“History is a synthetic work of art. History emerges from what has occurred, and has one single, unified theme.” Karl Barth, __The Epistle to the Romans__, 146.
People generally assume that “postmodernism,” whatever else it might be, is a suspicion of single themes, of meta-narratives and fundamental truths. The theologian John Milbank argues that this assumption is misguided. For him, all the atheistic postmodern thinkers, despite their protests, actually end up expressing a single historical theme: the theme of violence. For these thinkers, according to Milbank, the basis of being and historical occurrence is rupture, chaos, or violence. The postmodern thinkers–again, despite their protest–do in fact read all history to fit a certain meta-narrative, only now it is the meta-narrative of struggle, of will to power, of violent assertion and counter-assertion, of one rupture after another, after another. Milbank goes on to argue that this “ontology of violence” is itself a matter of faith: nothing can prove it; at best, it is a matter of taste, and so, one which Christians can (and ought to) reject for a variety of reasons.
Milbank’s read of the postmodern, though containing some validity, ultimately misses what is at stake for many of these thinkers. Take Foucault. For Foucault, telling history–as genealogy–emerges as an attempt to unmask the usual way of telling history in terms of “origins.” Historians search for the time before the Fall, for that ideal moment before the chaos ensued. They tell of the glorious rise and inglorious fall of the people. The historian highlights the glorious origin in order to “map the destiny of a people” (Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, 81): once the descent–and reasons for the descent–are seen, the people can move past them to reclaim (presumably in a new, superior form) that glorious origin.
The genealogist resists this task of writing history. It exposes what is suppressed, held under, masked and ignored during the writing of history (as destiny). The genealogist uses history “to dispel the chimeras of the origin” (80). History, in the hands of the genealogist, no longer produces a stable identity for the people. By highlighting the ruptures, the contestations, the slippages, the impurity, the confusion, and the variety within a supposedly single history, the genealogist removes the possibility of using history to construct a coherent communal identity. There is no pure or stable “us” and hence there can never be a pure or stable “them.” History “becomes ‘effective’ to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being” (88). Although we want to tell stories that place our communal lives on solid ground (divine guidance, human genius, noble intentions, evolutionary progress, or historical necessity), the “true historical sense confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or a point of reference” (89). The genealogist uses historical knowledge to attack the narrative of history as destiny: “knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting” (88).
Yet, the danger still lurks within Foucault that this cutting use of knowledge only reinvigorates the will to power. Even the less aggressive image of carnival–“Genealogy is history in the form of a concerted carnival” 94–leads to troubling questions: who is this figure that delights in the play of appearances; what economic structures support the joyful exuberance of nihilism; is not this subject who flits in and out of masks simply another form of enlightenment individualism, the rugged, self-sustained white male; finally, is not the joy fleeting and the danger great, since every shift opens up another rupture and there is never a place to rest?
Barth would grant Foucault’s point that “history will not discover a forgotten identity, eager to be reborn, but a complex system of distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the powers of synthesis” (94). But for Barth, Foucault’s criticism must remain at the level of history, of immanence, of life here and now and in their own terms. But even here, where Foucault sees closure, Barth sees a closure that is also an opening. Might not the endlessness and nonsense of historical occurrence (not progression or unfolding, just empty occurrence) point to something beyond it? Might not the value of history be in the fact that it stands under this KRISIS (Barth’s favorite word for it), that the temporal is only the temporal and is not in fact the eternal? What if the harsh judgment of history–it is violence, sin, and death!–is not denied, but affirmed by God? What if God actually declares that our best historical endeavors and most glorious tales are nothing but forms of idolatry and violence? But then, what if the impossible has occurred, and that this judgment on all history has been born by one who is in the middle of history–as God? What if the violence of history has been brought inside of God’s very life, inside of the body of Jesus Christ?
The wounds of history, the violence and the rupture, cannot be denied. One cannot “renarrate” history so that it seems more peaceful and harmonious (pace Milbank). The violence and destruction can only be judged and condemned. But is there nothing left? Is there nothing beyond the judgment? There is–the impossible made real–the resurrection of the dead. In Jesus, God brought all the wounds of history into Christ’s body and there, in that broken body, judged them. But in Christ, the faithful servant of God, we see that this judgment meant our redemption; the No of God includes God’s Yes. In Jesus’ body we see what Foucault could not see–that the chaos of history does not have the final word, for it has already been judged, and history itself–ALL history–has been reconciled. This reconciliation IS the one, single theme of history: in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself.
This theme, however, is never a theme we can possess; it is a theme we can sing, a theme we can proclaim and to which we can bear witness, but it is not a theme we possess. We cannot retell history to stabilize our identity; we cannot tell history as destiny. Our gospel is merely a “nevertheless” at the end of the story Foucault and countless others tell. And that weakness is its power. And that power–the power of the weak Christ–gives us strength to turn back to God and to find in Christ the healing of all our wounds and the forgiveness of all our sins.
This long post, though a bit more abstract, is intended to clarify the telling of the church’s history in the colonial structuring of Rwanda (my last post). I realized that my previous post made it seem like Rwandans simply took over the colonial identities given to them and then brought them to their logical conclusion (genocide). The history is always much more complex, much more nuanced, and much more varied–but it must be told. Milbank’s option–“harmonious” renarration–obviously won’t work but neither will Foucault’s. I tried to use Barth to show a different way of narrating history, one that will give do justice to both oppressors and oppressed (and those who in many ways are both). It is not history as destiny, nor history as rupture, but an even weaker telling of history–history as seen in light of God’s “nevertheless.” God has graciously taken my history (and all history) out of my hands and brought it into his Jewish body (more on that later) so that I could live through and in and beyond my history by his strength. It is by this truth–a truth believed but not seen–that we are called to live.
Also, the response given at the end is an attempt to work within Barth’s book on Romans. And, the page numbers to the Foucault piece come from __The Foucault Reader__ ed. Paul Rabinow.