Postmodernism and Spiritual FormationPart 3: On Relativism, Anxiety and Doubt
Though there have been a couple people refer to them as such, I don’t really consider these writings as an apologetic for postmodernism per se. Rather, I hope that it is always true that my cause for apology is the Gospel of Christ. However, my intentions in these three short posts (they may not be short by blog standards, but given all that is at stake in this conversation, a total of 4500 words can not be considered comprehensive) have been to show that postmodernism is not the natural enemy of the Gospel. I would argue that someone could simultaneously consider themselves a postmodern Christian and an orthodox Christian without having to appeal to a relativistic worldview that says something can be and not-be at the same time. In other words, postmodern Christianity and orthodox Christianity are not inherently mutually exclusive terms. So then does that mean that Relativism is a correct, orthodox teaching? Well, maybe it is for you, but not for me…(for those who are not well versed in sarcasm and humor, that was a joke).
In truth, relativism applied as a universal philosophy is a logical absurdity. If someone holds that everything is relative, then for them, at least one thing is not relative – relativity, therefore everything is not relative for them. Relativism is, I believe, a reaction to the harsh, arrogant, self-absorbed, rigid control of truth wielded without compassion by previous generations. Practically speaking, relativists are often just as harsh, arrogant, self-absorbed and rigid in their control of “truth”. Again, the statement that there is no absolute truth is itself an absolute statement and therefore self defeating.
Moreover, the hallmark of postmodern relativism is tolerance. Art Lindsley, in his book True Truth* has been very helpful to me in dealing with the issue of tolerance. It is the Church, not Relativists, that has the philosophical grounds for tolerance. For without a transcendent Truth, who is to say that being tolerant is good and intolerant bad? On what basis should I be tolerant of you if there is no ultimate truth that says that it is better for me not to ignore, oppress or even kill you? Would a relativist defend the rape of women? The enslavement of African Americans? The Holocaust? Ethnic cleansing in Africa? Widespread arrests and execution of Relativists in America? I think not. Who says that we have the right to believe what is true for us? Who says we have rights at all? If everything is relative then every thing is relative…except this statement.
Christians on the other hand should exhibit more tolerance than we are typically known for. With humility we should consider others better than ourselves. We should look to the interests of even those with whom we disagree. We who believe that God made man in His Image should be actively looking for the fingerprints of the Creator everywhere we fix our eyes. We should never operate from a position of arrogance. But that does not mean that we elevate all worldviews to equal status.
Again, Lindsley points out that it is not arrogant to say that Jesus is Truth if we accept him as Lord and he claimed to be Truth. In fact, if we accept Jesus as Lord and deny that he is truth, we are acting from an extremely arrogant standpoint of claiming to know more than the one we call Lord.
I hold to view that the created universe is noncontradictory. A tree cannot be present and not-present in one place simultaneously. If that is true then God cannot exist and not-exist simultaneously; therefore we cannot say that all religions are equally valid.
In our rush to defend against the danger of Relativism, I think we often make two major mistakes. 1)Relativism as a universal philosophy is unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean that no truth is relative. To say we believe in absolute truth should not have to mean that all aspects and instances of truth are absolute. We shouldn’t have any problem accepting that aesthetics are (at least) somewhat subjective and relative. Food taste is incredibly relative – it can be true for me that seafood is good, while it is definitely not true for my wife. This truth is not absolute, though it seems that there is an absolute at work: we all have preferences when it comes to food, music, art, etc. In our defense against relativism lets not make the mistake of becoming legalists who put burdens on the backs of people without so much as lifting a finger to help them.
The second problem we must be careful of: equating relativism with postmodernism. The two are not synonymous terms. The Relativist philosophy is undeniably one of the negative offshoots of secular postmodernism that has found its way into religious conversations. But there are many people who are sympathetic to postmodern thought who would not consider themselves relativists. We also need to recognize the validity of and deal honestly with the postmodern critique on Truth – humans don’t seem to be very good at discerning that which is absolutely true and that which is shaped by culture and preference.
My son believes that the things he thinks taste yucky are absolutely yucky whether I believe they’re yucky or not. He has not learned to distinguish this belief as something other than an absolute. Could it be that we super-smart grown-ups may have our own list of issues that we cannot separate and understand absolutely? I think so. However when we start to peel away our confidence in human ability what are we left with? Many critics of postmodernism have noted how this cynical, negative view of our (in)ability to understand and know leads to debilitating doubt and terrible anxiety. While I disagree that the negative attitude is inherently a part of postmodern thought (I think it is a definite characteristic of Generation X postmoderns, but the following generation, the Millennials seems to be much more optimistic in general, even in relation to ambiguity) I don’t deny that the doubt and anxiety issue must be addressed.
Why are we anxious? Deconstructionism, which (like relativism) is sometimes mistakenly assumed to be synonymous with postmodernism, creates the terribly anxious situation of chaos. Philosophers whose agenda is the destruction of all metanarratives or coherent worldviews create a situation where there is no firm footing left. However, if there are no controlling metanarratives, then by what standard do they assert their deconstruction philosophy? Again we are dealing with a self-defeating theory that cannot stand up to its own logic.
Yet, if we decide together that there are absolutes but that we, as finite beings are not fully capable of grasping something finite, many people will still be gripped with the same anxiety. If we cannot know the absolutes then there might as well not be any absolutes right? If we can’t predict and control all the variables then how can we sleep? The answer lies in our understanding of the nature of doubt (and conversely, faith).
Doubt is the enemy of the Enlightenment. The goal to master our universe is thwarted by the admission that we cannot know fully. But doubt is not the enemy of Christianity, rather it is an integral part of our life in Christ. Doubt is present when complete knowledge of all variable is absent – only in a situation where there is room for doubt is there room for faith. Remember, faith is being sure of things hoped for, and certain of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1).
In a system that is defined by human ability, doubt and faith seem to be death sentences. Postmodernity seeks to provide, in some ways, a rejection of this system. However secular postmodernism is woefully inadequate to replace the equally inadequate assertions of modernity. Orthodox Christians can claim solidarity with the postmodern community in embracing doubt because we offer the companion experience of faith.
Deconstruction is only a logical fallacy if it is viewed as an end rather than a tool. We engage in the practice of deconstruction all the time. Any time we try to convince another person (or ourselves) of anything, we are engaging in deconstruction. However, if we are not willing to do the hard work of reconstructing we are being irresponsible and perhaps something more sinister. Deconstructionists say that there is no reconstruction to do because there isn’t any overarching metanarrative to reconstruct…but this is a controlling system, a metanarrative is created by omission. By not rebuilding the pile of rubble into some kind of dwelling, then the pile of rubble becomes the dwelling – either way, we have a dwelling. If the rubble is going to operate as a dwelling anyway, then on what grounds do we justify not rebuilding an adequate dwelling? On the basis that there isn’t an adequate dwelling to be built? Then what makes the inadequate dwelling of rubble more appropriate than the inadequate dwelling we tore down?
So we deconstruct the previous assertion that there is no room for doubt, that humans are destined to master our universe, and we rebuild a more appropriate worldview that accepts doubt as part of being human. Yet the very word “doubt” is more than many Christians can bear. Just the word itself seems to conjure a lack of faith rather than its presence. Perhaps it is easier to swallow if we use another word to describe this doubt: mystery. There are things about this universe and certainly regarding God, that are beyond our ability to grasp: they are mysterious in their very nature. These things have always been an important part of our relationship to God. This mystery reminds us that while we are created “in the image” of God, we are not gods.
I’ve said this before, a wholesale acceptance of postmodern thought – even that being offered from Christian thinkers – would be ill-advised, just as would a complete dismissal. There are aspects of secular postmodernity, such as relativism and deconstruction as a universal philosophy that simply do not hold water. But relativism and deconstruction are not the same as postmodernity, they are a couple unhealthy products. The renewed interest (notice I do not describe this as “new”) in mystery and spirituality in the Christian life; the willingness to accept that our perspective affects what we see and that there are limits to our knowledge; a focus on authentic living as of at least equal importance to mastery of presenting propositional truths; all of these are of great value to the Christian community.
While this serves as the final installment (for now) in my current thread of postmodern related posts, I do hope to address that last statement, regarding authentic living, in my next post: “The Stone that Builders Rejected.”