Sauf Le Nom: A Postmodern Intervention for Heretics and Addicts of Orthodoxy (Part 3 of 3)

This is the final post of a series that I’ve been posting quasi-weekly. The first two posts can be read here and here, in chronological order.

A/theism: Where Theism and Atheism Collide

Edifying theologians, like edifying philosophers, “refuse to present themselves as having found out any objective truth,” and instead cast themselves as engaging in something largely different from and more important than making propositions of accurate representations of how things really are.[1] By this token, edifying theologians are not interested in proposing a new orthodoxy, but instead deconstructing the enterprise of orthodoxy altogether. There have been a few theological movements that cast themselves as “postmodern” and ultimately turned up insignificant because they made the mistake of complying with the system of orthodoxy and began making hard claims to accurate representations.[2]

Edifying theology opposes systematic theology by making the same hermeneutical turn Rorty makes.[3] It finds itself in juxtaposition to systematic theology simply by not being systematic and refusing to engage with the strong epistemological claims of orthodoxy. “As a matter of brute fact rather than of metaphysical necessity, there is no such thing as the ‘language of unified science.’ We have not got a language which will serve as a permanent neutral matrix for formulating all good explanatory hypotheses, and we have not the foggiest notion how to get one,” for either scientific hypotheses or for religious dogma.[4] This sort of ambiguity may cause one to conflate “having a view against views” and “refusing to have a view,” and inevitably make the accusation of relativism. The edifying theologians thus “decry the very notion of having a view, while avoiding having a view about having views.”[5]

At first glance, this position (or maybe, lack thereof) appears contradictory. It is the buffer zone between strong atheism and strong theism—a weak theology (if we are to use Caputo’s and Vattimo’s terminology). In contrast to theologies that have been historically strong, edifying theology offers a “more open-ended theology ‘weakened by the flux of undecidability and translatability.’”[6] Weak theology, as influenced by weak thought, refers to the gradual abandonment of an “obsession with the metaphysics of truth”—an abandonment that has transmuted contemporary philosophy and has come to understand itself as an interpretive exercise, or in other words, a hermeneutic.[7] Relativism is a common accusation (or even pejorative in some contexts) to the hermeneutical turn, in both philosophy and theology. On the contrary, Rorty says in an interview, “Truth, with a capital T, is sort of like God. There’s not much you can say about God. That’s why theologians talk about ineffability.”[8]

But the hermeneutical turn is not a theory about “truth” or even a method by which to attain it, but rather it is the decentralization and rejection of the systematic nature of epistemology, and in this case, orthodoxy.[9] Instead, as Gadamer writes, hermeneutics is “an attempt to understand what the human sciences truly are, beyond their methodological self-consciousness, and what connects them with the totality of our experience of the world.”[10] Peter Rollins’ book, “How (Not) To Speak of God,” even at the sound of the title, reflects this attempt.[11] Thomas J.J. Altizer, what we could call an edifying theologian for instance, “[announces] the end or withering away…of some absolute center or metaphysical foundation,”[12] which echoes what Rorty declares in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

“So Uhh…Do You Believe in God?”

The edifying theologian believes in God only insofar as God is “imposed on us in that brute way in which stones impinge on our feet.”[13] Paradoxically, though, the edifying theologian may often “rightly pass as an atheist.”[14]

If I believe in what is beyond Being, then I believe as an atheist, in a certain way. Believing implies some atheism, however paradoxical it may seem. I’m sure that the true believers know this better than others, that they experience atheism all the time—and this is part of their belief. In this epoche, this suspension of belief—suspension of the position, the existence of God—it is in this epoche that faith appears. The only possibility is faith in this epoche.[15]

The ontological existence of God (as Heidegger says, “ontotheology”)[16] is not of primary concern and, at times, can even be the wrong kind of question for the edifying theologian, just as the question of Truth is to the edifying philosopher. Indeed, we ought not to conflate contact with the Divine and dealing with the Divine—the former, “a causal, non-intentional, non-description-relative relation”; the latter, “describing explaining, predicting, and modifying it—all of which are things we do under descriptions.”[17] Thinking in terms of playing cards may be helpful here—we can be in contact with playing cards before even having dealt them out (or dealt with them), which is to say that we formalize and systematize the cards when we deal them out to play a game. Edifying theology wants nothing to do with games of this sort.

In another formulation of the question at hand, framed as belief in the resurrection, Peter Rollins answers, “Of course I [deny the resurrection]…I do deny the resurrection every time I do not serve my neighbor, every time I walk away from people who are poor…And I affirm the resurrection every now and again…when I weep for those people who have no more tears to shed. That is what we are trying to do: substantive change.”[18] In the spirit of great edifying philosophers, the edifying theologians, like Rollins, “destroy for the sake of their own generation…[and] keep space open for the sense of…wonder that there is something new under the sun, something which is not an accurate representation of what was already there, something which cannot be explained and can barely be described.”[19]

This Is The End (If You Want It)

Hopefully now you can see—if not at least a little more clearly—that Richard Rorty’s critique of philosophy’s epistemological enterprise is also quite appropriately applicable to theology. In challenging the black-and-whiteness that orthodox theology employs, we find that if you paint the picture in color, in spray paint, on a city wall, it will just be painted over and the artists will be punished via anathema and murder. Edifying theologians are hoodlums, punks, anarchists, taggers, revolutionaries. In the words of Ivone Gebara:

All this is a sort of theopraxis, encounter with God in life, experience of God in the events that go to make up daily living. This love surpasses the law of any doctrinal systemization. It simply appears in the experience of living. It is there, often nameless, mixed up with all sorts of behaviors like yeast in dough. When the dough is ready, you cannot take out the yeast and put in back in the box. [20]


[1] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 370-71.

[2] Yvonne Sherwood. “SBL Publications.” SBL Publications. Society of Biblical Literature, Nov. 2004. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

[3] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 318.

[4] Ibid., 348-49.

[5] Ibid., 371.

[6] Caputo, Vattimo, Robbins, After the Death of God, 16.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Richard Rorty. Interview by Wim Kayzer. Of Beauty and Consolation. Vrijzinnig Protestantse Radio Omroep. VPRO, The Netherlands, 2000. Television. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzynRPP9XkY&gt;.

[9] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York, 1975), xi.

[10] Ibid., xiii.

[11] Peter Rollins. How (Not) to Speak of God. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006).

[12] Caputo, Vattimo, Robbins, After the Death of God, 68.

[13] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 375.

[14] Jacques Derrida, “On ‘Atheism’ and ‘Belief'” Interview by John Caputo. YouTube. 2002 Toronto ‘Other Testaments’ Conference, 26 Jan. 2007. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3fScS2cnB0&gt;.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper, 1962); and Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference. (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

[17] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 375.

[18] I Deny The Resurrection. Perf. Peter Rollins. Vimeo. Vimeo, 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <http://vimeo.com/19258866&gt;.

[19] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 369-70.

[20] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed. The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 149.

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Posted on February 6, 2014, in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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