NegativeThinking

Within modern philosophy (of the past couple of generations), there have been (broadly speaking) Realist and anti-Realist approaches to knowledge. The Realist claims that we have varying degrees of access to a world outside of us – that our knowledge of the world and its states can be more or less true. Anti-Realists take the opposite view: more or less, we do not succeed in making true statements about the world outside us. What we take to be statements about the world (outside us) are actually statements about what is inside us, either from an individual perspective or from a socio-cultural perspective.

Both approaches, as developed in the 20th century, were outgrowths or variants of foundationalism. Realists tended to be optimistic about whether foundationalist strategies of knowing worked while the anti-Realists tended to be pessimistic about those strategies. They agreed, however, that these strategies alone constituted real knowledge.

But then, oddly enough, some philosophers began to reject (either explicitly or implicitly) foundationalism. Those mired in foundationalism have trouble seeing any other way of approaching the issue, so when they hear (or read) these post-foundationalists they tend to take them to be speaking either (foundationalist) Realism or (foundationalist) anti-Realism. But they’re not.

One position that has arisen in this discussion has been called anti-anti-Realism. These folks don’t care to defend a Realism (which they see as hopelessly mired in failed foundationalist strategies), but see the fruits of anti-realism as unfavorable. They tend to say that however we do it, we generally can know the world well enough to do what we need to do, and since it works, it ought to be acceptable to call the related knowledge claims “truth.”

Anti-anti-Realism. Sounds pretty negative, doesn’t it? But it’s not.

Let’s shift gears and aply negative thinking to another area, the Christian approach to politics. Within the contemporary theological movement called Radical Orthodoxy, there has been a strong critique of both the modern nation-state and the modern market economy. In the books I’ve read, I see this most clearly in William Cavanaugh’s Theolopolitical Imagination. In Cavanaugh’s account, the modern state is idolatrous because its claims constitute a claim to be the savior of the world. This claim is not peculiar to the modern state – as Tom Wright frequently says, the language we associate with Jesus – “Lord and Savior,” “Good News (Gospel)” – were originally Caesar’s words. Caesar claimed to be “Lord and Savior” and to bring “Good news” to all people. Perhaps you know enough history to know not all people took him at his word.

If I were talking more about Cavanaugh and Radical Orthodoxy, I want to say something about their apparent oversimplification of both the State and the Market, not attending enough to the complexity and diversity of the development of each. But I have to think they’re at least partly right.

What I’m thinking of – negatively – is how Christians who are conservative politically tend to think negatively toward the State, while Christians who are liberal politically tend to think negatively toward the market. As one who tends (boy I use that word a lot, don’t I?) to be the former more than the latter, I have to confess I see both making claims beyond what they can do – claims that if not idolatrous, at least verge on it.

Consider Katrina. We actually expect the State to be our savior. We expect the leaders of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Federal Government to be able to save us not only from natural disaster but also from our own actions.

Whenever elections come, Caesar hypes his abilities, promising to meet all our needs (while Mammon keeps transforming our wants into needs), strengthening our expectations of deliverance and salvation.

If I went by nothing other than what I see, I’d have trouble believing Caesar. As a Christian, my allegiance is to Jesus the cruficied and risen.

The market doesn’t fare much better. It claims to be able to settle all disputes and bring prosperity to all with its invisible hand(s?).

So are the State and the Market irretrievable evil? I don’t think so. They simply don’t deserve the level of confidence (and worship) they ask for (demand?). Submission to Jesus and his kingdom is a necessary prerequisite to having a truly healthy state and market.

So like the anti-anti-realists, I denounce the claims of both State and Market, seeing neither as god and savior. How’s that for negative thinking?

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