Sunday, March 18, 2012

Post Modern Theology and Post-Conventional Faith?

The following is a review of Practicing in the Presence of Mystery: Responses to the Divine in Practical Theology and Religious Education, by Maureen R. O’Brien. Below you will find additional material I decided would be more prudent to leave out of a prior version.

Maureen O’Brien’s article has, by O’Brien’s admission, several objectives. First, to name and respond to divine presence in post-modern categories/contemporary narratives; second, to interpret God in history; third, and perhaps most ambitiously, to pose a model of chronos and kairos senses of faith supported by ascetic practices. Ultimately, O’Brien aims at facilitating an encounter with the other, be it God another human being.
O’Brien’s reason for writing the article seems to be the question of how God manifests in our life. O’Brien, citing the story of a lost penknife found at camp only after the camp counselor had led the group in prayer, critiques the notion of God’s manifestation being wrought by a supernatural summoning to a particular situation.[1] O’Brien prefers instead a God of interruption related to a historical context where God acts. Following the work of Gabriel Moran, O’Brien defines the God of Interruption as a God who suddenly manifests in our time and just as suddenly disappears.  The God of interruption is an intrusion of a momentary otherness which opens us to otherness.[2]
            The notion of God as a momentary intrusion necessarily emphasizes the nature of time in human experience. The intrusion of God is an interruption of linear time. O’Brien divides time between chronos and kairos. Chronos is measurable time, predictable yet possibly life saving.[3] Chronos is the everyday sense of our faith and the practices we cultivate to mature. These faith practices can be largely dependable in so far as they, like standard time, are regularly occurring.[4] Kairos, however, is time outside of the ordinary, what we would typically think of a sacred time. Kairos is “a specific point in time, whether long or short, suitable to a purpose.”[5] O’Brien illustrates the theological importance of kairos by adding that kairos ultimately leads to points of God’s judgment.[6] In many respects, God’s judgment is the supreme qualifier that allows O’Brien to distinguish her proposal from the popular conception of God’s manifestation she criticizes. At issue is God’s action in the world, not God’s proximity. O’Brien states, possibly with an eye to the shades of conceptual meaning left by a God of Intrusion, God’s presence is constant, never invoked. The variable is not God so much as it is human recognition of the divine.[7]
            Asceticism, it seems to O’Brien, is a means of awakening our awareness to the perpetual presence of the divine in our midst. Asceticism, traditionally, is thought of as bodily mortification, intense prayer and occasional glimpses into the supernatural world. O’Brien wishes to explore the principles of asceticism without adopting the more extreme conceptualizes of it such as flowed out of monastic centers in Egypt in second and third centuries. O’Brien closely follows Valantasis analysis of asceticism, defining it as “a new subjectivity” composed of “different social relations,” and alternative symbolism to the dominant culture.[8] Among the characteristics of asceticism are:
·         Practice, or dependable patterned performance.
·         Specific training from which one’s qualifications derive.
·         Renunciation of one way of life and embrace of a new way of life.
·         The creation and exercise of power (implicitly as an alternative to typical socio-political power relationships).
·         The promise of transformation of the self and society.[9]
O’Brien continues to follow Valantasis’ analysis and notes that all of the above mentioned characteristics of asceticism are intrinsic to forming the identity of both a person and community. One can also argue, all of the above is intrinsic for opening one to an encounter with the other/interruption of God.
            Asceticism offers much promise for O’Brien’s aims. However, one necessarily comes to the problem of diffusion. Asceticism is not widely read let alone practiced in the culture. Thus, there is the necessity of developing a manner in which to diffuse asceticism outside of specialist circles. O’Brien sees religious education as the vehicle for such diffusion.
            Religious education appears to be crux of O’Brien’s proposal. With this in mind, O’Brien attempts to construct religious education as a form of asceticism, going so far as to identify religious education as such.[10] Religious education is a disciplined discourse, requiring O’Brien writes,
“In a fundamental sense, education is this kind of ascetic practice. Parker Palmer's definition of teaching resonates with the metaphor of asceticism: "to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced" (Palmer 1993, 69, emphasis in the original). In such space, epistemological rigidity and formlessness alike are renounced to create an open-yet-bounded locus in which kairos, for our purposes here, is uncovered and its inherent power released. Participants are trained in ascetic forms of conversation and habits of reflection that may reveal possibilities for new renunciations and embraces.”[11]

O’Brien wades into some murky water at this juncture in her proposal. O’Brien is historically correct when she points out the existence of asceticism in non-Christian traditions. From the perspective of inter-religious dialogue, she has solid ground to stand on when asking for openness to the other that includes the religious other. However, O’Brien fails to provide the terms and definitions of an “open-yet-bounded locus.” O’Brien advocates a degree of renunciation surrounding one’s present religious identity that while opening the place for a form of asceticism does not take into account that asceticism is traditionally more than practices and formation.[12] There is a distinct being and narrative to which one must form oneself in the annals of ascetic literature.[13] It is the willingness to entertain religious distinctions, as found in Moran, that O’Brien, ultimately, rejects. This leads to the question: what would O’Brien’s asceticism hinge upon?
O’Brien believes that practical theology plays an intrinsic part in her proposal. Practical theology must disregard religious distinction in favor of a more global view and find an alternative focus point. From what I can tell, the focus point seems to be environmental care.[14]
O’Brien sees the aforementioned as a template upon which to build a new model of religious education, which she terms post-conventional. Post-conventional religious education, we are left to infer, would not concern itself with a notion of a deposit of faith or tradition of doctrine, but rather with forming a post-conventional faith in religious denominations and make of their members responsible post-modern functionaries. To do this, post-conventionalism seeks to identify the limits of one’s particular faith while also identifying the possibilities in another’s.
There are, it seems to me, certain problems with O’Brien’s proposal. As I mentioned above, O’Brien does not take into account the distinct being and narrative tradition underlying most all established forms of asceticism. In a word, O’Brien does not truly reckon with asceticism’s connection to doctrine. This goes across the board in ascetic traditions. One cannot remove Christian asceticism from Christian doctrine. Instead of dealing with this historical and literary reality, O’Brien avails herself to analytical works about asceticism. O’Brien never actually addresses any primary ascetic texts. O’Brien, based upon this article, desires to find a global, pan-religious source of identity in environmentalism. I will leave it to others to ask what implications are resultant from such an ambition. In the end, after all aspects of O’Brien’s post-conventionalism are examined, one must ask, what would a post-conventional theology or post-conventional doctrine pass on? Is it even capable of formulating a doctrine? If so, what is the divinity underneath said doctrine? Indeed, the God one discerns in O’Brien’s proposal seems utterly ambiguous. The proposal made by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and, in many aspects, Hinduism or even the ancient religions is that God, divinity, however you want to term it, is knowable; there is an identity awaiting disclosure to the human aspirant.

[1] O’Brien, Maureen. Practicing in the Presence of Mystery: Responses to the Divine in Practical Theology and Religious Education. 360
[2] O’Brien. 361
[3] O’Brien. 362-363
[4] O’Brien. 363
[5] O’Brien. 363
[6] O’Brien. 363
[7] O’Brien. 364
[8] O’Brien 365
[9] O’Brien 365
[10] O’Brien 366
[11] O’Brien 366
[12] See O’Brien 366-367
[13] Notably, O’Brien, though dedicating a substantial part of her article to asceticism does not treat any documents that would be recognized as ascetic literature, instead preferring contemporary analysis of asceticism. In fact, the only “primary source” she utilizes is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
[14] O’Brien. 368