Tuesday, August 04, 2015

What do we have here?

Sometimes I think the particular post-modernity I inhabit comes after a specific modernity, both of which can be summarized in this way. Modernity asked the question, 

What does this mean?

Post-modernity asks, What is here?

Here's what I mean (see what I did there?). Quite a lot of the way we think about the world, at least those of us shaped by the trajectory of modernity, has to do with belief. Although as I have just said, this is on the way out, the echoes of the modern project are resonant among us, perhaps especially in the church. 

So we have, for example, creeds and confessions and statements of belief. My own upbringing in the faith included study of Luther's Small catechism, which famously begins each section with the question, "What does this mean?"

But Luther's catechism, in German, asks a much more basic question, not specific to epistemology or semantics. The question Luther asks is this: Was ist das? What is this/that?

This is a question of there-ness, that-ness, quiddity, thing-ness. Colloquially, after a portion of the creed or the Lord's Prayer or the 10 commandments is quoted, what Luther asks is basically, What do we have here?

Why does this matter? Well, for those who have fully made the shift to a post-modern mentality--and there are by all reckonings increasing numbers of them in Western society--it simply doesn't cut it anymore to assert what one believes dogmatically. Pure acceptance, assent to a set of propositions, if it ever was a "thing," is less and less a thing. 

Instead, what we have are growing numbers of us who are interested in the world, what presents itself to us, but we aren't interested in playing any kinds of propositional language games divorced from reality. Instead, we are quite a bit more interested in stating what actually gives itself to us, whatever is right around us.

There is good reason for Christians who like creeds and such to consider this shift. One good reason is its avoidance of the ditch modernity falls into of minding the god of the gaps. Pure articulations of belief detached from descriptions of what is, what is there, tend to restrict and contract over time. Belief in the modern era got down to the level where something as big as salvation could be assured through a statement of assent to a very narrow dogmatic assertion, such as: "I have accepted Christ as my personal savior." 

I have very little against a brief claim such as this spoken by individual believers. It's not a bad thing to say. But when assent to a specific and very narrow proposition takes on soteriological significance, we can be fairly sure the god of that particular gap has been squeezed into a rather small crevasse indeed, with the rest of the universe capaciously resonating around the expansive edge.

But if we make a shift from epistemological claims--this means...--to ways of speaking that open us up to examination of what is here, what is there, we end up with a very different way of speaking, one I find more consonant with how I understand Christian faith in post-modernity to operate.

First of all, it allows language to become generative. Consider this quote from Mario Livio, interviewed by Krista Tippett in On Being:
I mean, there is another aspect of it, which people found always fascinating, and I find fascinating, which is — you know, mathematicians — really pure mathematicians they like to do things with absolutely no application whatsoever in mind. You know they develop all kinds of mathematical theories and they don't think that this will ever have any application. Sometimes they are even proud of the fact that it has no applications. And yet, you know, decades or sometime centuries later, it is found that those mathematical theories provide precisely the explanations needed for some physical phenomena, you know, and so on. How, how is this possible?
It is my sense that most of us who are theologians, and so many Christians, tend to think of theological reflection, or faithful confession, more along the lines of Livio's understanding of the work of mathematicians. It isn't that we use language to get a solid grasp on what we believe. The early church didn't write the creeds in order to be able to say, "There, that settles it." Rather, the creeds have some kind of proleptic sense to them, they articulate, often in ways we can't see clearly now, things that come clear centuries or even millennia later. So that even today creeds written 2000 years ago have power not because they demand precise assent by those who confess them, but rather because they bring to light something new in the phenomena of faith in this living present of which even those who wrote the creeds were at that time unaware.

I also like to think that theologians of a variety of stripes invest quite a lot of time, like mathematicians, doing things with absolutely no application, simply because the play of such work is its own reward. It is its own kind of joy. It does not need to "drive results."

Livio also remarks, in the same interview:
Until 1998 we didn't know that this dark energy exists. And now, you know, we know it's the dominant form of energy of our universe [as much as 70%]. So whenever you think that you've reached some sort of a — that you cannot go beyond, OK, this is all that there is to know, and so on, somehow we discover that there is yet something even more mysterious that hides behind all of that.
In this sense, then, scientists and theologians share quite a lot more than we often assume, because both operate along these lines, that whenever you've reached some sort of a--that you cannot go beyond... somehow we discover that there is yet something even more mysterious that hides behind all of that. If God is the god of this particular gap, it is a rather large gap indeed, a gap that makes up a majority of what is. 

Recently, I was at a dissertation defense by a philosophy student. During the course of the defense, one of the readers and the student got into a kind of debate around the definition of idolatry. Basically, the professor thought idolatry had a somewhat narrow definition. It was the worship of false gods, like idols or the like. The student tended towards a more complex view of idolatry, one I share, which is that basically everything is idolatry that is not worship of the One God.

During the course of this discussion, it became clear that no one in the room had thought through as clearly as possible what exactly idolatry is. We needed a pause, a chance to ask, "What do we have here? What is this?"

I walked away from the defense considering my own definition of idolatry, one that has gained a certain level of complexity over the years precisely because my view of God has become more complex. I would say today that God is beyond God, God hides behind God, because most of the time our use of the word God, our assumptions of who God is, are themselves not yet who God really is. So they are ever and always idolatrous. I tend to think this is why many of the monotheistic faiths include warnings away from idolatry. So the Muslim prayer, "There is no god but God," or the Jewish-Christian, "You shall have no other gods before you..."

Easy enough to say. Fairly narrow if we are simply talking about propositional assent. But actually a complex enough assertion that it has required every living monotheistic faith centuries of reflection simply to clear away some of the cloudiness around what this actually means, and we haven't landed with anything like complete clarity.

In that same dissertation discussion, two self-professed non-Christians in the group asked the student really interesting questions. First, they asked, "What's so bad about creeds?" Second, they asked, "I'm not a Christian, but what do I need to do to become one?" To my mind, this indicated the extent to which, once we move beyond modernist assumptions about the function of creeds and beliefs, in a post-modern context, one option is to re-open questions and ways of proclaiming that seemed to have died in the drift away from modernism. It's as if old language games breathe new life.

That is just about the best way to describe how Luther's fundamental question works. Scientists, faculty, non-believers, believers, Christians, atheists, all ask, over and over, "Was ist das?" What is this? We share this question in common with the whole world. What is this right in front of our face.

And in the mutual discovery of this, it becomes necessary to share whatever we have at our disposal that might assist in answering such questions, even if those resources seem less than immediately applicable. For my money, for example, the doctrine of the Incarnation may have quite a lot more to offer us concerning dark matter than is currently discernible. It may take a few more centuries to line that out. In the meantime, I've got this theological game I'd like to play. Want to join?

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