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Postmodern Theology – Who’s got the power?

Postmodern Sock Monkeys.JPG

Postmodern Sock Monkeys by deglispiriti via Flickr

When I studied Michel Foucault and postmodernism in the 1980s, many so-called intellectuals overlooked the idea of the holy, as taken on its own terms, and focused on a stripped down notion of socio-cultural power.

Society was just the outcome of competing discourses and institutionalized practices of power. Everything else didn’t really matter. And if psychology did manage to squeak its way into an academic discussion, Freud was fair game but Jung, well, he was definitely out.

This approach seemed pretty thin and I remember talking about or, rather, trying to talk about the idea of the numinous and how it could relate to power, both psychological and social.

I’d written an essay on Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, groundbreaking back then, likening it to the numinous potential of Jungian archetypes. I only got an A- on that paper, probably because my sociology professor, although a nice guy, just couldn’t see the connection I was making between pop culture and spirituality. Ironically enough, the arguably silly distinction between pop culture and spirituality is still reinforced today by many religious people who insist on the primacy of their own rigid beliefs and agendas.

Later, in the early 1990s, I got interested in the ethical ambivalence of power. By this I mean that power isn’t always oppressive, bad or solely based on self-interest, as some professors seemed to say. In fact, power can be used for the good and, moreover, the Good can be powerful.

Fortunately, the postmodern scene has evolved since the early days. Bookworms and information seekers began to embrace figures like Jacques Derrida, who speaks to a ‘metaphysical space’ in-between linkages within endless chains of connotative signification.

Reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘gap of nothingness,’ the apparently radical postmodern agenda began to discern cracks in the interpretative process and was asking what might lay beyond them.

Spirituality perhaps?

A fairly recent trend called Postmodern Theology takes postmodernism in the opposite direction from it’s limiting beginnings. Postmodernism is apparently restoring the holy and encouraging meaningful interfaith dialogue in an age where many are turned off by religious dogmas and yet duped by the reductive claims of science. A good example of this trend can be found here: “Toward a Theological Understanding of Postmodernism.”

Contemporary postmodernism may be spiritually liberating or restrictive. On the plus side, the conceptual deconstruction of sacred texts, teachings and practices strips away bogus, culture-laden ideas about God and moral righteousness. But on the down side, some postmoderns still seem unable to consider the idea that power may be holy, that the holy is ‘good power,’ and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s an equally unfortunate scenario where authoritarian personality types are consumed by a numinous power that’s less than God. These individuals haven’t developed any appreciation for postmodernism’s potential usefulness. In fact, these folks probably don’t think at all because they just know they’re right (at least, that’s what they say or imply).

One way to identify an authoritarian personality is in the inability to admit uncertainty. There’s always “no doubt” in an authoritarian’s mind. They simply must have things their way, intellectually and often practically. The last thing they’re willing to do is compromise, and this can happen in any religious, political, scientific or New Age circuit.

Perhaps the next important task for postmodernism is to strip away its elitist, specialized style and make its ideas more accessible to the general public. There’s a branch of philosophy that says if you cannot say things clearly, in a way that everyone can understand, chances are you don’t really understand it yourself.

While this approach engenders its own set of complications (e.g. how can we ‘make it clear’ if an audience always interprets what we say?)  it does seem worthy of consideration.

Copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved.

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