Apr 29, 2014

POSTMODERNITY AND THEOLOGY

Does postmodernism modernity fully closing? How much postmodern critique of modernity relocates us back in the pre-modern? If, as Max Weber said the modernization and secularization involves the disenchantment of society does that mean that postmodern society will again be a sacralized society under the hegemony of religion? Does the postmodern critique causes the return of sacral worldview and life?

Does Baudrillard thought -probably the most radical of the post-modern thinkers- offer new possibilities for religion? Does he reopen expectations closed by the modern world and inaugurate some new ones? Is he relevant to current theology?

James Walters (Chaplain and Interfaith Advisor at the London School of Economics) considers that he is (Baudrillard and Theology, 2012, London & New York: T&T Clarck Intern).
But let's analyse his arguments and separate the strong and the weak points in his argumentation. Let's begin for those that provide strength to Walter’s perspective:
1. The present is deeply shaped by the death of God and nihilism. Baudrillard takes Nietzsche's thesis to an even more radical extreme and analyses a present dominated by nihilism paradoxically boosted by the Christian quest for truth. The complete lack of references can open a renewed chance for religiosity that could explain the increase in the last decades of religious fundamentalism. The manifest absence of non-religious meaning can suppose for most people the need for a religious source of meaning. Following Baudrillard: the choice does not lie in a refusal to believe in anything, but there is simply nothing to believe in: And from such a void, according to Walters, faith can sprout more purely and essentially.
 
2.      Nihilism, the desert of the Hyperreal and the "nothing" -which Baudrillard shows up- brings as well what Walters calls "Radical Otherness" that refers back to negative theology, in which God is absolutely other and assimilable -both to infinity and the creative nothing-for the finite humans. “Nonetheless, this [Baudrillard] may be read as a radically non-positivist theology that has strong parallels with the mystical tradition” (pg. 141).
 
3.      Baudrillard's critical and iconoclastic radical thought has connections with the best negative theology and even with mysticism (San Juan de la Cruz), as they share a similar "humiliation" (Eckhart) of reason and inaugurates a new non-realistic way (Fichte) or modern (Lyotard) way of being in the world. Thus, God as the creator and ineffable “the nothing" is able to link to Baudrillard's “all-is-only-simulacrum” to the fatal strategies contained in his way of thinking. Both (2) and (3) are real possibilities to maintain in effect religion adapted to post-modern thought and get rid of monotheism from ritual, traditional and folkloric elements.
 
4.      Postmodern condition (Lyotard) which disbelieves all the "meta and big narratives" on which modernity relies, including the disenchantment or the world’s demystification (Weber) generates an enormous void that can only be filled by fragmentary micro-narratives, aphorisms, retrieving  poetical language and a more vital (Lyotard’s paralogia?) than analytical kind of truth. Walters assumes that Baudrillard’s discourse and the one generalized by post-modern condition tends to fragmentation, aphorism and is boosted by the poetical strength of symbolism.
 
5. Postmodernism radicalizes the overcoming of subject-object duality and objective foundation of knowledge, characteristic of Hyperreal modernity, analytical and rationalistic. Possibly the first overcoming of modern duality (Spinoza, Hegel) features a great theological influence and a link to God as a whole. Thus subject loses predominance while the object appears as active revealing itself mystically (Walters) or fatally seducing (Baudrillard) the presumed “subject”.
 
6.      Baudrillard defends symbolic exchange as an alternative to market exchange and a leakage point to escape from the desert of Hyperreality and the System of Objects. Seeking new relationships including gratuitousness (close to the Christian gift) he builds a way out of market exchange and the conversion of reality in fetish. Baudrillard proffers new symbolic exchanges in the same vein as Guy Debord’s Letterist International (before building with other different groups, Situationist International) who published a magazine with the name of Potlatch as a vindication of this kind of relationship and exchange completely different to ones based on economy. Certainly simulacrum reality –which is mere appearance or sign and does not pretend to be something else- could boost new rituals, ceremonies and symbols which Walters relates naturally to religion (especially to a conveniently renewed one) and reinforcement of Christianity y current society.
 
We will highlight now the arguments considered weak or erroneous:
a.    Baudrillard’s postmodern nihilism des-legitimates great modern narratives that had led to the death of God but that does not reverse the process and gives God its traditional position back, as presumed by Walters. Despite its complexity and ambiguity Baudrillard’s discourse does not claim for the quest of Christian hope. His critics to modernity, Christianity and religion in general are similar and as strong as those he launched against current, capitalist, consumerist society…
 
     b. Baudrillard’s radical thought does not admit an explanation of the World as Walter’s monotheist approach which involves political cohesion of society (Huntington?). Baudrillard stands for free and revolutionary symbols (in any case polytheists) that overwhelm the establishment symbolic domain, in which he incorporates explicitly Christianity. Baudrillard’s complete and incessant opposition against the symbolic establishment (production capitalism, Christian monotheism) attacks directly the “floating line” of Walters’s discourse.
 
  c.  Even though Baudrillard's nihilism and radicalism could be used by monotheism to get rid of traditional, sentimental and folkloric elements, Walter’s thesis contradicts its vindication of a less rational, more poetical, experiential and close to affections religiosity which is also able to generate religious and political sense of community. Certainly nihilistic despair can lead to parareligious compulsion, but Baudrillard's desert of simulacrum seems really cold and only shows respect to a merely rational or imaginatively poetical approach (that Walters relates to God), which is a lot.
 
d.      Walters presupposes both the substantiality of "the person" and a way of relating to the others based on the constant gift and reception that achieves to overcome the division between you-me, yours-mine, etc. Nevertheless there are in his argumentation no reasons to exempt this substantiality from the critics of Baudrillard or other post-modern authors. Furthermore in In the shade of silent majorities, Baudrillard draws a portrait of post-modern society characterised by the disappearing of personal relation replaced for the circulation of symbols, signs and images. It all seems to clash with the personalistic and Christian presupposes that Walters aims to boost through Baudrillard’s thesis.
 
e.       Surely, Baudrillard points to a radical and totalizing approach (all is simulacrum and simulacrum is all) but not in a sense of the parareligious totality asserted by Walters which does not either attain to link to bible passages, theological arguments and religious symbols.
 
f.       It is not credible to relate Baudrillard's critics and his non-rationalist and even debtor of negative theology to a "live in the world" close to the prayer thought.
 
  g.   It is also scarcely believable Walter’s view of a Baudrillard as a quietist thought who relinquishing to Nietzsche’s will of power and giving up itself to the nothing-god, conceives a possibility for hope. The last chapter “Theological Hyperreality” in which he asserts Baudrillard opens himself to non-rational revelation, rare and unattended occurrences (interpreted as encounters with God) moves away from demystifying character of the author. The idea of gift (which reminds to Bataille) is far from Baudrillard’s conception in which the only possibility for a revolutionary living option (In the shadow of silent majorities) is the non-surrender to the circulation of signs.

Baudrillard condemns the domain of symbolic as a guarantee for power continuity and imposition that is why -he warns- any revolutionary project will succeed as long as it achieves to break the hegemonic symbolic order. However, Walters understands Budrillard’s vision of Hyperreality and interprets it as hope for God, but this is contradictory with a nihilistic vision of reality and Baudrillard would denounce it certainly for as a gross strategy from Christian theology in order to recompose or enlarge its power (including its own political community). Baudrillard’s Hyperreality and fetischization of reality are more relevant nowadays with the development of technologies of communication and neoliberalism.
 
h.      Walters makes an ethnothentric distinction (in chapter called “Terrorism and death”) between Christian and Islamic martyrs, forgetting that revolutionary symbolic power on the first ones was also presented as highly dangerous and breakers of the symbolic order and the operative securities.
 
i.      The questioning of traditional and monogamous family, the emergency of new bodies and sexualities but –against Baudrillard- imposes the concept of gift as a foundation ground for acceptable relationships from Christianity since this gift as the base of any relationship. Thus Walters reads dogmatically the mystical gift to “the nothing”, he extends it arbitrarily to social issues that do not seem to go in the same direction and-we are afraid- it will shock insiders and outsiders. Certainly this will be the last destiny of Walter’s book since it attempts a strange and daring syncretism.   
Gonçal Mayos (UB & GIRCHE) & Sílvia Rodríguez Egaña (GIRCHE)

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