Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Necessity of Dialectic

Yesterday I posted some theological reflections upon a variety of contemporary issues that have to do with agents of states, or self-proclaimed states, lynching identifiable groups, such as white police lynching black teenagers or IS fighters lynching Yezidis, Shiites, and other minority religious groups in Iraq. When I shared it via Facebook and Twitter I stated that it has nothing directly to do with critical realism. That was the case of course, the way I articulated things, but it got me thinking about how better to frame my concerns about these matters within a Lonerganian framework. Something I realized as I did so is that these sort of events reinforce the need for what Lonergan calls "dialectic."

Dialectic is the fourth of eight functional specialties that Lonergan identifies within the broader work of theology. The first three are research, interpretation, and history. Each builds upon the other. Within New Testament studies we might say that research works with manuscripts, etc., to discover texts (i.e. textual criticism); interpretation works with these discovered texts to discover meaning; history works with these discovered meanings to discover events; and dialectic works with these discovered events to discovered processes. Dialectic thus introduces into biblical studies what the Annales School called history in the longue durée, history across decades, centuries, even millennia. It is where we can locate many of the issues studied and insight generated by feminist, queer, critical race, postcolonial, Marxian, Freudian, etc., theory. It is about the remarkably durable mentalités (to again use a term beloved by the Annales School) that in myriad ways both constrain and enable our choices, our decisions, our potential.

And mentalité is precisely what is missed when we consider such things as the shooting of Michael Brown as an event isolated from larger concerns. The response by the people of Ferguson, MO, to this crime (let us not call it a tragedy; that ignores the agency of Brown's murderer) is not just about the lynching of Michael Brown. It is of course about that, but if this were an isolated incident then the focus would no doubt be upon dealing with the actions of one aberrant police officer. The problem is that the people of Ferguson, MO, and people of colour elsewhere, are profoundly aware that it's not an isolated incident. Quite the opposite. The response is about a particular mentalité, one dating back to at least the institution of a racialized slave trade, namely the idea that Black lives are disposable, to be taken on the whim of the White establishment. Absent an understanding that it is to this mentalité that the people of Ferguson object one cannot understand why they have responded the way that they have.

A healthy notion of dialectic incidentally relieves one of the need to show that a text is overtly racist, or misogynist, or heterosexist, or antagonistic to any of these matters. "Empire criticism" in NT studies can benefit from such a lesson. It too frequently operates at the level of interpretation. It wants to show, for instance, that Paul really was a critic of empire. With a healthy notion of dialectic one can set out on the work of showing that Paul's thinking was structured by his life within an empire even if he was completely unaware of that fact. Likewise, it is entirely possible that, when he shot Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson was unaware of any racialized motivation on his part, and that nonetheless he operated within a racialized structure that made it more likely that he would shot and kill an unarmed Black teen than an unarmed White teen. Thus White people can say with all conscious integrity "Some of my best friends are Black" and yet be deeply and profoundly racist. Put otherwise, it opens up discussions of the unconscious without obviating discussions of the conscious (altogether considered in the work of interpretation).

In short, dialectic is important.

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