Thursday, December 04, 2008

Cameron Freeman - Towards A Post-Metaphysical Theology

Another good article from current issue of The Global Spiral (Metanexus Institute). He employs some of Derrida's postmodernist deconstruction here, so all of you who despise deconstruction might want to skip this one.

Here is the main point as she sees it:
For Derrida, then, Western thought is infected with a yearning for a non-existent ‘fixed center of meaning’, a desire that is manifested in 1) a hierarchical axiology, where metaphysical determinations spawn binary oppositions and subordinate these opposing values to each other (subject/object, presence/absence, material/ideal); or 2) the enterprise of returning to an origin held to be simple, self-evident, and pure, in order then to think in terms of derivation, complication, accident, and so forth.10
According to Derrida, there is no ultimate reality as conceived by the world's major religious traditions. However, Derrida -- as far as I can tell -- is working with linguistic constructs, which ultimately fail to comprehend the nature of the truly metaphysical because "Spirit" transcends language and the linguistic attempt to signify what cannot, by definition, be signified.

How's that for a bunch of philosophical babble? Just read the article.
Towards A Post-Metaphysical Theology

As Jack Caputo maintains in his award winning work on deconstruction and the Kingdom of God (The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Indiana Press 2006), the God of metaphysical theology is a God that is well lost to the task of thinking, and so the challenge that faces theologians today is to think God in a way that is radically otherwise to the metaphysics of Being in the history of the West.

In undertaking the task of constructing a post-metaphysical approach to theology, then, this study will begin by turning to Jacques Derrida and his critical deconstruction of the Western metaphysical tradition from Plato to post-modernity. Derrida begins with the observation that in so far as the entities that constitute our reality have to be set apart before we can even begin to speak about them, nothing actually exists prior to this differentiating process.1 This differentiation process that precedes and sets up the very conditions of language and meaning is what Derrida calls différance, which he characterizes as “the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.”2 As the dynamic structuring principle of language and communication, différance can also be described as the never constituted enabling condition of Western metaphysics3, and as such it describes the very ‘conditions of possibility’ for distinguishing between metaphysical oppositions such as ‘sensible/intelligible’, ‘nature/culture’, ‘inside/outside’, etc.

Bearing by Jeanie Tomanek

As the “common root of all conceptual oppositions”4, Derrida is therefore able to employ his non-concept of différance to deconstruct all metaphysical determinations and all pre-given centers of meaning so as to dismantle all fixed principles of order and governance in a highly influential assault on the entire history of Western metaphysical tradition, leaving only a endlessly sliding system of meanings in which “all is textual play with no connection with original truth.”5

To briefly elaborate, in carrying out his far-reaching deconstruction, Derrida argues that the deepest and most persistent desire in the Western metaphysical tradition has been to locate some fixed and permanent center, some Archimedean point, some certain grounds for timeless truth and unchanging meaning—whether we think of this as the ‘transcendental signified’6 or as a ‘metaphysics of presence’7 in its full transparency and plenitude.8 In summarizing this strategic longing for metaphysical comfort that has pervaded the entire tradition of thinking in the West, Derrida contends that

All metaphysicians, from Plato to Rousseau, Descartes to Husserl have proceeded in this way, conceiving good to be before evil, the positive before the negative, the pure before the impure, the simple before the complex, the essential before the accidental, the imitated before the imitation, etc. And this is not just one metaphysical gesture among others, it is the metaphysical exigency, that which has been the most constant, most profound and most potent.9

For Derrida, then, Western thought is infected with a yearning for a non-existent ‘fixed center of meaning’, a desire that is manifested in 1) a hierarchical axiology, where metaphysical determinations spawn binary oppositions and subordinate these opposing values to each other (subject/object, presence/absence, material/ideal); or 2) the enterprise of returning to an origin held to be simple, self-evident, and pure, in order then to think in terms of derivation, complication, accident, and so forth.10

In this way, Derrida argues that we are always and already situated within the effects of différance, and that metaphysics in the history of the West has always depended upon a hierarchical privileging or a clear-cut opposition between binary pairs that is fixed in place, resulting in an extreme rigidity where all that does not fit into any particular scheme tends to be marginalized, suppressed or rendered unconscious.

And so in undertaking his deconstructive venture, Derrida exposes the ‘metaphysics of presence’ as a futile attempt to fix the meaning of conceptual oppositions and freeze the play of linguistic differences, by radically questioning the notion that a transcendental signified constitutes some permanent invocation of truth that resides eternally outside of the differential spacing of signifiers.11

And moreover, by confusing the linguistic construction of meaning by virtue of the metaphysical center with a permanent endorsement of essential truth, Derrida lays open the great philosophers of the past as masters of illusion, and their philosophies are shown up as false dreams of plenitude, where all philosophical concepts rest on “a delusion and non-respect for their own condition of origin”12.

Read the whole article.

Ultimately, I think his argument fails even after citing the parables of Jesus as post-metaphysical examples of teachings that disturb the accepted worldview. While I like this statement:
Therefore, by confronting the challenging of Derrida’s deconstruction and incorporating the insights of the linguistic turn in philosophy, we can conclude that the bi-polar reversals of meaning that give coherence and depth to the recorded teachings of the historical Jesus – i.e. the paradoxical structure that holds true across virtually all of Jesus’ most memorable parables, does indeed constitute a post-metaphysical origin precisely because it does not constitute an origin, and in being structurally impossible to fix in place once and for all it is therefore always open to surprise, mystery, and the unexpected twists and turns that are paradigmatic of the language of Jesus.
I don't see the teachings of Jesus being any different or more profound than, say, the Buddha, or Lao Tzu. All the great Wisdom traditions offer a post-rational (and this seems to me to be what she really means by "post-metaphysical") disruption of how we conceive of the world.

Great teachers point to a reality beyond what we normally conceive, or they wouldn't be great teachers.


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