Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thinking about 'I' and 'We' theologically with Gilkey...

In his book "Message and Existence," theologian Langdon Gilkey (who taught at the University of Chicago a couple decades ago) describes two 'poles' of religious belief:

1) Participation in a community that bears objectively given tradition "under a particular symbolic horizon," and 2) "Personal intellectual assent" to that horizon, which involves experiencing and appropriating the tradition in such a way that commitment to it comes from the deepest level of our being, as an autonomous choice.

Leaving aside for now the issue of how such a choice can be made apart from the revelation of God, I think we find in Gilkey's description of belief (which leans heavily on Tillich) a valuable method for understanding the appropriate relationship between the 'I' and the 'We' that are both necessary for authentic Christian faith.

It is a relationship that some proponents of 'postmodern' theology have been attempting to re-capture, under a variety of headings. Perhaps examining Gilkey’s words more closely will provide some beneficial insight into this relationship.

With regard to the 'We,' Gilkey states that all historically formulated social communities contain both definite and indefinite visions of reality that express the ethos of that particular community. The ultimate views of any community will only be expressed symbolically, due to the inability of any member of a community to fully express the complete objective of that community.

Therefore, we use "powerful symbols" to describe the worldview we hold, and although there are "scientific, theorizable, and philosophical elements within such a symbolic structure, the structure as a whole is symbolic rather than theoretical..." (p. 27)

This seems to mirror Westphal's description of Christianity as a 'mega-narrative' instead of a 'meta-narrative,' a clarification which provides a sort of rebuttal to those who claim that any attempt to combine 'relativistic' postmodern theories with the Christian faith are tantamount to heresy. Understanding the Christian faith as a mega-narrative means recognizing that the symbolic structure of our faith places limitations on what we can say about our faith, and the object of our faith, God.

If a meta-narrative is primarily a theoretical system that endeavors to provide an explanation for all of reality - including the system itself - then placing Christianity within that realm is surely a mistake, for it seems destined to the type of circular failure that has resulted in the skepticism of both the philosophy of modernism as a whole and the particularly pointed criticisms of today's so-called 'atheistic fundamentalists.'

Existing within the 'We' is, for Christians, a matter of "belief on the deepest level," that is, "a personal participation in the life and ethos of a community and its tradition and an assent to the fundamental symbolic forms of that tradition as true and as normative, that is, as directing or guiding one’s own thoughts, goals, and patterns of behavior." (p. 27)

But just as there can be "no genuinely self-directing individuals without participation in community," neither can there be any real community without these individuals. (p. 34) There is an autonomous act of belief that involves the 'I' having and making use of genuine free choice. Here I would stress yet again that, if God exists, such freedom and autonomy can only find their true meaning as God reveals Godself to us, both individually and communally.

But the point is that there is a paradox: One pole of belief cannot exist without the other. Bonhoeffer made a similar point in his writings, which proclaimed Christ as the center but also held that the Church ceases to exist when its members are not present. Unless both the personal and communal sides of belief are held together, true belief is impossible.

But this is perhaps where the real potential within so-called 'postmodern' theology may be found – the desire to regain a truly meaningful communal element within Christianity is not only a good idea, it is necessary for the Church to exist.

What's interesting is that Gilkey suggests the development of autonomous belief systems throughout the Enlightenment project has been responsible for much of the damage done to belief. However, he still maintains that the individual experience which evokes genuine choice is essential for true belief. So we can see that Gilkey is struggling to find a balance between the two sides of belief... is there a way to resolve the tension found here?

I am starting to think about the way that thinkers like Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer look at individuality and community. Perhaps combining a theory of absolute subjectivity with a theology of "Sanctorum Communio" (communion of saints) can provide assistance. More to come...

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