Monday, January 10, 2005

Long on repetition, short on eschatology

I ran across a rather stimulating passage in an essay I was reading the other day by D. Stephen Long, professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. The essay was on Radical Orthodoxy, and is found in the Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. by Kevin Vanhoozer. (Cambridge, 2003) I had the good fortune to study with Steve when I was at Seabury-Western, and he was second reader on my thesis. He's a great guy and a hard-working, sound, Christian scholar; I'm grateful to know him.

I am particularly interested in this passages keen critique of modernity. He writes:

Although it could qualifiedly be labeled postmodern, radical orthodoxy is neither a newer nor imprved version of modern theology, for an interminable 'newness' characterizes modernity. As Gianni Vattimo tells us: 'if we say that we are at a later point than modernity, and if we treat this fact as in some way decisively important, then this presupposes an acceptance of what more specifically characterizes the point of view of modernity itself, namely the idea of history with its corollary notions of progress and overcoming.' Through overcoming the past, modernity progresses toward the new. Precisely because radical orthodoxy is not just 'modern' theology it does not overcome the past -- not even a modernity that can never be past -- or progress toward the novel.

[Long continues, talking about modern theology and modernity itself]: Like modernity itself, modern theology is 'progressive'; moving from the old toward the new, which never quite arrives. Thus modern theology is caught within a dialectic of presence and absence. It moves from what it lacks -- the promised
but absent 'new' -- toward what it hopes for -- the presence of the new. In this movement that past is continually dissolved into an absent future, which promises to render the past and all its sacrifices meaningful. Progress becomes our fate and ethics is tied to a sacrificial economy. We are taught to sacrifice particular interests and commitments for the sake of the future arrival of the new. Postmodernity places this modern progress in question. Like postmodernity,
radical orthodoxy seeks to escape the constraints of modern progress. (p. 126)

I find this passage to be a fairly clear and useful summary of part of modernity, and the problem of being at the "end" of modernity, in "post" modernity, and yet not being truly post-modern.

We can see this sort of dialectic of presence and absence most clearly (I think) in marketing. The advertising and marketing industry devote themselves to creating new appetites in people which (usually by design) cannot be filled completely (for then demand would cease). We are then constantly moving from what we lack (appetite) towards the new, which can never completely arrive (by design). By being caught within this dialectic, this constant back-and-forth from appetite to frustration (in this case) we are trapped within a process of identical repetition. This points up -- at least in this characteristic segment -- modernity's inhumanity and nihilism.

But this is also quite close to the Christian hope, no?

Advent is still fresh in our memories, and in that liturgical season, many of the Biblical texts look forward to Jesus' return, and the consummation of the creation, the completion of the Kingdom of God. Christians look forward to this with great anticipation.* And yet, as even the first generations of Christians knew, Jesus tarries. For whatever reason -- God's patience, I suggested earlier -- the eschaton has not yet arrived. The experience can be rather like Waiting for Godot (a play which some see arising from the experience of God's seeming absence, although oddly enough the author S. Beckett vehemently denied this.) Is this not merely another example, in fact an historical precursor, of the secular waiting for that which will never arrive?

This is a serious consideration, and one which might well merit a longer response than what I give here.

I think the major difference (and the difference which will make all the difference) is that Christian theology is not 'progressive' in the way that modernity imagines. Modernity (on Long's account) envisions a constant process of coming to 'the new' while leaving behind ('overcoming') that which has gone before. This is one reason why speaking of the 'Christian tradition' is helpful, because it situates oneself within a much larger, ongoing historical discourse ("An embodied argument through time" is what A. MacIntyre called it, if I recall.) There is a sense then in which one does not come up with something 'new' in Christian theology -- certainly not for the sake of novelty, at any rate. It seems instead that the Christian seeks to be fitting or appropriate in the given circumstance that she finds herself in, and that this process is one of non-identical repetition, as she seeks to faithfully embody the gospel of Jesus Christ enfleshed in the saints. (Credit for that last phrase, or something like it, goes to AKMA.) That is to say that the inherent translatability of Christianity constantly raises questions for us that demand far more than simple application of unambiguous, universal rules. There is a kind of practical wisdom involved in the kind of translation that the Christian gospel has admitted of since very nearly the beginning. Of course, this a perilous task, one in which we could be wrong, or go wrong. But my major point is that Christianity holds onto the past, cherishes its memory, even as it navigates new and unanticipated embodiments of that tradition.

More specifically dealing with eschatology, the Christian endtimes are not actually involved in this dialectic of absence and presence. Christ's return is not something 'new' but the completion of something 'old'. Moreover, while the eschaton does seem mysteriously deferred, and is, in ways, an as-yet absent future, it is not eternally absent, not by design. One day things will come together in a way surprising yet congruent with how Scripture imagines it (I take something like this to be the Christian hope), and the future will no longer be deferred or absent.

There are some similarities, however, which ought to be taken seriously. In fact, I suspect that, historically, the similarities can be teased out as coming from the same source. (If I were being a wise guy, I would blame it on nominalism and Duns Scotus, but it deserves a more serious answer.) But this gives rise to one final point: the difference between orthodoxy and heresy (the latter in this case, a nihilistic and inhuman modernity) is quite subtle. This stands to reason: you would never mistakenly embrace and kiss a stranger if that one did not closely resemble the beloved.

*The exact shape of the anticipation depends on many variables, including the credence given to the sort of eschatology which underpins the Left Behind series of novels. But I will leave this to one side for now for the sake of an otherwise generally accurate statement.

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Blogger Caleb said...

Very interesting post. It raises the question of what intellectual historians really mean when they define the rise of modernity as a process of "secularization" in the West. "Secularization" is usually understood to be the disenchanting of the world and the repudiation of Christian hopes. But often, secularizing processes in history merely relocate theological forms and beliefs, rather than rejecting them entirely. Many secular hopes about the future of the world can be viewed, in the apt phrase of T.E. Hulme, as "spilt religion."

Monday, January 10, 2005 2:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I am not familiar with Hulme, but it is an apt phrase and I like it.
In some ways it seems that Hegel is the paradigmatic philosopher of modernity, and he fits this characterization well, not disenchanting the world but relocating theological forms (or better, evacuating them and re-filling them for service in another cause). Cyril O'Regan sees Hegel as standing in a tradition of gnostic return in modernity, which parallels what some of the radical orthodox say, that the modern, secular synthesis is based on heretical forms of Christianity.
For what it's worth, I am coming to realize that if this is true, then there needs to be acknowledgement of this by the church -- and repentence. We have unleashed a Golem on the world, a soulless simulacrum of Christianity. -JF

Monday, January 10, 2005 8:20:00 PM  

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