Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two for Tuesday @ Holy Skin and Bone

It’s Two for Tuesday at Holy Skin and Bone.

I want to float two items today, get your feedback on one or the other (or both) and then tomorrow (or maybe Thursday) I’ll share with you my thoughts. First up is this quote sent to me from my good friend Susan Matheson. She wanted to know what I made of it. Here’s the quote (from the introduction of Robert Webber's Divine Embrace, p. 17):

But in the postmodern world, the way of knowing has changed. We now live in a world in which people have lost interest in argument and have taken to story, imagination, mystery, ambiguity, and vision....

What are your thoughts? Go on, wax eloquent(ly)! I’ll share my thoughts soon enough.

Next up is this from the UK; Lambeth Palace, London to be exact. Archbishop Rowan Williams, a former professor of mine and someone I had the good pleasure of interviewing just last month during a Calvin interim course I led with my good friends Kurt and Lori Wilson, continues to be raked over the coals for his comments concerning sharia law. In a speech to the Royal Courts of Justice a few weeks ago, the Archbishop explored ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing political arrangements for the religious conscience of Muslims (and people of other faiths). That speech, and his comments during a subsequent interview, set off a media feeding frenzy as well as mass public hysteria. (Just go to youtube and search "Archbishop and sharia law" to view painful skewerings of the Archbishop by Catholics, Anglicans and assorted secularists.) What did you make of the Archbishop’s remarks and suggestions? What do you make of the strident reaction to his remarks from both the media and the British public?

Next time, I will attempt the herculean task of tying together these two seemingly unrelated issues.


Peter B said...

Hey Kevin... this is Peter Boumgarden, a 2005 Calvin grad who unfortunately didn't take any philosophy classes from you. Based on this blog at least... I think I would have really enjoyed them!

I'll offer my thoughts on the first question on the differing appeals of imagination and argumentation. In doing so, I have to speak primarily from my own experiences, and am not sure how cleanly they generalize.

First off, I don't think argumentation is dead. I think people are willing to engage in rational conversation and desire to get to the truth on a wide variety of issues. As an example, being in a PhD student in org. theory right now, I think there are certain things that can be addressed through rational argumentation, and the use of logic. We can describe the material world with some sense of confidence, we can see the wholes in a logical argument, etc. etc.

At the same time, with regards to religious sentimentalities, I think there is a growing desire to engaging this aspect of the world with mystery, imagination, and narrative. At least for me, I have found this growing movement to be a breath of fresh air in that it acknowledges the importance of imagination when conceiving the transcendent, and I think it acts as a healthy antidote to the rational, apologetic discourse that I commonly associate with Christianity. Taken to the extreme, it can however feel like it moves Christianity into a semi-dualist mentality where the transcendent is no longer conceived in its material form, but rather placed inside a separate 'heavenly' addressable only beyond reason/ argumentation.

Embracing these two different approaches in different contexts leads to questions being raised about both accounts, from the perspective of the alternative approach. When I am thinking within the argumentative, rational, non-mysterious side, I have a tendency to see the 'mystical, narrative, and imaginative side' as a bit 'soft', which makes me question whether it can validly address issues of 'truth.' From the other side, when I am thinking with an imaginative approach, I question the extent to which we can rationally addresses a variety of issues... which as I said earlier, moves towards the dichotomy between the transcendent and the material, which clearly has some problems.

Joyce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joyce said...

I know this will surprise you coming from me, but I like the quote. (Most of it anyway).

I still love argument and logic hope that they don't fall to the wayside entirely. However, the part of me that thinks and functions in concepts, imagery and theology (and that loves the mystery involved in the Eastern Church) brings an appreciation for knowing through art, narrative, and other "non-analytic" ways of knowing that lines up nicely with that particular current of the post-modern flow.

Stephen Krogh said...

Well, why don't I give this a shot?

First, I would like to offer a caveat. My responses are typically 'from the hip' and so if I write something, which just seems to be incorrect with anything more than a cursory investigation of the claim, then please, be gentle. With that...

I am not sure how comfortable I am with the first quote. I am not even sure if 'postmodernism' or 'postmodernity' or whatever it is called is even much more than an empty term. Frankly, much of it appears to be decidedly premodern to me. Seeing the excess of the enlightenment for what it is--an almost complete lack of epistemic modesty--hardly makes 'postmodern' thought. In fact, if my 'closed my eyes' and heard a 'postmodern' thought read aloud, I might think I was being read Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, or even Augustine or Aquinas. Plato's later dialogues are riddled with uncertainty and something, which closely resembles something like deconstruction. I think the quote concerns itself with a caricature of a contemporary philosophy that seeks to undo the lies of the enlightenment and post-enlightenment era, namely that human beings are, well, human and that we simply can't know everything. Christina van Dyke told me once, 'One of the great joys of being a medievalist is that you get to see people constantly reinvent the wheel.' I might add, 'more poorly than the original' at the end, but you already know my biases in this regard.

As for Bishop Williams's comments, I hardly see the foul. He seems to be commenting on a foundational reality, that organic communities understand human activity, relationship, etc. on a much more intuitive level than do rigid legislative and judicial bodies, the original purpose of which were to steal as much gold and subjugate as many people as they could, (frankly, this may very well still be the purpose, although now couched in much milder language). In other words, religious communities usually understand their people better than do governmental bodies. This is hardly a revelation. Who knows you better, your pastor or your congressman? From whom would you prefer to receive advice? Comfort? The drug of the government is a potent one. Just as the heroine addict hates the drug, but cannot imagine life without it, people tend to reject common sense claims regarding the proper place of the government in (or, more perfectly out of and away from) our lives, even if the masses are typically unhappy with the governance. Williams's comment may just be a little too real for the UK to take.

Luis Oliveira said...

"Suppose truth is a woman, what then? Wouldn't we have good reason to suspect that all philosophers, in so far as they were dogmatists, had a poor understanding of women, that the dreadful seriousness and the awkward pushiness whith which they so far have habitually approached truth were clumsy and inappropriate ways to win over a woman? It's clear that truth did not allow herself to be won over." :-) Niezstche apart, a wise irish once told me to let a thousand flowers bloom! I say we should investigate reality in every possible way according to our capacities and inclinations. I don't know if Mr. Webber is attempting to defend or admonish postmodernism, but I believe he fails to do us justice by using "arguments" in such a strict sense as to exclude it from story, imagination, mystery, ambiguity and vision! What's that all about!

In defense of Archbishop Williams, the Jewish people in England already enjoy this juridical privilege when it comes to cases that can have various implications on Jewish law. What's the big deal?

Grant said...

Here's my two cents in response to a previous post:
Post-modern may be pre-modern in many ways, and it's "sound bytes" may indeed sound like Pseudo-dionysius or Plato or who-have-you...but in addition to reacting against/moving away from the Enlightenment/Modern/Western thought, I think postmodernity faces up to where we find the earth and the human race in the universe right now. We live on a small planet in a ginormously large universe, one of billions of people, ascribe to a few of dozens of differing ideologies/religious persuasions, one of two or more genders ...and we're here, a bunch of "ones" from who-knows-where talking to other "ones" from who-knows-where-else. All this to say that, yes, I agree, postmodernity is in many ways pre-modern, but it's grappling with a much different world than Plato and his fellow male, Greek, and educated thinkers...a world with so many voices and viewpoints that dialogues, narratives, and giving one's "two-cents" seems as good an option as any, because the certainty of a position one holds in argument feels not so strong anymore when the scale and variety of everything is taken in.

Stephen's point is well taken, and there are certain times and places where modernity rules, and times and place where is should be as influential as it is. Why throw out a perfectly useful wheel? BUT there are also situations where a wheel doesn't cut it anymore, and maybe what we have now is a poorly re-invented wheel with "a lot of potential" not yet finished evolving into something entirely different than a wheel.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Thanks for the comments one and all. Very good and very helpful. Keep it up!