Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Discerning Brethren social imaginaries

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Thanks, Shady...
(Photo by PacificCoastNews.com)
Over at Hermes Table, Brethren pastor and professor, Andrew Hamilton, has a wonderfully provocative post: Will the Real Brethren Please Stand Up?

Inquiring as to the wide gaps in interpretive-theological approaches and ambivalence about the "peace stance" within the Church of the Brethren, Andy argues that:
[T]he distinctions are a result of diverse presuppositions which have emerged more out of...particular cultural contexts and their influences...[rather] than ones drawn from the multidimensional shaping effects of the divine metanarrative (God’s grand story) and its accompanying practices which announce the emerging kingdom of God within the present and future reality.
I think Andy's on to something important here for Brethren to pay attention to, and I don't think liberals or conservatives in the denomination are trained to think in the way he's suggesting. In my response to his post in the comments section, I tried to channel some James K.A. Smith and his work in Desiring the Kingdom, since that's on my reading plate at the moment.

Brethren identity is a complicated phenomenon these days. My quick narration is that Brethren swallowed the Modernity Kool-Aid early in the 20th century and are now living with its natural consequences: disintegrated communal coherence. In other words, it's now impossible to say what constitutes being "Brethren."As Andy points out, even the tried and true quasi-creed of "No creed but the New Testament" fails to construct any meaningful coherent identity or ethics, since interpretive frameworks abound. Appeals to "shared values" and "shared practices" also fail the phenomenological assessment since, as Carl Bowman's sociological research indicates, there is little of either.

What interests me about Andy's post intersecting with Jamie Smith's work is around the concept of "sacred" and "secular" liturgies. With an emphasis on practices rather than beliefs, Smith's work follows in an Augustinian and MacIntyrian line that emphasizes desire, narrative, temporality, and sociality. In this view, rationality tends to follow what we’ve already performatively been “baptized” into and fallen in love with. So with this view in mind, one can do anthropological "reads" of various groups to get a sense for what social imaginaries they inhabit, thus providing language and practices in their search for the good life, all of which vary (and overlap) from one social imaginary to the next. This is important analysis work to try and answer why things are in such a fragmented state, and not just that they are fragmented and throw our hands up in resignation (which tends to happen often these days). This approach reads below rationality at the level of the guts and heart, discerning what people do with their bodies and why, and how those things may describe from below beliefs, values, and worldviews.

In the comments, Josh Brockway rightly cautions that rationality/concepts don't get lost in this embodied view, but I don't think that losing rationality is a given in this approach. (As I like to say, our brains are in our heads, after all; therefore rationality is itself embodied.) There is an element of this kind of work that seems deconstructive. It's deconstructive insofar as it seeks to make the tacit, invisible social imaginaries visible and thus available for discussion. And then of course there's the question of reconstruction. As I say in my final comments in Andy's post, it’s almost like there needs to be a via media between MacIntyre and Caputo…between the “new traditionalist” and “postmodern” approaches, because I see descriptive and constructive potential in aspects of both, but also pitfalls.

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