Saturday, October 23, 2004

accepting the third dimension: the grace of not absolutizing others

On Friday, I started watching Dick and Kofman's 2002 documentary Derrida. As we noted about two weeks ago, Jacques Derrida died on Friday 8 October. In my earlier post, I also linked to some introductory articles ab Derrida for those who wish to explore the nexus of his thought and the emerging church.

I found Dick and Kofman's Derrida to be a delightful introduction to the man and his thought. It was fun to watch how the creators playfully applied a post-structuralized approach to capturing the man himself. The documentary is an interplay of interview, video of Derrida speaking to students, in his home, with intermittent readings from some of his works. By seeing this admittedly artificial (Derrida frequently comments on this) portrayal of the man, one nevertheless gets a better sense of his gestalt than one might get just from reading his works.

One comment struck me:

"We look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like" (translated in subtitles from the French).

A two-dimensional interpretation of Derrida, of course, doesn't allow him to speak such a sentence. It makes him sound too much like a critical realist. It makes him sound as if he might actually believe in some sort of truth. Derrida, of course, did believe in something. I do not mean to sacralize the man or his thinking, but - while eschewing certainty - Derrida did have beliefs. In his 14 October NY Times essay, Mark C. Taylor, Cluett Professor of Humanities at Williams College who knew Derrida, wrote:

To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.

This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship.

And, it seems, he did believe that through the senses one can roughly apprehend reality. I'm not even sure Derrida was ontologically capable of denying our capacity to apprehend reality - even moral reality - to some reliable degree. He had been expelled from his Jewish school while living in Algeria after the Nazi defeat of France and spoke of what it was like to be called derisive names during that time.

We have a great capacity to inordinately collapse others to a flat two-dimensionality. I simplify the thoughts and actions of others. We do it to Derrida. We do it to one another.

For some time now I've been teaching, training, consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and helping people of divergent orientation and opinions work in team. I also have had opportunity to do some mediation. Three years ago, I wrote this in a series of articles Next-Wave published on postmodernism and the church:

I’ve observed that when individuals are embroiled in the heat of dispute, they have a tendency to absolutize - even demonize - the opposite party. "Absolutizing" is a term I use for arbitrarily narrowing the person with whom you’re disagreeing to their position. It involves a simplification of the other’s position - and ultimately of the other person - so that the issue is viewed as what I call "relentlessly binary." It’s black or white, on or off, 0 or 1, right or wrong.

Demonization occurs when the other’s motives are negatively construed. This narrowing of the other person results from several factors. One is the need to create a paradigm to handle controversy. In the short run, it is more simple and convenient to cast as adversary those with whom we disagree. The dispute becomes black and white and our role is well-defined and well-rehearsed. We marshal arguments supporting our thesis and our "opponent" can feel thusly cornered into doing the same.

Skillful conflict mediators aid those locked in the death-grip of thesis-antithesis by aiding each party to

1 - listen and fully focus on the other; and

2 - gain a fuller understanding not only of the reasons for the other’s position but - most importantly - of the presuppositions behind those reasons.

When this is done properly, the end of the process brings two results:

1 - the revealed complexity of concerns on both sides often shatters the myth of black and white, thesis-antithesis that had devolved the issue into mere power struggle and

2 - ironically, this very complexity provides a rich tapestry of creative alternatives as to how the "conflict" - or seeming incompatibility of positions - can be resolved.

The original precipitating conflict is sometimes shown to be hopelessly simplistic in its two-dimensionality. Resolving the conflict is now revealed to require the much harder work of addressing all the concerns represented in each disputant’s presuppositions.

Similarly, Chris Criminger, one of the 'mappers who's an articulate and informed pastor in Indiana and who's written a review of Groothius' stringent critique of postmodernism called Truth Decay, recently made this comment in our online community:

When you say you once were postmodern, I suspect you identify that with some cultural phenomena. I can't help but wonder if some folks have been reading books like "The Death of Truth" or "Truth Decay." The bottom line is they often connect intellectual continental philosophy like postmodernism to relativism and all truth is mere opinion. These academic Evangelicals therefore see the opinion only approach by many college students and then logically conclude that they must of got their relativistic philosophies from somewhere------it must have been postmodernism. Forgot the fact that college students back in the sixties were thinking and saying similar things when postmodernism was not even hardly a word much less a concept understood by the world at large.

Actually, it is fascinating when people 'actually' read people like Lyotard, Focault, Levinas, and Derrida and company, that they often neither reject modernity whole-sale like some postmoderns do today nor do they completely abandon truth or meta-narratives. It's interesting how the metanarrative of "justice" still is the reigning paradigm among many postmoderns despite their concerns and suspicions about meta-narratives.

In the end, I think Christians need to quit talking at other people (a very modern thing to do) and start listening to what postmoderns say themselves. I wish Christians would take other people at their word and what they believe than taking some supposed extreme conclusions of what's supposed to be the logical conclusions of someone's positions (hey, you postmoderns can't believe in truth or believe some things are wrong, everyone knows you all believe everything and everyone is right and there is no such thing as truth but simply people's socially constructed words, blah, blah, blah). Actually, it's these kinds of modern polemics that keeps driving postmoderns further away and even some of them into extreme places that modern Christians then find quite embarrassng. It's like Christians shoot their wounded and then say, "Why are you laying on the ground?" The church needs to do a much better job of understanding postmodern culture and loving postmodern people.

I also wish postmoderns would look really hard and see if they also are not contributing to some of the polemics and divisions between moderns and postmoderns. Its almost like at times that moderns are the victimizers and postmoderns are the victims and therefore they cannot ever be the problem or create their own dichotomies (we're into "holism" except for those evil-mongering modern Christians, yada, yada, yada . . ."). Or I can't stand conservative Christianity but I am into "inclusivity" [sigh].

All I will say is if postmodern Christianity just mirrors another schism in the church between traditional and emergent, modern and postmodern, foundationalism and nonfoundational epistemologies, etc. then I don't find the future near as promising or hopeful as some postmoderns seem to suggest.

Here is my simple proposal . . . Christians quit defending and start serving . . . Quit pointing the fingers and take a good look in the mirror and see how crucified we really are to our own pride, pretensions, and control of power. Now this last thing I suggest actually sounds like a very pomo thing to do but I want to suggest that pomo Christianity too often wants to decentralize Jesus to more "open" and "inclusive" and "pluralistic" options for Christian theology. What I am suggesting is that we decentralize "the self" and once again turn to the crucified Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who speaks of a different kind of freedom whose voice is often muffled by so many competing "other" voices.

I also thought of the tendency that we have to two-dimensionalize the other when I read Tony Campolo's recent comment about Bill Clinton:

I have continued that relationship up until the present. I continue to see [President Clinton], so don't get the idea that he was just doing this in order to maintain his political stature, whatever it might have been at that point, among the American people; that he was trying to convince the people that "I'm your President, see how careful I am about spiritual things." He has continued to seek spiritual guidance and direction. And I continue to see him with some degree of regularity and talk to him on the telephone, trying to make sure that he lives up to his desire to be a faithful husband and a faithful father.

Many might cast Derrida as someone who can be summarily dismissed by the argument of self-referential incoherence (if all is subject to deconstruction, then nothing can be constructed or stated - think smoke coming out of the androids head as Spoke intones, "Everything I say is a lie.").

Many might similarly dismiss the postmodern or, as Criminger observes, the putatively modern.

Many might wish to deny the possibility that someone with the ideology and moral failures of Bill Clinton could have a genuine Christian faith.

God help us to allow folks to be three-dimensional - to receive all that is there.

No comments: