Monday, October 18, 2010

Subverting the Cynics
(or, why I didn't hear about faithfulness, salvation,
and the Spirit)

I heard most of what John Caputo and Peter Rollins had to say last Friday evening during an event called "Subverting the Norm," held on the campus of Drury University. Caputo is a philosopher from Syracuse University who wrote (among other things) "What Would Jesus Deconstruct?," and Rollins is an "emergent" leader from Northern Ireland who wrote (among other things) "The Orthodox Heretic." Several speakers were featured during the weekend gabfest, where those disenchanted with traditional forms of Christianity gathered to find encouragement.

Caputo used Hegel's dialectical determinism to make sense of the inexplicable essence of our faith (what Caputo called "the event"), where true hope is found in hopelessness, true forgiveness is only offered when the offense is unforgivable, and faith is grounded in doubt. The binary context of Caputo's symbolic world almost compelled me to offer my profound appreciation for his talk by saying, "I truly understand what you're saying because I misunderstand this event"). But, that would be disingenuous because I think I understand "the event" called "Subverting the Norm."

It dawned on me as I began to take in Rollins' remarks (who spoke after Caputo). There, in large letters projected on the flat screen monitor, was the theme for the gathering, "Subverting the Norm." I thought, "That would be an apt description of the cynics of the first-century, their raison d'etre, the banner for their movement. In fact, if they were to have had a meeting [but they wouldn't--they're cynics after all!] they probably would have given it the same title." Then, Rollins began to sermonize about the failure of traditional Christianity, and the reason his community of faith (called "Eikon") in N. Ireland explored ways of reclaiming Christian faith for the wounded, the doubters, the rebels, the disenfranchised, the hopeless. (By the way, several times--in the midst of Caputo's and Rollins' talk--I almost shouted, "Amen.")

Their's is an impossible task (something both Caputo and Rollins recognize). They're fighting a war on two fronts, taking on two ideological worlds that are worlds apart: the strident atheists and the dogmatic theists. To the power-hungry atheists, ready to disabuse all of us poor souls of our silly notions of God and Spirit, these post-post modern prophets declare hope. And, to the obscurantist Christians, convinced that complexities have no place in genuine faith, these neo-dogmaticians prescribe angst. In other words, sometimes Caputo and Rollins sounded like champions of the disenchanted. And, at other times, they sounded like priests of a new institution.

It's easier to be against something than for something. Reacting against what's wrong (the cynic critic) almost comes naturally to those of us who think we have something to say. And yet, trying to be for something without becoming the very thing you despise (agenda!) is the natural consequence of the human condition. I saw that when Rollins showed pictures of his community back home--the trademarked "Eikon," worship as theatre, the outsiders becoming insiders (and vice versa--"down with those pesky fundamentalists!"). And, I heard it in Caputo's voice, when he spelled out what "the event" must look like: "if it doesn't address issues of justice and inclusion, it's not genuine." Hope and judgment--these ideas are hard to hold onto when you're not trying to sound like something you are.

In other words, they were talking about "faithfulness" and the need for "salvation" and the work of the "Spirit." But, seemed afraid to say so.


Darryl Schafer said...

Bearing in mind that I'm new to all this "stuff," I kept wanting to say "amen" along with you, but I sometimes wanted to say, "Yeah, but..."

I need to engage doubt. Fully. But if I don't believe in doubt, then I'm an unbeliever because my faith in doubt isn't sting enough. Can I doubt my own doubt and still believe? Can I doubt my own faith and believe in doubt but no longer be faithful?

I feel like some of this is just semantics (something I think Rollins would agree with). But even though my picture of God (Wittgenstein!) is just that, I still can't let go of this intangible, indescribable belief (!) that parts of my picture overlap with who God really is.

But like Wright has said: a third of what I know is wrong -- I just don't know which third that would be.

jesnicole said...

I wasn't there, but Darryl and I have talked so much about these ideas. I'm just not on board with so much of it,because as you put it, "It's easier to be against something than for something." Also, as Darryl mentioned, it seems to me that so much of *it* is semantics. Again...I do confess a VERY limited knowledge...and of course, I always have so much to learn. Thanks for another good post, Dr. Reeves.

matt gallion said...

I have a few possible responses:

First--for the sake of clarification--most people there were not actually "disenchanted with traditional forms of Christianity." In fact, most were fairly content mainline pastors who were curious about possible ways to help a dying institution.

Second, I can't help but wonder if the title of the conference (which I honestly wasn't a huge fan of) wouldn't be something that more than just first-century cynics would embrace. I can't help but wonder if the earliest followers of Jesus, or Paul, or even those in the first few centuries of Christianity (and particularly the ascetics before the Constantinian establishment of "imperial Christianity")--not to mention a whole slew of others throughout the entire course of historical Christianity--wouldn't also find resonance in an attempt to "subvert" certain norms.

Third, I'm interested in what you mean by this:
And yet, trying to be for something without becoming the very thing you despise (agenda!) is the natural consequence of the human condition.
Could you unpack that bit?

Finally, I'm not so sure that Rollins (at least) would be so hesitant to use the words "faithfulness," "salvation" and "Spirit," but I'm fairly sure that he would mean them in radically different ways than are commonly understood.

Rodney Reeves said...


I was trying to be clever with my musings (but I didn't pull it off). Actually, I'm rather sympathetic to the gist of what Caputo and Rollins were trying to do/say because their task is even more vulnerable to critique than most (they are trying to fight a war on two fronts: cynics of the church and heroes to the cynics).

Anyway, here's the point: how can we subvert the norm when subversiveness becomes normative? How can we oppose the dogmatism of certain Christians (fundamentalists) when we know we're right? How can we extol the openendedness of our faith ("the event") when we prescribe what it must look like? (even Caputo acknowledged the double standard when he, somewhat apologetically, used Hegel's dialectic as a metanarrative).

Thus, my muse about saying "amen" at a gathering such as this.

This is what I meant by trying not to become what you are, or trying not to say what you mean. (Honestly, sometimes these language games wear me out).

The Spirit encouraged my soul when Caputo was talking about the faithfulness of God, how what we did to His Son was unforgivable--yet the very place where we find divine forgiveness. And, when Collins explored the heart of the gospel that must be seen in the church--where our struggles should be fleshed out in order to be the Body of Christ--I heard the voice of Jesus.

I enjoyed the event (but I know I'm not supposed to say that).

jesnicole said...

I'm so glad you people know how to put into words what you're trying to say. :) I'm always falling over my words. Loved reading what y'all had to say.

matt gallion said...

I absolutely think that you were supposed to enjoy it. I certainly did. Thanks for the clarification.