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Philosophy is useless, theology is worse?

Some older readers might recognize the title/lyric from a 1980s Dire Straits tune, “Industrial Disease.”

That sentiment might seem somewhat cynical but, in a way, I can see where Dire Straits was coming from. When I wrote about the social thinker Michel Foucault in my PhD program, I could sense that some of the most powerful players in my life at the time either didn’t give a damn or just didn’t understand.

One professor, so I heard through the grapevine, apparently said that “a university is a place where a professor gets a paycheck.” Well yes, but that’s pretty cynical. This guy ended up shafting me at the last minute, effectively trashing my chances at getting postdoc funding.

Pearls Before Swine – Pieter Brueghel via Wikipedia

Another professor was so incompetent that he got visibly upset at the very idea of my studying Michel Foucault. He thought Foucault’s work abrogated morality. I had to explain to this guy that Foucault was interested in how some moralities are highlighted while others are ignored at a given moment in history. Foucault wasn’t advocating the abandonment of morality.

The bottom line?

Even academics can be incredibly callous, uncaring or just uninformed. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up and stop looking at society in intelligent ways. But be beware. A lot of people won’t get what you’re saying. And some might even try to turn your wisdom against you.

Didn’t someone else say this a long time ago?

Do not cast your pearls before swine…”

Jesus, of course, was talking more about holiness and spirituality. But I think his teaching applies to many fields, and sadly, to more than a few people today.

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The Dislike of Catholicism: Understanding the Holy in the Catholic Tradition – 2 – What is truth?

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is truth?

Religion deals with beliefs and practices concerned with truth.

Most religious leaders appear open to interfaith dialogue but many, it seems, aren’t too keen to alter their core beliefs. They’ve invested their entire lives in a given belief system. It not only provides a comfortable living. It also gives them an identity. An importance. And some might say, a bit more sympathetically, a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

Unless religious leaders are utter charlatans, like some TV evangelists, their sense of truth keeps them on track. To deviate from their cherished beliefs would be, in most instances, too psychologically and economically disruptive.

So after all the pomp and circumstance that goes along with interfaith conferences has subsided, many religious leaders probably walk away virtually unchanged, each still believing, my way is best.

This might seem cynical. But clearly there’s a politically correct aspect to religion.

In his classic The Prince Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) wrote that good ruling means

It is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.¹

But what would a Machiavellian ruler have to do with religious leadership? The one works in the world of realpolitik while the other addresses the realm of the spirit. At least, this is the image that many religious leaders tend to portray. In reality, however, we can’t separate religion from the world. Consider the Vatican Bank, a global institution worth about $8 billion.

Not only that. There have been allegations about money laundering in the Vatican.² And other stories about Church payoffs to keep victims of sexual abuse quiet.³ Corruption and sexual abuse happen everywhere, in all corners of human experience. They are not only Catholic concerns. Still, Catholic leaders must publicly manage the weak side of human nature as it manifests within the Church.

During the Pope Benedict years, especially, Catholics heard a lot about homosexuality, abortion and other easy targets. But they almost never heard about the alleged corruption, closet homosexuality, and proven perversions within the Church. This arguably was a kind of lie by omission. But it wasn’t just a lie. It was pointing the finger to individuals less powerful, more vulnerable, and who, for the most part, couldn’t fight back.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The French postmodern historian and thinker Michel Foucault wrote volumes about truth and morality. Foucault wasn’t interested in declaring truth or the good moral life. Instead, he was quick to point out how some discourses about truth and morality are highlighted while others are buried. Foucault believed that power, itself, was the key agent.4 Power either makes or breaks a given discourse about truth and morality.

This may be the case with most organizations, religious or not. But we should be careful when talking about power. What exactly is power? Isn’t there a negative, controlling type along with a positive, liberating form of power? Could a given institution, like the Catholic Church, express some combination of these two fundamental types of power?

1 « 2 » 3 » 4 » 5 » 6

1. See XVIII – CONCERNING THE WAY IN WHICH PRINCES SHOULD KEEP FAITH

2. http://onforb.es/1hmS43i

3. http://goo.gl/XSR9rT

4 See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. C. Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Copyright © Michael Clark, 2014.


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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.