Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Postmodern theology"

In my experience Christians pretend to be opposed to postmodernism but really they love it because it gives them a) a convoluted form of prose much to their liking, b) the epistemological relativism gives them shadows in which to hide. Enter the queen of obfuscation, Karen Armstrong:
"The earliest Christian theology was apophatic. Apophatic theology -- the theology of the original, Greek-speaking Christian church -- was "naysaying" theology, a kind of religious language whose difficult task it was to acknowledge in human language the very inadequacy of human language. Whatever it said, apophatic theology immediately took back, and then it took back the taking back. Ordinary language -- the language of evidence and inference, of instance and generalization -- was fine for ordinary matters. But to confess the universal human experience of a final failure in this language is to take back the confession. It is to lose the game before it begins."
This is her position being described by someone else, one should say. One should also say it is complete bollocks. "Apophatic" theology has to do with the process of defining God in terms of what cannot be said about Him. We needn't detain you too long with the details of this essentially mystical branch of theology because it is simply false to pretend that the early church thought or spoke in this way. Here's St Paul, whose claim to be a theologian of original Christianity is at least as good as anyone's, one would have thought:
"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
That was Paul having a day off from the apophatic style of theologising. He had quite a few of these, as his letters show. I've said it before but I think Karen Armstrong knows this perfectly well and is trying it on with an audience that is not postmodern but simply post-Christian and who don't, therefore, have the resources to call her out on this sort of thing. The thing is, Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified - and dismissed - the type of argument that Karen Armstrong is trying to pretend is a discovery of the old. He said if you try to preserve a space for God in what cannot be explained - or as Armstrong would have it here, even described - you're left with the problem that the spirit of scientific discovery is making this space increasingly small. Bonhoeffer's solution was ethical engagement with the world, which is why he was executed by the Nazis; Armstrong's is to retreat into mysticism. Her fate will surely involve having her books favourably reviewed by liberal journals dismayed by the stridency of the 'New Atheists'. Poor thing.

Via: Norm

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