helpful, since it doesn't involve a definition, that's alright. As Sterne says, "To define----is to distrust."
Still, I think you clearly grant by your example of the "pickle" label that the acceptability of a label to the person labeled (whether by himself or by another) is hardly an essential condition of its accuracy. You are free, of course, to call yourself a "pickle," as others are free (for whatever reason, playful or malicious) to call you that. But as long as we're playing by the implicit rules of the ordinary language game, there are clear limits to the intelligibility of such an appellation. If you really thought you were a pickle, you'd be deluded. If you thought you looked like a pickle and called yourself a pickle in fun, that would signify (hopefully) something else. But however fluid and mucky words and meanings may be, they also offer a certain level of resistance as does our whole environment (whether linguistic, physical, or mental) in our ordinary experience, do they not? And this play between fluidity and resistance, it seems, it what permits us to communicate, to the extent that we are able.
3. You say,
Third, you say (above) that you've never asserted the death of all grand narratives as your own view. On the other hand, in your In Memoriam article, you write (on p. 72) that the "intense, almost cataleptic absorption into the moment" in section 19 of In Memoriam is "a profound experiencing of the deepest truth." This "truth" (your word, not Tennyson's) you describe as "not the loss of a friend so much as the structural collapse of every coherence-giving narrative about the world." This would seem to suggest that this is what you take to be true of the world and that Tennyson's crisis was precipitated by his insight into this truth. Or did you mean this was only subjectively "true for him," in spite of the fact that there objectively remains one or another coherence-giving narrative to be discovered that he somehow missed? Or is there some other alternative I'm not seeing?
First, I will always require my friends to make themselves comfortable somehow with the fact that my beliefs are always in flux, are sometimes half-baked, etc. That may be the case here. However, it does not seem readily apparent to me that a character's experience of the structural collapse of every available coherence-giving narrative a) could not be an experience of the truth or b) entails the "postmodernism" of the critic who points it out, even if he may coincidentally do so in an essay that also cites Derrida. The term would seem especially hasty, I should think, if said critic cited a clear and careful argument (Derrida's analysis of the instant) that has nothing to do with any investment in postmodernism, whatever that would mean. If the claim were made that "all narratives deconstruct" were made with blithe innocence and confidence, that would be different, and perhaps that's how you interpreted my text--if it is, fair enough.
Your first point puts you in good company with J.J. Rousseau, who declared (as mentioned before) that his readers could not expect him to be clear and consistent at the same time. But beyond the playfulness of that point, I'm quite sympathetic to the fact that our ideas undergo a certain development. So have mine -- politically, religiously, culturally, and philosophically. Thus it was, perhaps, that Hegel accused Schelling of carrying out his own education in public, for changing his positions so many time in print.

As to your published essay, the fact that your essay also cites Derrida is, I think, quite beside the point, as you seem to agree. The question centers on what your assertions regarding Tennyson mean. What can I say? I have only the words themselves to play with, and no access to authorial intent! But I suppose you must know what you mean. It just seemed evident to me that you were not merely pointing out that Tennyson experienced the collapse of meta-narratives but that this was also "true" (whatever that means here).
4. You say,
I would disagree, though, that theology or politics is a matter we ought to leave to the experts. We would do so, I would argue, only at our own peril. It used to be said that religion, politics, and sex shouldn't be talked about in polite company. How British! But the longer I live I begin to think these are the only things worth talking about. One thing I agree with Mortimer Adler on is his notion that philosophy should not be relegated to the province of an academic elite but rather be viewed as the common vocation of everyone. That's why he spent the last half of his career re-writing his academic books for popular audiences -- books like Six Great Ideas (on truth, goodness, beauty, justice, equality, and freedom), and Aristotle for Everybody (on knowing, doing, and making) -- subjects everyone would need to think through in order to fulfill the Socratic principle that the "unexamined life is not worth living." I would further agree with Adler -- who converted from being a secular Jew in later life to Anglicanism, then before dying to Catholicism -- that the same is true of theology, and politics as well. But I don't really imagine any huge disagreements between us on these points, at least as to general principle.
No, no disagreements at all. What I meant to suggest, as I vaguely recall, was something different, and perhaps, having read widely about such things, you can help me figure this out. What I wanted to safe-guard and distinguish from theology (and in saying so, I am doing theology, I suppose, though not necessarilly good theology) is the experience of faith. I would use this term to include the experience of liturgy, which is of course an experience guided and structured by theology, but also the experience of minutely observing changes in clouds, as Hopkins did, or the experience of watching your son sleep. Forrell somewhere says something about baptism as being kissed by God, and reading that had a profound effect on me at the time of my own baptism--it's still something I think of often. This may sound pretty namby-pamby from a philosophical standpoint--I don't know. What are the various church's positions on revelation, miracle, personal epiphany, etc.? Obviously, we often feel we're having an epiphany and then later, upon more sober judgement, decide we were just befuddled--the term, if it even is a real term (it was for Joyce), should be used carefully if it is to mean anything. But I would be suspicious of a theology that did not somehow allow doe the reality of being kissed by God, even though that's just a silly metaphor--it seems a metaphor for something, somehow. Categories like "Christian," if applied too strictly, would seem to me to deny that such things happen and are real, which seems heretical to me. Why can't there be a Christian prostitute? I say, sure, there can be, and I have not the slightest interest in legislating the term so as to exclude anyone who would be included within its folds. Do I remember Dick or someone telling me recently that the Anabaptists believe in such experiences and that others do not? Perhaps it was you. Anyway, if you could recommend something short I could read on this question, I might actually read it. The take I want to make on Derrida is that first of all, he's right: things deconstruct, and second of all, through the fissures of that deconstruction shine the miraculous. His approach seems to me to be quite the opposite of any theology that would proceed using definitions that function to exclude, even is that exclusion and those definitions are only provisional.
What you seem to mean by the "experience" here, which you wish to safeguard, strikes me as having a lot to do with the profoundly Catholic notion that all of life itself is in some sense "sacramental." Everything seems to point beyond itself to everything else in some very deep sense. The one writer who does the best at capturing this idea, in my opinion, is Thomas Howard, in his unlikely little book, Chance, or the Dance? (pictured left) It has a great deal to do, really, with some of the questions about signifiers and significations that Derrida and others like yourself write about. But this is only one dimension of the question you raise.

You also seem to want to protect personal experiences, epiphanies, revelations, etc. against what looks like the encroaching repressiveness of propositional theology and ecclesial decrees that might somehow exclude or declare invalid such experiences. On this question, it seems to me, there are a couple of things to be said.
First, it is not only traditional theology that is exclusionary. Nearly any position is exclusionary, none more so than that liberalism that wants to extend its liberality to all comers but traditional Judeo-Christian values. Michael Polanyi (pictured right) writes in his book Meaning (pictured below): "Here the inconsistency of a liberalism based on philosophic doubt becomes apparent: freedom of thought is destroyed by the extension of doubt to the field of traditional ideals, which includes the basis for freedom of thought." (p.10) J.J. Rousseau himself, the philosopher who inspired the French Revolution and its cries of liberty, declared that anyone opposed to the "general will" must be "compelled to be free." Sort of like the liberality of Simone de Beauvoir's statement that women must not automatically be permitted the traditional choice of becoming mothers and homemakers, lest too many women make that choice!

Second, you ask, "What are the various church's positions on revelation, miracle, personal epiphany, etc.?" The Protestant denominations all branch out of Catholicism, though they stand at different distances from that trunk of tradition. Some sectarian groups that most Protestants would not even accept as being Christian, such as the Mormons, reject the traditional consensus of the Catholic tradition that God's public revelation given in the apostolic deposit of faith is a "closed book." That is, Mormons believe new books, like the Book of Mormon, can be added to the Bible as having equal authority to it. Most Protestants would agree with Catholic tradition in rejecting that view.

However, most Protestants would reduce God's revelation entirely to the written record of that revelation deposited in the Bible ("sola scriptura"), whereas Catholic tradition would not. Catholicism distinguishes (there we go, a distinction again!) between public and private revelation. Public revelation (which resides in Scripture and whatever else has been passed down and safeguarded by the Church as essential to faith and morals) is understood as concluded, a "closed book"; but private revelation is regarded as an ongoing phenomenon of the Christian experience. The Bible itself offers examples of private revelation -- for example, in the dream Joseph had, in which an angel of God warned him to take Jesus and his mother and flee to Egypt from the coming butchery of Herod Antipas. Private revelations might also include personal epiphanies, even a sense that God is leading him to think or do certain things. Is there any test to know that my private revelations, or those claimed by anyone, are not simply delusional? The Catholic assumption is that private revelations must conform to (may not contradict) what is found in public revelation. Hence, if I felt that I had a spiritual epiphany in which God was telling me to take up the trade of male prostitution, I could safely assume that I was delusional, since such behavior is clearly condemned in God's public revelation. But beyond that, the sky is the limit.

Personally, I very much resonate to your metaphorical description of baptism. In fact, I've shared with others a similar description of my experience of receiving the Holy Eucharist. Thomas Howard is also very good on these issues (as are many other Catholic writers). He has a substantial book entitled On Being Catholic (pictured left) that deals with these issues, as well as a much shorter but excellent book, also with a very unlikely title, called Evangelical Is Not Enough (pictured right). The mystics themselves are the best, of course, like the Carmelite mystics -- like St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul, or St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle (both pictured below) -- but they're quite demanding.

I think you're right about the use of the word "Christian" in two ways. First, I think a harshly judgmental attitude is contrary to the spirit of Christ. Second, I think that Christians today have often drifted so far from their historical confessional moorings that it becomes very difficult to put any limits on how a person understands the term. The second point, however, I see as posing a rather serious problem, at least from the point of view of a Catholic for whom there are clear limits to what beliefs and behaviors can and cannot count as conforming to Christ's teaching.