A Grey Theology for the Pacific Northwest – Part 2

This is the second part of a revised version of a paper presented at the Christ & Cascadia conference, Seattle, October 14th, 2016 (click here for Part 1).

In part one of this series, I provided observations of the grey milieu in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), exploring themes of ambiguity, disorder and confusion, and emptiness and loss. Additionally, I suggested a framework for grey theology, borrowing from the work of Paul Hiebert with his concept of the “excluded middle.” Here in part two, my aim is twofold: first, I articulate briefly why this grey reality exists, and second, I reflect on the construction of a grey theology.

The Reason for a Grey Reality

“I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives,” articulated Jean Francois Lyotard, giving his famous declaration that has become a hallmark definition of postmodernism.[1] Lyotard, among other points, diagnosed the postmodern condition as one of suspicion toward authority structures.[2] The result of this suspicion is the fear of perceived repression vis-à-vis metanarrative-induced authoritative structures.

But how does this postmodern paranoia of authority relate to the existence of a grey mood—one that seems to be especially prevalent in the PNW? Two thoughts on this are provided below.

First, this suspicion and paranoia has been engendered by deconstruction, which is the process of unveiling what is actually behind the curtain of authority structures, and uncovering the power-agendas and motivations that are at the core of metanarratives. [3] While deconstruction, in some situations, has its merits (not all authority structures and texts should be trusted), the problem is that ultimately it untethers language and text from any real meaning. With no solid grid for interpreting what is actually true or real, reality takes on a grey nature.

Second, if postmodernism recommends that we ought to freely define our own narrative of what reality is for us, freed from any founding authority structure, then we are left with a project of blending and mixing together bits and pieces of whatever we happen to find in order to produce our own structure. This is evident in many forms of postmodern art, which are often conflated, rather than maintaining any consistency throughout. This hodgepodge approach to defining one’s own reality leads to a sense of greyness.

The Construction of a Grey Theology

Considering the presence of a grey reality and framework for a grey theology discussed in Part 1, and the reason for greyness discussed above, the question may now be asked: how can we begin to construct a grey theology—one that embraces the grey middle zone of life (including the full spectrum of ‘melancholy’ to ‘Maranatha’), and can be employed to address the particular concerns of those living in the PNW? Three reflections are provided below.

The nature of the Bible as a story accounts for grey realities

The very nature of story, which is the abiding essence of the Bible as a literary work, functions in such a way as to give us a framework—a whole world, actually—for becoming more aware of and accepting of the grey middle zone of life. For, unlike the other primary types of literature (e.g., discourse and poetry), narrative invites us into another world: a reality where modernist mechanisms of cause and effect do not always hold sway, where plots thicken with twists and turns, shifts and reversals, where irony and paradox thrive.

Simply stated, stories are mysterious and unpredictable. As David Clines, drawing on the work of story theorists, writes, “Story highlights the freedom of action enjoyed by humans and gods—which often means the mystery of human or divine action. At the opposite pole from behavioristic or mechanistic theories of action, story emphasizes the role of the inexplicable and the undetermined.”[4]

The Bible, then, as a story, reveals to us a unique version of reality. For it brings an authentic account of the grey of everyday life. It provides us an honest picture of life under the sun, as with the pessimism of Ecclesiastes. It is not afraid to ask hard questions, as with the suffering of Job, or the laments of the Psalter. It is not privy to our modernist conquest of objective knowledge, but would rather humble us with the requirement—indeed limitation—to know reality in part through the mysteries that come by faith. While its narrative depicts a world where God is free to act—in all his sheer power and grace according to his sovereign plan—even so it makes provision for human freedom: a rich theme of the story that gives a flexible, gracious accounting for the reality of grey.

The nature of everyday life is a story with grey realities

We can take this concept of story and directly connect it to our own everyday reality. Simply stated, we live life as a story. Our days are filled with various situational narratives interlaced with interactions with other characters, plots, and environments. These micro-stories are what bring texture to our lives, and when all weaved together ultimately create a larger macro-narrative of our life. Reality does not happen to us like an essay where a logical progression of points connect together to support an overarching thesis of our lives. Rather, life happens as a storyline that is constantly working itself out organically, spontaneously, and raw.

This characteristic of story being the very shape of our everyday reality helps us further understand grey theology. Living within a story does not guarantee us a pigeon-holed existence where our categories are neatly stratified. Life is grey, because the world is broken. Ultimately, it is not a question of whether grey should exist, or whether we should live in it, but what we do with grey in light of biblical hope.

Biblical narrative offers hope in the midst of grey

Through a plot movement of creation-fall-redemption-new creation, the story of the Bible captures our attention with a striking realism. From the “beginning” of Moses’ Genesis to the final “Amen” of John’s Revelation, the Bible invites us into its authentic picture of reality. It is a metanarrative that, according to literary scholar Erich Auerbach, claims to be the only legitimate version of reality.[5]

Furthermore, the Bible gives us no option to reduce faith to clean, tidy compartments in life. It pushes us and encourages us to pursue hope, even while the doldrums of life cloud our psyche. It exhorts us to pursue the presence of God, even in the mundane middle zones of everyday life. It calls us to find fullness in the midst of emptiness. In light of the glorious ending of the Bible’s metanarrative—that surreal picture of a new heavens and a new earth—we have a clear and strong hope in the midst of a grey metaphysical mood.

Maranatha! Please come, Lord Jesus.

 

[1] Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 1979).

[2] Lyotard was not exactly implicating all metanarratives here within the scope of postmodernism, for postmodernism actually enjoys narratives. Much of what Lyotard argues for is that postmodernism has called out the irony of science for subjugating and pushing out metanarratives of faith and religion—because they don’t operate in the realm of science —all the while enthroning and legitimizing itself on the basis of its own metanarrative of reason. I am indebted here to James K.A. Smith’s explanation of Lyotard’s definition. James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006).

[3] Literary scholar George Steiner argues that deconstruction began with 19th century French poets, particularly Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud, who experimented with the deconstruction of language and thought. This project has now left its indelible mark on philosophy, particularly that of philosopher Jacques Derrida. In his view, language has been so stripped of its meaning, that what we are irreducibly left with is a playful atmosphere of free-floating signs and signifiers; the result of which is mere absence, for which we can only enjoy the différance. George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1989).

[4] David Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, Second Edition (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 109.

[5] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 14-15.

About Derek Hiebert

Derek Hiebert is a Western alumnus, Director for the Western Seminary Seattle Teaching Site, husband to an amazing wife, and father of three daughters. He and his family live in Parkland, WA, and minister bi-vocationally with Soma Church.