Monday, April 23, 2012

Injury as the Sign of the Times

How things hurt shows us what is going on more than any other "sign" we may discern.

Most people want to know what is going on in their societies, communities, and cultures.  The worst way to do this is a poll.  Polls, unless crafted very carefully and subjected to considerable interpretation, make remarkable assumptions about the way that human beings perceive themselves.  First, polls (as opposed to extended interviews and observations) presume that I, when taking a poll, am transparent to myself.  We hardly are aware of all of our motivations and the various ways in which our self-reflective observations are self-deceptions and half-truths.  We need help to understand ourselves and our families and situations.  The short account we give of ourselves in a poll does not disclose much.

Second, polls threaten religious claims directly because they skew what people think is true based upon their situation, no matter whether they are conscious of it or not.  Polls are sometimes thought to generate or reveal what is generally plausible or believable in a society.  They are thought to present to us what are called "plausibility structures."  A person usually appeals to what is plausible by appealing to a general sense of what a society accepts as true.  For instance, many Americans can imagine environmental disaster.  What they cannot imagine is a world governed otherwise than by a free-market capitalist economy.  The German theologian Johann Baptist Metz exposes this well by pointing out another suspicion of polls:
[The dangerous memory of Jesus Christ] is always raising the suspicion that 'societies plausibility structures' can very much be 'obfuscation structures.' And it refuses to measure the relevance of its critique according to what a businessman, a bit drowsy after lunch, would take to be self-evident and relevant, which frequently functions as the secret criterion for rationality and reason. 
What Metz calls "the dangerous memory of Jesus" is the way that he hopes Christians approach the world, that dwelling in Jesus shapes a moral sensorium, a kind of sensitivity for injury.  Everyone has a stake in remedying and addressing the ways that people are chewed up, disfigured, and marred by their communities, nations, and economies.  Getting at what is going is crucial for Christians who take the memory of Jesus to open up their heart to the needs of others and to see and love themselves as well. 

Metz points forward as should anyone who follows Martin Luther's famous definition that a theologian of the cross finds the things of God in suffering and in death.  Where should we look to see what is going on in the world?  The bright lights?  The doings of the powerful?  Rather than give into despair and claim that what is going on is inaccessible to us, there is another way to get at what the signs of the time.

The better way to determine what is making up these complex social relations is injury.  A social structure is hardly reducible to either the society or the individual people and material features that make it up.  Neither alone can get us a picture of what is going on.  We have to shuttle back and forth to open up what is going on.  This lever is most visible when social systems and people together reject people or cause harm.  Theodor Adorno points out that society makes itself visible in injury.  What is going on today is visible when there is pain.

[S]ociety becomes directly perceptible where it hurts.  For example, [...] someone who is looking for a job and 'runs into a brick wall' has the feeling that all doors are shutting automatically in his face; or someone who has to borrow money [...] who meets with a 'No" ten or twenty times, and is told he is just an example of a widespread law [on who is a credit risk], all these, I would say, are direct indices of the phenomenon of society. 
This is hardly a joyous way to encounter society, to consider it made visible in its rejection.  There is certainly much to celebrate in our cultures and communities, but their spirits, their direction, and their events are most visible when they injure something or someone.  Adorno called this effort to discern the signs of the times a "melancholy science" but I consider it proper to Christian work in the world since it is precisely the world's trash heaps where new life begins.  Golgotha is ground zero for hope since it is this injury and rejection of God in the flesh that marks any way forward for Christian practice.  And so we can take another phrase of Adorno's, which is itself a modification of one of Jesus' sayings:
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.   

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