Sunday, April 3, 2011

Against Polemics

I've found an interesting book called Postmodern Theology, edited by Graham Ward (2001). The essays I have read so far have put an emphasis on joy, community, embodiment and mutuality as the hallmarks of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Who knew the postmoderns were such a cheerful lot?

Sharon Welch, a theologian, has an essay called "Lush Life: Foucault's Analysis of Power and A Jazz Aesthetic." One timely idea she culls from Foucault, who died in 1984, is a rebuttal of polemics. In an interview late in his life Foucault said:

“polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion; it is processing a suspect, it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed and pronounces the verdict and sentences him…But it is the political model that is most powerful today. Polemics … establishes the other as the enemy …against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.”

Sadly, almost 30 years later, polemics still reigns in politics--and in religion. How many denominations, Quaker included, are threatened with being torn apart because two sides have locked into positions, each refusing to move one micron against the demonized Other?

Foucault located the future of philosophy in a post-imperialist world in non-European countries. Certainly, we've seen an explosion of global readings and perspectives on culture and history in the more than 25 years since Foucault died. However, it seems to me that most of this is still largely informed by Western European, and more specifically, French and German, philosophy, as we all process the ideas of their enormously important thinkers.

Finally, Foucault poses the question: How do marginalized people move beyond critiquing structures of domination and imperialism? How do we use what power we have in a way that doesn't involve dominating others? Foucault distinguishes between power and domination, putting him much in accord with Jesus, though Foucault would not, by any stretch of the imagination, have regarded himself as Christian.

One of his answers to the problem of domination is to veer from Utopic visions with their "certainty" and embrace a vision that acknowledges imperfection and mistakes, but nevertheless keeps on trying to build a better world. There's a huge amount of wisdom in that stance. Foucault wanted his ideas and theories not to be "grand narratives," universal and totalizing, but to fucntion as a "toolkit" from which people could choose what was useful. This humility, admission of human frailty and pragmatic idealism also aligns with the classical Christian worldview. (The Christian worldview that was not co-opted by imperialist thinking).

Welch compares this way of thinking to the creative and improvisational nature of jazz, an art form created by a marginalized group, which is more about invention than perfection.

I remember once, in a reading group in which we were discussing a visionary community, noting that these communities always seemed to fail after, at most, a couple of generations. Why? Another member of the group pointed out that we tend to hold Utopic communities to too high a standard. How many businesses last more than a few generations, he asked. When I thought of the number of cherished Baltimore businesses (the closest city to where I then lived) that had folded in my lifetime, I had to agree: most organizations are inherently ephemeral.

So as I envision us floating to work in our rafts and sending our children or grandchildren to small, caring schools or Quakerism revitalizing, and then see how these things can go wrong, I am comforted to think that we simply need to keep trying. So what is the next step?


AbiSomeone said...

...sigh ... I wrote a nice long comment ... and it went into cyberspace and is lost. :^( Maybe I'll try to reconstruct it.

AbiSomeone said...

Okay ... I will try again....

Well, your purple abbess resonates with this, of course.

The vision for CovenantClusters -- five years old now -- has not changed at its core, but has gone through many changes in its implementation.

I find that as I am finished with the deconstructing of church as religion period and moving to the reconstruction of church as relationship period, that I look less for structure and more for cHesed (in all its relational beauty and chaos).

Until we actually move toward loving as we are loved and forgiving as we are forgiven ... and live humbly before God and with each other ... the progress will be slow going.

And until we recognize that each entity -- whether it be organic or organizational -- has a life cycle, and learn to recognize and acknowledge where we are in that cycle, we will continue to live under the delusion that the things we create are eternal, as it were.

Frequently hearing Ecclesiastes via the Birds these days: To everything -- turn, turn, turn -- there is a season....

Diane said...


Hi. Great to hear from you and that all of this is happening for you.

Hystery said...

I admit that I really enjoy postmodernism and have a thing about "process". Emphasis on process rather than perfection is my way of finding myself in a realized eschatology. The "Kingdom of God" is always already here.