File spoon-archives/postanarchism.archive/postanarchism_2004/postanarchism.0403, message 8


Subject: [postanarchism] Inheriting traditions of wisdom: options
Date: Wed, 3 Mar 2004 19:37:52 US/Eastern


Since there's obviously a certain amount of 
arguing past one another going on here, i
want to clarify my understanding of at least
one of the issues surrounding "fundamentalism."
I want to take christian attempts to "inherit
wisdom" as my prime text, sticking close to 
the origins of the "fundamentalist" tag, but
i'll also try to underline a few ways in 
which the strategies i'm looking at come into
play in debates surrounding anarchism as well.

Religious believers have to determine the 
circumstances of their "inheritance" of any
tradition claiming to be based in divine 
wisdom. There are lots of ways to do this, 
and frequently believers do not simply choose
a single strategy. Three more or less 
representative strategies from christianity
are: 

1) A belief that divine wisdom is directly
accessible to the believer. Holy texts may
be considered as divinely inspired, but
personal revelation - communion with the 
holy spirit, in christian terms - is primary.

2) A more history sort of inheritance process,
where the believer's problem is to find a 
personal place within a tradition of believers.
Texts and institutions are taken as markers
toward divine wisdom, but are not assumed to
be inerrant (at least in any straightforward
way). Study and introspection are both 
necessary to negotiate a place within a 
living, historically conditioned set of 
practices and institutions. 

3) Fundamentalism: a recourse to particular
bits of doctrine or theological wisdom, on
the assumption that these *fundamental* bits
contain what is necessary to inheriting
divine wisdom. 

The middle option covers lots of ground, but
it's meant to. Some sort of "historical" 
approach is necessary to nearly all options
between the poles of individual revelation
and fundamentalist scripturalism. And recall
what i said about recourse to multiple 
strategies - even where they seem opposed to
one another in their implications. My early
religious education was within pentacostal
sects where almost equal recourse to extreme
forms of "personal christianity" and to a
kind of fundamentalism was common - while
all the questions of institutional and
doctrinal history also came into play. 

Anyway, let's look at some implications of
the various strategies: 

1) If you believe that divine wisdom is 
most available through direct communion,
you may go so far as my distant cousin
John Wilbur, who split the Quakers for a 
time by railing against such practices as
having full-time pastors and holding bible
studies. The Wilburites were the last major
Quaker group to hold fast to the notion of
the "inner light" and to insist that all
believers must be ministers. Early Quaker
communities worked on the principle that
all believers were responsible both for 
the work of introspection necessary to 
know the will of god, but also for public
witness, which allowed the fruits of this
work to be tested against the intuitions
of other community members. The common
sense of the community was the closest
thing to an understanding of god's will
for the community that could be obtained.
This particular model is inherently 
anarchistic, though, of course, it has 
all the disadvantages of any system 
based on consensus. It's worth noting 
that this might be considered a sort
of ultra-christian christianity, in the
sense that it takes *extremely* seriously
the shift from the "old dispensation" of
obedience to law to the "new dispensation"
of the law of love. 

In anarchist circles, we can see an
"antinomian" response of sorts in those who
insist that anarchism need have *nothing* 
to do with the history of the movement, its
prominent actors, etc. The mistrust of "dead
white guys" parallels John Wilbur's "ultra-
christian" mistrust of too much bible study.

2) We know that christianity has been shaped
by human actions, however much (or little)
those actions may have been guided by divine
hands. "Historical" christianities vary
dramatically on the question of divine 
guidance, ranging from non-christian attempts
to understand the development of the religion
to attempts to discern a "continuing creation"
of the faith through the development of its
doctrines and institutions - with lots in 
between. The opening to history, with all its
attendant questions, opens the door to various
forms of hierarchy. Not all interpretations
are equal. Not all interpretive skills are
equal. Not all have equal access to research
materials or time for research. But, at least
theoretically, all such research at least 
*can* be checked, and any *policy* based in
historical interpretation can be declared
valid or invalid according to the familiar
rules of the field of historical research. 
>From the social point of view, there are 
some advantages to decisions being based on
something more than "what the holy ghost
seems to be saying to me." But there is 
unquestionably a specialization likely, and
the creation of a class of pastors and priests.

In terms of current anarchist debates, perhaps
the most important thing to be said is that
there really *is* a distinction between the
various ways of inheriting anarchism which 
have recourse to history and the "anarchist
scripturalism" which those of us with a 
historical inclination are frequently accused
of these days. To say that Proudhon or Bakunin
is important today - with reasons - is not
the same as an appeal to, say, the inerrancy
of "What Is Property?" There *are* a few
anarchist fundamentalists out there, i'm sure.
They're not appealing to history, however, 
just dogma. There's a difference. 

3) Fundamentalism is, of course, "always more 
complicated" than we would like it to be. The
question of "how to inherit" is dependent on
other questions, like "to what end do we
inherit?" And by the time we've answered 
those questions, we have come to some sort of
conclusion about what is "fundamental," at 
least to us. But consciousness that "reading
is writing" does not make fundamentalists of
us all. On the contrary, it ought to make us
vary wary of how our grounds for inheritance
in one respect are always "grounded" in some
other choices, ad infinitum. (Turtles all the
way down...) Fundamentalism is a conscious
recourse to a limited set of precepts, and
these are *recieved* and inerrant. Non-
fundamentalists might be skeptical that they
are precisely the product of a particular 
class of believers, but for the fundamentalist
all of these sorts of arguments fall before
god's ability to make the divine wisdom
known despite human failings and frailties. 
In a sense, at the other end of the spectrum,
we're back to personal beliefs, against which
there is really no arguing. However, because
the content of these beliefs is not itself
derived (or derived primarily) from personal
experience of divine communication, there is
neither the opportunity nor felt need to 
bring beliefs into the kind of potential
conflict we saw in, say, the early Quaker
meeting. From my own rather antinomian
perspective, it is hard for me to see how
the "new dispensation" is adequately 
addressed by the institutionalization of
what amounts to something very like a new
set of commandments, but there are fine 
points of (underlying) theological debate
that come into play here. The choice to 
inherit in a particular way is not made
outside a (context of) inheritance *not*
chosen. 

I suspect there are those who would like to
assail "platformism" as if it was a form of
fundamentalism. Again, the determining 
factor really has to be the kind of 
justification advanced for an anarchist 
platform. Utility is a very different sort
of appeal than "divine inspiration." We 
can argue over the first, and the arguments
are likely to cover more than just the 
intentions of the "founders." (I suspect
you can see how all of these strategies 
are also at work in areas like constitutional
interpretation, etc.) 

Those of you who know me from these forums
should have no trouble seeing that i work,
both in the context of religion and that of
anarchism, between the sense of "direct
knowledge" and the historical tradition. I
have no trouble seeing how these first to
options for inheritance are at least 
potentially consistent with anarchist values.
It is much harder to see how fundamentalism
can be squared with those values. Conscious
fundamentalism is not simply a site where,
for example, *justification* is denied, thus
disrupting other systems of justification.
In fact, it is the site where justification
is claimed, but no *justification for the
justification* aside from the appeal to 
authority (divine or otherwise) can be
presented, and what is really denied is
*responsibility*. The proponent of "direct
knowledge" has to take on responsibility
personally. The "historical" believer
plays by the rules of language games which
are quite strict about how to build any 
sort of "foundation." The Derrida of
"Spectres of Marx" paints a very clear 
picture of what it means to "inherit from
ghosts," suggesting that there is, perhaps,
no other way to inherit. If i read him 
correctly, i think he also attempts to
demonstrate how this "hauntological" form
of inheritance haunts any other form (as
well as how it is haunted by "history." 
Recall that this is also one of the texts
where the "politics of memory" (of history,
etc) is a key concern. 

Anyway, i hope this clarifies, at least a 
bit, my understanding of the issues in this
recent debate on religion, fundamentalism, 
etc. 

-shawn

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