Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Thought of the day: Postmodern awe for absolute truth
What is truth? Pilate wanted to know (v.38). Don't we all. Truth, says, Neal Plantinga, is our traction on reality. In the past year or two, I've become increasingly aware of how much what we consider to be truth is a social construct, and how the ways we come to believe this or that truth are socially influenced. (Why do we dress as we do? Buy what we do? Believe what we do? Our answers reflect values about what is good and true. I'm not saying we're drones, only that we look to our cultural context for cues on these matters more than we'd like to admit. See first footnote below). And this is where postmodernists make modernists unhappy--since everyone has a different social context, "truth" varies from person to person, according to postmodernists. It's relative. That's a hard thing for a Christian like me to say--in the Bible, truth doesn't seem so wishy washy; it's ironclad. Modernists complain that this mocks the sanctity of truth--if truth is different for everyone, then there really is no truth. What's the use of something being true if it only applies to one out of six billion people? Truth is worth cents.

But as someone who takes both his postmodernism and his Christianity seriously, I've come to a different conclusion--it is the relativists who have the greatest awe for truth. Hear me out. The arrogant modernist says not only is truth absolute--but he or she can declare what that truth is. For a mere mortal, conditioned by cultural context, to declare what absolute truth is (i.e. there is a God, capitalism is good, human nature is this or that) is startlingly arrogant. Truth is larger, deeper, truer than one finite person can grasp. You can regard the sun, but only from 93 billion miles away, and only for two thirds of any given day. The sun is larger, hotter, more complex, more vast than you can appreciate. The postmodernist says, truth is larger than what can be filtered through the brain and soul of one person. Yes, there is absolute truth (OK, I guess I break with many postmodernists to say that), but how each of us gets a sniff of this truth is relative to our cultural contexts. So we have moments in our lives and aspects of our thinking that coincide with what that Truth is, but other times we think we do and are mistaken (an innocent man is declared guilty, Osama bin Laden believes God is sending him memos, colonial Americans believe Africans are sub-human, and so forth). Postmodernism counters the swagger of modernism with some humility. Truth is bigger than me, and does not waver even as I do as I learn, have new experiences, and continue to be shaped by my cultural context. So multiculturalism is no surrender, but a new victory for human humility. For me to try to appreciate how someone else in another part of the world, or on the South Side of Chicago, sees the world and forms belief about it is not a rejection of absolute truth, it is an affirmation of how great truth is that it stretches its wings over us both.

Footnote one: Here's what I mean about truth being culturally conditioned. In my cultural context--growing up white, American, religious, closed-minded community that kept its emotions tightly in check and viewed the outside world with suspicion--I was influenced to believe and value the following: people are generally good or bad, not a complex combination of both, the Bible can generally be systematically interpreted, cohesive communities are good (rather than fostering gossip, groupthink, assumptions substituted for thought), the Republican party is righteous, family is a more important calling than society, America was a uniquely ordained country, movies with sex were evil, strong-willed women were a dangerous aberration from the passive wife devoted primarily to family duties. My beliefs have changed as my cultural context and values have changed (from moderate right to mostly far left, from suburban resident to urban resident, from cultural conformist to cultural critic, from closed to open minded. Capitalism is fundamentally unjust, men and women should balance work and home life as equally as possible, culture is worth immersing yourself in with a discerning eye, society may be a more important calling than family, emotion is almost as important as intellect, stories are worth as much or more study than doctrine, since stories are how Christ chose to communicate, communities should be participated in with skepticism, and so on. College was a time for me to re-invent the wheel.

Footnote two: I won't deny that I am in the minority of postmodernists (actually, everyone is in the minority of postmodernists, a term that by definition defies the formation of a cohesive group) by declaring that there is absolute truth. For one thing, everyone operates as though there is absolute truth whether they admit it or not (most of my fellow liberals try to demand social justice while rejecting any notion that the principle of justice is absolute, a trick that requires considerable agility). For another, nihilism is the credo of postmodernism every bit as much as industrial, utopian optimism (progress, people!) was the credo of modernism. All of life is a wash, there is no meaning, why strive for truth--these are the cries of the postmodernist, who despairs of believing in anything. In postmodern art this is portrayed as edgy, bold, inventive, but in fact it is merely a bit lazy. Anyone can be an aimless grump. What is truly inventive is to try to form and articulate definite beliefs in the midst of the soup of postmodernism. To say that truth still exists after all this de-constructing of modernism--that is worth more admiration than nihilism.

Earlier thought: The contextual problem with wisdom
Previous thought: Why news should be imaginative

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