A New Postmodern Humanism?
Today I’ve been reading David Boulton’s The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven. The book possesses lots of fascinating talking points, but I keep on finding myself returning to the same sentence: ‘(humanism) needs to be more generous and imaginative in its response to the rich range of religious culture, ranking Blake’s Imagination no lower than Winstanley’s Reason. It needs to catch up with postmodernity, if not postmodernism in extending its radical scepticism towards religion, to include a no less radical scepticism towards ideas of progress, science and objective ethics. It needs to become more radically atheist in rejecting not just the deification of imagined gods but equally dangerous deification of humanity’ (pp. 188-9). What are the chief consequences of Boulton’s radical enterprise of postmodern reconstruction? In his brilliant book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) the American philosopher Richard Rorty offers us an evocative description of such deconstruction. As Rorty reflects:
Truth cannot be out there–cannot exist independently of the human mind–because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own–unaided by the describing activities of human beings–cannot. (p. 5.)
So, if all we have is description, what becomes of those ‘big truth’ activities like philosophy and theology? Simply put, says Rorty, the theologian and philosopher need to become literary critics. Instead of worrying about something ‘out there’ we should worry about stuff closer to home; like the stories we tell about ourselves and each other. We should concern ourselves with how well we tell our stories and the concrete effect those stories are having on people. Once we give up the quest for metaphysical or transcendental truths, our life is forced back into the specifics of the story we inhabit. It is precisely this Rorty-like return to narrative which lies behind Boulton’s evocative account of the power of fiction’. As David reflects:
God understood as the protagonist of the fictional god-stories, as our incarnation of justice, mercy, pity, peace and love, as the some of our values projected onto the screen of our imaginations, tosses away his crown and joins us in the messiness and absurdities of human life. Nor, is this some tame, domesticated, emasculated God, who would be of no earthly use to anyone. This the God that plants his footstep in the sea and rides the storm, the ancient of days no less; the most powerful of all the potent symbols ever created by the symbol-making species called humans (p. 215).
God ‘not existing’ for David is ultimately besides the point. What matters is the result these myths and images have on us as human beings. Result not actuality is the philosophical criterion which seems to interest David the most.
Coming to Terms with Our Story
On initial inspection, there seems plenty in the above discussion to get upset about, if like me, you think that certain theological statements refer (at least in part) to realities- the kind of realities that exist regardless of whether people believe in them or not. But of course, as David would remind me, the only reason I say this sort of thing is because I exist within a particular story. It’s plotlines matter to me and encourage mw to say particular things, but the story itself is never transcended. Just declaring that there is some reality ‘beyond’ the story, doesn’t actually mean we ever get there. But what about ‘one’s experience of the reality of God?’ cries a disgruntled Friend. Does that really get one beyond one’s story? Evidently not. One is only able to locate ‘God’ in one’s inner experience, because one already assumes a particular way of speaking. As Wittgenstein puts it: ‘When I think in language there aren’t meanings going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions; the language itself is the vehicle of thought.’ We can’t, suggests Wittgenstein get to a place beyond narrative and language.
But of course, if Wittgenstein is right about language, then this affects Quaker nontheism as much as it does any other form of Quakerism. The great paradox of deconstruction is that it can cause the sceptic to doubt herself. If nontheism is another story about ourselves, then how should the worth of the story be judged? For some people at least, recognizing the contingency of our stories means a ‘return to faith’. After all, if there is no objective place to stand (no place beyond our stories) then it seems just as intelligible to say that one ‘believes’ that Jesus was brought back from the dead, as it does to say that the Resurrection has no basis in ‘reality’. Postmodernism in this respect seems to cut both ways. The knowledge-terrain changes from matters of ‘objective truth’ to the more complex arena of narrative consistency. The question is not, what can I say is ‘out there’? Rather, the issue is, what can I say which is consistent with the stories I hold dear? Through this Rortyian lens the following remarks from David don’t sound all that theologically threatening:
The only Jesus we can be sure of is the Jesus of literature. Of this Jesus we can say confidently, as we cannot say of the historical Jesus, that he did change water into wine, did raise Lazarus from the dead, did teach that we should love our enemies, was crucified and buried, did descend into hell, did rise again and did ascend into heaven (p. 187).
These sentiments only get spiky theologically (for me and other Friends) if we think there is some ‘true’ historical Jesus (a Jesus beyond the story) it is possible to retrieve. But if David’s humanism is to be truly postmodern, even this prickliness needs to recede into the background. All we can hold onto is what the story does to us, what it generates and how it continues to form us. In this vein, David hits the nail on the head when he says,
That’s the story. And we can see that it’s a true story, not because it all ‘really happened’, but because the great themes of life and death, love and hate, good and evil, redemption and salvation, and wrestled with, in ways which true to our experience’ (p. 187).
Now does this mean that David and I actually agree? Not quite. The divide between David and me is still one about the meaning of the slippery word ‘reality’ and what we are willing to accept under this label. I am willing to countenance some ‘weird stuff’ that David simply isn’t. Like a good Enlightenment philosopher, David seems to have a good idea of what the categories of ‘natural’ or ‘real’ involve. He also knows what he rejects, something called ‘supernaturalism’. But, since I’m not entirely sure what the ‘real’ or the ‘natural’ real involve, I’m willing to concede a lot more. At the same time, I acknowledge that any ‘weird stuff’ I posit is always mediated by story, culture and language. I am a provisional ‘realist’. I believe in something called ‘truth’, but like the roundly apophatic Jesus before Pilate, I am content to hold my peace about what this ultimately is. As Rorty puts the issue starkly:
We know how to justify beliefs, we know that the adjective ’true’ is that we apply to the beliefs we have justified. We know that a belief cannot be true without being justified. That is all we know about truth. Justification is relative to an audience regarding truth-candidates, truth is not relative to anything. Just because it is not relative to anything, there is nothing to be said about it. Truth with a capital ’T’ is sort of like God. There is not much you can say about God. That is why theologians talk about ineffability, and that is why pragmatists tend to say that truth is indefinable. (Richard Rorty, Interview).
So where do we go from here? This is certainly an interesting conversation, but my question (and my source of unease) is whether is it a Quaker conversation? In other words, is some metaphysics (some big account of truth and ‘reality’) needed for Quakers to be Quakers? Derek Guiton certainly think so but I wonder whether that’s right. Isn’t something more needed to be embedded in the Quaker Way? I think Rex Ambler says it best when he observes that, ‘(George Fox) was not…presenting a teaching that people were expected to believe or follow, whether mystical, biblical, or whatever. He was telling them rather to do something, because what they needed to make them free and fulfilled as human beings, `perfect’ was in them, and it was in them already without having to imbibe it from a church or teachings outside’. Rex’s point is a gentle rejoinder to those Friends who are tempted towards system-building or speaking apart from experience. The imperative to ‘do something’ should serve as an appropriate inoculant against getting caught up in alluring ‘isms’. But what comes after ‘isms’?
Living Without the ‘Real’
Here’s a heretical thought; could Quakers live without talk of ultimate foundations? Could Friends live without what the professional philosophers call metaphysics? I think we can, if ‘living without’ means acknowledging that there is no authentic place for we Quakers to stand, other than within our own story. I think we can live in this state of metaphysical suspension, precisely because it seems to fit with some of our long-standing Quaker convictions. Or to put it another way, Quakers (at least some of us) have been living without metaphysical foundations for ages. I submit that when early Quakers spoke of ‘the work of Christ within’, they were not attempting to offer a comprehensive philosophical vision of reality. They merely spoke from within the story they knew, and by trying to express it cogently and faithfully, they generated new meanings, interpretations and realities. Anything resembling philosophizing about the ‘real’ would have taken them away from their immediate story-shaped experience. As William Penn so beautifully put it:
[Religion] fell from experience to tradition, and worship from power to form, from life to letter; and, instead of putting up lively and powerful requests, animated by a deep sense of want and the assistance of the Holy Spirit–by which the ancients prayed, wrestled, and prevailed with God–behold a by-rote mumpsimus, a dull and insipid formality, made up of corporeal bowings and cringings, garments and furnitures, perfumes, voices, and music, fitter for the reception of some earthly prince than the heavenly worship of the one true and immortal God, who is an eternal, invisible Spirit. (Penn, No Cross, No Crown).
This is precisely what early Friends meant by ‘notions’; the cooling of insight into conception, and conception into structure. In this respect we can say that Penn is not interested in ‘metaphysics’ but in honing faithful practice. What Quaker convictions do, are more important than talk of philosophical foundations. Understood in such narrative terms, Pen’s denunciation of forms seems to offer a double challenge for contemporary Liberal Friends. Firstly, it challenges those who might think of themselves as ‘theist’ to disclose the sources of their language. We are entitled to ask, ‘is your God-talk really Quaker’? Are such Friends worried about the God experienced in Meeting, or some general God, which is defended or lambasted in wider culture? Yet, a similar criticism can also be levied at those who identify as non-theist. Is the God-language the nontheist deny the same God-language used in our Book of Discipline? If the answer to this last question is no, it may raise further fundamental questions for Quaker non-theists. In particular, it might cause us to wonder whether such Friends truly inhabit David’s postmodern humanism? Or are some still wedded to a modernist philosophical project of objectivity and progress? If the latter, these Friends might want to consider whether such presuppositions are actually getting in the way of living a coherent Quaker Way. The suggestion at the heart of these interrogations is simply this. We need to return to our primary Quaker story. The other side of this equation is the need to cast aside disputes and wrangles which emerge from outside our narrative. The continuing problem I’ve observed among Friends is a confusion between foundations and roots. As Friends I don’t think we need foundations (we don’t need philosophical accounts of Quaker claims) but we do need roots. We need a strong sense of inner logic. We need to able to articulate why we worship together and why our worship takes the form it does. But that shouldn’t commit us to theism or its denial.