Jodie Gallo and I have been exchanging e-mails and I want to share with you his fascinating take on “post-modernism” as it may apply to theology. I think it is thought provoking and I hope you will add your thoughts.
First, I should say that Jodie and I are poles apart on politics. Yet I have deep respect for his understanding of Scripture. I find it heartening that we can share our thoughts, our questions, and our doubts without all the snark that usually accompanies social media. As he says below, we may never find “the truth” in this lifetime, but that should not prevent us from growing our understanding. Here is his post, and I will follow with my comment to him.
I’m no expert on “post modernism”. What follows is the danger of having a little bit of knowledge. It would probably get me an “F” in whatever Humanities Course teaches it these days. But that never stopped my from shooting my mouth off…
What I meant was that it is impossible to read the Bible without reading it through the lens of our own experience, culture, and language. And we always project on to it something of ourselves. This is what I think the fundamental insight of Post Modern methods is all about, and I think they got it from the insights of Modern Physics: One cannot hope to read the Scriptures objectively. But one can look at them from many angles and from the sum of those angles learn more than by reading them just the one way.
The way I see it, 18th and 19th Century Theology assumed the insights of Classical (Newtonian) Physics which say that the Universe is a giant machine that operates according to immutable Laws that can be learned and articulated. We study (read) the Universe to learn these Laws, and then if we obey them we can live better, and we can make machines of our own that operate according to the same laws, from steam engines to space ships. The industrial revolution validated that insight. In Theology, the Scriptures are treated like the Newtonian Universe, and if we study them diligently they too will tell us God’s Laws and God’s Truth.
20th Century Theology, at least after say 1945, assumes the insights of Modern Physics which tell us that the Universe is made up of interacting quantum particles whose properties and behaviors sometimes literally depend on how we study them. We can’t discern the Laws of the Universe directly because our perception of the Universe is filtered by the limitations of our sensing tools, and its properties can literally change as a consequence of our attempts at observation. Thus what we see is not reality in its pristine state, but the convolution of reality with our interaction with it. Clearly any laws we might derive from our observations are therefore subject to scrutiny, and we must always look for new ways to test, correct, and enhance our knowledge.
There is even “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle”, that says in a nutshell that we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time (like we can of a planet). It turns out to be a fundamental property of nature in quantum physics that nailing down certain properties denies us the ability to discern others.
In Post Modern Theology, the Scriptures are treated like the quantum Universe. We can’t really see or comprehend them for what they are. We filter them through the lenses of our own culture and language, and we project on to them our own preconceived notions of what they mean. And so we are always trying to devise creative ways to get around our own biases and lenses, to tease out of the Text its “true” meaning(s). And there are things that are permanently locked up that we can never know.
I am comfortable with that approach. There are Biblical texts that attest to it as well… ironically. In Revelation, John sees “the book”. It is sealed shut with seven seals, and it cannot be opened, its mysteries locked away, till someone worthy can be found to break them. The slain Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) is found to be worthy, and as He breaks the seals we get to see what they are: The things that prevent us from actually knowing the contents of “the book”. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, our claims for vengeance for the martyrs, and even the mysterious silence of Heaven (!). It’s really a marvelous vision, and represented often in Christian arts and crafts as a bleeding lamb holding a cross sitting on a closed book, the book having seven seals holding it shut. (Apocalyptic cults have a field day with it – usually focusing on the seals, and missing the elephant in the room: that we are still prevented from knowing the contents of “the book” ).
But there is also a Nihilistic twist in recent post-modernism that suggests that maybe there is no reality at all, or that if there is, we can never find it and so it doesn’t really matter. That “the book” is filled with empty pages. Indeed quantum physics in the last 50 years has been frustrated in its search for the ultimate law of Physics. It has reached an impasse. The deeper they look, the more emptiness they find, emptiness held together with more emptiness by mysterious math equations that are completely incomprehensible even to those who fully understand them. Truth, absolute core Truth, if it is out there, remains illusive. So the Nihilism that comes from that frustration, applied to Theology and applied to Scriptures, tells us that maybe its all a myth, a blank screen, and the only thing that really exists is our own socially constructed reality that we project on to it.
Being bi-cultural myself, I recognize how much of what we think of as reality is indeed merely a social construct, but I am not ready to go all the way. At least not to the Nihilistic conclusion that since it “all depends”, therefore none of it is real to begin with.
We just have to be patient.
Even when all we do is project on to the Heavens our own thoughts and feelings, some thing, or some one, out there, reflects them back to us, modified and enhanced, as if sung in harmony. That Mirror, that Voice, it belongs to the Who we are looking for. Or maybe better yet, looking for us. Maybe what really holds the Universe together is Life. Nobody knows what that is, but it was God’s Breath of Life, breathed into Adam’s lungs, that turned the ashes of inanimate atoms like Carbon and Hydrogen and Oxygen, and the sub atomic particles they are made of, all strung together, into a living breathing thinking feeling human being. What is “Life”? Is all of Nature perhaps actually “alive”? Maybe >that< is the missing law. Where and what is the boundary between not alive and alive? What causes it? Nobody knows, but in Christ we know we have life, and we can live life abundantly, and “death” does not get the final say.
Douglas Adams made fun of quantum physics and its effect on all the other intellectual pursuits in his radio series “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Did you ever follow it? A race of pan-dimensional beings built a super computer to find the answer to the “ultimate question about life, the universe and everything”. It was called “Deep Thought”. The answer it found turned out to be ‘42’, which set off a quest to find the proper question that would make the answer make sense. The punch line in the end was that you cannot both know the “question” and the “answer” at the same time. Heisenberg. I happened to be studying quantum physics in college at the time, and we all found the radio series to be an immensely satisfying humorous look at the search for “Truth”.
I am comfortable with the humor, the challenges, and the ultimate mystery at the end of our rainbow search for Truth. The Psalmist pleads
Make me know Your ways, O Lord;
Teach me Your paths.
Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
For You I wait all the day. (Psalm 25:4-5 )
And Paul answers the Psalmist towards the end of Romans, practically in ecstasy:
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)”
Post Modernism teaches us to be humble again, about what we think we know. And to enjoy living in the Mystery. We don’t get our arms around Truth. But maybe, if we are lucky, Truth gets His arms around us.
This is a beautiful piece of writing — and thinking. Thank you for it. I wonder if you would allow me to post it on my blog, either with or without attribution.
It has taken me a while to respond because of Springtime chores around here, mulching, tilling the garden, cutting back old growth, etc. Things that would once have taken a day or two to accomplish take a lot longer these days.
In any case, I find nothing here to object to, quite the opposite. I come at it from the very different perspective but agree with your balancing act. I know people who are pretty wrapped up in the Human Genome project. They once thought it would “unlock the door” to basic human biology, but are discovering the deeper they go the more mysteries they discover.
That seems to be true throughout science, as you say. There may be things we are incapable of knowing and that is fine with me. As a layman, I look around my world and am humbled by my own limits. My dog knows things I will never understand and it isn’t just her senses of smell and hearing. She knows when I am coming home even from miles away.
Scripture tells us things we are only now beginning to understand — the Big Bang, that time is mutable, that there is existence outside of our known universe. And I agree that we read Scripture through our own cultural lens. Most of Jesus’ parables, for example, were not telling us how to run our day to day affairs, but what the Kingdom of God is like.
I bristle when people use “science” as a cudgel. Science is wonderful in revealing to us the majesty of the natural world, but science has never had a lock on “truth.” Today’s science tells us how wrong yesterday’s science was, and tomorrow’s science will make us all look like fools. But we have an impulse to discover (at least those of us in the West — other cultures seem more content with acceptance). It is hubris to think we have arrived at understanding. Our understanding will always be partial.
But the same is true with theology. We will never understand God, and thank God for that. What a small God He would be if we COULD understand Him.
So, again, thank you for your very thoughtful insights.