S C I E N C E & S P I R I T

Anne Dalke and Roy Gathercoal
De-Centered Selves Learning to Self-Organize

In June 2005, Haverford College hosted the annual gathering of the Friends Association for Higher Education, an organization of intellectuals and academics who have serious faith lives, and see themselves as being guided by spirit. One session of particular interest explored how the postmodern conception of the "decentered self" might be compatible with the Quaker tradition of "centering": if there is no center within (or without?), what do we center on, with--and how? A dialogue ensued between Roy Gathercoal, who presented the session, and Anne Dalke, who attended it. They make their conversation public here, along with an invitation to others to join in.


Roy, I found a great deal of interest and value in what you said: First, your juxtaposing three world views and their core values (a core value being "that which needs no further explanation"):

There are trade-offs in each view (in the modern world, for example, where science reigns, there exist difficulties in dealing with the nonquantifiable: "if it is not sense data, or derivable from that," then it is "non-sense," not real).

A concrete example:
Among a group of students returning from a semester abroad,

The first two of these cases might be understood as acts of "strip mining" or "narrative mining"; that is, as "extracting" narratives from others not in order to have a reciprocal exchange, but rather to 1) assure ourselves of our own superiority or 2) to benefit ourselves alone.

Next step: if we conceive of the postmodern self not as a "thing" (as it is in modern and popular conception), but rather as a place, where we put into play a set of strategies for selecting/suppressing/compartmentalizing some of the great cacaphony of discourses each of us hears within, then

The interesting discussion which followed dealt, in part, with the challenge that "organizing" that internal space is a "modern" approach to a "postmodern" condition. "What" is it that imposes order here? What better words might describe what goes on, for instance, in a Meeting for Worship? Receptivity (listening without having to sort out or order)? Equilibrium or balance? Moderating? A civil internal dialogue? Foregrounding some thoughts and feelings, while allowing others to drop into the background? Mention was also made of all the current work being done on self-organizing systems, of the variety of ways in which, in the absence of an external actor, complex structures can evolve through random interactions.

All of this seems to me quite helpful in any discussion of the tensions between fundamentalism and relativism, because it clarifies the different investments/values held by each world view, and so helps to explain why we continually talk "past" rather than "with" one another, and why those exchanges result in no changes on either "side."

Several other accounts of attempts made to moderate between varieties of voices/complicated friendships (particularly among the "scientific" and the "religious") at the conference can be found @

One of the most frequent charges leveled at postmodern-ism/-ity by my fundamentalist/premodern friends has to do with truth.

Understandably so, because as long as God self-identifies as "the Truth" to mess with truth is to mess with God. No trivial thing, that.

I believe that postmodernism does not have to be relativistic.

My wife Kathleen and I (we truly do work in collaboration) frequently struggle to explain to people with primarily premodern mindsets (PPPMs vs PPMMs vs PPPstMs?) that one can see an alternative to a single monolithic, knowable Truth that is not a "whatever you want to think truth might be today" truth.

I particularly like the account/metaphor that Kenneth Gergen (I think. . .) gave in dealing with the question of whether a postmodern view of language necessarily ends up in a wild, wild West, everyone-does-what-he-or-she-thinks-is-right, necessarily incomprehensible individualistic language mess.

After all, if there isn't one "right" language that is simply played out in the world's languages in a sort of substitution game, then why wouldn't each individual simply make up whatever words seemed nice today and assigned meanings more or less randomly?

One answer is that postmodernity doesn't have to claim that there is no master of language--only that there isn't a single master.

So instead of being a relativist in which anything can go and anyone can (rightly? correctly? coherently?) mean anything whenever it is convenient, postmodern language users have many masters, for each language is validated/mediated/established/maintained/authorized by a community of language users.

The penalty an individual speaker must pay for ignoring all language-birthing communities in discourse is incomprehensibility. Instead of "speaking her or his own language," the speaker who refuses to be governed by any community of language users cannot be speaking a language, but instead produces non-meaningful utterances.

So wrapping this around again, to our PPPM friends who charge that we are engaged in a frivolous messing with truth when we reject a single knowable human expression of truth (that is relativistic), we reply that our conception of truth, as PPPstMs, is not relativistic: We have no lack of masters and of judges as to the truth/validity of our statements.

We instead acknowledge that the many communities to which we simultaneously belong each make claims to truth. If our statements are to be considered to be true, they can only be true *in the context of* one or more of these communities, for our (many possible) meanings are dependent upon our language, and meanings/languages are co-constitutive with/in and sensible to our (many possible) communities.

Thus the need for self, where the various languages (and embedded truth claims) of our different communities simultaneously speak. Sometimes it's a wonderful polyphonic chorale, sometimes it's more like an audio-only recording of the NYSE trading floor. It is within our self that these complimentary/complementary/competing/complicit/contrasting/conflicting voices must come to some sense.

It is that "sense" which then functions, in some way, as our proxy for truth.

So how can I, an evangelical quaker postmodern friend father son husband employee patient etc. (not necessarily linked with dashes, sometimes with equal signs, not-equal signs, greater than or lesser than or subset-of etc. signs) believe that there is one Truth that is God while simultaneously claiming that our truths are whatever constantly emerges from our various communities-of-membership?

(to put another wrinkle into things):

"We don't know everything, and our prophesies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what isn't perfect will then disappear. When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see God face to face. We don't know everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us. For now there are faith, hope and love. But of these three, the greatest is love. I Corinthians 13:9-13

God is Truth. We cannot know God in God's entirety now. As God is infinite and we are finite, we could only claim to know God/Truth completely if we were to deny the infinity of God.

From my perspective, it is easy to be a Christian, a Quaker, even an (cringe because of the baggage) evangelical and a PPPstM. I can claim there is One God, One Truth. I just must acknowledge that whatever God is, and however much of God might be in me, I am not the entirety of God. And this jives completely with the humility for which many PPPstM trailblazers call.

Make sense?

By the way, feel free to quote, paraphrase, restate, repost *anything* I write or say to you, now or anytime in the future. With or without any sort of credit or disclaimer. I trust you with my words, Anne.

In the love that ultimately comes from God,



What I like about what you say, Roy, is the understanding that each of us has the responsibility, and the freedom, to take ourselves as our own (self-organizing) center. Where we differ, I expect, is that you understand this process to take place in a world which is centered in God, while I think it's occurring in a universe where there is no center at all?

Even with that (very large) distinction, what you say fits so well both into what I know of the shared meanings that constitute a language, and the unshareable experiences that each of us harbers--and tries, always incompletely--to express to others. I've been participating, for the past three years, in a working group on emergence at Bryn Mawr. We're now putting together a collection of essays, arising out of our conversations; take a look at mine, on Why Words Arise--and Wherefore: Literature (and Literary Theory) as Forms of Exploration--and let me know if/how well you think it works as an expression of the postmodern theology you're so fruitfully exploring?

Roy responds, and the conversation continues, at "An Outdoor Market."

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