Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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THE HERETICAL IMPERATIVE (with apologies to Peter Berger)

Two internationally recognized authors and educators wrote in the latter part of the 20th century in response to the problems of pluralism in our times. They each wrote of different places and situations, but the timelessness of their combined message struck me in a powerful way while writing my dissertation from the research done in South Africa in 1989. For the past few weeks, my mind has been drawn back again and again to these observations, and I both quote and paraphrase here from Chapter 5 of my research.[i]

As I write….I again experience the agonizing frustration arising from attempts to reconcile the difference between what is stated as truth, and what truths are implied by behavior in this country. The problem becomes even more difficult when one begins to unravel the various ideologies and theologies upon which social interactions are based, and the idiosyncratic interpretation of these beliefs by the various actors within the groups.

In other words, one has only taken the first step toward understanding by simply defining the contending worldviews and labeling groups accordingly. There are cross-cutting cleavages which separate political groups, religious groups, and ethnic groups; accordingly, there is at least as great a variety of perspectives within groups as that which exists between them. Yet some attempt must be made to organize one’s understanding of normative behavior, otherwise analysis of any given activity would be entirely incoherent.

Paolo Freire provides one useful typology, which presupposes the ability to choose how one will react to any given situation. He explains that people “exteriorize their view of the world” either fatalistically (which he also describes as reactionary), dynamically, or statically.[ii] The dynamic and static responses are largely self-explanatory; obviously, the dynamic response is the preferred of the three.

The dynamic response utilizes a dialogical process, which Freire describes as an affirming process of becoming.

If it is in speaking their word that [people], by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which [people] achieve significance as [humans]. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity…this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a single exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants. Nor yet is it a hostile, polemical argument between men who are committed neither to the naming of the world, nor to the search for truth, but rather to the imposition of their own truth…It is an act of creation…Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for [mankind].

…At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only [people] who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.[iii]

The reactionary response typifies what Freire terms “sectarianism;” which, “because it is mythicizing and irrational, turns reality into a false (and therefore unchangeable) ‘reality.’[iv] He explains that sectarianism results from fanaticism of either the right or the left; the first imagining a well-behaved present and the latter a predetermined future:

…closing themselves into ‘circles of certainty’ from which they cannot escape, [they] make their own truth. It is not the truth of men who struggle to build the future, running the risks involved in this very construction. Nor is it the truth of men who fight side by side and learn together how to build this future—which is not something given to be received by men, but is rather something to be created by them. Both types of sectarian, treating history in an equally proprietary fashion, end up without the people—which is another way of being against them.[v]  (emphasis mine)

Sociologist Peter Berger, writing from the perspective of the sociology of religion, produced a similar typology of options which apply to affirmation of religious belief in a modern, secular, and pluralistic society.

 In the pluralistic situation…the authority of all religious traditions tends to be undermined. In this situation there are three major options, or ‘possibilities,’ for those who would maintain the tradition: They can reaffirm the authority of the tradition in defiance of the challenges to it; they can try to secularize the tradition; they can try to uncover and retrieve the experiences embodied in the tradition…I call these three options, respectively, those of deduction, reduction, and induction.[vi]

“Modern consciousness entails a movement from fate to choice, Berger explains; further, “modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.”[vii] But the multiplicity of choices, and the variety of plausibility structures differing from community to community and institution to institution turns this freedom of choice into an intensely anxiety-ridden situation. The deductive response is to relieve that anxiety by recreating the certainty of authoritative tradition; essentially a return to the past. On the other hand, the reductive response is essentially a change of authorities. “The authority of modern thought or consciousness is substituted for the authority of the tradition…In other words, modern consciousness and its alleged categories become the only criteria of validity for religious reflection.”[viii]

The inductive (heretical) option bases religious affirmation on a deliberately empirical weighing and assessing the bodies of evidence based on experience and tradition. Admittedly, the reductive response typically makes this same endeavor; however, in that instance a line is crossed whereby a new authority is created and takes the place of the authority upon which the religious tradition has been founded. The result, borrowing Freire’s terminology, is sectarianism.

These typologies are similarly based upon their authors’ understanding of the three options available to any individual or community when faced with the challenge of social change, or modernity. It is interesting to note that Freire’s typology, as he interprets it, is essentially action oriented, or related to the “outward journey” whereby we seek community. By comparison, Berger’s typology is inner-directed in that the emphasis is on introspection and evaluation, particularly in the religious sphere, which must occur before action is taken.  This, as Berger explains, is  the essence of the “heretical imperative” that is before us.

Unfortunately, in either typology or any combination thereof, the reactionary/reductive or the static/deductive are the choices most often made; in either case, the result is the closing of a worldview. This closed worldview must be maintained at any cost, in the face of a continuous onslaught of conflicting realities which will challenge it. One could even say that in each of these two options, there has occurred an ‘opting out,’ the choice being against entering the situation as a participant. At national levels, these worldviews are recognized as totalitarian (of right or left); as rigidly authoritarian; as dictatorships. At the community or individual level, those who “opt out” are recognized for their bigotry and closed-mindedness; such people are rarely, if ever, capable of the “I-Thou” relationship which is a prerequisite for the dynamic/inductive option.

If we are to bring ourselves out of the excesses and wrongs of sectarianism and work together again for the good of our country, we must engage in the Heretical Imperative of real human-to-human dialogue, deliberately utilizing the empirical weighing and assessing the bodies of evidence based on experience and tradition; bringing about a loving act of creation that moves us forward into the future in which we stand and work together, for the sake of our children.

[i] James, Marylee M. Good News for the Poor? The Church and Community Development in South Africa. In fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Boston University 1990.

[ii] Freire, Paulo Pedagogy of the Oppressed trans. M.B. Ramos. New York continuum, 1989. Pg. 97.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 76-79.

[iv] Ibid, pg.22

[v] Ibid, pg. 23

[vi] Berger, Peter L. The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1980 (1979). Pg. xi.

[vii] Ibid, pg.10 & 25

[viii] Ibid, pg. 57