Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Postmodern Flight from Authority and Truth

What challenges face the Church when it comes to evangelism, to proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I find the following thoughts on postmodern culture’s flight from authority and truth from R. R. Reno’s The Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in An Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos Press, 2002) a sobering way to critically assess that question, particularly insofar as proclaiming the gospel entails claims to truth and authority. If you find any of what follows intriguing, read the whole book.

… the outlook of modernity has shifted from ambition and confidence to fear and anxiety. The spirit of the age is no longer self-expressive; it is self-protective. Whether one is a Derridian, a disciple of Foucault, or a student of Heidegger, the very potencies and powers that give human life dynamism and drive are laden with danger.

Allow me to list a few postmodern truisms. Language is a vessel of power that seeks dominion. Truth claims are tinged with imperial ambition. Technology alienates us from life. Economic dynamism produces rapacious inequality.

As a consequence, the slogans of modernity may well endure; liberty, equality, and fraternity may continue to be championed, but they are so against a background of menace and not promise. Postmodern culture continues to put humanity first, but it does so in an atmosphere haunted by fear.

Because postmodern culture is essentially defensive, the challenges of evangelism have changed, and the many modern theological strategies of mediation are altogether beside the point. One need not meet the rigorous demands of modern intellectual life when the present age is running in the opposite direction. One need not tailor the gospel to fit the ambitions of freedom if the postmodern soul endeavors to shrink to a point where it will no longer be noticed. But the demise of old challenges give rise to new challenges. Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and flight from truth. Both are integral to the strange way in which postmodern culture seeks to serve humanity by saving it from any and all power, by protecting us from the ambitions and demands that lead to change.

The contemporary allergy to authority and flight from truth are certainly familiar to anyone who has sampled the air of American culture. Consider the slogan “Celebrate diversity!” This platitude is so ubiquitous that it now seems self-evident. Some people are tall, others are short. It would be absurd to require all people to be the same height. Just as people are of different heights, we reason, so also do people have different spiritual sensibilities and needs. It would be absurd, then, to require them to hold the same beliefs or conform to the same moral rules. After all, only a violent attack on individual bodies would produce a world of people the same height. So also, we infer, enforced uniformity of belief and practice requires violent assaults upon conscience, intellect, and will. Therefore we must reject all authoritative claims as acts of violence.

Of course, Christianity is inevitably caught up in the postmodern flight from authority. As the most powerful force shaping Western culture, Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves. If we are affiliated with enduring divisions of race and class, then surely Christianity must have a hand in causing this evil. If Western societies subordinate women and deny them public roles, then, again, Christianity is at the root of the problem. The list of particulars is endless, varying in focus according to the interests of critics, but the basic logic is the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.

Anxieties about the closed circuit of dogma, the exhausting weight of tradition, and the crushing force of institutional authority lead our postmodern culture to the extreme of denying the authority of truth itself. Our efforts to shield ourselves from coercive demand and its violence against individuality makes us fear that some proposition, some insight, some conclusion to a syllogism might gain control over our intellects and our souls. If any of us really believe that some proposition is true, then the diversity of our minds will fall victim to the uniformity of what is the case. Indeed I am convinced that if the Vatican were to promulgate a document advising Catholic theologians that 2 + 2 = 4 and that theologians are not to say otherwise if they wish to speak the truth, then journalists would have no difficulty finding any number of sources who would denounce the authoritarian tone of such a directive.

Such hyperbole can seem silly. Perhaps, but we should not underestimate the intensity of the postmodern horror of obedience, a horror that makes the power of truth itself a threat. “Sharing” now smothers debate. God forbid that anyone should formulate a reasoned argument; it might contradict or “marginalize” the experience of others. All sentences must begin with a compulsive ritual preface: “From my point of view …” The truth or falsity of all claims depend on one’s “perspective.” Everyone must be affirmed; the views of all must be validated.

Many of my colleagues in philosophy are convinced that this all-views-are-equally-valid approach stems from a widespread belief in relativism. We are all, these professors imagine, in the grips of a bad theory of truth, and they spend a great deal of time trying to disabuse their students of this bad theory.

The problem, however, is that this does not work. I can point out to my students that the truth of 2 + 2 = 4 does not in fact depend on anyone’s point of view. I can expand upon the objectivity of the natural sciences. I can lecture about the distinction between truth and justification. I can exhort all to recognize that the possibilities of error and prejudice do not make them inevitable.

My efforts are in vain because my students have a primitive and unreflective commitment to the proposition that all truth is relative. They hold such a view as dogma, not as theory. It is a presupposition, not a conclusion. Truth claims, they say, are relative to their cultural contexts. If I press the issue and ask them to explain how such a view is consistent with the fact that modern science is practiced in India, Japan, Russia, and the United States, and that scientists go to international conferences and seem to agree with each other about all sorts of things regardless of cultural context, they look at me and shrug. At other times they deploy sophistic tricks. A student insists that one cannot make non-mathematical claims about mathematics, and this demonstrates that all systems of thought are closed and self-referential. Therefore truth claims reduce to empty tautology. When I ask him in what sense the proposition that engineers find mathematics useful is a mathematical claim about mathematics, he just looks at me and repeats his conviction. His belief is more certain to him than anything I might say. It is a matter of faith, not evidence or inference.

These experiences in the classroom have convinced me that relativism is not a philosophical theory. It is a spiritual truth, a protective dogma designed to fend off any power that might claim our loyalty. It is a habit of mind that insulates postmodern life from the sober potency of arguments and the force of evidence, from the rightful claims of reason and the wisdom of the past. My students can look me in the eye and insist that one should never impose one’s beliefs on others and that all truth claims – including, I presume, the moral rigors of never, never imposing on others – are relative. Here our contemporary horror of obedience joins hands with solipsism in order to protect the soul from all demands, rational or otherwise. Here we are face to face with the spirit of our age.


plsdeacon said...

"There is no absolute truth!"


"Yes! Absolutely!"

The question, then, is how do we shift their dogmas to admit that there is such a thing as truth and that some visions of that truth are closer to others?

Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

Another book to reread. The last paragraph is made even more ironic by the fact that Reno teaches at Creighton University, a Jesuit school.

BTW, are you familiar with the Radical Orthodox people (Milbank, Pickstock et al)who combine some postmodernist approaches with Augustinian theology? I think I'm on their side, but I can't really tell because their academic jargon is so dense. I only have a PhD in archaeology, which makes me intellectually handicapped in some circles.

Bryan Owen said...

Hey Joe. I am familiar with the "radical orthodoxy" movement, but I haven't gotten around to reading anything by the key theologians. Looks like there's an interesting article about it all over at Christianity Today entitled, "What's so Radical about Orthodoxy?"

Christopher said...

Postmodernity is a many facted phenomenon, just as is Modernity, so this kind of broadcloth tends to leave me cold.

I have found that those who tend to speak/write of Postmodernity in this way tend to the authoritarian rather than to authority, and tend to look toward Christendom as model of authority. It's similar to the ways those who make all of our problems the fault of Modernity--which one is the first question I ask.

We need to ask ourselves why is it we think we should automatically be afforded a Christendom-type authority given our messy and sometimes quite unfortunate past, to put it charitably.

The Gospel, His Person, and His persuasive power is certainly a type of authority, but not of the type Christendom seeks to retain, a model that often wants no questions or challenges to itself. The Gospel exhorts, calls into participation in His own life, claims us in a very different way from mere propositional truth, and questions us all in light of Himself as Pattern.

That doesn't mean there is no Truth, but that Truth is a Person, which means while our words can sufficiently proclaim him, He cannot be reduced to our words. It also means that an attitude of humility and care should come with our truth claims. Even if we are right, if we beat others up with them, we are wrong. That also means that given the possibility to err, an Anglican recognition if there is one, diffuse authority, as Bp Sykes calls it in his masterful works, is a blessing.

Christopher said...

I would add that RadOx has some problems, one of which is these folks are nearly unreadable. The other is their blaming Scotus for all of our problems, and in turn, blaming Modernity on him.

There are parts of Modernity that are frankly goods, as David Tracy points out. One of them is move to checks and balances on authority. Another is recognition that we are not perichoretic in the same way as the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and hence, we can abuse one another--hence, the need for rights. Rights language, contra Rowan Williams, has deep roots in Christian grounding.

Bryan Owen said...


Thanks for your comments, which, as always, are insightful and thought-provoking.

I agree that terms like "modernity" and "postmodernity" and often used poorly or in ways that are simplistic and reductionistic. I actually don't really like the term "postmodern," as it suggests some sort of epochal break with everything that has come before (so-called "modernity"). I don't think that history or culture work that way. Sometimes I think that "hyper-modern" might be a better term. But the term "postmodern" is widely used (even if the meaning varies considerably), so I guess we're stuck with it.

Before reaching the conclusion that Reno "tend[s] to the authoritarian rather than to authority, and tend[s] to look toward Christendom as model of authority" I invite you read his book (if you have not already done so). As I read him, he is a post-Christendom author (hence the title In the Ruins of the Church).

Given the reality that Christendom is over and (as Reno argues) we live in a culture that is highly allergic to things like truth, authority, and obedience, what does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be the Church? And how do we engage in evangelism - sharing a message and an invitation to discipleship that challenges the core "dogma" of the "postmodern" mindset Reno describes in the excerpt I've quoted? I think his book is a valuable resource for thinking through such questions.

I also agree with your Johannine statement that "Truth is a Person." I would point out, however, that this statement is itself a truth claim, and thus susceptible to being kept at arm's length by the "protective dogma" of relativism. Indeed, a relationship with a Person makes far more practical claims on my life and loyalties than adherence to the truth of an abstract principle can ever make. Perhaps this is the deeper reason for why some churches have excised the word "Lord" as a title for Jesus from their liturgies?

Jendi said...

Ditto Christopher. (How I miss your blog!)

Within academia, there are certainly examples of dogmatic anti-dogmatism such as Reno denounces, and some of them bear the postmodernist label. But it's unfair to call all postmodernists relativists. The postmodernist insight is that truth-claims are made by fallible persons embedded within power structures, and that the speaker's privileges and personal interests are relevant to his claim of authority over other speakers (and I use the male pronoun deliberately here).

For a fairer assessment, I recommend Crystal Downing's "How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith" and James K.A. Smith's "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?"

Bryan Owen said...

There's certainly truth in what you're saying, Jendi. But it does raise the question, "Just how postmodern is postmodernism really?" After all, advocates for the "unfinished project of modernity" who are fierce critics of the usual postmodern suspects (Foucault, Derrida, etc.) also embrace the insight that truth claims are made by fallible persons embedded within social/power structures, etc. I'm thinking in particular here of Jürgen Habermas' The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

Fallibilism is also a regulative principle of classical American pragmatism (Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, John Dewey). Obviously, these figures predate the usual suspects when it comes to "postmodern" theories, but what James had read of Nietzsche (whose thought many regard as a late-19th Century precursor to the "postmodern") made his stomach turn. Interestingly, James' colleague - the idealist Josiah Royce - offered a favorable reading of Nietzsche, which is saying a lot in early 20th Century American thought.

Regardless of what we call it, I think that the cultural drift towards defensive relativism observed by Reno is a reality that poses serious challenges to the credibility of the Christian faith or to any truth claims that make claims on our lives and loyalties.

Jendi said...

Fair enough, but the anger behind Reno's rhetoric also makes me nervous, since the "postmodernist/relativist" label is so often used to invalidate marginalized groups, such as women, who are not opposing the idea of truth so much as they are challenging one group's monopoly over theological discourse.

For instance, by permitting only male clergy, the Catholic Church ensures that doctrine continues to be developed based on a male point of view, and that women's relationship to God and society will be described by men, while men get to describe their own situation directly. That partial point of view is labelled Truth and anyone who opposes it is against Truth. Reno left the Anglican Church for the Catholic Church some years ago and I can't help reading this quote in light of the authoritarian way that the Vatican handles doctrinal disagreement.

Some progressives overreact against this by throwing out the entire concept of capital-T Truth, but are such progressives wholly to blame, if traditionalists haven't modelled a non-oppressive way of being orthodox? Secular individualists aren't the only ones who abuse philosophy to defend their worldly privileges.

Bryan Owen said...

Good points, Jendi. Although I have to say that I don't hear anger driving Reno's rhetoric ...

Jendi said...

Thanks for your openness to my radical mood, Bryan :) Perhaps "judgmental psychologizing" is what I really mean. The piece has an us-versus-them feeling that reminds me of the anti-political-correctness books of the 1990s. In the last paragraph you quoted, he's presuming that it is sinfulness and willfulness that motivates the folks on the other side: "our contemporary horror of obedience joins hands with solipsism in order to protect the soul from all demands". I think that trauma from spiritual abuse is at least as common a reason. It doesn't feel very charitable, and I want to see more charity from theologians who set out to defend Christian truth. By their fruits, etc.

I have been a fan of Reno's work, don't get me wrong - his piece "Fear of Redemption" in First Things a few years ago contains great insight into how we cling to sinful habits because we are afraid of losing our identity, not knowing who we would be without those habits. I recommend it, precisely because it was more original and compassionate than this culture-war stuff.

Bryan Owen said...

I'll have to take up your recommendation and see if I can find that Reno article from First Things.

Jendi said...

June/July 2004:

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the link, Jendi. I'll print it out and read it.

Tony Sakich said...

What you don't understand is that the reason for this is many young folks have realized that religion as a whole is useless and gives no answers whatsoever to the answers it claims to have. Think of atheism/agnosticism/non-religion as 2+2=4 and different world religions as every other possible answer, we have figured out that none of those other answers worked, so why not do what makes the most sense for us right now?

Remember, we are a generation that instantly questions any photograph that may be photoshopped, so is it really a surprise that many of us feel this way?

By the way, it doesn't help that religious folks always assume what they are stating is factual. Young folks know the truth, and they know it's not what some religion is claiming but rather it's what is making their friends and family happy. We have been marketed to since the second we were born, we can smell a lemon from a mile away.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Tony.

I think that perhaps there is a better way to make your points than by starting off assuming what someone does or does not understand. Rhetorically, that gets things off on a rather awkward foot, don't you think?

" ... the reason for this is many young folks have realized that religion as a whole is useless and gives no answers whatsoever to the answers it claims to have."

How many is "many young folks"? If you mean "most," then I tend to doubt the truth of your generalization. While it is certainly the case that younger folks are not as invested or interested in institutional religion, there is ample empirical evidence to show that they are nonetheless quite interested in "spirituality."

I can add that at the Cathedral I've served for the past 6 years, we've seen steady, strong growth among persons in their 20s and 30s. They hunger for meaning, a place to belong, and a place where they can find ways to make a difference in the community. And they're finding those things among us in a place where the worship affirms the faith of the Church.

" ... it doesn't help that religious folks always assume what they are stating is factual.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean here by "factual," but I'm curious as to how exactly you know what "religious folks always assume."

With all due respect, you are the one making assumptions - in this case assumptions about "religious folks" as a whole that surely will not stand up to empirical scrutiny. I challenge you to demonstrate, for example, that the assumptions of a typical Episcopalian square in all respects with the assumptions of an ultra-conservative Southern Baptist or Jehovah's Witness!!