4.0341 Conference Report: Shadow of Spirit (1/219)
Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 31 Jul 90 23:22:11 EDT
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0341. Tuesday, 31 Jul 1990.
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 90 18:56:11 +0100
Subject: SHADOW OF SPIRIT Conference report
SHADOW OF SPIRIT
Conference held at King's College, Cambridge
July 21st - 25th, 1990
Organised by Phillippa Berry (King's, Cambridge) and Andrew Wernick
(Trent U), Shadow of Spirit was a bold venture, which was hugely successful.
That is surprising, since it aimed to invite postmodernists from a range of
disciplines to explore what is usually seen as marginal issues; began by
declaring boldly that no-one knew how to define postmodernism; and concluded
with delegates still asking each other, "Which shadow?" and "Which Spirit?"
The signs of success were there long before the conference began in that the
number of applications far exceeded the level of interest expected by the
organisers. The conference failed to find closure. It has established itself
as a network with King's as its "home", with proposed national round tables
and another international conference in two years' time.
The lead speakers were a formidable group of scholars, some magisterial
in their own field, and who largely, if not intentionally, directed the flow
and agenda of the conference with their various contributions throughout the
Mark C Taylor (Williams College), one of the few modern theologians to
have formulated a new theology, opened with a lecture which would have been
more successful in written form. In discussion afterwards he agreed that his
mental process of word play is more effective on paper, where the synchronic
and diachronic can be displayed simultaneously. Taylor's association of
postmodern artists with philosophers and theologians underscored the
interdisciplinary nature of the process. Gillian Rose (Warwick), in a critique
of Taylor's theology and John Milbank's Theology and social theory, argued
powerfully that we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Her impact, though, had the element of a gnostic treatise in that Milbank's
book has yet to be published, and Rose and Milbank were the only people in the
room who knew what she was talking about. At the end of this opening session,
Taylor and Rose had opened up theology, ethics and politics as the ground.
The conference then decentred itself into group sessions over the
following three days, to hear 66 papers in four locations. There were comments
towards the end that the conference had a number of subtexts which showed in
the attendance and contributions from various standpoints. Prominent among
these were the feminist, Jewish and Buddhist contributions.
Reinhard Friedrich (Hawaii) began from his base in English literature to
compare the genre of Gospel endings as climax and emanation with a range of
nineteenth and twentieth centuries texts, with question time leading him to
concentrate on Kafka. David Jobling (Saskatchewan) pondered on why Gerhard
Theissen had failed to complete his psychoanalytical analysis of Paul's text,
particularly 2 Cor 3.4-4.6, and became one of the first to open up Christian
anti-Semitism, in the context of the subconscious choice of Jung over Freud. A
helpful question in question time linked the closure of The Epic of Gilgamesh
with the disciples in Gethsemane.
Stephen Clark (QMW, London) ponderously explored Ricoeur's relationship
to deconstruction and the sacred, his excursions into considering evil, the
double intentionality of meaning found in the author, and a challenge to us to
plough through Time and Narrative.
A different approach was found from Fraser Watts (MRC, APU, Cambridge)
and Guy Claxton (King's, London). Watts looked at Freudian and Jungian
analogues inside Christian doctrine, arguing that essentially those doctrines
were necessary as answering basic needs in the human psyche. He offered an
interesting tension between eschatology as contained in a never achieved hope,
and sin as a doctrine of the balance of man. Claxton raised the question,
which was to appear elsewhere, of the status and influence of modern
technology. Using Aldous Huxley's term neurotheology, Claxton considered the
interaction of cognitive science with experience and philosophy in a religious
context. He revealed useful links in neural networks and current artificial
intelligence research into PDPs in ways which seemed to echo something of
The plenary session between Don Cupitt (Emmanuel, Cambridge) and George
Steiner (Geneva) could have been billed as the clash of the titans! It
dominated everything thereafter. No-one will be able to forget Steiner's
contribution which excelled everything else. He was responding to Cupitt in a
binary opposition which seemed to deserve the description of lecture v sermon.
Cupitt unintentionally made an error of judgment. He assumed he was known and
that his background was known. Throughout the rest of the conference, British
delegates were having to continually explain Cupitt's status and position in
our theological world. His contribution was hopeful, liberal and pluralistic.
He likened theological concepts to the market place, and revealed his
religious humanism with disarming honesty. Steiner's response went for the
jugular. He used Cupitt against himself, incisively but gently. He basically
offered an apologia for traditional Judaism - Cupitt has "covered all except
the Mosaic", noting that the two messianic heresies that rejected the very
faith which spawned them - Christianity and Marxism - were struggling, and
Judaism was haunting them. It was without doubt his rhetorical style coupled
with his awe-ful/Awe-full challenge, in an emotionally charged atmosphere, to
the communal Christian/human guilt conscience over the Shoah which led several
people to openly admit later that they had been fighting back tears. With a
challenge which matched the skill any evangelical preacher would have been
proud of, Steiner asked what we - and he - did when another holocaust
perpetrated by Pol Pot took place and this time we saw it on our television
screens. Steiner was crushingly dismissive of deconstruction, noting that it
was not without symbolic significance that the leaders of the movement in
France were presiding over its final death throes, even having changed the
title of their journal to La Fini.
Steiner saw the 21st century as one where pluralism and liberality may
not be the order of the day, but because of fundamentalism, it may well be a
century of religious wars.
Nothing could follow Steiner. Words seemed inadequate. Emotions varied
from guilt and appreciation to anger, and objection to his inability to accept
the needs of minorities voices.
Back in group sessions, Andrew Wernick (Trent U) began what became a
series of personal confessionals throughout the rest of the conference. He
confessed his confusion and turmoil at the failure of ideals in left
theologies and politics, and considered this in the context of Althusser. His
confusion seemed the stronger since he had been preceded by a masterful
evaluation of early Marx by Eve Tavor Bannet (South Carolina), in which she
considered the enduring influence of Halachah, on his overall thought.
Remaining in a philosophical vein, Pamela Reeve (Toronto) explored the
relationship of Via Negativa theology to deconstruction, and seriously
questioned the extent to which negative theology could be deconstructed.
Gayatri Spivak entered the stage at this point in a plenary session which
also turned into new directions. Her initial criticism of assumed monotheism,
and assumed superiority of monotheism over polytheism was widely
misunderstood, and she had on more than one occasion to push her basic
question of whether the lack of appropriate Western training prevented those
living in and through other experiences from having any valid contribution.
While it was valuable to see the ways in which Western anthropologists had
perceived polytheism in their own terms (sometimes confusing Hindu polytheism
with Hellenistic polytheism), this was an expression in colonial terms.
Through her usual style of pointing up through anecdotes, Spivak exposed the
audience to a range of unexpected insights into life in the Indian
sub-continent to convey her message.
In further group sessions, Valentine Cunningham (Corpus Christi, Oxford)
applied literary post modernism to the Judaeo-Christian texts, seeing text as
a game, with God as the joker in the pack, word playing on text as para-sitic,
and considering the r[le of dreaming the text. His contribution rested largely
on Genesis as the text, and raised the question as to why post modernists have
a tendency to equate Genesis and the Bible as synonymous. Gerard Loughlin
(Newcastle), assessed Lyotard's contribution to the performing of God's
writing at the same session.
David Martin (Trinity Hall, Cambridge) and Graham White (American
University, Cairo) came across unfortunately as though they were trying to
defend traditional Christian theology by using the weapons of the enemy of
postmodernism against itself. That was not their intention, I am sure, and
Martin's exposition of the function of the mimetic was particularly
perceptive. He did, though, seem to be saying that resting on the truths of
Catholic theology was the answer to all of Man's needs. White spoke from the
basis of foundationalism, and relied on Luther's binary opposition of the
theology of glory v the theology of the cross for much of his argument,
appearing to equate the theology of glory, glitz and modernism in the same
Jonathan Bordo (Trent) provided a broad and succinct picture of the
ineffable in the discourse of modern technology. Calling his contribution
Release from the centre he began from the early concept of the earth as the
geocentre of the universe, and raised a number of green issues about Man's
attitude to his relationship to the environment, with rapid journeys through
Descartes and Kant. This he then linked into modern technology through a
series of unanswered questions which were ethical and political.
Lance Olsen (Idaho) gave me a brand new perspective on cyberpunk
writings. I had never even begun to think that the Judaeo-Christian ethic
might be present in computerised robots and mainframes which raises ultimate
questions about process over progress. Relying heavily on W Gibson's trilogy,
beginning with Camp Zero, Olsen demonstrated how cyberpunk was a form of
voodoo integrating the acceptable face and the unacceptable in religious
practice. These silicon monsters even manage to self destruct and spawn
themselves (a resurrection?) into mini versions which seem to match the
multiplicity of Hindu gods and goddesses.
The conference closed with two plenary sessions. The first, a feminist
round table discussion, became an extraordinary series of confessionals about
what each of the six contributors believed. Perhaps sitting on the same stage
where Steiner had delivered his sermon gave this and the final plenary its
sacral quality, and converted Keynes Hall into the cathedral of honesty? A
sociologist had to forcefully plead for some consideration of the communal
implications of our discourse in the end. Each contribution bar one centred on
theological and religious coping, rejecting, and reassessement in the light of
text and institution, both of which represent male dominance. The other
contribution raised questions of political dominance. However, there were many
points of discussion which seemed to be of concern as a human dilemma rather
than identifiable as a feminist question.
The closing plenary brought the big guns together. Some took the chance
to get their own back, and each made very individual comments. Patricia
Jopling (Yale) wanted to know whether we could have identity without violence,
while Cupitt mused on whether the binary opposition of transcendence and
immanence were not what was under question. Spivak thought the absence of any
consideration of Islam was a major lack, saw Hegel as racist but one from whom
we could still learn, and developed some of her earlier points. Rose summed up
the fact of the conference, that it was dominated by two prophets - Cupitt and
Steiner, but challenged each by asking where we were to locate domination and
where to locate pluralism. Steiner had etched his r[le, and the session was
not disappointed. He saw the subtext of the conference as Judaism, and a lack
of rigorousness from those who should be able to offer the essence of atheism.
He concluded that there had in fact been no language of dialogue, and mused
whether there ever could be in the last resort.
To Taylor fell the task of summing up. He, too, saw the conference as
operating in the space between Cupitt and Steiner. He echoed Steiner in saying
that he had found dialogue difficult, and that there had not been sufficient
consideration of ethics and politics.
Phillippa Berry and Andrew Wernick received the gratitude they deserved.
The dialogue has now begun, not ended, in the absence of itself. Watch this
Recordings of all the above talks and plenaries are available at cost
plus postage and packaging - about $3.50 each - from Ian Mitchell Lambert,
Tangnefedd, Windmill Road, Weald, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN14 6PJ, or fax 0732
741475, or email email@example.com. I can take plastic money with the usual name,
address and expiry date! These were recordings made for my own study purposes,
and are offered on an "as-is" basis.
Ian Mitchell Lambert
Board of Theology and Religious Studies
University of Canterbury at Kent
26th July, 1990