Monday 1 September 2014

Does theology reflect self-interest? (another response to critics)

My recent posts described how my understanding of the relation between God and the world has changed in the past several years. One of the recurring criticisms of these posts was that my changing views were motivated by self-interest. This view was expressed by several party members of the AUFS People's Republic, as well as by some of my politically sensitive Facebook friends. A comment on my previous post states this view with admirable clarity:
Why don't you just be entirely honest with us? The real reason why you've changed your stance is because you've realized that you have a huge vested interest in keeping the status quo. I mean, you can say it's your kids and the stockholm syndrome you've developed toiling away for the system, but really at the end of the day, it's your desire to maintain your current comfortable lifestyle. Ahh, how nice it must be!
This habit of associating intellectual convictions with personal self-interest seems to be quite widespread among leftist undergraduates and other well-meaning citizens who get their Marxist theory at two or three removes.

Marx's class theory, however, was about the way broad social changes occur in history. It was not a psychological theory about the motivations of individual persons. In fact, it is axiomatic to Marx's theory that individuals are not consciously serving the interests of their class. Marx was familiar with attempts to explain historical events by uncovering the private interests of individual persons; he regarded such tactics as beneath contempt. In a letter to Engels, Marx poured scorn on a certain German historian who had reduced "the spirit of history" to "facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes" (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, 159). Marx was emphatic about distancing his theory from "the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest" (Marx, Surveys from Exile, 176-77).

The Marxist class theory explains the way alterations occur in vast social patterns. It does not explain why the bourgeois shopkeeper sells one kind of cheese instead of another. It does not explain why intellectuals subscribe to competing views on any given topic. It does not explain why an Australian theologian might change his mind about something. Marxist class theory is a theory of historical change, not a theory of private motivations.

One of the most brilliant and influential modern revisions of Marxian theory was Foucault's theory of discourse. Like Marx, Foucault wanted to measure large historical patterns of power and interest. His work on power and discourse, so formative for contemporary critical theory, was an attempt to lay bare the vast machinery of language and institutions, not to explain why specific individuals think and act the way they do. His theory of discourse claimed to be an explanation of the whole field within which human subjectivity operates. It was not a reductionist psychological theory, as if all one's daily choices were secretly motivated by power and self-interest.

Again, it is fundamental to critical theory that the real operations of history are hidden from historical agents. (To digress for a moment, this is one aspect of what I am referring to when I compare critical theory to gnosticism: critical theory is always concerned with the acquisition of a secret knowledge that is hidden from the masses.) A theory of discourse does not imply that individual agents (or in Foucault's case, individual speakers) are motivated by power interests. To assert this would be to miss the whole significance of "discourse" as a domain that encompasses a huge diversity of competing interests and motivations. Discourse is "a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described" by the critical historian (Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 173).

At any rate, Foucault's concept of power has nothing to do with sentimental moral admonitions about self-interest. Power, in Foucault's vocabulary, is a morally neutral term that describes the way a particular social order is created. "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it 'excludes', it 'represses', it 'censors', it 'abstracts', it 'masks', it 'conceals'. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth" (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 194).

Anyone who has understood this theory will perceive the absurdity of the claim that the views of a particular Australian theologian can be explained by unmasking his sinister power-interests. My interlocutors used their critical theory to explain why I had really changed my mind: they might just as well have used quantum theory or homeopathy to explain it.

I have no intention of advancing an alternative account of why people change their minds. Presumably each person's intellectual convictions depend on a unique configuration of culture, education, language, environment, temperament, and experience. A theory rich enough to explain all this would have to be as large as life itself. I will only venture to say that one should take it for granted, until proven otherwise, that other people's convictions are not the product of bad motives or a wicked heart.

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