Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Don't change the facts, change the outlook

Mornings with John Caputo:

Above all, I am inclined today to organize everything I think about postmodern thought and about postmodern theology in particular around the figure of weakness, a figure forever associated with [Gianno] Vattimo's brilliant articulation of what he calls weak thinking (pensiero debole).  On an analogy with Vattimo's weak thought, I speak of a weak theology.  Such an expression, which is also to be found in Jeffrey Robbins and the Dominican theologian Ulrich Engel, does not refer to intellectual spinelessness but, in the first place, to a weakening of the militant dogmatic tendencies of the confessional theologies, which in modernity fused in a lethal way with the Cartesian paradigm of certitude.  As Engel points out, were the great religions of the Book to look to their own teachings about humility and to their traditions of mystical theology, which stressed that the truly divine God is the Godhead that eludes our comprehension, it would give them pause to so militantly pursue their purposes.


The Christian church should accordingly reconsider its critique of an increasingly secular culture, and, instead of lamenting defeat at the hands of secularization, it should declare victory and march home in triumph.  For what else is Western culture than the translation of otherworldly Christianity into terrestrial structures, the conversion of its celestial currency into the coin of the more benign ethical, social, political, and even economic institutions of the Western world?  The weakening of Being (Heidegger) has made "Christianity" once again a legible, credible story, one that we can take seriously, and secularization has transcribed that story from unreadable myth into legible history.  In secular culture the old religious narratives are published in a new edition, translated into the secular vernacular in an affordable paperback.  There they are no longer tales told about transcendent transactions in eternity but stories about the saeculum, the historical time in which real people live.  There is thus a "family resemblance" between the weakening of Being and the rebirth of religion, an essential correlation.  With the withering away of metaphysics, which was given ample opportunity to prove its worth and whose only result was an arid and reifying rationality that turned the world and human life into objects for instrumental reason, we are free to return for nourishment to the old religious narratives.

For example, for Vattimo, the commonplace complaint that the secular world has taken the Christ of to Christmas and transcribed it into "Happy Holidays" is to be viewed as still another success on Christianity's part.  For now the Incarnation, a theological doctrine accepted in a strong or robust form only within confessional limits, has been translated into a popular secular holiday in the West, in which the spirit of generosity and goodwill among all people prevails.  During the "holidays" this attenuated if wispy "spirit" of love becomes general among humankind, which is what in fact this doctrine actually "means," its application in the concrete reality of lived experience.  The tolerant, non-authoritarian and pluralistic democratic societies in the West are the translation into real political structures of the Christian doctrine of neighbor love.  When the transcendent God is "weakened"--or emptied--into the world, it assumes the living form of Western cultural life.  Vattimo shows that this schema, which modernity first learned from Hegel and Schelling, and was deployed by Altizer and the 1960s [Death of God] movement, is found in its earliest form in Joachim of Fiora's millennialist doctrine of the "three ages," that of the Father (Judaism), the Son (the New Testament), and the Spirit, which is the unfolding of the Kingdom of God on earth from the year 1000 on.  Western history for Vattimo is the Wirkungsgeschicte of a "classic" in the Gadamerian sense, of the New Testament, its unfolding life and application, its developing revelation and realization, translation and transcription. But in Vattimo the age of the Spirit is not a version of metaphysics, not the biography of the Absolute in time, as it is in Joachim, Hegel, and Alter, which is strong thinking, but an interpretive schema, a way to put the realization that we have always to do with conflicting interpretations whose only measure is love without measure.

The task of intellectuals today is therefore twofold.  On the hand, they must move beyond the old reductionism and objectivism of the nineteenth century and take the hermeneutic turn.  In such a world the old religious narratives have once again to be taken seriously as irreducible language games or forms of life that uniquely instruct us about the meaning of our lives.  On the other, the task of the intellectual is firefighting, that is, to see that while the flame of such religious narratives is kept alive it does not burn out of control.  While the stories are to be taken seriously, they are not to be taken literally, which would issue in the worst sort of fundamentalism, the worst hardening of theology into authoritarianism and dogma, as opposed to its weakening into pluralism and hospitality.

After the Death of God, pp. 73-76,

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