POSTMODERN WORLD

"Keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God" (St Paul)

In a world of competing 'relatives' is there any necessary connection between the love of knowledge and the knowledge of love?  That is, is there an essential link between epistemology and human community, between rationality and relationality, between 'heart' and 'mind', or between what gets characterised as 'objectivity' and what gets characterised as  'subjectivity'? These are theoretical questions, but they are also living challenges in areas of substantial human responsibility where major decisions have to be taken - science, economics, politics, ethics and domestics. In these and other domains we may well ask, 'what's love got to do with it?' Is it, as the song says, 'just a second-hand emotion?'

Postmodernism, a culture and way of reading the world flowing from 'incredulity towards metanarratives' (J.F. Lyotard), lends particular poignancy to such concerns. It is seen by some as an ideological rationale for evading the claims of both love and knowledge, together with justice, sustainable rationality and any kind of certainty, often with disastrous consequences. That may be so in some observable cases, but there is much more to it than that.

As a protest against inflated, imperial, unaccountable and ultimate claims to a priori knowledge and power, postmodernism can surely be received as a liberation. Modernity has claimed to know too much on the basis of too little, as can be seen all too clearly when modern human beings have difficulty talking about the huge limits of our technological capacity or medical understanding, for instance.

Whereas the 'modern' mindset sees knowledge as accumulation, progress, facticity and instrumentality, the 'postmodern' experience reminds us of disaggregation, complexity, ambiguity, undecidability and plurality. As a corrective this is very necessary. But as a dogmatic claim against any shared possibilities of comparison, cohesion and verification it risks replicating the problem it seeks to address by becoming an anti-dogma. Then again 'it' may turn out to be 'they' -- postmodernism not as a singular ideology tacked on critically to modernism but as a family of different and not necessarily consistent philosophical protests against haughty knowledge, a series of potent reminders that knowing subjects are and always will be fallible agents. The difficulties only begin when uncertainty becomes the new certainty.

Fearing the deconstructing spectre of postmodernism above all else, however, some Christians want simply to resist 'all this talk about ineluctable plurality', and to reassert an old form of the 'war of knowledge' where degrees of right and wrong could be established, and where 'absolute truth' could still be maintained. But the real force of postmodernism lies in the fact that plurality is an observable feature of life, not simply an option within it.

Though the metanarrative of the global market shows that modernism is still alive and kicking, and though 'pre-modern' (established, hierarchical, dogmatic) traditions also exist, we additionally and simultaneously live in a world of discontinuous traditions, discourses, experiences and ideologies. Postmodernity is the pressing experience of that latter feature as it unravels what were previously taken to be unassailable traditions, including those of modernity and, increasingly, a ‘secularity’ that sees itself as unproblematic in comparison with 'religion'.

In this context the vital question is not 'shall we accept plurality?' (since we have no choice about this) but  'what do we do with plurality?' and 'how do we respond to it?' Strong doctrines of pluralism and relativism (which posit the determinative synthesis or antisynthesis of assorted differents) are one option. Various ways of re-asserting narrative control and privilege are another. And retreats into self-description and self-assertion, or even self-abandonment, provide other paths still. John Hick's integrating philosophy of religion, some resurgent evangelicalism / Catholicism, the English theological school known as Radical Orthodoxy, and the post-Christian philosophy of Don Cupitt are respective examples of these four trends. 

None of these appeals to me as an overriding 'answer', though each contains points of use and interest. As 'packages' they each infer the possibility of transcending or embracing postmodernity. But in practice they look more like evasions or acts of conquest than hopeful or useful ways of facing up to plurality and relativity among real human beings. Hick tends to impose a further framework on plurality ('pluralism'), conservative evangelicalism / Catholicism represses it, Radical Orthodoxy absorbs it, and Cupitt's non-realist expressivism evacuates it of differents in the name of difference. [Refs to the partiality of Hick’s 'The Real', Cupitt's non-realism as totalising, et al.]

Instead of strategies based on top-down harmonisations, self-assertion, self-description or self-denial  -- which often amount to the same thing, I would suggest -- we need to approach the phenomenon of plurality on the basis both of its limits and our limits. That is, we have to handle it relationally. One way of doing this is to encourage constructive (but not uncritical) accounts of plurality as they emerge from particular acknowledged traditions, and also from conversations between those traditions, with their different readings. This will furnish further honest accounts of commonalities and differences across, between and within different traditioned patterns of reasoning. (By 'traditions' I mean recognisable religious and non-religious schools of thought, behaviour and virtue, though in what follows I am especially concerned with the possible performances of Christian theology.)
What is required for this 'pluralistic yet tradition-constituted' approach to be plausible is not another 'neutral' grammar for interpreting different languages, a preconceived notion of 'outcomes' or some prior agreement on epistemic 'foundations' (pace John Milbank's critique of any such mediation as 'secular reason').  Rather, there must be simply a willingness to go on relating, talking and reappraising in spite of pain or difference -- that is, a readiness to be friends, people who need each other and who can bear each other in both deep agreement and sharp disagreement; who can make and forsake profound demands upon each other, who can develop vocabularies of both intimacy and distance.

Speaking Christianly, tradition-constituted arguments for what I would call 'pluralistic theology' (understood not as ideological pluralism but as any thoroughgoing account of theology which makes positive use of difference and diversity while acknowledging its inevitable limits and problems) will in this scenario find themselves fruitfully encountering other pluralistically-conditioned arguments for traditional theology (understood as any thoroughgoing account of theology which makes positive use of the coherence and historicity of a particular tradition while acknowledging its inevitable limits and problems). Apparent opposites such as John Milbank and Ian Markham, Stanley Hauerwas and Ruth Page can thereby complement one another surprisingly well, given their very different approaches, but only if they can agree to be friends in the demanding way I have just described friendship. This includes recognition of the other, and of our need for the other to be other, within the bonds of reconciling (though not always reconciled) difference.

Painful self-understanding and difficult, transformative encounter rooted in a recognition of alterity as gift rather than threat and a willingness to relinquish the need for dominance and self-legitimation are what is necessary to make such an approach viable. In other words, metanoia and community. Both hopeful traditionalism and hopeful pluralism can recognise this. Only the respective absolutisms of totalising traditionalism and totalising pluralism cannot. Which is why they are hope-less, of course. In theological terms what I am saying here is that whereas plurality can lead to chaos or control, anarchy or violence, it can also lead to cooperation and communion. But only where there is love. It is this that 'makes the difference', as we interestingly say.

The model I am offering is basically conversational, though it does not assume that the conversation has to be either polite or collusive. Indeed if it is going to be fruitful it will probably be neither. Its aim is to relate and engage (rather than to ignore or resist) other ways of proceeding. Distinctively, but not exclusively, its criterion for epistemological success is the possibility of a learning community, that is a meeting place of shared goods, understandings, languages, silences, differences, forgivenesses, conflicts, privacies, opennesses, lives, deaths, and so on.

As Christians we might want to suggest that this possibility is not just a pragmatic requirement but an ontological grace, since it is grounded not in a theory or in philosophical, moral, scientific or linguistic compulsion, but in the unsurpassable love of God that, in its overflowing essence, both requires and loves otherness to be what it is. It is God who is the loving space in which we 'live and move and have our being.' Since love requires freedom if it is to be something other than manipulation, the world really has to be free and contingent. This means that it contains space qua space for us to relate in. That would be true in a world without God, of course. The essential difference is the promise that this space, this freedom, can have the realisable possibility of being a coexistence in love rather than a foretaste of dissolution. The universe may be neutral, but God is for us -- therefore nothing can be finally against us, whatever the immediate evidence to the contrary.

Understood in this way (rather than in ways which depend on divine manipulation, abandonment or absorption) the reconciling freedom of God is thus the true possibility of reconciling our freedoms. It also marks the limits of freedom, both ours and God's, as the demands of self-giving and self-discovering love -- the only viable way of mediating freedom. In the Gospel narrative, this boundary between the demands of love and freedom is expressed as the dynamic of cross and resurrection. Incidentally, liberal and anti-liberal theologies are usually alternate ways of stating this truth, mistaken only in their rather grand denial of each other at this potential point of both mutual recognition and difference.

Note that this 'possibility of community' (space for a 'knowledge of love') which I speak of as the basis for the 'communing of possibilities' ('the love of knowledge') is not the same as, say, Jürgen Habermas's 'consensus' as the basis for his communicative theory. It is a human embracing which creates conditions, not an abstract condition for human embracing, though whether it really is any kind of possibility at all without God is the finally unavoidable if (this side of eternity, or without faith) undecidable question. At this point it becomes evident that my major working definition of knowledge is 'the discovery and generation of possibilities', a hypothesis about knowing which combines both constructive and critical-realist elements from traditional epistemologies.

Observe also that inherent in the intra- and extra-conversational model of relating plurality and tradition are epistemic limits and boundaries as well as freedoms and possibilities. 'Absolute relativity' and 'absolute truth', for example, are twin incoherences in the contingent universe as we actually encounter it -- it is neither the case that the universe (or language) is wholly discontinuous nor wholly continuous. Similarly, the coherence of a world taken as given in God is neither finally avoidable nor finally capturable from within it -- if, as Ruth Page argues, and as I have affirmed, the world is given in freedom for the purposes of love.

Of course it is often argued that on any model of the world 'as we know it' without God, relativity becomes absolute -- but it is significant that, for instance, none of the cosmologies offered by physics justifies that assertion. They each have their own form of undecidability in relation to total claims of any kind. The traditional terms just do not connect, which suggests that they are as inadequate as 'simple' subjectivity and objectivity when it comes to resolving physics, metaphysics or metaphor.

The theological explanation at this point would be that if God is, nothing that is not God could be absolutely absolute or absolutely relative. So things are as we would expect them to be in a universe (or multiverse) given in freedom by God. That is not an argument for God, but it is an argument for the non-absolute but still substantial coherence of God-talk within a contingent and language-borne world.

So far, so good. But all this is very far removed from St Paul's injunction to "keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God." Or so it seems. As soon as we return to the fabric of real living, however, it all connects. Take ethics as an important area of concern where competing 'absolute' and 'relative' claims are often at play. If the world is contingent without end (that is, let us say, without relation to 'eternity' or God) then its possible coherence is simply that which conscious beings can give it -- by rational expression, by artistry, by scientific instrumentality, by 'whatever means possible'.  Of course if it is given by God it is no less contingent and no less dependent upon the coherence / meaning conferred by conscious relationality in one of its multiple guises. But in relation to God that relationality has the capacity to differ in its constitution and aspiration because it is not the temporary defying of a world in dissolution but the temporal acknowledgement of a dissolute world creatively engaged with the love of God. Having said that, it cannot begin to capture that love, it can only surrender hopefully and purposefully to it in the midst of contingency, by means of what we call faith. In this sense faith is beyond all reason, because the love that will not abandon us is beyond all that is (purely) humanly reasonable. It is of God.

That is perhaps what St Paul is saying, though expressed in a very different tenor and context. The knowledge and love of God is the source of all knowledge and all love. He adds, since this is how he reached his conclusion, that this is so in Jesus Christ, in whom our knowledge of the love that embraces both death and life is made visible. In the Christian story the beyond is, mysteriously but palpably, 'the beyond in the midst.' (Ref Jenkins'
Contradiction of Christianity)

But that is a longer argument. Returning us to the task of ethics, Ian Markham suggests that all sustainable ethical discourse finally implies a coherent account of the world in relation to God (what he perhaps rather hastily defines as 'theism').  Some humanists would understandably fear that, aside from being what they would regard as non-sense, this unacceptably privileges religious believers. But nothing in the structure or content of Markham's position suggests that believers are more or less moral than others, even if some would wish that they were! All he is saying (though it is a big 'all') is that ethical discourses which end up needing to assert that something is genuinely wrong -- genocide, for example -- inevitably find themselves short-changed. There is no absolute basis for asserting even the wrongness of genocide unless one grants the absoluteness of the love given in God.

This 'absoluteness' of love is not an overwhelming and totalising force, however. It is, rather, an invitation to rest in the absolutely non-dominating 'force' of a divine embrace that in its barely imaginable gratuity and non-compelling freedom constitutes the only thing of absolute worth-ship. This is why worship (the acknowledgement of value through ecstatic self-abandonment) is an appropriate response to life, and indeed a wholly appropriate way of being able to do ethics.

Some Christians have objected that Markham's 'theory' is a rational construct that leaves out divine revelation. But his argument is precisely that a rational account of the world is a feature or inference of the world received as conducive to the revealing purposes of God, to ordering in the midst of non-ordering. That is, a world which 'is made by God in such a way that it is free to make itself' (John Polkinghorne) cannot avoid needing to be seen to be constituted in some sense in the purposes of the One who 'abandoned it in hope' (St Paul). But the recognition of that truth is only possible when we countenance God, which (I would add) we do all the time by believing or disbelieving, attending to or ignoring God. This again is as we would expect in a world gifted by God -- involved in both chance and necessity rather than in sheer arbitrariness.  [Ref. Monod and Ward. Chance and necessity are not features of the world but different ways of reading the world which, in my schema, are complementary at some points and contradictory at others. Cf. God and ‘not God’ are intertwined]

Bonhoeffer reminds us, of course, that construing the world without God is, at the same time, not only possible but also commonplace and perhaps even inevitable and desirable. After all, God has gifted us a world in which it is entirely possible to proceed without God. Indeed, according to Bonhoeffer's poetic construal of the specifically Christian story and experience, God has chosen to be 'edged out of the world onto the Cross'. And in freedom this God then invites us to contemplate the choices of life and death, and to choose life.

Or again, as Richard Holloway says, God allows a whole host of versions of God's story to proliferate, such that the absolute claims of one version becomes inherently implausible. So we are forced to relate and to negotiate with difficulty, rather than to dominate with ease. The divinely given godlessness of the world is for our own good, and it is a prerequisite of a world in which God can be related to freely (in love) rather that relationship being imposed or required. The genuine space between others and ourselves that makes relationship (but also non-relationship) possible is a correlate of this particular God-world model. The fact that we need to fill God's godless world with gods is its biggest threat.

However, the challenge continues. When we divinely sanctioned secular humanists find ourselves required by the mess and glory of the world to pursue projects (such as ethics and morality) which have to presuppose the possibility of community to stand any chance of being fruitful, so the God who transcends the world comes back to haunt it -- if only because, as we have observed, there are insurmountable obstacles to other ways of proceeding, such as those which present themselves to us in the holocaust, that which is sometimes termed 'the end of ethics'.  The other option here is a radical abandonment of all ethics and morality, but despite Zarathustrian attempts this proves nigh impossible, not least because it rapidly becomes so hideously undesirable. Our moral sense, when it is freed, finds ways of rebelling against both moralism and anti-moralism.

To put all this another way: the basis of ethics is that in a world of others the condition of my being turns out to be, once attempts at domination unravel, that I let others be and am correspondingly allowed to be by others. This is not possible without some kind of ethical structure which instantiates such a pattern of relating and a procedure for arriving at what that structure might feasibly be in particular contexts. But ethical procedure cannot be sustained for long without a grounding -- which turns out to be an actual possibility of community (a negotiated, public space for myself and others), not an autonomous, subjective rationality (that which takes things apart in order to make sense of them) or an imposed, objective prescription (that which resolves things only by denying freedom and thus love). 

A sense of community can, in turn, have no sustainable claim on us unless we grant it such a claim, which in turn is a procedure that cannot be generated without either a sustained act of counter-intuitive assertion (for the atheist) or a sustained act of faith (for the believer). We either have to commune in an apparently inhospitable universe because we choose to do so, whatever, or because we are able to respond to a greater hospitality that makes immediate inhospitability bearable, if not temporally explicable or justifiable. [Ref.  debate about theodicy]

Of these two options, the former is theoretically possible but not always practically sustainable (the 'other' has, logically, only a conditional claim on me if I am more powerful and see nothing unconditional beckoning me). The latter is practically compelling but theoretically unsustainable in a purely contingent world (and so requires faith in the One and Other in whom the other can make a claim on me, and I on the other).

Many kinds of partial, conditioned, transitional, situational and inconsistent ethical procedures can be countenanced in between these poles, of course. Moral pragmatism and agonistic liberalism are not to be dismissed lightly, for instance. And committed humanism has often proved morally superior to committed religion, as Holloway and others are keen to point out. But in times of duress and extremity humanitarianism is not always enough to sustain humanitarianism, and so it alone fails fully to dismiss the corresponding 'extremity' of the choice between a God-given and a godless universe. This choice remains, even if much of the time it remains hidden.

The significance of it remaining becomes evident only when it asserts itself -- as in the case of a historical horror such as genocide, when pragmatism, humanitarianism and liberality are put to the slaughter along with all easy gods and all godly ease. Only moral surrender and moral defiance can work in extremis. And in these circumstances the question of God or not-God becomes intensely relevant to the question of what is being surrendered (or surrendered to) and what is being defied (or defying). As David Jenkins has put it: "We must face the reality of God. Or we must accept that there is no such thing as God. What we msut never do is to allow lesser concerns, lesser issues the role and status of a 'god for us'. That way lies the distortions and manipulations of inhumanity, etc." (quoted from memory – look up ref. in G,PatF)

So overall I would argue that from a humanly-constructed, conditional, contextual (and therefore pluralistic) viewpoint it is possible, and indeed necessary, to argue either that knowledge is grounded in love or that neither it nor anything else is grounded at all. And correspondingly, from a traditioned Christian viewpoint, it is necessary, not just possible, to argue that either love is gifted in knowledge or that neither it nor anything else is gifted at all. Rationality alone is not enough, but the abandonment of rationality imperils relationality, and vice versa.

To conclude, we can say that both in the acquisition of knowledge and in tangible realisation of a community which makes it worthwhile, 'trouble with the relatives' can only be handled hopefully by relationality, which is the possibility of community, which is love, which is the true depth of knowledge. Without love knowledge is hope-less because it creates no community, and without knowledge love is hope-less because it creates no new possibility.

We need both loving knowledge and knowledgeable love to encounter the world in any meaningful sense, that is in a way which acknowledges intelligibility and therefore purpose to be a characteristic of the way things are which makes them 'knowable' in more than a purely arbitrary way. Any attempt to divorce our lived / rational experience of the world from the category of meaningful sense will only result in the generation of some version of meaning and sense in alternate, distorted ways. For example 'meaningless' violence can often be a quite meaningful response to the loss of a sense of meaning.

Nothing I have said, of course, demonstrates knowledge of the reality of God. Only God can finally establish God as the One in whom we know, and love and have our being. Nor does it imply that claims to knowledge of or from God create moral worth or love. Many of the worst crimes against morality and love have been committed in the name of God or out of a claim to know the 'Word of God'. Less still does my argument require that the world cannot be known usefully in a godless way. It just cannot be known in its fullness (that is, as the fruit of love and destined for love) in that way alone. Furthermore, as Michael Polanyi and others have shown, personalness is a condition for, not a logical inference from, knowledge.

If you love it is because you know that love can be granted for all things, and if you know that you really know something, whatever else you think you do or do not know. For the world, so Christian theology claims, exists out of love, and if that is true then any knowledge that fails to recognise this truth is going to sell short the world every bit as much as claims for love (or God) which disdain knowledge because they prefer innocence or power to the awkwardness of relationship and relationality. On this one, St Paul knows more than his many critics.

Endnotes and refs

Nick Adams 'On Arguing', abstract on the knowledge and love of God, etc.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
___________, Letters and Papers from Prison
Malcolm Brown, private correspondence about tradition-conveyed pluralism.
Don Cupitt,
The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech
Stephen Fowl,
Engaging Scripture (Friendship, etc...)
Jurgen Habermas,
The Theory of Communicative Action
Stanley Hauerwas,
After Christendom
John Hick,
An Interpretation of Religion
The Rainbow of Faiths
Richard Holloway,
Godless Morality
David Jenkins,
The Contradiction of Christianity
God, Politics and the Future
J. Andrew Kirk & Kevin J. Vanhoozer,
To Stake a Claim
Jean-Francois Lyotard,
The Postmodern Condition
Ian Markham,
Plurality and Christian Ethics
Truth and the Reality of God
John Milbank et al,
Radical Orthodoxy
Jacques Monod,
Chance and Necessity
Aidan Nicholls,
Christendom Awake
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche,
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Ruth Page,
Ambiguity and the Presence of God
The Incarnation of Freedom and Love           
John Polkinghorne,
Faith and Reason
Michael Polyani,
Personal Knowledge
Steven Shakespeare, 'The New Romantics',
Tina Turner, 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' (song lyric)
Keith Ward,
God, Chance and Necessity

(c) Simon Barrow   29.03.01
(rev 10.04.01)
This is a piece of thinking in process -- so expect it to be a bit rough and ready. Do Email me if you have any responses, suggestions or criticisms. I'd very much appreciate it if you did not copy or circulate this on paper for the time being.    SB
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