Wednesday, December 28, 2011

put this in your pomo pipe and smoke it

Eric Miller, speaking for a new generation of Christian historians in the current Books & Culture.
We must take full advantage of the philosophic and theoretical space created by such influential contemporary Christian philosophers - our "theorists" - as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and John Milbank [and, I would add, Sarah Coakley].  They have arrested attention and commanded respect, making possible the imagining of a form of historical reflection and analysis that fits within their broad historical and theoretical arguments.  Christians need not write as if Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Derrida have had the last word about the nature of our world and our circumstance.
Not to say Derrida would have wanted to have the last word on anything, there being an infinitude of meanings and all that.  But the reason Miller is still right is because the positive infinity of meaning - generated by the fecundity of Christ - has long been on offer in those hallowed centuries that Miller's theoretical fourfecta too frequently overlooked.  Louis Dupré, fortunately, did not:
To the medieval mind, nature appeared intrinsically symbolic.  A merely literal reading of nature would have fallen far short of a full understanding.  This symbolic naturalism gave birth to a new aesthetics: the one that formed Cimabue, Duccio, Giotto, and such early humanists as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.  Spiritual meaning resided in the cosmos itself and, as such, allowed a multitude of human interpretations.  The interpreter could feel free to specify its content according to the spiritual needs of the occasion.  Meaning was given, but no particular meaning was given exclusively. Hence, unlike the precisely conceived metaphors of modern symbolism, symbols display a much looser and less definitive character.  What may appear to us arbitrary metaphorization is, in fact, an attempt, never complete, to explore one facet or another of a semantically inexhaustible cosmos.

The same freedom of interpretation that had ruled biblical exegesis also determined the understanding of nature as visible image of the invisible.  As figures in a poetic text refer to one another in a play of continually transformed analogies and affinities, so does the symbolic vision of nature constantly shift its perspective.  Knowledge came to consist chiefly in commentary on the two books, Scripture and nature, which, both being endowed with multiple meanings, allowed endless cross-references.  What Foucaulte wrote about the sixteenth century apples far more directly to the High Middle Ages: 'Knowledge consisted in relating one form of language to another...  in restoring the great, unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak..."  This epistemic apriori imposed no categorical structure upon the real, but a perspective for reading what was directly, but never simply or exhaustively given.   The sacred authority of the word gradually extended to all literature.  Thus the pagan classics could be read as containing the integumenta fidei (William of Conches), the cryptic anticipations of Christian mysteries yet to be revealed.  (36-37).
Such was the the world before, following Duns Scotus, and Ockham, "the entire ontotheological synthesis began to disintegrate."  Which is to say, it was never that pomo was (note the past tense) too daring.  It was never daring enough.