About johncmcdowell

I am Professor of Theology and Director of Research at the University of Divinity, Melbourne, but hail originally from Larne in Northern Ireland, through extended stints in Aberdeen, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Newcastle NSW.

The Clash of the Last Man

The Clash of the Last Man.

According to Ulrich Beck:  “Where there is no escape, people ultimately no longer want to think about it.  This eschatological ecofatalism allows the pendulum of private and political moods to swing in any direction.”[1]  Beck’s claims announce a sense of entrapment which produces despair.  However, as Nicholas Lash recognises when pursuing reflections on the difficulty of meaningfully generating a critical hope, not all the voices of the late twentieth-century have been so despondent.[2]  For instance, with the te
aring down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the impending collapse of Soviet Communism and the Cold War, Francis Fukyama in “triumphalistic notes” confidently announced ‘the end of history’.[3]  By this he did not mean that the process of change that we experience as time had come to an end.  Rather, following the early C19th German philosopher Hegel, he was thinking about the ‘meaning’ of things or the meaning of ‘history’.  So he speaks of “history … as a single, coherent, evolutionary process”, and it is this which has come to its end, its fulfilment, its goal at least in ideological terms.[4]  According to Fukuyama, that goal is “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[5]  It is important to note that, for Fukuyama, “the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real world.  But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run”.[6]  Fukuyama’s thesis is that while stable liberal democracies do not yet exist worldwide, philosophically speaking, “liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe.”[7]  And so, unconstrained by Soviet Communism the future would be characterised by the universal admission and implementation of the superiority of liberal democratic politics and the global economy by regimes throughout the world.  “The next century, he insinuated, would be a time when individuals the world over would be at last free to cultivate, express, and develop themselves as individuals and to achieve the kind of recognition that authoritarian and totalitarian political structures since the beginnings of history had denied them. … [D]eadly conflict [was] at an end”.[8]

Yet not only did critics attack his optimism, but many argued that the types of liberal political and economic values he promoted would actually serve to undermine the project of seeking a just society.  For instance, many critics decried “the social injustices wrought by the relentless march of market economies and international corporate interests”.[9]  Others, like George Soros, argued that free-market ideology in fact ironically threatens political democracy:

By promoting market values into a governing principle, market fundamentalism has undermined our society.  Representative democracy presupposes moral values, such as honesty and integrity, particularly in our representatives.  When success takes precedence over integrity, and politics is dominated by money, the political process deteriorates.[10]

Crucially too, others maintain that procedural analyses fail to engage in the fundamental consideration of “the most basic moral convictions that should govern the development of public policies.”[11]  The skin-deepness of a polis without a substantive sense of ‘the good’ could be little more than a thin peaceableness of ever further fracturing cultures.

Possibly the most powerful counter-thesis to Fukyama’s vision came not very long afterward with the highly influential but equally controversial book entitled The Clash of Civilizations by American political scientist of Harvard University, Samuel Huntingdon.[1]  The titular phrase had been alarmistly coined by Bernard Lewis in 1957 in a prediction that by the end of the twentieth century Europe would be Islamic.  One significant matter that distinguishes Huntingdon’s book from Fukuyama’s is the fact that religion features substantially in the political analysis.  Reflecting the secularisation theorists, Fukuyama earlier claimed that “Religion has thus been relegated to the sphere of private life – exiled, it would seem, more or less permanently from European political life except on certain narrow issues like abortion”.[2]  This analysis, even at the time, was somewhat odd given the connections between neo-nationalisms and ethnic religiosities, the two decades of Christian political influence in the United States, and of the burgeoning fervour of the Islamic regime in Iran.  The fact that Fukuyama specifically mentions the (western) European scene may mitigate the weakness, for as Carl Raschke observes, “Christianity as a motivating cultural force in Western civilization, mainly in Europe but also to a surprising degree in the United States, is largely spent.”[3]  Likewise, Charles Taylor recognises that “the countries of western Europe have mainly become secular – even those who retain the vestigial public reference to God in public space.”[4]

The reappearance of the religious in Huntingdon’s reflections, however, is nonetheless troubling.  He describes an impending clash of global value systems between the West and the Middle East anchored in conflicting religious belief structures, particularly where Western versions are politically domesticated products of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 whose polis is nationally governed in a way that conflicts with Islamic theopolitics.  According to Raschke, “What was at stake was no longer [as with Fukuyama] economic prosperity but ultimate truth anchored in the claims of faith.”[5]  Of course, what he has assumed is that there is something of a singular Islam that receives and contests modernity, and Western modernity at that, in a uniform way; and equally he problematically assumes that there is a single West, united behind a single understanding of truth, meaning and purpose.  Even the United States is politically fractured with regard to the determinative identifying political myth of American exceptionalism.  As Edward Said acknowledges, “Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolithic.”[6]

Over the past decade Huntingdon’s book has generated further friction and tensions with Islam in the West, suspicions that continue not to be deeply unwelcoming of the Muslim in the West:  according to Huntingdon in generalising “reductive and brutal” mood,[7] “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism.  It is Islam.”[8]  This kind of claim strengthens the hand of those secularising forces that now intensify their attempts to keep religious traditions out of the public setting – whether that be the publics of politics, economics, or education.  So John Rawls, for example, argues that “religious, philosophical, and moral convictions … are part of what we call ‘non-public identity,’ matters that citizens may deal with in their ‘personal affairs.’”[9]  Of course, that refusal of religions to have public voices is complicated by the fact that many Western politicians, and not only in the United States, appeal to religious traditions come time for electioneering or at moments of national stress, such as the outpouring of grief over Lady Diana’s death.  As Lash observes, “Notwithstanding the best efforts of d’Hollbach or Feuerbach, however, people have not ceased to ‘believe in God’.  But belief has never been so dangerously ambivalent.  Each US dollar bill still bears the message ‘In God we trust’”.[10]  Equally, more self-reflective consideration of the nature of ‘civil religion’ is required, of the national disciplining of desire which performs an ontological function beyond the pragmatics of a realpolitik.  Moreover, there remain notable pressures to continue to maintain a particular kind of religious presence, largely a conservative Evangelical Christian one, in the ‘secular’ public education-system in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales.  The Special Religious Education, or SRE for short, and the Chaplaincy programme both continue to have some prominent and powerful political supporters.

[1] Samuel P. Huntingdon, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[2] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 271.  A good definition of is usually meant here by the term ‘secularisation’ is provided by sociologist of religion Peter Berger:  “for most purposes it can be defined quite simply as a process in which religion diminishes in importance both in society and in the consciousness of individuals. … Put simply, the idea has been that the relation between modernity and religion is inverse – the more of the former, the less of the latter….” [Peter L. Berger, ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’, in Linda Woodhead, et al. (eds.), Religions in the Modern World (London & New York:  Routledge, 2002), 291-8 (291)]  According to Tasal Asad, secularism demands a distinction between private reason and public principle, with the locating of the ‘religious’ in the category of the private [Formations of the Secular:  Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003), 8].

[3] Raschke, 24.

[4] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass., and London:  The Belknap Press, 2007), 2.

[5] Raschke, 16.

[6] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London:  Chatto & Windus, 1993), xxix.

[7] Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship:  Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2009), 143.

[8] Huntingdon, 217.

[9] John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness:  Political Not Metaphysical’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 14.3 (1985), 241.

[10] Nicholas Lash, Theology for Pilgrims (London:  DLT, 2008), 40.

[1] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society:  Towards a New Modernity (London, 1992), 37.

[2] Nicholas Lash, ‘Beyond the End of History?’, Concilium 5 (1994), 47-56.

[3] See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (London:  Hamish Hamilton, 1989); ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest (Summer 1989), 3-18, available at www.cla.wayne.edu/polisci/krause/Comparative/SOURCES/fukuyama.htm, consulted 05-01-01; and ‘The End of History:  By Way of an Introduction’ (1992), www.csf.colorado.edu/mirrors/ma…t/philosophy/works/us/fukuyama.htm, consulted 05-01-01.  Citation from Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship:  Becoming Postmaterialistic Citizens (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2009), 59.

[4] Fukuyama, ‘The End of History:  By Way of an Introduction’.

[5] Francis Fukuyma, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest (Summer 1989), 3-18, available at www.cla.wayne.edu/polisci/krause/Comparative/SOURCES/fukuyama.htm, consulted 05-01-01.

[6] Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’.

[7] Fukuyama, ‘The End of History:  By Way of an Introduction’, xiii.  On the one hand Fukuyama wants to use empirical affairs by way of justifying his thesis.  So, he claims, there has been a “move toward political freedom around the globe” which would have been everywhere accompanied, “sometimes followed, sometimes preceded” by “a liberal revolution in economic thought.”  On the other hand, the “good news” remains at the level of  regulating ideal that cannot be measured against any historical or empirical sets of affairs, a trans-historical ideal.  Derrida complains, “Depending on how it works to his advantage and serves his thesis, Fukuyama defines liberal democracy here as an actual reality and there as a simple ideal. … Even as we take seriously the idea that a heralding sign or a pomise constitutes an irreducible event, we must nevertheless guard against confusing these two types of event.  A thinking of the event is no doubt what is most lacking from such a discourse.” [Derrida, 1994, 62f.]

[8] Carl Raschke, Globochrist:  The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2008), 15f.

[9] Raschke, 17.

[10] George Soros, cited in Marc Breslow, ‘George Soros:  Beware Market Fundamentalism’ (1999),

www.dollarsandsense.org/1999/221breslow.html, consulted 05-01-01.  “I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society.  The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat” [Soros, ‘The Capitalist Threat’, Atlantic Monthly 279.2 (February 1997), 45-58,

www.theatlantic.com/issues/97feb/capital/capital.htm, consulted 05-01-01].

[11] Ronald F. Thiemann, Religion in Public Life:  A Dilemma for Democracy (Washington, D.C.:  Georgetown University Press, 1996), 11.

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A Bonhoeffer to Wean Us off Our Superstitions

A Bonhoeffer to Wean Us off Our Superstitions.

Much commentary on Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been focused on “religionless Christianity”, a claim made in the always enigmatic and usually allusive late Letters and Papers from Prison.  Such claims tend to give comfort to those who have moved post-institutionally in their Christianity, or who pay attention to Christianity only from the perspective of being spiritually-minded ‘seekers’.  In this regard, Bonhoeffer’s claims might appear timely and provocative, a challenge to churches to move with the spirit of the times.  In many ways I want to deflate this understanding, or at least the ease of this use of his work, one that has largely been the product of the reception of J.A.T. Robinson’s populist Honest to God.  By giving Bonhoeffer back his bite to a Christian environment slipping more and more into trite and sentimental forms of spirituality might mean making him appear somewhat less attractive initially, but such for Bonhoeffer would be the cost of identifying one’s way as a disciple.  The claim is that his theology performs an interrogation of personhood, providing a challenge that is ontologically deep, with the effect of forming an ethic of persons-in-relation – in relation to God in Christ, our Neighbour.  Bonhoeffer’s primary value, then, may well lie not in his consoling words so much as in his dislocating of us from modes of constructing personhood that are namable as idolatrous.  This is to locate Bonhoeffer, even at the end, very much in terms of the costliness of witnessing to the Gospel of the crucified Saviour.  In other words, to use a phrase from Matthew Boulton, the healthy theological consideration of Bonhoeffer can function as part of “a kind of spiritual detoxification process”, weaning us off our delusions of grandeur which effect unjust abuses of others, or off the quietistic forms of endurance of highly contingent suffering and pathological dependencies, and off our habituations to “fear, guilt, [and] selfish ambition”.[1]

[1] Matthew Boulton, God Against Religion, x.

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Teachers as Cultural Workers: Therapy for Death-Dealing Neurosis (Grace Jantzen)

Picture Credit:  Gary Shennan

 

Teachers as Cultural Workers:  Therapy for Death-Dealing Neurosis (Grace Jantzen).

It is easy for the hubristic ego of the academic to imagine that what she is doing is vital to the flourishing of life, in some form or another.  The products of universities’ self-marketing are frequently pervaded by grand claims for the significance of what researchers are doing, even with the aim of attempting to outdo their ‘rivals’ as if they are football teams in a winner-takes-all competition, or scrapping for the scarcest of resources in order to continue to live.  The business of enquiry in order to understand and co-operatively promote ‘knowledge’ for the sake of human (rather than simply personal or institutional) flourishing is arguably no longer what much academic work is concerned with.  However, some years ago in a seminar in Cambridge’s Divinity Faculty George Steiner termed the commentator a “parasite”.  This was a claim that had been given expression some years before in a paper entitled ‘Humane Literacy’.  “The critic”, he claimed there, “lives at second-hand.  He writes about. … [Consequently,] criticism exists by the grace of other men’s genius.”[i]

Another image is useful to depict what is occurring in the intellectual labors of critical reflection, one that emerges from comments made by Edward Said, is that of being politically engaged in the borderlands of disciplinary discourses.  With government pressure exerted on (the now ‘corporate’) universities in the form of competition for funds from research data-collection exercises (especially in Australia where the quantity of each academic’s output to be measured in the exercise is not capped) the scholar is reduced to the mechanized system of ‘battery research output’, mass research production for research’s sake.  Steiner’s claim about “the retreat from the word” as involving “a brutalization and devaluation of the word in the mass-cultures and mass-politics of the age” is one that intensively resonates in the academic performance of contemporaneity.[ii]  Academia fiddles with pure peer-to-peer research while Rome burns around it.  Said, for instance, identifies a politically conservative turn in Western academia.  “I think that’s a transformation of the landscape as such now that the American left seems to have taken the easy alternative and has become largely academic and largely divorced from the world of intervention and the public realm, with a few exceptions.”[iii]  So, writing in the 1960s with the death knell of the Shoah still ringing in Europe’s ears, Steiner reminds his readers of the fact that all criticism comes “after, and that is the nerve of our condition” in the aftermath of “the unprecedented ruin of humane values and hopes by the political bestiality of our age.”[iv]  What this means, he continues, is that “We cannot act now, be it as critics or merely as rational beings, as if nothing of vital relevance had happened to our sense of the human possibility, as if the extermination by hunger or violence of some seventy million men, women and children in Europe and Russia between 1914 and 1945 had not altered, profoundly, the quality of our awareness.”  Some within the academy continue to long for the positive political significance of their labors, and that is precisely what Said attempts to undertake in his own work in the borderlands when exposing the politically determinative ideological operations of ‘orientalism’.  Such an endeavor, of course, demands that critical purchase be made on academic attempts to police the borders between disciplines.  So Said claims,

the literary-cultural establishment as a whole has declared the serious study of imperialism and culture off-limits.  For Orientalism brings one directly against that question – that is, realizing that political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination, and scholarly institutions – in such a way as to make its avoidance an intellectual and historical impossibility.  Yet there will always remain the perennial escape mechanism of saying that a literary scholar and a philosopher, for example, are trained in literature and philosophy respectively, not in politics or ideological analysis.  In other words, the specialist argument can work quite effectively to bock the larger and, in my opinion, the more intellectually serious perspective.[v]

This passage weaves a rich tapestry of suggestion and possibility, all the more important for the fact that this writer challenges the exclusion of certain potentially disruptive voices in the conversation.  “Orientalism”, he maintains, is a discourse freighted with unacknowledged assumptions, assumptions that are culturally specific (belonging to the descriptions made by the western European imperial powers of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century), that are imperialist (imposing a descriptive vision upon others, albeit in the main it is countenanced by the latter rather than violently imposed upon them, a program of ideological pacification that largely accounts for its durability), that derive from and subsequently enhance a positional privileging (the European imperial powers “civilize” what they regard as “primitive” or under-developed regions),[vi] that are naturalized and therefore exist in a state of denial with regard to the constructed nature of these assumptions that reinforce compartmentalization and therefore resist possibilities of genuine cultural and social exchange, and that are practically determinative (creative of certain possibilities for the shape of policy-making).[vii]  This is a fruitful ideology in the sense that not only does it produce new sets of possibilities for acting, but it also reinforces itself by producing an exclusive way for thinking.  So Said declares that “Orientalism’s power and effectiveness … everywhere remind the reader that henceforth in order to get at the Orient he must pass through the learned grids and codes provided by the Orientalist.”[viii]  Furthermore, defining the good and its flourishing for the subjugated culture lies not in its own hands.  The subjugated lose their self-descriptive voice and their ability to resist and correct the identifying system of judgment imposed upon them.

The colonial scheme is hereby founded on, and sustained by, a pronounced anthropological duality of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, of a ‘self’ and an ‘other’.  This paternalistic perspective on colonial presence and action is displayed, for example, in Arthur James Balfour’s House of Commons’ speech of 13th June 1910 in which he announces that the Egyptian ‘them’ “have got it far better” under the British imperial government “than in the whole history of the world they ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilized West.  We”, he continues, “are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.”[ix]  ‘Our’ rule, this expression of colonial ideology assumes, is for ‘their’ betterment.  Balfour speaks glowingly, then, “of all the loss of which we have relieved the population and … all the benefits which we have given to them”, and of Britain as exporting “our very best to these countries.”  While far from seeking to create possibilities of exoneration for those involved “with this rather sordid experience of imperialism”, what this nevertheless amounts to is for Said an indication of modern European imperialism that cannot simply be demonized through a “politics of blame”, a response which equally trades on an (colonial) ‘other’.[x]  There is both the complicity of the subjugated in the imperialistic ideology, the occasional good intentions of the imperialists, and the imperial succumbing to a whole set of ideological assumptions.  There is a very real sense, then, in which this form of imperialism not only insidiously affects and ‘creates’ those who are subjugated by it, but also manufactures the very people who serve it.  In other words, while this ideology in some senses have a certain broad coherence with features of the world it purports to describe, it says significantly more about the world-views of its advocates.  The world of the ‘Orient’ itself is largely rendered mute and thereby unable to resist or surprise the projects, images or mere descriptions devised for it.

Developing such a critical perspective on all this is a feat made possible by serious attention to particularity – to the particularity of those described by this discourse of Orientalism and those who do the describing.  In particular, Said attempts to open up time for listening to a multiplicity of previously silenced voices, voices drowned out by the controlling master-narrative.  This movement of giving a certain sight to those “blind to other histories” in itself, then, becomes a form of resistance.[xi]  Resisting the discursive hegemony becomes, it should be added, a morally significant matter that is shaped by the construction of alternative visions or ways of telling the story that more comprehensively incorporate and retain the distinctiveness of these voices.  Incorporating these voices into the dominating master-narrative is an analysis characterized by a certain exteriority to what it describes.  This means that the subverting morality of witness involves a responsibility to open up the conversation in a way that resists the hegemony of monologue.  And it does this not for its own sake, as if suspicion is to give way to cynicism, but for the sake of better integration.[xii]

Moreover, as the first lengthy citation above declares, subverting this hegemony imposed and adopted is a task broader than what is made possible in the agencies of politically-trained ideology-analysts.  It is of a piece with the responsibility to tell well the stories of our lives and those of others who claim to representationally speak in our place, that the contemporary proliferation of specialisms cannot release the so-called amateur from responsibility to probe, interrogate and imagine matters differently.  This claim can be broken down into the following two broad claims:  in the first place, the matter is much too ethically important to be left to specialists, and thus cannot properly be dealt with at the rather thin and distorting hermetic level of the ‘history of ideas’;[xiii] and in the second place, even those identified as specialists are not free from the formative operation of special ‘interests’.  It is worth quoting Said again at some length on this:

[T]he determining impingement on most knowledge produced in the contemporary United States … is that it be nonpolitical, that is, scholarly, academic, impartial, above partisan or small-minded doctrinal belief.  One can have no quarrel with such an ambition in theory, perhaps, but in practice the reality is much more problematic.  No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society.  These continue to bear on what he does professionally, even though naturally enough his research and his fruits do attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from the inhibitions and the restrictions of brute, everyday reality.  For there is no such a thing as knowledge that is less, rather than more, partial than the individual (with his entangling and distracting life circumstances) who produces it.  Yet this knowledge is not therefore automatically nonpolitical. … What I am interested in doing now is suggesting how the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not ‘true’ knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. … For if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality:  that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.  And to be a European or American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact.  It meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer.[xiv]

A potentially useful image in this connection is that of “teachers as cultural workers”, a claim made by critical educationalist Paolo Freire in his work on identifying and transforming pedagogies that undemocratically oppress and dehumanize as a result of the vested power “interests of the oppressors”.[xv]  If Freire has been able to successfully make and sustain a case for the role of teachers in the process of transformative learning, a quite significant way of construing cultural analysis and criticism becomes necessary, as Grace Jantzen argues.  She characterizes “the west as [being caught] in the grip of a cultural neurosis of which its death-dealing structures are symptoms”, and this entails, “then [that] the task of the intellectual can be likened to that of a therapist who seeks by patient listening to bring the repressed dimensions of history to the fore and to release the springs of wellbeing.”[xvi]  This therapy involves considerably more than argument.  So Jantzen recognizes that one can treat the troubles of the contemporary West “as an obsession or psychic disorder of the social realm, then it will not be changed by arguing against it.”[xvii]  The problems, depicted as neuroses, are far too deeply learned and conditioning for that to be the case.  “Appeals to rationality will not bring about the desired change, any more than it would help to tell a person in the grip of a neurosis what it is that they are repressing.  Such strategies only bring out stronger resistance, ever more clever rationalizations, deeper anger and control.”  In contrast, she maintains, bringing “about human flourishing … requires substantial change in material as well as discursive conditions, changes in behaviour as well as in thought.”[xviii]  However, lest the cultural commentator despair at the magnitude of the task of criticism and properly transformative repair, Jantzen indicates the need for “patient investigation and analysis” over the shape and content of the beliefs that form or enculturate our sensibilities and that thereafter regulative our imaginations and practical judgments.[xix]

[W]hat we can learn from the therapeutic model is that to the extent that the problems of post/modernity are consequences of acting upon a destructive cultural symbolic, strategies and policies to change behaviour are unlikely to be effective unless the underlying patterns of thought are changed.  Moreover for this to happen it is necessary to bring those patterns, the cultural symbolic, to consciousness, and this, in therapy, means probing its sources and history.  Once the contours of the symbolic become clearer it becomes easier to see what is involved in its transformation and why it is necessary to go through the massive process of tracing its past in order to redeem the present.[xx]

The cultural symbolic of Western societies and the options for social order that are made possible as a consequence require observation, analysis, and critique.  The aim is not to simply ‘understand’, as if knowledge is separate from hope and planning, or in order to achieve some nebulous ‘cultural/media literacy’.  After all, as Stanley Aronowitz argues, “without agency there can be no history except an automatic kind”.[xxi]  The key to practices of transformative pedagogy is to resist the loss of agency, and therefore the reduction of hope.  In that way, academic reflection and critical thought has to serve human flourishing and not become a self-referential substitute for socio-political engagement for constructive change.

In an important scene in The Matrix Morpheus reveals that Thomas (‘Neo’) Anderson has sensed that there is something wrong with the world.  It is this feeling that results in Neo’s choosing to ‘wake up’ rather than to slumber in the reality created for him, it is soon revealed to him, by “the machines”.  According to Jantzen, “There can be little doubt that the world is in sore need of redemption.”[xxii]  Of course, even to make such a claim is to already position oneself, to have a perspective, and it is important not to be naïve about the legitimacy of such soteriological claims lest they too become discursive impositions of one’s perspective.  The flow of the narratives in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix series reveal the naïveté at work in Morpheus’ particular and distinctly limited vision of things.  After all, according to Said, “modern empire requires, as Conrad said, an idea of service, an idea of sacrifice, an idea of redemption.  Out of this you get these great, massively reinforced notions of, for example, in the case of France, the ‘Mission civilisatrice.’  That we’re not there to benefit ourselves, we’re there for the sake of the natives.”[xxiii]

[i] George Steiner, Language and Silence:  Essays 1958-1967 (Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books, 1967), 21.

[ii] Steiner, 31, 67.

[iii] Edward W. Said, The Pen and the Sword:  Conversations with David Barsamian (Edinburgh:  AK Press, 1994), 168.

[iv] Steiner, 22.

[v] Edward W. Said, Orientalism:  Western Conceptions of the Orient (London:  Penguin Books, 1978), 13f.

[vi] “Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources.  Why?  Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.  No better instance exists today of what Anwar Abdel Malek calls ‘the hegemonism of possessing minorities’ and anthropocentrism allied with Eurocentrism:  a white middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition ‘it’ is not quite as human as ‘we’ are.  There is no purer example than this of dehumanized thought.” [Said, Orientalism, 108]

[vii] “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism” [Said, Orientalism, 39].  This entails, for Said, that Orientalism is not a system of lies or fantasy, and certainly not a simple description of states of affairs about the Orient, but a systemically operating created “body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.” [Said, Orientalism,  6]  “[T]he imaginative examination of things Oriental was based more or less exclusively upon a sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world emerged, first according to general ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to general detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections.” [Said, Orientalism, 8]

[viii] Said, Orientalism, 67.

[ix] Said, Orientalism, 33.

[x] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York:  Vintage Books, 1993), 70.

[xi] Citation from Said, Culture and Imperialism, xix.  This text gives more room to the various resistance counter-movements.

[xii] Said, Culture and Imperialism, xxx.

[xiii] Said, Orientalism, 23:  “Without those emphases and that material effectiveness Orientalism would be just another idea, whereas it is and was much more than that.”

[xiv] Said, Orientalism, 10f.

[xv] Citation from the title of Paolo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers:  Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, trans. Donaldo Macedo, Dale Koike, and Alexandre Oliveira (Boulder:  Westview Press, 2005); Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York:  Continuum, 1990), 39.

[xvi] Grace M. Jantzen, Foundations of Violence:  Death and the Displacement of Beauty (London and New York:  Routledge, 2004), 4.

[xvii] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19.

[xviii] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19.

[xix] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19.

[xx] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19f.

[xxi] Stanley Aronowitz, The Politics of Identity:  Class, Culture, Social Movements (New York:  Routledge, 1992), 11.

[xxii] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 3.

[xxiii] Said, The Pen and the Sword, 66.

Lest We Forget: A Heterology of Remembering

 

Lest We Forget:  A Heterology of Remembering

One of several claims often made for the ongoing ‘humanitarian’ importance of historical study is that with an understanding of the past its mistakes can be avoided in
the present.  The brilliant philosopher Edith Wyschogrod develops the image of “the heterological historian” in order to understand the moral value of good remembering.  This was largely in contrast to the types of dehistoricised subjectivities that certain forms of the post-Cartesian subject was prone towards, and why they become particularly destablised by the Holocaust demand of the brutally silenced ‘other’.  Of course, there remain crucial questions as to what remembering involves, whose remembering it is, what kinds of pressures are on the recall, and of hermeneutical questions as to what its contemporary ‘value’ might be and how it be decided.

 

Observing the seemingly rather sudden growth of religious and political fractures around the Western world, the demise of possibilities for democratic conversation, and the anxieties that they feed on, heterological historians have a particularly urgent moral task lying before them.  And yet ironically this comes precisely at a time when the Humanities and their value are hemmed in by the pressures of an aggressively competitive marketplace, and the privileging of an arguably ontologically vacuous positivistic imagination.

My brief blog will end with a citation from the once senior Nazi official Hermann Göring, suggesting that we seem to be failing to learn well from our mistakes.  His claims will resonate in the minds of many given the policies so well fictionalised in George Orwell’s chilling 1984:

“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, … [v]oice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

A Question About T.F. Torrance’s Reading of Thomas’ Aristotelian Divine ‘Inertia’

A Question About T.F. Torrance’s Reading of Thomas’ Aristotelian Divine ‘Inertia’ :

My attention has recently been helpfully drawn to the following set of claims by T.F. Torrance:

“Now let us consider the other concept mentioned above, that of inertia. It is not difficult to trace its source either, in late Patristic and medieval theology — not to mention Neoplatonic and Arabian thought — particularly as the doctrine of the immutability and impassibility of God became tied up with the Aristotelian notion of the unmoved mover or acentre of absolute rest which was resurrected and powerfully integrated with Latin scholastic philosophy, science, and theology. In theology itself, it induced a deistic disjunction between God and the world, which scholastic thought tried to modify through bringing into play all four Aristotelian causes, the ‘final’ and ‘formal’ along with the ‘material’ and ‘efficient’ causes. The effect of this, however, was not to overcome the dualist modes of thought inherited from St. Augustine, the Magister Theologiae, but actually to harden the dualism by throwing it into a causal structure. This was particularl
y apparent in the conception of sacraments as “causing grace”, which was further aggravated (as in the doctrine of “real presence”) by the acceptance of Aristotle’s definition of place as “the immobile limit of the containing body”. In mediaeval science, on the other hand, the conception of a causal system ultimately grounded in and determined by a centre of absolute rest had the effect of obstructing attempts to develop emperical interpretations of nature for it denigrated contingentia as irrational.” [Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Frame of Mind, 24-5]

There is much going on here and at stake, but there is one element in particular that I would like to pick up on since it resonates with Torrance’s critical project, and of the integrity of the ecumenical conversations he hoped to make possible (such as those ecumenically relevant engagements in the collection Theology in Reconciliation).

Arguably TFT did not approach reading the late patristic and the medieval traditions in a properly careful way in his attempt to historically pin down his account of metaphysical ‘dualism’.  His comments on Augustine and Thomas here may well be a good example of that misconstrual. Let us take Thomas’ use of ‘unmoved mover’. He is not advocating divine inertia, as TFT claims. Far from it since for him God is actus purus, and as Nicholas Lash once commented on this Thomas, ‘a verb’, a doing. The concept is developed particularly in order to pick up on Aristotle, but also to subject him to something of a Christian reconstruction. In other words, the concept functions differently in Thomas’ hands. The ‘unmoved’ is a reference to the cosmic, i.e., that no-thing can move God since God who God is, and that does not make God prone to the caprices and manipulations of creatures. But God moves, moves all things in fact (and it would be important to be careful here, since this is not an advocacy of the kinds of determinism that modernity’s flattening of ‘causality’ would have it be), and is mover of God’s own life. That enables Thomas to articulate God Augustinianly as pure Gift, Self-Giver… Quite a different account from the one the likes of TFT and Colin Gunton, among others (including certain neo-Thomists who were largely those TFT was reacting against), would provide of him.

Dead Dogs, Darwin, and the Design of the Divine

PAPER =  Dead Dogs Darwin & Divine Action and available at academia.edu

In his theological prolegomena to his massive magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth makes the following claim:

God may speak to us through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog.  We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so. … God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and in that way give us to understand that the boundary between the Church and the profane world still and repeatedly takes a course quite different from that which we hitherto thought we saw [CD, I.1, 60f.].

My contention is that the work of Charles Darwin may well prove in certain respects to be something of an ambiguous extra ecclesial ‘word’ that may fruitfully aid recovery of theology’s proper subject matter, but only through critical reflection identify many of the muddles we have fallen into.  Thus the task is not to ask first and foremost ‘what would a theological account look like if Darwin is taken seriously?’  That would theologically be an improper start, an example of which can be found in a claim made by Arthur Peacocke to the effect that ‘The aim of … [his] work is to rethink our ‘religious’ conceptualizations in the light of the perspective on the world afforded by the sciences.’[i]  Rather, the question is this:  can Darwin’s account help the theological reading of the scriptures?  The distinction is crucial:  theology as Wissenschaft (or critical study) does not follow the winds of scientific fashion, but seeks to provide an account of the matter appropriate to it.  That it does follow fashion unself-consciously is testimony not to good theological order but to a certain unnaturalness or disorder, a cultural captivity that results in rational domestication and thus distortion.  Yet in order to reason well about its subject-matter theology is to be attentive, firstly, to the enculturation of its students, and, secondly, to the vast range of possible overlaps with ‘other’ ways of attempting to tell the truth of things.[ii]  Thus theology does not engage with science in order to prevent it from operating in “a cultural ghetto” as Peacocke claims, but rather because ‘all truth is God’s’.  And critically observing these moments of correlation do not emerge from ‘compromises’ as young-earth creationists John Whitcomb and Henry Morris had earlier accused Bernard Ramm of doing when speaking positively of Darwin.[iii]  This, for someone like Barth, then, is not theology’s securing its voice but rather developing its properly fragile witness to the grace of God.

ENDNOTES

[i] Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1993), 3.  Cf. Peacocke, ‘Biological Evolution and Christian Theology – Yesterday and Today’, in John Durant (ed.), Darwinism and Divinity:  Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 101-130 (p. 102).

[ii] Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, pp. 6f.

[iii] John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Creation Flood (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1961).

C Darwin.jpg

Visions of Violence in Star Wars

Since I’ve been updating my page with some of my theological papers it’s about time I added something on my work on popular culture, particularly Star Wars.  This is the pre-edited and pre-published version of ‘”Wars Not Make One Great”:  Redeeming the Star Wars Mythos from Redemptive Violence’ , a paper that appeared in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 22.1 (2010).  My thinking on the matter has developed and moved on a little since then, and my take on The Force Awakens suggests that there is a quite different political ideology operating there from the work of George Lucas.  star-wars.jpeg

“Recently George Lucas’ approved animation series, Clone Wars, has rekindled the imaginations of the youngest generation to immerse itself in not merely the excitement of the Lucas-inspired visual materials, the Star Wars saga, but also in the expensive consumption of a wide-range of merchandise. Aggressive lightsaber battles can again be seen taking place on the streets, and consequently concerns about the relation of this saga and violence are worth raising once more. This paper assumes that the pop philosophy of these particular movies possesses certain kinds of resources to be a multi-volume set of publicly ethical texts. Primarily it tackles populist approaches to issues of the cultural relation between this (largely American) saga and questions of violence, in particular attending to Star Wars'” possible performance of the so-called “myth of redemptive violence.” The contention is that the presentation of violence in the sets of narratives is not a simple one since this multi-part cultural artefact offers several forms of it. These range from something akin to a “holy violence,” through more a sense of “just war,” to an ethical philosophy approaching a full-blown redemptive “non-violence.” In fact, there may well be in the performance of the last theme vital potential for even subverting the very “myth of redemptive violence” itself and likewise its discourse of “a good war.” This paper’s reading aims to provoke not an indecision over meaning but rather an “undecision” over the grain of the most commonly heard connection of Star Wars with a mythically violent ethos, and this is done largely in order to open up a liberative reading of the saga.”

Available here at academia.edu