Postmodernism, Truth, and Religious Pluralism

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Katharine writes... I’ve just returned from the States where I gave a paper at the “Postmodernism, Truth, and Religious Pluralism” conference of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. This theme attracted a diversity of papers across disciplines such as philosophy, theology, psychology, education, history and politics. I thought I’d blog here about some of the papers presented at this conference which might be of interest.

We kicked off with a keynote from Roger Haight (Union Theological Seminary), author of The Future of Christology, among other things. His paper, “The Impact of Pluralism on Ecclesiology,” had a missiological focus, arguing that the growing awareness of our contextualisation in pluralistic cultures leads to the revision of our understanding of the church’s mission. It is moving, he argued, away from mission as the creation of a single church and the conversion of all others, and towards the cultivation of the church as ‘as perfect an agent of reconciliation among persons and peoples as possible.’

Paraphrasing the thrust of his paper, Haight demonstrated that 1.) global fragmentation (which results in both fusion and fissure), coupled with 2.) the impetus of the ecumenical movement, means that it is important to both 3.) reassert the value of unity (which he not unproblematically claimed could be seen in the early church) and 4.) respect differences in communal and individual identities, in order to 5.) re-conceive of mission not as the conversion of all peoples but as 6.) the church’s call to exercise its role as an instrument of human reconciliation, after the fashion of Jesus Christ.

One delegate commented on the discernable idealism in Haight’s paper, noting the existence within pluralistic cultures of persons and peoples who do not wish to be reconciled either with each other or with God. Another interesting question was raised by Merold Westphal as to Haight’s interpretation of the Christian tradition. Is it right to call what Haight talked about Christianity, if it doesn’t insist on conversion to the truth of Jesus’ salvific role – which Westphal suggested is the reconciliation of humanity to God? Is this Christianity disrespecting, downplaying or ignoring its own tradition by emphasising reconciliation over conversion?

Thomas Clarke’s (Stonehill College) paper, entitled “Truth and Castration,” approached the conference theme from the discipline of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Clarke argued that a focus on the truth of God’s existence constitutes a ‘distraction’ arising from an infantile anxiety about our abandonment. In Clarke’s own words, ‘truth, even more than religion, has become a Western obsession and it is getting in the way… Truth and the correspondence theory of truth [that truth is demonstrated by a correspondence to facts] are dangerous and religions are plagued by them.’ According to Clarke, the eternal Truth of Christianity, the divinity of Christ, which appropriated the Greek doctrine of an eternal logos, developed as a way of protecting ourselves from the truth of our castration.

Clarke’s position is that ‘when did I see you naked and clothe you?’ is the only religious question that should be asked, and that ‘blessed be the peacemakers’ is the only doctrine of significance in the pluralistic postmodern world of today. The suggestion that the divinity of Christ is a barrier to peace was met with several raised eyebrows from many of the theological students at the conference. How fundamental is the divinity of Christ to Christianity’s mission to be instruments of reconciliation, as Haight believes its mission should be?

The conference concluded with the second keynote, from Richard Kearney (Boston College). His paper, “Anatheism: Welcoming Strange Gods,” coincided with an almighty thunder storm; read into that what you will!

In some ways related to my paper on A/theism (“A New Kind of Christian is a New Kind of Atheist: Truth and A/theistic Orthodoxy in the Emerging Church Milieu,” see my blog for more details), Kearney argued for the importance of estrangement from God. Providing examples from the three monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), he highlighted the awareness these traditions have in regard to the two options open to humanity when faced with an experience of the Holy, the ultimate ‘Strange.’ These responses are hostility and hospitality. Abraham, for example, is both hospitable (towards the three men who are strangers to him, whom he welcomes as his guest, and are later understood as YHWH bringing news of Sarah’s immanent pregnancy) and hostile (towards Hagar and Ishmael after Isaac’s birth).

In so far as criticisms are positive (i.e. of critical worth), Kearney welcomes the critiques of Christianity which come from such atheists as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (due to the quality of their work, or rather lack thereof, I’m loathe to put Hitchens and Dawkins in the same league as someone like Nietzsche!!!). Kearney welcomes their work because Christianity needs to recognise the moments in its tradition, history, and activities in the world today that are hostile to both God and other human beings. This critique is needed, and therefore good.

However, Kearney speaks of anatheism, by which he signals not the atheism of these critics, but rather a continual movement between theism and atheism, between hospitality and hostility, in which there are moments of ‘salutary estrangement’ from God in order to return to a more liberating understanding or encounter with God.

Might ecumenism and interfaith dialogue be understood to work on an anatheistic model, in which belief is suspended before or during the conversation and returned to in a new light once the exchange is over?

What are your thoughts on the notions of reconciliation, conversion, mission, truth, Christ, estrangement, hostility, hospitality, and anatheism presented by these three academics?

Katharine Moody