Orthopraxy is Postmodern?

Great insight by J.K. Smith about how people pit orthodoxy vs orthopraxy, and see the former as modern and the latter as postmodern:

So this is why I think the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a moot point. Any community of practice is going to have both. It’s not doxa or praxis that’s at issue; it’s the ortho! On my account, the Christian community can’t avoid defining the ortho because no community of practice can be without standards of excellence.

(Permit a digression: I’ve never understood why some think that orthodoxy is hopelessly “modern” whereas orthopraxy is sexy and postmodern. Have folks not read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, or his Critique of Practical Reason? The latter is a pretty classic “orthopraxy” it seems to me, to the point that Kant really doesn’t give a rip about the specifics of orthodox dogma, as long as you’ve got your orthopraxy in place. [Sound familiar? See any 15 popular “emergent” books of your choice.] Do we really want to suggest that Kant was a proto-postmodern? Or does this show us that those who make this doxy/praxy distinction are still locked within a modernist paradigm? Indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t it the ortho that they really resist?)


Nietzsche, Nihilism and Moby Dick

Sean D. Kelly wrote a remarkably engaging and insightful piece on the NY Times Opinionator blog yesterday. He takes on the task of unpacking what Nietzsche really meant when uttered that “God is dead” over a century ago. God is dead, Kelly argues, in a very particular sense…

He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live.  Nihilism is one state a culture may reach when it no longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground.

This de-centering of a culture’s shared sense of organizing values and ultimate meaning has some upsides. It allows marginalized minorities to “achieve recognition or even be held up and celebrated…Social mobility ─ for African Americans, gays, women, workers, people with disabilities or others who had been held down by the traditional culture ─ may finally become a possibility.” But it has its downsides for sure. With a loss of a shared universal sense of meaning we can be driven to live lives of quiet desperation, feeling that there is no God or god-like purpose that is worthy of our allegiance, we instead choose from a variety of consumer options and identities in search of self-actualization. To be sure, people may still engage in what look like lives of traditional religious devotion, but they can only do so in a delusional fashion, imagining that their neighbors can’t possibly be living admirable or meaningful lives because they do not share the believer’s commitments.

Kelly lifts up Melville’s Moby Dick as charting an alternate way forward. Melville rejects the impulse to search for a transcendent organizing center that would animate Western culture, coming as it does from the combination of the biblical and platonic traditions that have together come to shape us so deeply. He wants to replace this with a new polytheism:

Melville himself seems to have recognized that the presence of many gods — many distinct and incommensurate good ways of life — was a possibility our own American culture could and should be aiming at.  The death of God therefore, in Melville’s inspiring picture, leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.  Such a nation would have to be “highly cultured and poetical,” according to Melville.  It would have to take seriously, in other words, its sense of itself as having grown out of a rich history that needs to be preserved and celebrated, but also a history that needs to be re-appropriated for an even richer future.  Indeed, Melville’s own novel could be the founding text for such a culture.  Though the details of that story will have to wait for another day, I can at least leave you with Melville’s own cryptic, but inspirational comment on this possibility.  “If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation,” he writes:

Shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.

Theories of Change

David Brooks wrote a nice piece on the legacy of the British Enlightenment in today’s NY Times. Unlike their French counterparts, British Enlightenment thinkers didn’t just extol reason’s capacities, they underscored its limits. There is no greater example of the this tradition than Edmund Burke, who rejected the radical approach to social change advocated by the French.

Burke, a participant in the British Enlightenment, had a different vision of change. He believed that each generation is a small part of a long chain of history. We serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down, a little improved, to our descendents. That wisdom fills the gaps in our own reason, as age-old institutions implicitly contain more wisdom than any individual could have.

Burke was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform, but reform is not novelty. You don’t try to change the fundamental substance of an institution. You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working.

If you try to re-engineer society on the basis of abstract plans, Burke argued, you’ll end up causing all sorts of fresh difficulties, because the social organism is more complicated than you can possibly know. We could never get things right from scratch.

Brooks sees this tension between radical and more traditional Enlightenment perspectives as playing out in our politics today:

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Today, if you look around American politics you see self-described conservative radicals who seek to sweep away 100 years of history and return government to its preindustrial role. You see self-confident Democratic technocrats who have tremendous faith in the power of government officials to use reason to control and reorganize complex systems. You see polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics.

No surprise where Brooks comes down.

Enough With The New Atheists Already

David B. Hart’s assessment of the New Atheism is a must read for believers and non-believers alike. If one has an exceedingly low tolerance for feisty rhetoric, then this piece will be tough to slug through, though still well worth the effort. For example:

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel…But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for?…I am not—honestly, I am not—simply being dismissive here. The utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism is a social and spiritual catastrophe.

It’s not as though Hart has no appreciation for atheism. On the contrary, he recognizes that

…Something splendid and irreplaceable has taken leave of our culture—some great moral and intellectual capacity that once inspired the more heroic expressions of belief and unbelief alike. Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.

What I enjoyed most about Hart’s reflection was the marked appreciation for Nietzsche, who comes off as a figure who (rightly in my opinion) deserves our admiration and gratitude:

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become…Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?…For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).

What do the Fathers of Conservatism and Communism have in common?

Eva Illouze begins a recent essay in The Hedgehog Review entitled “Love and It’s Discontents: Irony, Reason, Romance” with the following quote from Edmund Burke:

All the pleasing illusions that made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of lifeare to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our weak and shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.

Illouze points out that Burke here “anticipates what would become one of the chief sources of the dynamism and discontent of modernity, namely the fact that beliefsin transcendence and authoritybecome accountable to Reason.” The gifts of imperial reason wind up, however, being more than we can bear:

The scrutinizing of social relations by the implacable gaze of Reason can only tear down the harmonious web of meanings and relationships on which traditional power, obedience, and fealty rested. For only lies and illusions can make the violence of social relationships bearable. To be tolerable, human existence requires a modicum of myths, illusions, and lies. Put differently, Reasons indefatigable attempts to unmask and track down the fallacies of our beliefs will leave us shivering in the cold, for only beautiful storiesnot truthcan console us.

She then moves on to point out the strikingly similar insights that Marx shares with Burke:

Marx, the most forceful heir and defender of the Enlightenment, curiously concurred with the ultra-conservative views of Burke in his famous dictum: all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men. Marx, like Burke, views modernity as a sobering of the senses, as a violent arousal from a pleasant if numbing slumber and a confrontation with the naked, bare, and barren conditions of social relationships. This sobering realization may make us more clever and less likely to be lulled by the fanciful and vain promises of the Church and of the Aristocracy, but it also empties our lives of charm and mystery, and of a sense of the sacred. Knowledge comes at the price of desecrating that which we revered. Thus Marx, like Burke, seems to think that cultural fantasiesnot truthmake our lives meaningfully connected to others and committed to a higher good. Although Marx neither rejected the new empire of light nor longed to return to the defunct rituals of the past, we can detect in him the same Burkean dread of what lies ahead for a humanity in which nothing is holy and everything is profane.

Illouze goes on to point out the ambivalence that is at the heart of modern culture. Moderns claim to be “free of the shackles that had fogged the mind and consciousness,” at the same time longing for that which they claim to be free from: “a sense of the sacred and transcendent and the very capacity to believe.”

So we’re left as moderns in what Weber calls the perennial state of “disenchantment”.

Disenchantment does not mean simply that the world is no longer filled with angels and demons, witches and fairies, but that the very category of mystery comes to be disparaged: for, in their impulse to control the natural and social world, the various modern institutions of science, technology, and the market, which aim at solving human problems, relieving suffering, and increasing wellbeing, also dissolve our sense of mystery. The vocation of scientific work is to solve and conquer mysteries, not to be under their spell. Similarly, capitalists whose principal wish is to maximize their gains, often disregard and undermine those valuesreligious or aestheticthat limit economic activity. Precisely because science and economics have considerably expanded the limits of our material world, helping us to resolve the problem of scarcity and making Nature yield to human needs, the gods have deserted us. What in an earlier age was governed by faith, personal fealty, and charismatic heroes, becomes a matter of calculable means. But this process toward rationalization does not eliminate all manifestations of passion; rather, it generates attempts to restore, even if vicariously, orders of experience dominated by fervor and passion.

So whether we’re at a tea party or a coffee party, neither will offer us an enchanted evening, which is perhaps what we long for most.

Does “Religion” Exist?

religion-hinduism-muslim-islam-christianity-buddhism-confuscius-sikhismJonathan Z. Smith on the existence of “religion”:

If we have understood the acrheological and textual record correctly, man has had his entire history in which to imagine deities and modes of interraction with them. But man, more precisely western man, has had only the last few centuries in which to imagine religion. It is this act of second order, reflective imagination which must be the central preoccupation of any student of religon. That is to say, while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena , of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another as religious-there is no data for religion. Religion is soley the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy. For this reason, the student of religion, and most particularly the historian of religion, must be relentlessly self-conscious. Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his formost object of study. (Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, xi.)

In other words, as far back as we can conceive human beings have fashioned gods, worshipped them, engaged in cultic practices and the like. But human being have not reified a universal concept like religion and then categorized the aforementioned activities under it. It’s interesting that modern theologians like Barth and Schmemann both consider religion to be at the heart of the Fall, namely human disintegration of God from the rest of life. This may be how the Fall plays out in modern life, but to postulate this experience as universal seems difficult to say the least.