Tibetan monks with their
dunchen or Dharma trumpet;
now that guitar Masses are
passé, can we look forward
to hearing these in church?
Now, Postmodernism is something that has always baffled me. As a medieval historian, I never really understood Modernism, much less Postmodernism. Modernism is a school of thought, prevalent in the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, that like so many of the intellectual movements before it, rejected the received tradition and insisted on radically new interpretations of whatever phenomena it was considering. In theology then Modernism questioned the received tradition of the faith and its doctrines. Modernist thinkers discarded central ideas of the Christian faith such as the Divinity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, the Divine Source of Scriptural Revelation, and even the relevance of any idea of God. They attempted to reduce the faith to Myth without understanding the function of Myth to encapsulate levels of Truth that transcend articulation. Unfortunately the Catholic Church was no better at appreciating the superior levels of Truth contained in Myth and in reaction to Modernism encouraged not only a retreat into re-constructed thought processes of the past (e.g. Neo-Scholasticism) but even an abandonment of serious intellectual fields such as Scriptural Criticism to a morbid anti-intellectualism, even a rabid fundamentalism that it took the Church decades to reverse.
In theology, as in other fields such as architecture or literature, Postmodernism is a reaction to Modernism. Unlike the intellectual freeze imposed by Leo XIII and Pius X, however, Postmodernism does not retreat into the embalmed remains of the past but seeks to find ways to express the essence of our faith in modalities that speak intelligibly to our contemporaries.
Maybe we can look at it more concretely. The familiar concept of “heaven” has lost any credibility for thinking men and women today. When we were children heaven was “up there”; hell was “down there.” That—and especially regarding heaven—was pretty much a literal conception. But within my lifetime (I am in my mid-sixties) our understanding of the “up there” has shifted radically and allows no place for heaven. While we have known for several centuries that space is a vast and almost limitless entity, over the last five decades it has sunk into our consciousness that there really is no “up there”; only an “out there” that could not be transversed in a hundred million lifetimes. And not only is heaven a spatial improbability, but reflection on Sartre’s play No Exit has confronted us with how much a hell it would in fact be with a relentlessly eternal existence from which we could never find an end. (Sartre’s play is set in hell but the problem of a relentless eternity transcends the particularities.) The sort of a nightlessly eternal picnic in the park afterlife, an unending family reunion as it were, becomes not only improbable but terrifying. So what do we do about an afterlife? How do we make sense of it? And would it really be blissful without Häagen Daz Vanilla Swiss Almond? And Fido. What about Fido? I can’t leave Fido behind. I would only suffer an eternal melancholy without Fido. We need to find new ways to talk about our conviction that life transcends this mortal coil and when we shed it there is a life in God.
It is not only Heaven and Hell but a huge range of religious symbols that need to be rethought and re-expressed in ways that make sense to people of the 21st century. Indeed, as Tran pointed out to me, even God needs some new clothes if s/he is not to appear dated. But the task is not to invent faith new from whole cloth—though some have tried to do this with rather bizarre results—but to retrieve and reinterpret the essence of what has always been at the core. We need to look at the past and realize that the doctrines and dogmas and even the biblical text with which the Truth has been revealed are all simply the reliquaries or ostensoria that permit us to see the Truth and are not themselves the Truth. (Go and look up ostensorium—the singular of ostensoria—and you might be surprised. I chose to use the fancier term so as to avoid the connotations the more normal word would convey.) We do not necessarily abandon or reform those doctrines and we cannot abandon or change the scriptural text but we can seek new interpretations and historically contextualize them in an effort to separate the wheat of the impermeable Truth from the chaff of variable intellectual constructs.
This cannot be done lightly. In my series on the History of Anglicanism I have “taken some shots” at what I think has been some very sloppy abuses of sound Theological discipline, not only by those in the Episcopal and Anglican Churches, but by liberal Protestantism in general. On the other hand when I look at our Catholic Church confronted by the challenge of a world in which, for example, gender roles and an understanding of human sexuality has so rapidly changed, I see our theologians stunned like deer in the headlights or a rat caught in the stare of a cobra, transfixed and unable to move for fear.
I had coffee yesterday morning with the son of a friend of mine; an interesting man not much younger than myself. He is a hospice nurse but also produces video documentaries, only one of which I have yet seen. That particular documentary is on the collaboration of religious leaders from various traditions—Buddhist, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant—in their neighborhood on the lower East Side of Manhattan. It was a very interesting documentary and it revealed much about the religious perspective of its producer. I might say more about the video on another occasion but I spoke with him—I was already contemplating this posting—on how an educated and fairly sophisticated man of middle years views religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. He spoke about his own spiritual journey. He was raised in the Catholic Church with a devout mother and a father who had been somewhat rigidly Catholic until the late ‘60’s and then went overboard in the other direction. He had gone to Catholic schools but in his late 20’s drifted away from the faith. His father had introduced him to Eastern Meditation and that gave him a spiritual foundation as he was on somewhat of a seeker’s pilgrimage (my term, not his) but ended coming back into the Catholic Church but in a very new way. He said he was drawn back to the Church by just finding churches or other religious spaces to be places where he could sit away from the hubbub of Manhattan. In particular he said that the vastness of space in churches and synagogues appealed to him as a respite from the city. But he also uncovered in religion tremendous energy for building a better world. He is comfortable again with his Catholicism but it is not a Catholicism of doctrine or of rules. And he also finds himself at home in the various other faith communities around him and with which he has ties. A Sabbath service in the Synagogue or Vespers in a Russian Orthodox Church or listening to a Tibetan monk sound his dungchen (or dharma trumpet, the long deep bass trumpet used in Tibetan worship) all speak deeply to him of the same Divine Mystery he finds at Mass. I think he reflects the next generation of Catholics, people for whom religion is more about a spiritual journey than about doctrine, more about experience than intellectualization. The Dalai Lama speaks to this when he writes:
“The aim and purpose of religion is to cure the pains and unhappiness of the human mind. …. I would like to point out that the purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples; it is to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and love. Fundamental to Buddhism and Christianity, indeed to every major world religion, is the belief that we must reduce our selfishness and save others.”
It should not surprise us that the Dalai Lama speaks more effectively to contemporary Americans 60 and under than any Christian leader, including the Pope. The sad thing is that with all due respect to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Gospel offers us the same insight in even more concrete and (I believe) more profound ways, but so much of our leadership and so many of our co-religionists have forsaken the invitation of Christ to let our hearts of stone become furnaces of the Divine Compassion and focused instead on rituals and ceremonies and are hell-bent on emarginating those who don’t measure up to the Pharisee standards. It is not that I think we have to abandon the key doctrines of the faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and it is certainly not to give carte blanche for any arbitrary morality: but I believe those in Church leadership who have shifted their emphasis from theological abstractions to applied Christianity are breaking through a moribund “faith” into a credible Christianity. The Franklin Grahams and the Archbishop Chaputs or the Cardinal Burkes and the Pat Robertsons are not the effective evangelizers in this Post Modern World. You don’t have to preach a loosey-goosey Gospel to be effective: look at Mother Teresa or Archbishop Tutu, but you do have to be a witness to the mercy and compassion of God and not to the severity of dogmatic and judgmental religion.