Monday, September 26, 2011


Truth exists within a specific context. Outside of that context, the truth content of a particular claim or idea is decreased. 

This is an idea that is not new, but is recent to me.

Terms like "conventional wisdom" and "subversive readings" get tossed about in the area of religious studies. While understanding them in their most basic sense is fairly easy, the terms have stayed with me for some time as I've tried to meditate on them.

Commonly, conventional wisdom gets a bad rap. Like a poster child for bourgeoisie values, "conventional wisdom" is visualized as the witless, dull wisdom of the status quo; terribly boring and unimaginative. Creative people aren't interested in conventional wisdom. No.  They must all be ground-breaking rebels shaking the prison bars of conventional minds.

That's the stereotype anyway.

Yet, conventional wisdom is what guides our lives on a daily basis.  It's what society depends on in order to be stable and peaceful, a collection of commonly held ideas and attitudes holding things together.
Inevitably, though, conventional wisdom either fails a large minority of the population, or directly undermines it. All of the people who don't fit into conventional modes can find themselves stuck and despised by the rest of their society.  There is no place for them, no acceptance of the issues they face, no acknowledgment of how convention has contributed to their problems.

These people have no hope if they can't find an alternative means to live and think. They must find a way to validate their own ethos and being, a way to value their own history in the midst of the conventional majority, or risk living at the mercy of the group.

So, subversive wisdom is usually directly opposed to conventional wisdom and is formulated in direct response to it, answering specific questions and addressing particular differences created in the clash.

What does all of my word salad mean?

It means that religious teachings and claims are highly contextualized. They rely on the foil of the opposing viewpoint in order to become fully formulated.  Take the foil away, and they lose much of their meaning.


I often have had the experience, when reading the gospels, of siding with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They make a lot of sense in some areas. Jesus comes along and skewers them, overturning their traditions, undermining their authority, generally rebuking them.  We are supposed to feel exhilarated by his revolutionary take on things.

And, we do in some cases. The value placed upon the poor, the sinful, the "less than" individuals that make up Jesus' followers is freeing. It gives hope to those who previously had none. It paces worth within people who were considered worthless.

Jesus' proclamation gives the individual a path towards redemption over, above, and apart from the community in which they had no path. Joining the invisible Kingdom of God meant cutting ties to the earthly community if necessary; hence all that talk about hating mothers and fathers, and giving up the world to gain one's soul.

In order to grant value to those deemed valueless, the entire system must be declared fraudulent.  Value is gained by rejecting the core beliefs of the oppressive system. Freedom is obtained through rising above the system, refusing to be subject to it any longer.

Within that brief period when revolution occurs, subversive wisdom is at its peak essence.  It is poignant and powerful.

However, inevitably, if the revolution is won a new kind of conventional wisdom is established.  The system returns with a few tweaks and the roles of who is valuable, and who isn't, are switched around and dressed up a little differently.

The symbiosis continues with the roles reversed.

It reminds me a little of this image:


JSA said...

A third option is to show how one's alleged "revolution" is really just a reformation; clearing away the decay and corruption while getting back to a purer essence of the "old time truth". Christ reportedly saw himself to be doing this, as did Luther.

That's the tactic taken in this recent post about Spinoza and animal sacrifice:

terri said...

Tom-a-to, Tom-ah-to!

Revolution or reformation...both rely on a specific context and generally are reactionary in nature.

I think that most reformers view themselves as getting back to a pure core, but I don't think that it ever really happens.

Luther's Christianity would probably be at odds with the Christianity of the 3rd century, even though he might have imagined that he was stripping away all of the "extras" in 16th century Christianity. There would certainly be many correlations between the two, but they wouldn't perfectly match.

Which goes to the article you linked to. I actually thought it was an interesting take on Judaism, but I didn't like the way the Rabbi kept asserting Judaism as a single cohesive whole/idea. There are many different strains of Judaism, some of which would be in sharp disagreement with other strains....just as we see in Christian denominations.

His remarks about the Torah sometimes being an embarrassment seems out of step with the impression I have gotten about the reverence given to the Torah by most Jewish groups.

I'm not sure what to make of his comments.

JSA said...

I think the Rabbi realizes that he will have difficulty selling "progress" if it's simply defined as being different from the past. If he can sell it as being a truer form of the "one, true, cohesive religion", it has a better chance of taking hold. I thought it was interesting how he sold it -- by saying that the past practice was a concession to human weakness.