This is the essay I wrote for my Comprehensive Exam for my MA this past spring. It contains a lot of ideas relevant to how I understand my purpose in relationship to the church and the academy. One central idea, arrived at toward the end of the essay, is the idea that liturgy (while encompassing Holy Communion and the Sunday service, I mean liturgy in the sense of the “work of the people,” or what the people do as a community indwelt by the Spirit of God) can serve as the starting point in which the ethical community is created. Radiating out from liturgy, from the church’s praxis, can the people of God authentically engage the world around them.
I currently have Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, Brian McLaren, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and the authors I cite below floating around in my head. I expect that the “From the Classroom” blogging category will, for the next several weeks, see me working out some syntheses of these various (and varied!) authors.
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Rhetoric, according to James Berlin, is “the study of language in the service of power.” That is, rhetoric is concerned with an examination of the way power is discursively grounded; it is concerned with who can say what to whom and why. While rhetorical critics may apply a particular methodology to a text to yield insight into the way the text reifies or resists oppressive power, rhetors themselves often engage oppressive power in direct conversation. It is my intention, in this paper, to evaluate the ways that postmodern Christian theory has a) exposed the oppression sitting behind assumed modernist discourses and b) constructed alternative discourses interested in life-giving praxis. In this way, I will be examining postmodern Christian theory in light of Raymie McKerrow’s critical rhetorical categories—the critique of domination and the critique of freedom.
Postmodern Christian theory, like all postmodern theory, is essentially a reaction to the excesses of modernism. In The Hermeneutics of Charity, a collection of essays examining the intersections of Christianity and postmodern theory, many of the authors take for granted the ground won by postmodern thought. In “Crossing the Threshold: Sojourning in the Wild Spaces of Love,” James Olthius argues that “[c]ontrol though reason and science has left wide swaths of destruction in its wake: systematic violence, marginalization, oppression, suffering, domination of the ‘other’” (23). Indeed, for Olthius, resistance to these totalizing discourses is at the heart of a postmodernism “that resists the totalizing power of reason. It is that resistance, and the concomitant celebration of difference and diversity, that marks a wide array of disparate discourses as postmodern” (Olthius135). The assumption being, of course, that it is impossible to deliver on any sort of universality of reason when reason—when rational morality—was the direct cause of the Holocaust (Olthius 135). Even the metaphysical God, for Olthius, is “less from God” and more from philosophical intellection (Olthius 24). That is, “[t]he category of being itself as the institutionalization of reason, with its claims to full presence, is fraught with difficulty” (Olthius 25). Metaphysics, from which arises universal morality and universal ethics, is thus a problematic category at best.
Indeed, “[m]odernist ethics assumed that reasonable debate” had the ability to solve all questions and it assumed that the “transformation of moral life through rigorous application of moral theory” would yield results (Olthius 138). But, of course, it only resulted in the modernist tyrannies of the twentieth century. Furthermore, Jeffrey Dudiak in “Religion with an Impure Heart?: Kierkegaard and Levinas on God and Other Others” explains that, for Kierkegaard, the primary binary “is not that between faith and knowledge as uncertain and certain, but between persecuted and triumphant truth” (187). That is, “truth” as an epistemological category—something we know—is an oppressive modernist construction. Rather, truth ought to be evaluated on the basis of its humility. Something is untrue if it is oppressive, but it is true if it liberates.
Additionally, Marilynne Robinson, in her book Absence of Mind, seeks to question “a kind of argument that claims the authority of science or highly specialized knowledge, that assumes a protective coloration that allows it to pass for science yet does not practice the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished” (2). In this way, Robinson participates in the postmodern project by seeking to deconstruct a kind of parascientific discourse that appropriates the legitimate authority granted to authentic scientific discourse. For Robinson, parascience is “based on the idea of the historical threshold” (Robinson 5). That is, parascience holds to a kind of chronological snobbery in which the thinkers of the contemporary world have crossed a threshold in which old error has been transcended with “new insight” (Robinson 20). The tone struck by those participating in parascientific discourse is triumphant, but “[t]riumphaslism was never the friend of reason” (Robinson 21). In refusing to consult the past, the purveyors of parascientific discourse display their contempt for it (Robinson 29). Parascience, then, primarily derives from a kind of certainty rooted in a religious belief in hard materialism. And it is this hard materialism that has constructed a reductive view of the person—the primary problem with parascience. Indeed, “[w]hoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history. . . . [O]ur assumptions and conclusions on these subjects have had enormous consequences, which were by no means reliably good” (Robinson 32). This particular argument of Robinson’s—that parascience controls how people think because it controls the definition of “mind”—displays her understanding of the way oppressive discourses work.
Indeed, she argues that it is the conflation of “physical” and “non-physical” with “real” and “unreal” that “is the oldest tenet” of this kind of parascience (113). But such a conflation is inaccurate because it is highly reductionist. Robinson’s argument in exposing parascience as an oppressive discourse further asserts that “[s]ubjectivity is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence,” but that parascience “would dispel such things . . . because inability has evolved into principle and method” (35). Additionally, parascience, rooted as it is in materialism, cannot account for the human propensity for altruism. Its favored explanation—evolutionary genetics—cannot account for the fact that “elderly mothers” do not “go unrescued” even though they are “past their childbearing years” (63). Ultimately, Robinson is concerned that parascience, and the hard materialism it propagates, wants “to strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and a concealment within which lurked the imagined primitive who is for them our true nature” (134). In stripping away culture-making—and especially religion—Robinson argues that parascience ends up suppressing the ability of people to make real meaning.
Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek, in God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, exposes the oppression within the dominant Christian discourse. He argues that “[s]ince great public causes can no longer be mobilized as grounds for mass violence (or war), i.e., since our hegemonic ideology calls on us to enjoy life and realize our Selves, it is difficult for the majority to overcome their revulsion at the torture and killing of another human being” (Žižek 45). However, he goes on to argue, “[r]eligion and ethnic belonging” are able to inspire this kind of suspension of the ethical (Žižek 45). That is, when one is “on a mission from God, one is allowed to kill thousands of innocents” (Žižek 45). While Žižek goes on to argue for a different kind of religion that does not lend itself to the suspension of the ethical, he is unsparing in his arguments about what motivated the Orthodox Serbs, the Muslim Bosniaks, and the Catholic Croats in the Yugoslavian war.
Furthermore, he exposes the bankrupt way that traditional theology has attempted to do theodicy. That is, from the top down in an effort to spare God responsibility for evil in the world. Specifically, after the Holocaust Žižek asks, “How are we to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and good God with the terrifying suffering of millions of innocents, like the children killed in gas chambers?” (Žižek 155). In this, Žižek is perfectly in line with Olthius. Theology, whatever it does, will have to account for massive suffering. Finally, Žižek argues that Christianity simultaneously insists on the possibility of utopia and that physical reality has no significance because the “blessed state [is] Elsewhere” (Žižek 221). Furthermore, the Christian view of history is oppressive because it insists that “the Event; everything—the Big Thing—has already happened” (Žižek 222, italics in original). This becomes oppressive because it insists that “now we have to bear the almost unbearable burden of living up to it, of drawing out the consequences of the Act” (Žižek 223, italics in original). In a) insisting that people expend their energies looking forward to the heaven of “Elsewhere” and b) insisting that people live up to an impossible standard, Christianity has robbed people of the ability to engage the world and the people in the world in productive and meaningful ways.
Modernist Discourses, however, are not the only ones that can tend toward oppression. Postmodern theory, in some of its forms, can become merely ideology; it can become a set of competing moralistic, ideological gnosticisms. David Lyle Jeffrey, in People of the Book argues that the “intellectual climate” of the contemporary academy is one of “a rivalry of competing gnosticisms” to the effect that “certain kinds of realistic narrative come to seem ‘awkward’ and accordingly fall into comparative neglect” (Jeffrey 356). That is, various political postmodern ideologies—feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, and others—force critics to evaluate texts for the way they do or do not fit into a particular ideology. In popular culture, this tendency is usually understood as being “politically correct” and is rooted in the urge to not offend. Such ideologies, when applied, are collectively known as the hermeneutics of suspicion. And while such ideologies have been helpful for exposing the oppressive discourses of modernism, they have come, in some circles, to supplant modernist discourses as the controlling monolith. Similarly, Alan Jacobs argues in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love that “the academy is full of ‘inexorable moral policemen’ whose big ideas about justice prevent them from receiving the kind of loving attention that would enable them to be truly just in their reading” (Jacobs 138). Indeed, whereas Christianity has been interested in the morality of the reader and classical philosophy was interested in cultivating virtue, postmodern theory is largely concerned with policing those texts that have violated established moral rules. This becomes oppressive because it tries to violently force texts—and by extension ideas and authors—into prefabricated ideas about morality, which Jacobs considers to be a violent way to read texts.
Beyond the critique of modernist discourses and postmodern control, Christian theory seeks to create an alternative to the oppressive discourses around it. It strives to create a discourse of freedom that culminates in a community of love. Olthius, in “Love, Selfhood, and the Gift of Community” follows Emmanuel Levinas in arguing that the idea that “the other has priority over myself [is] a view that parallels closely the tendency in much Christian ethics to champion selfless agape over so-called selfish eros” (Olthius 136, italics in original). While modernist ethics thought that the application of abstract moral theory could lead to moral transformation, it was based on an assumption of universal ontological reality. But prior to universalizing about being, “there is ethics, the responsibility to the other” because “being ethical is a primordial movement in the beckoning force of life itself” (Olthius 140; 143). That is, ethics begins at the moment a person recognizes the existence of the other. This occurs for the postmodern because “I myself am a body[, and thus] . . . [o]thers present themselves not simply as subjects of discourse, but, on a more fundamental level, as persons who eat, enjoy, lack, and so forth” (Olthius 141). In recognizing “myself to be other for the other,” I acknowledge her ethical priority (Derrida qtd. in Olthius 145).
In addition to the priority of the other, it is important for a postmodern Christian ethical formulation to use language “akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion in which the world itself is ‘out of joint’” so that horrendous experiences like the Holocaust can be understood in meaningful terms as upsetting the balance of the universe (Žižek 158). Moreover, if religion is going to be useful in formulating a postmodern ethic, then God herself must be put at risk. For Žižek, that means that God, “[b]y dying on the cross, . . . made a risky gesture with no guaranteed outcome; he provided us—humanity—with the empty S1, Master-Signifier, and it is up to us” to create the meaning (Žižek 39). Indeed, such meaning can only be created if God suffers with her creation rather than standing aloof.
Indeed, if God remains “the Infinite, the Eternal,” then she “is not susceptible to wounding and death, and thus does not issue to me an ethical call” (Dudiak 192). That is, God can only have anything to do with ethics—the priority to love the other—if she become an other. Thus, in the incarnation, God does not appear as a human so that she can be understood by creation. Instead, she appears as a human so that she can view herself “from the (distorting) human perspective” in order to achieve “the alienation of God from himself (the most poignant expression of which is, of course, Christ’s ‘Father, father, why have you forsaken me?’ on the cross)” so that we are able to externalize our consciousness of God (Žižek 165; 170).
Furthermore, this alienation permits God to die on the cross and thus be “sublated in the Holy Spirit” (Žižek 171). “Spirit,” then, “is a virtual entity in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition: it exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists,” and its purpose is to be “the ground of [the people’s] entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives” (Žižek 171). Žižek’s theory thus grounds the human experience of God in the God who suffers with people so that the people who identify with God—who participate in the community of the Spirit—are able to undergo conversion toward the ethical life. The religious impetus for the conversion—the reason the death of Jesus on the cross works—is because, following Rene Girard, it “demonstrates how Christianity stages the same sacrificial process, but with a crucially different cognitive spin: the story is [told] . . . from the standpoint of the victim whose full innocence is thereby asserted. . . . Once the innocence of the sacrificial victim is known, the efficiency of the entire sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating is undermined” (Žižek 63-4, italics in original). In undermining the sacrificial system, individuals filled with the Spirit are able to move away from mimetic violence toward an ethic of the priority of the other.
Once filled with the Spirit, Boris Gunjević argues, the community is shown by God “how to harmonize with the Divine . . . through participation in the liturgy as a kind of mystagogy” (Gunjević 85). The symbol-system of the liturgy provides the basis for understanding “man’s divine origin, and [it] guides the individual through the community to his divine telos, i.e., to deification” (Gunjević 85). The purpose of participation is the liturgy, then, is so that people experience the Christian drama and, in particular, observe the scapegoating mechanism at work. Moreover, such participation facilitates “deification”—theosis—in order to remove the distance created by the self-alienation of God. Participation in the sacramental life and the liturgy thus understands someone as “a person-in-process before it understands the person as an isolated or collective individual instrumentalized or subordinated to collective and technocratic interests” (Gunjević 196). This understanding takes seriously the postmodern critique of discourses of power, the postmodern conception of the self as non-autonomous and fragmented, and, all the while, is able to articulate a creative alternative to the untethered, ahistorical, postmodern self.
Furthermore, in inviting people to participation in the liturgy—which means the “work of the people”— Christian community is able to be “the efficacious continuation of the incarnation through history, as Christ is present through the text of the Word, the sacrament, and in the way that people live his journey. . . The Church stretches through time, meaning the Church is a community of ecclesial nomads traveling to the city of God” (Gunjević 212). Indeed, for Gunjević, the Church is “a gathering of the radically equal” (Gunjević 26). In Gunjević’s vision, then, the Church is able to succeed where Marxist revolutions (in their desire to upset the modernist monoliths of the Individual and Capitalism) have not. “The Revolution,” he argues, “did not succeed because it did not instill virtue, nor was it informed by virtue” (Gunjević 12). That is, the Church, unlike the Revolution, is able to aid the individual with going through the process of conversion while participating in the life and sacraments of the radically equal so that, at the end, she can truly love the other since love “is the birth of human agency” (Olthius 34). It is precisely this love of the other—understood not as self-sacrifice but rather as solidarity with the other modeled after the solidarity of God with humanity—as animated in the symbolic drama of the liturgy and the sacraments—that has the power to bind a community together in a non-hierarchical community of freedom.
Postmodern Christian theory thus successfully deconstructs modernist discourses (while leveling critiques at potential postmodern discourses) and constructs an alternative discourse of freedom that is centered on the liturgy as a symbolic representation of the Christian drama. Its success in deconstructing oppressive discourses and constructing a freeing discourse allows postmodern Christian theory to serve as a stable foundation on which rhetors can continue to build. Rhetoric, concerned as it is with language in the service of power, has found an ally in the rich Christian tradition. Indeed, critical rhetoric—with its concern for the critique of domination and the critique of freedom—would do well to examine, far more closely, the productive ways that postmodern theory and Christian theory can cooperate for the good of those struggling for freedom.
Dudiak, Jeffrey., “Religion with and Impure Heart? Kierkegaard and Levinas on God and Other Others” The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood, and Postmodern Faith. Eds. James K. A. Smith and Henry Isaac Venema. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2004. 185-196. Print.
Jacobs, Alan. A Theology of Reading the Hermeneutics of Love. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. Print.
Jeffrey, David Lyle. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans ; Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, 1996. Print.
Olthius, James H., “Crossing the Threshold: Sojourning Together in the Wild Spaces of Love.” The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood, and Postmodern Faith. Eds. James K. A. Smith and Henry Isaac Venema. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2004. 23-40. Print.
—, “Face-to-Face: Ethical Asymmetry or the Symmetry of Mutuality?” The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood, and Postmodern Faith. Eds. James K. A. Smith and Henry Isaac Venema. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2004. 135-156. Print.
Robinson, Marilynne. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj and Boris Gunjević. God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. Print.