Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dissonance: on Peter's 'God, the World's Future'


While Peters is right, and creatively so, to suggest a reconstructive third reading to Ricouer’s critical second one, and to do so manifestly as a hopeful gesture, one wonders if, in too easily returning to rest and reassurance he has somewhat missed the rigors and possibilities of that troublesome second glance. In finding a strange new shore he seems sometimes to have, like Chesterton’s wandering British sailor, once again discovered London.

“What is needed is a theological method that assumes that both ancient and modern understandings belong to a single and more inclusive tradition-history – to a single story – and that this…will eventually participate in one comprehensive story of humankind on earth” (16). The very sentence might make Hegel stand up and shout for joy, but this is precisely the solution that postmodern consciousness prohibits.

There is no Story. They are only stories, which may indeed be greater than the sum or their parts but which one finds it almost impossible to imagine that they will ever coalesce. What this means for Christianity may indeed be troubling, but one does not get to post-postmodernism by leaping over Derridean wastes and claiming the journey was comprehensive.

The coming of the Kingdom of God is not a super-card that trumps all others on the deck – not because it is or isn’t true but because of our ability or inability to recognize it when it happens.

The cross might seem a transcendent symbol to us because of its Pauline provenance, but what of the legendary account of the island monks who followed Christ’s teachings but because of their isolation failed to hear of his death? Was their faith, would their faith have been, necessarily diminished? Is their story denied a place, bereft of protean power because it must endure with loaves and fishes?

And while the gospel might well be key to understanding reality, as I’m willing to wager, one must recall that we have no gospel but four gospels and non-identical gospels in the mouths of Jesus and of Paul. Surely these need not participate in one comprehensive story to be meaningful or right or Christian. Perhaps we need only to know good news when we hear it, and the gospels are no less gospel for being multiple.

Christian symbols are not magic, nor are any symbols magically Christian; simply, symbols either resonate or they do not. Surely a powerful message could be conveyed by the image of an empty tomb. The Christian symbols that Peters claims to “exist at the inbetween where the ineffable God beyond touches the mundane realm in which we live” are left quite unspecified (28). Perhaps we are all supposed to be thinking of the same things, and perhaps we do.

But if we do not, then we are left in a situation where those with access to Peter’s particular set of symbols become the sole bridge by which we might access God, a troublesome arrangement. What he seems to have gained in reassurance, the rest of us might have lost in doubt. We are put back in the desert, which is indeed hard to endure.

But surely one way to beat the desert of critical doubt is not to place faith in symbols, be they Christian or not, but in the reality of feast and flesh in which God biblically dwells and to claim that faith is the orientation of an entire person rather than reliance on a particular imagination.

Another way might be to realize that there is no escape, that doubt must always accompany faith, as Peters admits, not because of a particularly modern consciousness but because of the eternal impoverishment of words; faith must always accompany doubt as well, or it would simply be disbelief. Doubt and desert are both semi-fictions, they are like bad movies only loosely based on actual events.

The desert is not desert to those who live there; to them it is simply home. With trust in God, water springs from stones; that is the very moral of the story. Here then might lie a better third reading (not that premodern plus post/modern equals transmodern)! but that the very desert of the critical cannot, by its own definition, be absolute.

I gather that Peters in his obvious affinity for postmodern thought must understand this, but by insisting that we “emerge” from the critical consciousness he first said we cannot escape, he denies the full promise of our Christian wager and settles for a mediocre Bavarian painting when we might all have instead done much better.

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