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Two Conferences in One Week: Part 2

April 24, 2007

This is part two of my thoughts on the two conferences I attended last week. Up first: the The 2007 Emergent Theological Philosophical Conversation at Eastern University.

The first night of the conference was entitled “Who Is This God of Metaphysics, and Why Doesn’t He Come Around Anymore?”. The discussion was centered around the moderator asking Caputo and Kearney about philosophers on a more or less chronological time line. They discussed metaphysics and why the shift from the premodern to the modern turned earlier spiritual meditations on the nature of God (Augustine, Anselm, etc.) into an oppressive onto-theology that gradually gave ground throughout modernity to the ever encroaching domains of science and reason. Modernity imploded when the cause of Reason came crashing down through the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the gulags. With the collapse of modernity the ensuing philosophical discussion, moved from metaphysics to phenomenology. Modernity was utopianism, it is a grand schema. What happened in in the late 60’s was amazingly anti-utopian; but it is not nihilistic – it was doing it in the name of the least of these. What has emerged in postmodernism since 1988 is a vision which is affirmative, but not complicity with any utopian schemes — leery of how to do it — post-utopian. This brought about the return of discourse about ethics and religion — the return of religious categories.

I remember arguing with folks some ten to twelve years ago that this would be happen in the postmodern milieu. It’s nice to see that I was right. The question time was slightly annoying because the moderator tended to ask questions rather than moderate discussion among the participants — a natural tendency among most pastors I’ve noticed.

The second seminar was on Tuesday morning and was entitled “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?”. The discussion was fascinating, though based largely on proofs of Caputo’s new book with the same title that won’t be out till the fall and the proofs were not made available to the participants. The discussion was uneven and vacillated between an almost Catholic confessional perspective to that of radical deconstruction. The quickest way to summarize would be to see both Caputo and Kearney as holding to a strain of Christianity predicated on the Cross. This isn’t the “Jesus Paid it All” cross of American Christianity but the radical suffering to overcome suffering through identification suffering cross. The cross is deconstruction. Caputo sees the Church as “plan B,” while Kearney sees it as a residue of the even of Christ. It is important, but is always in danger of becoming a hindrance, of becoming an “-ism” that stands in the way, that attempts to create an edifice for itself rather than pointing beyond itself — what Kierkegaard would call Christendom rather than Christianity.

As a Mennonite, I was wholly on board with what they were doing. All theology and ethics in the Mennonite community are built essentially on the deconstruction of the “-ism.” The questions were even more poorly controlled than on Monday night. While two folks were brought up to converse with Caputo and Kearney, most of the discussion involved neither. At one point a question from the audience was reworded by the moderator from a hard-hitting insightful critique to an easy softball for the philosophers to hit out of the park.

Tuesday afternoon there were smaller sessions discussing different aspects of the first two seminars. I attended a general discussion with John Franke from Biblical Seminary. I had heard from some quarters that Biblical was becoming more/too liberal, and Dr. Franke was chief among those who were mentioned in this regard. However, I found him to be — if anything — too reticent to surrender favorite areas of Evangelicalism over to postmodern critique. This is not single Dr. Franke out as unique. Most of those I spoke to or heard at the conference want to essentially have their postmodern cake and eat it too. In good Evangelical fashion, they want to tear down the barriers of ritual and dogma with deconstruction but refuse to turn towards deconstructing the text of the Bible.

Once in the discussion I did hear my major concern raised: what do we do without barriers? However, it was worded using the concept of “sin” and why deconstrution doesn’t talk about it. Folks unfortunately jumped on the two posing the question. While sin is a word that most biblical scholars don’t even use anymore — it is more useful for selling Cinnabuns or televangelist kitsch than translating Hebrew or Greek terms — the issue is the same: where are the boundaries?

The issue of lack of boundaries came to the fore on the last session on Wednesday morning. The session was slated to be a discussion of ethics. In light of the VATech shootings on Monday, this could and should have been an appropriate event for us to discuss in relation to postmodern/ deconstructional ethics. However, it never really materialized. With the collapse of the “-ism” and the collapse of metaphysics, I wasn’t able to discern a real overarching ethic. Granted, this isn’t altogether bad. For example, Mennonites are fond of saying that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the right ethic and new when to violate it. However, I’d rather take Miroslav Volf’s concept of the importance of boundaries in the here and now — boundaries are in effect needed for us to protect ourselves against the broken world we inhabit.

At the end of the conference I had mixed feelings about the event. I put off blogging about it because of my conflicting views, but finally realized I just needed to get this off my desk. In a short piece entitled “An Expedition to the Pole” Annie Dillard lamented being exposed to a folk group using acoustic guitars during a Roman Catholic mass service. “Who gave these nice Catholics guitars?” she asks. She wanted an experience of the Other; she wanted mystery. During the conference, I kept finding myself asking “Who gave these nice Evangelicals deconstruction?” The comparison for me is apt. While I would prefer a turn toward greater mystery — a greater understanding of the boundary of the sacred and the secular — the Emergent Village movement seems to be bent on destroying the last vestiges of religion left in Evangelicalism. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

  1. April 24, 2007 12:57 pm

    Yep, I love that quote by Annie Dillard, nice job of re-applying it 🙂

    A lot of your concerns about what’s becoming of post-modernism is something that was going on my head for a long time as well. I just kept asking “Where does this end?” And the answer seemed to me that it ends with the destruction of the concept of a physical church (or its -ism manifestation).

    Frankly, that’s just not somewhere I’m prepared to go. In fact I’m running in the opposite direction. My life has shown me (more so lately especially), that people need structure and discipline. When we are tossed into the realms of ‘non -ism’ land I believe we end up becoming too tempted to be Satan to one another. Yes, I realize that’s a strong thing to say, but I’ve just seen it in too many places and people in my life lately.

    I’m not advocating Fundamentalism either. I think that rules for the sake of “We told you so” are just as wrong and damaging as no rules at all. What I’ve found as I’ve explored Catholic theology is a wonderful tapestry of thought that has at its core the notion of family and covenant. The rules become binding, not because “We told you so”, but because “We love one another”. The rules are there to guide us to the path of love, and if we have pain we need to put it into the context of a salvific suffering, or a purifying suffering. To see it otherwise leads to depression and hatred of self, God’s created child.

    Anyway, I’m babbling now….

  2. jimgetz permalink*
    April 24, 2007 1:39 pm

    Am I reapplying the quote, or am I reconstructing it? 😉

    I think that your comment about Catholic theology hits the nail on the head. Caputo and Kearney are both Catholic; and I couldn’t help feeling throughout the conference that they and the Emergent Village folks were talking past each other.

    Part of the issue seems to be that most of the Emergent Village crowd are coming at it from Evangelicalism. They seem to believe that old adage “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” If you come at Christianity from this perspective, the need for boundaries, covenants, creeds and rituals becomes a lot important.

    Of course To my mind, if it’s not a religion, it’s a cult; but I digress….

  3. April 24, 2007 1:57 pm

    I think we both agree that Emergent Village is trying to kill Evangelicalism™ – what I’m wondering if they they are killing it in such a way that Evangelicalism™ can join the wider Church.

    While I’ve got some hope for the wider emerging church conversation, especially the folks doing Ancient-Future work, EV seems to be losing the ability to allow for the existence of a boundary. I noted this last year after the conversation with Volf (not Volf himself, but some folks who wanted to come out as a universalist only to be frustrated).

    The sad thing is, that I see less and less Ancient-Future folks at these things now. It’s a shame, really. I think I’ll head elsewhere next year for a conference.

  4. jimgetz permalink*
    April 24, 2007 2:11 pm

    Wes, since you seem to be the most “in the know” qua politics of EV, do the ancient-future folks adopt any of the pomo hermeneutic or are they just concerned with getting reconnected to the larger Church?

  5. April 25, 2007 11:03 am

    The Ancient-Future folks rode the PoMo wave in that they were happy the old walls that kept people in their little evangelical hovel broke down and mystery was all of the sudden respectable again (which is a necessity if you’re going to be part of the larger Church). I know that Len Sweet, Chris Hall, Robert Webber, and others balk at the whole radical inclusiveness that requires no boundaries thing – which is why they aren’t really part of the conversation any more.

    As the stream through which it became connected to EV seems to have been diverted, I doubt I’ll be involved much more in what they are doing. The Philly Cohort has really been moving away from EV as well – which is a nice thing.

    It’s a shame, really, EV did have a really opportunity for some cross-pollenization, and seems to have missed it’s window. It’ll be interesting to see where the emerging church conversation goes from here, as I don’t think EV is a guiding force any more.

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