Friday, March 17, 2006

Journeying with those in Exile

Dan from On Journeying with those in Exile has posted some very interesting musings entitled, 'Communicating Meaning: Speaking Religion with G. Lindbeck, M. Heidegger & U. Eco.'

In this short essay Dan is interested in communication, and how we are able to communicate pragmatically despite the ongoing postmodern anxiety over truth claims. He highlights three different approaches to communication focusing on the views of a theologian, a philosopher, a literary theorist; and attempts to synthesize them.

For the most part I agree with Dan so my dialoging with his ideas will not display any substantive disagreement. Dan highlights one of the biggest questions for those who find themselves in a postmodern context.

'If all truths are contextually understood, how can any communication occur between communities? It seems as though we are forced to accept the postmodern conclusion, so strongly supported by the likes of Eco, that communication is limited to pragmatic purposes and no real or universal truth-value can be expressed across community boundaries.'

Dan offers two ways to approach this problem, the first is by the Christians skillful performance of the language that is the language of the Christian religion. The second is the recognition that Jesus is the truth, Jesus is the word (certainly this statement should give us reason to pause about understanding truth as merely propositions). Here Dan states:

'Therefore, even apart from the living embodiment of the word in the faith community, Christian truth can be conveyed because Jesus himself is the Word. Certainly God works primarily through his Church, but God is not limited to his Church. Of course, as writers like Eco make clear, this assertion cannot be declared in any convincing (or even sensible) manner to those who have not yet encountered the Word made flesh. Yet the inability of all communities to agree upon a universal truth does not mean there is no universal truth, and, as God has made clear over and over again, the inability of communities to agree upon a universal truth does not mean that truth cannot be communicated (through language) across community lines.'

As I have been trying to work through some of these same issues in my own life, I am often caught in a kind of vertigo, a recognition that things are not as stable as I would like them to be, or even as stable as I once thought they were. I think there is a type of humility that transcends Dan's essay, a type of earthy humility that I suspect Dan gets from living out his faith, amid those who have been exiled from society. A kind of humility that starts with the uncertainty of God, rather than with a stable set of foundations that are deemed true about God intrinsically. But I don't know...

The recognition that we can't reduce the bible to a series of bullet points is key. Once we recognize that salvation is a cosmic story about the restoration of relationships, then the bullet points fade into the background, and the unfolding drama of the vindication of God through the Crucified Lord comes to the fore, at least that is the way I see it. The problem with living out the Christian language in skillful performance is that it often goes unnoticed. Or it is confused with some other sort of skillful performance. This happens not only on the individual level but also on the corporate level, because all of us don't live skillfully enough. When we model our language upon Jesus' own faithfulness to God's plan, we end up with a performance akin to Donald Trump as the lead, in Brechts' Three Penny Opera; somewhat less than convincing. But this perhaps is what stuck with me about Dan's essay: that our faithful performance of the Word, is always by the power of the Spirit. And that while we seek to live a life of faithful performance, even when we fail, and our performance gets all muddled up, it is through the power of the Spirit that we are able to offer a glimpse of love to the stranger.


dan said...


Thanks so much for this exceedingly gracious reflection. I very much appreciate your reflections on the shortcomings of basing communication upon performance. As you say:

"The problem with living out the Christian language in skillful performance is that it often goes unnoticed. Or it is confused with some other sort of skillful performance."

Very true, and it is something that Christians are forced to confront very quickly when they begin to journey on the margins of society. Suddenly we discover wiccans, agnostics, and (gasp!) practicing homosexuals who seem to be doing a much better job of embodying the narrative of Jesus. Such encounters are humbling and do, as you suggest, force us to increasingly rely upon the transformative power of the in-breaking Spirit. Such encounters should also cause us to posit some sort of communication that goes beyond performance alone -- hence my emphasis on Jesus as the Word. Finally, such encounters should also remind us that the Christian performance should be both odd and cruciform -- which, at the end of the day, means the Christian performance my be a far cry from what others would see as an admirable performance.

Grace and peace.

metalepsis said...

Amen to that Dan!

I yearn in my own life to be ever more cruciform, but as you suggest, this is often viewed with suspicion in the more conservative circles of Christianity.

They seem to think that only certian performances count.

May God grant you peace and wisdom as you journey in the margins!

Adam and Holly Groza said...


Good morning friend. I very much appreciate your post. Two brief questions. First, how does this notion of skillful living differ from virtue theory, generally speaking. Second, how do we know if we are performing christianly? I think this approach rightly appreciates Incarnation, but my fear is that living christianly as communication will stall in an endless cycle of catagory mistakes for those outside the faith who observe our lifestyles.

metalepsis said...

Adam and or Holly,

How does this notion of skillful living differ from virtue theory, generally speaking?

Good question; let me see if I can give you an answer from a very limited understanding of virtue theory. In general there is not a big difference, in that virtue theory focuses on the inability of a set of rules to administer concrete results, morality is a slippery concept, and rules will not make you moral in every situation life throws at you. Morality is surely about inner states but it is also about doing, it is about other people. Now virtue theory would seemingly blend self-interest and moral action into the same thing, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t hedonistic in any way. But I am not sure as a Christian that we strive to live virtuously in an effort to be virtuous, it may be a mere question of motives, but I think it might prove important. We are called to be faithful and we are given an example of faithfulness in the life and death of Jesus Christ. This faithfulness inverts the normal model of ethics in that inner morality will equal happiness or the good life, because Jesus’ own faithfulness ended in suffering and death. Not to mention that our faithful enactments are not a product of our own habitual practice but a gift freely given, and empowered not by habitual discipline, but rather by the help of the spirit. But I think you are correct in being uneasy with skillful living for the same reason that you would be uneasy with virtue theory, they tend to be guided by highly contextualized notions of reality.

How do we know if we are performing Christianly?

Yea, you are completely correct! It will undoubtedly result in categorical mistakes. Because some times so many other people live far ‘better’ lives, which tell more coherent stories than Christians do; not to mention all the centuries in which Christendom has perverted what Christianity ought to be. The only solace, that I see, is to work out your own faithfulness in fear and trembling within a community that likewise seeks to be cruciform. And pray!

But in the end any theory that fails to be action guiding is not a very good moral theory, right!