Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Christianity in a Postmodern Empire: Rival, Ally or Coping Mechanism?


This is a draft of my initial contribution to a dialogue between N. T. Wright and myself held in Melbourne on March 24th. The full event was recorded for ABC radio’s Encounter. The Bishop spoke first; +Tom’s own thoughts may of course be a part an eventual radio presentation, but for the meantime interested readers will find some similar points in a talk given last year and transcribed here.[Update 21 June 2007: ABC Radio National will broadcast an edited version this coming Sunday. See this link].

Putting Tom Wright and Andrew McGowan together may well seem the ultimate in postmodern relativism, but it is good to be here. I found much to agree with in Bishop Tom’s comments, but perhaps in looking for a few things to disagree about I may invoke that principle, that to be really orthodox it is necessary to preach one heresy one week and the opposite one the next.

In this spirit I would like to say one or two things in apparent, if not profound, disagreement with Bishop Tom, about the relationship between Christianity and postmodernism the movement or tendency, and postmodernity the broader social and economic and intellectual reality. To the extent that postmodernity seems to involve a mere collapse into relativism, I of course would agree with Bishop Tom that a cacophony of conflicting voices and agendas does further the agenda of the global "empire" – when truth may seem unobtainable, people may shrug and move along, rather than work to find and do the truth – and the Church must speak differently.

Yet if that sort of relativism is common in our postmodern world, or in the West, that is not really postmodern-ism. And whether the different way the Church must speak is ‘rivalry’ however, I doubt; and I will return to this. And while I think one could make an intelligent case for any of the three alternatives (rival, ally, coping mechanism) that today’s topic offers for constructing the relationship between Christianity and postmodernity, I want to focus on the notion of postmodern and the Christian as allies, both for good and ill.

I actually take the central themes of postmodernism, while notoriously elusive, to include suspicion of absolute truth claims, and the consequent suggestion that the meaning of speech, language, discourse, or a story, is not separable from the speaker and the hearer and their interaction. Meaning is thus not completely stable; it depends on context. We don’t just learn new things about Paul's letters from N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar, because he a better scholar than Calvin or Aquinas or Augustine; the circumstances are different and we see different things in the encounter with the text. But this is not the same as relativism, in which any one voice or opinion or reading is as good as another. Rather, postmodernism tends to ask who is speaking, who has power in a given situation, and what interests are being served by what is said.

Although Christians will continue to narrate a story that claims to explain all other stories, the suspicion that postmodernism displays towards all attempts to create a grand theory is arguably a useful ally. For one thing there is a certain affinity between the postmodern suspicion of absolute truth claims and the many and varied ways in which Christian theology insists on the provisional character of truth claims, from the polemic against idolatry to the theology of the cross – not least as presented in the stark and confronting terms of Mark’s Gospel which those of us who use the discipline of the Lectionary are reading this year. Systems and structures that claim completeness, order and comprehensiveness, including and perhaps especially ecclesiastical ones, are to be viewed with suspicion. Although we may ask how effective such an incoherent set of suspicions may be in our circumstances, I think we cannot dismiss them. This is just one way in which postmodernism may inform and challenge and refine a Christian theology that takes its origins in the cross seriously, as Bishop Tom seeks to do, and confronts the "empire", not merely as a competing ideology, a rival, but as something perhaps altogether different.

But I do not think that the Church has quite earned the right to play the prophet to a postmodern empire, even if it has an inescapable responsibility to do so. Here I am not referring merely to the paradoxical need to say that the Church, like its members, is simultaneously sinner and sanctified; I mean specifically that the discourses and practices of power that characterize contemporary Christianity might be said to pay little more than lip service to any alternative configuration of power presented in the cross.

So I think we must take both what you yourself say Tom, and what postmodernism suggests, seriously enough to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Church and its practices relative to that empire, both in its subtle cultural manifestations and in its more blunt political forms. We can’t simply say that the claim of the Church to have a story that explains and relativizes all others makes us exempt from a searching examination of our uses of power.

In suggesting such a critique I am not speaking primarily of the Christianity of cathedrals and choirs, which, with all due respect to its practitioners and advocates (of whom I am one at least part of the time), is rapidly passing into the place of interesting cultural undercurrent or quirky counter-cultural nostalgia.

The Christianity or Christianities which are emerging in the postmodern reality are often very true to the nature of the empire, however much it suits them to denounce some aspects of it. (I leave, reluctantly, to one side the indications of the emergence of a real and powerful religious right in Australia which are now, I think, unmistakeable.) Postmodernity – meaning here the set of social and political realities of our time rather than the self-conscious intellectual movements or tendencies of postmodernism - is market-driven and consumer-oriented, more so than previous versions of capitalism; and we are seeing, almost inevitably, Christianities that provide for the pre-existing and preconceived demands of prospective consumers, rather than seeking to form members in a common set of practices as the ancient Church did.

The very diversity of these Christianities may in some ways be their saving grace, for they are so different that they cannot all be making the same mistakes. So “fresh expressions of Church” as they are being called, are characteristically post-modern; and while they are producing creative and authentic worship and service and witness, they are also producing self-serving and crass forms of life, of necessity: for the existing needs of the spiritual consumer are paramount here.

It is interesting to note that in Australian Anglicanism this very fluid and consumer-focussed approach is often linked to a strident dogmatic Calvinism that maintains very “modern” sensibilities about truth; the Bible is absolute, although of course interpreted in a very specific and sometimes quite idiosyncratic way, and this defensive Biblicism is linked to a startling indifference to the concrete elements of ritual and other practice – apart from a form of conservative morality – that characterize the historic Christian community. One might even claim that the most dynamic and successful Churches are often taking the cross – and even Tom Wright’s powerful paradoxical articulation of the cross – and then turning it into the ideological content of a quest for power.

Rivalry? What I fear is that the most stridently dogmatic forms of Christianity are saying exactly what the Empire needs them to say – and by their claims to a certainty that wraps moral conservatism in the arms of personal fulfilment provides exactly the ideology – or an ideology – the Empire needs or wants. They are not, in fact, nearly rival enough, but exactly the coping mechanism that suits the Empire. But whether “rivalry” is what we need instead of this sort of unholy alliance I am not sure – the Christian answer may actually lie in a refusal to compete. For surely the power of the cross is emptied in quests for power.


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