Saturday, April 6, 2013
I’ve been reflecting on Tony Jones’ “non-response” to Jack Caputo at last night’s Subverting the Norm keynote. Tony was invited to respond to Jack’s talk, ‘Can Postmodern Theology Live in the Churches? Perhaps’. And many of us were left feeling disappointed that Tony didn’t appear to spend any of the time he had actually responding to Jack’s talk on whether and how postmodern theology might live in the churches as a spook, a spectre. But then I wondered about some parallels with another “non-response” - this time between Jacques Derrida and Hans Georg-Gadamer - and it left me thinking that maybe Tony’s “non-response” to Jack could be a Derridean illustration of “the good will to understand”. First, a little background…
In my 2010 PhD thesis on “emerging Christianity” and the notion of truth, I wrote a little section about how many of the “emerging Christians” that I interviewed evinced a Gadamerian dialogical hermeneutic in which intra- and inter-religious or cross-narratival conversation functions to facilitate mutual learning and transformation in a fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung). Dialogue is undertaken with other communities and individuals about their interpretations of truth, enabling both parties to “progress” in understanding of and relationship with God.
Acknowledging their positioning ‘this side of the dark glass’, these participants may agree with Merold Westphal when he writes, concerning the plurality recognised by a phenomenological hermeneutics of finitude, that ‘Truth may be one in itself, but the mirror in which we see it dimly is also a prism that renders our grasp of it irreducibly manifold’ (Westphal, ‘Phenomenologies and Religious Truth’).
There are clear affinities between such thinking of truth and the frameworks for thinking about the epistemic problems of religious pluralism offered by pluralist theologians of religion, primarily John Hick.
And Hick’s model of dialogue is Gadamerian in its ‘good will to try to understand’, to reach the fusion of horizons in which a momentary consensus is struck between the parties. Intra- and inter-religious, or cross-hermeneutical, conversation partners are ‘all ears’ (Gadamer, ‘Text and Interpretation’), seeking ‘as far as possible to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating’ (Gadamer, ‘Reply to Jacques Derrida’). Intra- and inter-religious, or cross-hermeneutical, conversation partners are ‘all ears’ (Gadamer, ‘Text and Interpretation’), seeking ‘as far as possible to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating’ (Gadamer, ‘Reply to Jacques Derrida’).
In this, however, Derrida spies a ‘good will to power’ (Simon ‘Good Will to Understand and The Will to Power’). As Herman Rapaport suggests, Gadamer’s good will to understanding rests on the assumption that ‘we can all hear with the same ears,’ while, importantly, Derrida, like Nietzsche, ‘listens with ears that are attuned to bad will’ (Rapaport, ‘All Ears: Derrida’s Response to Gadamer’). Where Gadamer exhibits a fundamental trust, Derrida is suspicious (Caputo ‘Gadamer’s Closet Essentialism: A Derridean Critique’), for the good will to understand seeks not to encounter the other in their alterity, but to appropriate what the other says in such a way as to make it illuminating or transformative for the self.
In his 1981 encounter with Gadamer, Derrida refuses the dialogical model with which Gadamer presents him. As later commentators have asked, how can the success of this dialogue be judged, especially if the criteria for judging it as a dialogue are precisely what is being contested in the rather ‘non-dialogical’ (Dallmayr, ‘Hermeneutics and Deconstruction’) exchange?
In such as case, as Robert Bernasconi suggests, Gadamer’s assumption regarding the nature of conversation would force Derrida into a strategy of frustration (Bernasconi, ‘Seeing Double: Destruktion and Deconstruction’), a strategy with which he is, nonetheless, both familiar and most comfortable.
The Gadamer-Derrida encounter witnesses a Derrida who is not against dialogue per se, but who engages in what might be called, following Derrida’s logic of the sans, of the X without X, a dialogue without dialogue, dialogue sans a certain Gadamerian model of dialogue as, even only momentary, consensus (Gadamer ‘Hermeneutics and Logocentricism’).
Just as many of the conference delegates at that Derrida-Gadamer encounter, last night we wanted Tony Jones to listen to Jack Caputo and enter into a dialogue about postmodern theology and the actually existing churches. That didn’t happen. But perhaps Tony was actually performing one of the most Derridean moves, illustrating the impossibility of this model of dialogue? Did Tony Jones do a most Derridean, postmodern, radical, thing last night? Did he illustrate a “bad will to dialogue” in order to expose the impossibility of a “good will to dialogue”? Perhaps.
Just a thought as I sit here in bed at 6am, jet lagged.