Thursday, May 28, 2020

In praise of postmodernism

It may be just a perverse tendency in me, but I sometimes find that I want to defend intellectual positions which Christians have become accustomed to consider as 'the enemy'.  I've written a few times about humanism.  When I was growing up, humanism was the great evil (sometimes, of course, qualified as secular humanism, but often not).  I have since come to believe that humanism is the fruit of Christianity, and that secular humanism is merely the picked (and therefore dying) fruit.  Christians ought to defend, not vilify, humanism, and they ought to do so in the name of Christ and the gospel.  I think in particular that they ought to defend humanism now, because humanism is under threat.  Secular humanism hasn't the internal vitality, the intellectual strength, to resist the basic drift away from valuing human life, for example.  It hasn't the power to insist on humanity in the face of market forces.  Christians should be at the humanist barricades, not fighting under the flag of humanism but under the flag of Christ.

More recently I've noted that wider Western culture has begun to turn its back on one of those other great bugbears of my Christian youth: postmodernism.  Postmodernism, as we knew very well as undergraduates, was evil because it taught that there was no absolute truth, and therefore made everything relative.  In the wider culture for a long time postmodernism was regarded as both liberating and necessary, the former because it meant that I could live my own narrative without regard to any great metastory, and the latter because it meant the avoidance of bitter conflict.  I can live in my world, and you can live in yours.

In recent years, the growth in 'fake news' and the way in which the postmodern insistence on the inviolability of a personal narrative has become a political weapon has put our culture off.  People who were absolute relativists (so to speak) a decade ago are now crying out that truth matters, that there is real truth.  Lots of people in the church see this as a very positive move.

But I am fond of aspects of postmodernism, and I'd hate to lose them.

The new modernism, the new insistence on real truth which is true for everyone, seems like it accepts the Christian position that there is true truth out there.  But because it doesn't put that claim in a Christian framework, it misses something which postmodernism saw more clearly: that just because there is true truth out there doesn't mean that it is easy to access, or that the truth which I think I know corresponds to this absolute truth.  The new modernism seems to me to be actually a return to the naive modernism of the Enlightenment and of Kant.

Ah, Immanuel Kant.  The philosophy of Kant is something else that I love even though Christians are meant to be against it.  I mean, it's really badly wrong in lots of ways, but the key insights are genuinely, well, insightful.  For Kant the key thing in epistemology (or so it seems to me, though I doubt he would have put it like this; he would have put it in hundreds of pages of incomprehensible German) is that we all think and know as humans.  That means that we think and know within certain limitations, certain forms - we think, for example, in terms of time and space.  For Kant, that limits what we can know, but that's okay; knowing the limits, we can proceed with confidence within them.  And Kant and his ilk really thought that if everyone just used reason (and observation) correctly, they would all come to the same conclusions.

The postmodern development is to insist that not only must I think and know as a human, but I must think and know as me.  My culture, my background, my past experiences - all these shape and influence the way that I think and know, just as my basic humanity (if there is such a thing) does.  Just as, for Kant, I cannot step out of humanity to think things without time or space, postmodernism observes that I cannot step out of my particular place and vantage point.  I am located, and I see and think and know from that location.

Now, this is true.  The Christian revelation clearly shows us two things which are deeply relevant to epistemology.  The first is that there is truth, true truth: Truth.  It shows us that there is Truth not by an abstract philosophical doctrine but by the personal appearance of Truth Incarnate amongst us.  But the second is that we do not have obvious and unproblematic access to Truth.  We are both finite (and therefore have a limited perspective) and fallen (and therefore pervert the truth, both wilfully and unconsciously).  Christians do well to remember both: the insights, if you like, of modernism and postmodernism held together.  We need to remember them because the new modernism is already making our natural human tribalism worse: I can see that something is true, so if you don't agree you must be a spreader of fake news.  Rather than wondering whether the other person's different conclusion flows from a different perspective - and therefore might include elements of truth that I can't see so easily from my vantage point - we assume that they are simply party-biased, denying the truth because it is to their advantage.  Ironically, the response to the fact that postmodern epistemology has been weaponised is to weaponise modernism.

There is no epistemic humility, the kind of humility which should follow from knowing that Truth Incarnate could knock on your front door and you wouldn't recognise him unless Truth Inbreathed enabled you.  You, left to yourself, wouldn't recognise truth if it was throwing the tables around in your temple.

So half a cheer for postmodernism.  There was something profoundly right in it all.  Shame if in our scramble to recover Truth we forgot all about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment