Existentialism And Postmodernism

The speculative philosophy of Hegel left a deep mark on early nineteenth-century thinking. Hegel argued that the apparent chaos of history manifested spirit coming to self-consciousness in society and its institutions. No development is ever truly mistaken, wasteful or destructive, for everything is subsumed into higher forms. Everything is rational, and is constantly evolving. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was one of the strongest opponents of this Hegelian revisionism. He lashed the complacent Christianity which he felt was the result. In particular, he objected to religion being blandly undemanding, with faith being presented as the reasonable response to a Christianity that fitted neatly into everything known. Kierkegaard aimed to show that what mattered was the divine irruption into the world, cutting across conventional reason by appearing in Jesus as human being and God. Christ being eternally present, faith could now be seen as the challenge to accept the truth of his incarnation. This was a spirituality of disjuncture. To believe meant launching forth in faith, continually re-making one's life in a decision for Christ which could not be shown to be reasonable. Truth was found in the way an individual came to awareness in the encounter with God. Initially (e.g. in Either-Or) Kierkegaard contrasted the loneliness of ethical fidelity with the pleasure of aesthetic pursuits. Later he went further, to argue (e.g. in Fear and Trembling) that nothing supersedes the encounter with God, not even ethics. He cites Abraham's preparedness to sacrifice Isaac as demonstrating the validity of the 'teleological suspension of the ethical': goodness is found in faithfulness to God's prompting rather than in any system of laws. With no suasive proof to carry faith forward, faith, in such uncertainty, will imply anguish, which for Kierkegaard is a sign of authenticity.

Kierkegaard feared that a mixture of forces was creating a mass human identity, eroding the basic sense of awareness and individual responsibility which was so central to being human. State religion, Hegelian theology turning evil into part of human progress, even the rise of democracy—these and other forces he saw as encouraging a mass mentality in which no-one would have the courage to stand out. Kierkegaard thus anticipated the sense of unease about collectivism which has been a feature of the last century. Part of the attraction of faith in Christ was that it jolted people out of drifting along with the herd. Faith was an act of will, not an act of understanding. Herbert Wolf says that Kierkegaard opposed 'anything that attempts to deny or replace the decision-character of faith. To establish a historical basis for faith.is to substitute knowledge for faith, security for risk' (Wolf 1965:62). Kierkegaard fitted well into the traditional Reformation emphasis on justification by faith alone, and scholars as diverse as Barth and Bultmann drew on Kierkegaard in shaping their own thought. His picture of the believer contra mundum encouraged a faith which refused to compromise with popular culture. But Kierkegaard leaves the believer a lonely figure, scarcely linked to others in the community of faith. Faith itself is an act of resistance. There is little to learn from the surrounding world (indeed, there is little to learn from the history of Christianity). Kierkegaard had stressed the infinite distance between human beings and God, a distance bridged only by the incarnation on one side and by radical faith on the other. Kierkegaard's suspicion about human nature discourages any spirituality in which believers reach God by weaving links between their experiences in life in general and their faith beliefs. There is no room for the Holy Spirit as the God of relationships, bringing together the Church and wider society (cf. Wolf 1965:57).

Kierkegaard was to be hailed retrospectively as one of the inspirations of existentialism. Another proto-existentialist was Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900). Nietzsche's jaundiced eye surveyed the confident, expanding world of capitalist entrepreneurialism and detected an underlying anxiety. The very fact of human self-reliance meant that any sense of an overarching ethic or point of reference had collapsed, and could never be pieced together again. There were no longer any universal truths and hence, said Nietzsche, God was dead. Human beings had only themselves to rely upon, which was just as well, since systems of ideas were the creation of weak people to shackle the strong. With no universal laws to be observed, the only limits to individual wills were other wills. What was needed was strong leaders whose will to power could sweep aside all timidity and obscurantism and seize every opportunity. He attacked Christianity for its deification of weakness and its depreciation of the passions. The joint influence of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche can be seen in Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who argued that Western philosophy's treatment of metaphysics tended to obscure the reality of being. Ideas of absolute truth closed off discussions about alternative ways of viewing reality. In particular, the twentieth-century technological culture was creating a myth of scientific reason as the master of all things. This confidence in self-mastery obscured the essential understanding of being as something unpredictable, contingent, and manifold. Those influenced by Heidegger came to see the alliance of capitalist technology and consumerism as producing an omnivorous culture of uniformity.

The baton of suspicion is now handed on to postmodernism, with its desire to dethrone absolutes of meaning. One consequence of this, in spirituality, has been a new interest in the recovery of voices and traditions that have been squashed by the dominant culture of reason and technology. Probably the main influences in postmodernism have been Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) and Michel Foucault (1926-84). Derrida helped popularize the idea of deconstruction, a term he takes from Heidegger. Deconstructive postmodernism steps outside the traditional framework of philosophical rationality to question metaphysical categories, for these implicitly assume a grounding in some ontological certainty. Derrida holds that there is no such grounding, for 'there is nothing outside the text'. Any discourse can be shown to contain variant readings which contradict or subvert any attempt at a fundamental meaning, such as that intended by the author or surrounding culture. Moreover, we cannot apprehend an essential 'meaning' because the very fluidity of language itself sets up endless deferrals, in which we pursue meaning through one field of social constructs after another. What can be sought outside the text is that which was denied in its composition.

Universalizing systems of thought have operated by suppressing whatever is opposite to themselves. They constitute themselves by this act of exclusion, which means that they carry the trace of that which they deny. According to Derrida the tendency in Western philosophy towards such totalizing discourses is another expression of the obsession with power and domination underlying so much of Western culture. The deconstructive postmodernist approach strives, rather, for an openness to that excess of being which is beyond all categorization or expression and which disrupts attempts at such. Truth is that which dissolves every attempt at a metanarrative.

Michel Foucault takes a thoroughly Nietzschean line to argue that normative ideas such as justice, sanity and sexuality have been plastic, changing radically within different periods of history and different communities. Not only are there no absolutes, but the very norms we have taken for granted have been contingent expressions of the power relations within society. People have developed their identities within understandings of normality which seemed immutable but which were in fact spun out from the controlling forces within society. Freedom demands the recovery of alternative vision, the truth which eludes us unless we go beyond the margins of convention to seek a different construction of reality (e.g. Foucault 1988:154-6).

Foucault and his followers have a particular cutting edge to their critique: their insistence that in contemporary society relations of power and control have been internalized. No longer are the dominant values imposed from above. The influence of the Enlightenment means that the values of instrumental rationality permeate people's thinking, in such a way that they freely cooperate in creating a disciplinarian society. Crucial here is the idea of surveillance, which Foucault treats extensively in Discipline and Punish (1979) and which he sees as characterizing modernity. Along with the Enlightenment view that all people are equal there grew the acceptance of supervision within society. It was felt that the basic truths of society were so clear, distinct and persuasive that their value should be seen by all. There is an expectation that the resulting codes will be observed, an expectation helped by the background awareness we have of being monitored and recorded by bureaucracy with its files and computers. The culture of modernity is thus one of spontaneous compliance. Initially, Foucault's answer was to call for the recovery of 'subjugated knowledges', judged to be useless, dangerous or deluded by the prevailing culture (Foucault 1980:82). He later refined this to a call for 'free speech', in terms of which subjugated knowledge is not so much an alternative worldview; rather it is that which challenges and subverts the paradigms of understanding prescribed by modernity. Such knowledge, and the experience of groups which has yielded it, are intended to resist the normative view and stimulate action against domination and exploitation.

From Kierkegaard to Foucault, there has been a strong element of cultural criticism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy and theology—a hermeneutic of suspicion, in fact. Integrity is seen as resistance to a world of conformity and of misleading sophistries. Truth is seen as cutting across conventional understandings. In deconstructive postmodernism the very idea of truth is problematical, but it is that which upsets expectations, which cannot be accommodated within the known forms. (The irony here is that the turn to the subject, which accelerated with the Enlightenment, has now turned against the Enlightenment concept of reason as that can be shown to apply universally.)

This sketchy overview has been necessary to indicate some of the intellectual antecedents of a significant influence on contemporary spirituality. In the twentieth century the deinstitutionalization of spirituality has proceeded apace. Many groups on the fringe of organized religion or outside it now seek to recover their own subjugated knowledge as part of the quest for human growth and liberation. Rowan Williams points out that although all human beings are liable to be drawn into the fantasy lives of others, cultural power reaches in to shape the self-perception of the powerless (Williams 1988:140). This is what many today set out to resist. Spirituality, with its integration of understanding and practice, is seen as central to this process. Examples include gay and lesbian groups, feminists interested in recovering the lost wisdom of women through the ages, neo-pagan circles, African Americans seeking the memory of slave religion, and followers of creation-centred spirituality.

A hallmark of postmodernist criticism is 'commitment to indeterminacy, openness and multiplicity' and to continual decentring which refuses to anchor itself in any normative world-view (Connor 1989:18-19). Postmodernists share common ground with many feminists in offering a critique of universal accounts of reality. An example might be Francine Cardman, who sees an emerging spirituality of compassion characterized by critique of domination in all its forms, and by respect for difference and acceptance of a multiplicity of viewpoints:

Reorienting oneself to pluralism is a spiritual as well as an epistemological and practical process. It requires a radical decentring on the part of the privileged whose reality has occupied the centre, whatever its defining terms (e.g., economic, geopolitical, sexual, even christological).

(Cardman 1992:8)

Part of this transformation will involve rejection of values that were previously central to Christian spirituality, such as self-sacrifice, obedience, submission and suffering, with an accompanying 'dismantling or replacement' of associated theological concepts such as 'predominant understandings of sin and redemption, atonement and Jesus' relation to the Father' (ibid.: 10).

Some aspects of this process are notable developments. For example, the search for appropriate spirituality usually takes place in a group. The subject does not regard his or her growth as a private matter; the personal is not reduced to the individualistic. It is seen that holiness involves challenging the unholy within society. There is a shift, too, in that the spiritual is not a realm of special experiences, but a dimension of experience as a whole. Spirituality is, in part, that which informs and illuminates ordinary life. Yet we may feel that this broadening of spirituality has come at a price. To follow postmodernism is to accept that every delineation of truth is partial and susceptible to corruption by power. Mary Grey uses Foucault's idea of subjugated knowledge to construct a feminist account of redemption. But she insists that 'the claims of liberating faith spring from fidelity to the vision of "shalom", or Divine righteousness, which stand their ground despite the quicksands of political systems which may surround them' (Grey 1989:10). A nuanced assault on deconstructive postmodernism comes from Charlene Spretnak (1991), who is strongly committed to respect for difference and relatedness. She argues that wisdom spirituality, through its grounding in the cosmological processes, can help to nourish wonder and hence to appreciate difference, subjectivity and communion. In this way it subverts exploitation and domination (Spretnak 1991: see ch. 6, esp. 220-3).

A spirituality of radical decentring impresses by its empowerment of the dispossessed and by its preparedness to embrace vulnerability. Also, its acceptance of the limitations to knowledge is close to that respect for mystery which is part of Christian tradition. Yet many will hesitate to accept the accompanying argument that any idea of transcendent truth is oppressive. The vision of God which evokes free assent is one which can unify and reconcile people in a divided world. It can make possible a sharing of values, and a creative exploration of new possibilities through these. Moreover, deconstructive postmodernism seems at times actually to celebrate how global capitalism dismembers cultures with their explanations of reality (Spretnak 1991:127). There is surely a danger that there is nothing left with which to criticize this commercial engine (cf. Connor 1989:234). Every recovery of truth is contingent, which would mean there was no real concept of liberating truth against which corrupt systems could be tested (cf. Taylor 1986:70). At the very least, however, postmodernism's discontents make us aware of how often ideas of doctrinal purity have been associated with violence and exclusion. If in future spirituality is to speak from a vision of the whole in a way that attracts, it will have to speak in the language of service, kenotic prophecy, and respect for mystery.

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