Friday, March 06, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: The Dwarves are for the Dwarves

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The term “postmodern” is not actually all that modern. John Watkins Chapman used it in the 1880s in relation to art criticism. Umberto Eco has said that postmodernism is less a style or a period than an “attitude”.

The attitude comes out clearly in what is produced by postmodernists in their various fields: postmodern graphic design disdains traditional conventions such as legibility; postmodern music rejects beauty and sometimes structure; postmodern philosophers reject the concepts of subjectivity and objectivity. You get the general idea.

Tom: Immanuel Can, help me nail it down: what is postmodernism?

Immanuel Can: Aren’t you the one for big topics this month, Tom!

What Is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism. Yes. It’s really the failure of what’s called “modernism”, which was a phase of Western history that really started with the so-called “Enlightenment” Period and the Industrial Revolution, and has continued up to today in things like the technological and information revolutions — for those are but the late products of that earlier period, really. Postmodernism is an attitude of cynicism about all such things, coupled with a professed disbelief of all conventional stories that people manufacture to make sense of history.

The philosopher J.F. Lyotard called it “an attitude of incredulity toward metanarratives” — which is perhaps a fancy way of saying, “Everything is rubbish.”

Tom: Now to a certain extent that must be self-defeating. If every conventional narrative we’ve been told about everything is unreliable, on what basis do I maintain the validity of my own cynicism? It’s still a value. It’s the assumption that the ultimate reality conforms to my personal opinion, and that what I think about things is therefore the highest “good”, even if I wouldn’t call it that.

IC: Ha. Right. Absolutely.

Yes, the postmodern position ends up meaning, “Everything is rubbish except my kind of rubbish.” You can’t actually be incredulous toward the metanarrative that grounds your own cynicism about others. So it’s a new faith, a faith in the power of one’s own cynicism to prevent the world’s lies from becoming overwhelming.

Postmodernism in the Media

Postmodernism in action might be something like the TV show The Simpsons. In it, everyone is corrupt or flawed to one extent or the other, especially all authority figures. So fathers are all fat slobs, policemen are donut-store cowboys, school teachers are repressed or living at home with their mothers, pastors are hypocrites, sisters are know-it-alls, babies are soother-slurping non-entities, and so on. The show expresses a generalized nihilism ... a belief that nothing is really good, wholesome or trustworthy, and everything must be viewed askance, taken cynically, or believed only with measure of skeptical detachment.

Tom: Which leaves a generation or two just as gullible as they imagine their parents and grandparents to be, but susceptible to swallowing entirely different lies, because the conviction that we cannot be reasonably sure about anything cannot itself be indefinitely sustained.

I think of Jon Stewart: his Daily Show got by for years making fun of absolutely everything, but he was a total sucker for Barack Obama when he came along. He desperately wanted to believe Obama knew what he was doing and, interestingly, Salon magazine assures us his audience of cynical postmoderns felt the same way about Stewart, saying that to college-aged kids, Stewart and Stephen Colbert were “more trusted than most reporters”.

The average postmodernist is cynical about history but utterly confident in science, cynical about Republicans but fairly confident in Democrats, cynical about religion but totally sold on individualism. Postmodernism is a pose. It can’t be sustained with consistency (in fact, it would probably reject consistency as a value).

IC: Oh yes, it’s a pose. The one thing no one ever seems to think today is that cynicism can be stupid. It’s automatically assumed to be more intelligent than optimism, belief or commitment, no matter what the issue may be.

Celebs like John Oliver certainly know this: you don’t need to be right to be believed; you just need to be seen as reacting against any conventional position or value, and be entertaining while you do it. To win lots of watchers, followers, admirers and other blind adherents, simply adopt a sarcastic tone — a posture of “not having been taken in” — and show a little adroitness in mockery. You will be believed no matter what you say, because your cynicism is taken to be the badge of your wisdom.

Wise guys are today’s wise men.

Tom: Ooh, I like that.

The Importance of Listening

Wiser men than I have probably made suggestions about trying to communicate Christ to the cynic who appears to believe in nothing, especially anything having to do with religion. But what seems obvious to me is that our starting point has to be the recognition that the cynicism IS a pose. It masks a belief in something (though that “something” probably differs from person to person). One important step might be to engage the person long enough — and really listening — to figure out what that something is.

IC: Yes, that’s wise, I think … really wise, I mean.

Tom: Because it seems to me that Jesus Christ is not simply the answer to human need in a singular way. He’s able to meet us precisely where we are. For example, not everyone quakes at the prospect of hell. Some cynical people make a big joke about the idea of judgment and no matter how much you think an eternity of regret ought to be of great concern to them, it really isn’t. You can’t faze them by reminding them that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” But that same individual may have a terrible fear of dying: of ceasing to exist forever, of leaving behind no trace or of losing people they love. The Lord Jesus conquered both death AND hell. He meets each of us where we are.

IC: That’s true. At the same time people, especially today, don’t always say outright what they’re really thinking.

Tom: True.

IC: In this connection, I’ve always liked the short essay from the preface of a book by Umberto Eco in which he talks about how postmodern people find it easier to be indirect. He thinks they usually do not say what they feel, but something at least one safe remove from what they feel, especially in matters that touch them deeply.

So even hostility and sarcasm can today mean, “Don’t give up: but I need you to beat down my cynical barriers and prove to me you’re telling the truth.” The initial skeptical — even derisive — response is really a challenge to find out if you’ve got anything behind your confidence. In such cases, hold your nerve and hold onto your confession of the truth is the right strategy. Perhaps, then, it’s not wise to put too much trust in what cynics say, especially at first.

Tom: Agreed. Which, I guess, is where the listening comes in. That, and not overreacting to things that may be said simply to be provocative.

Rhetoric or Dialectic?

Now, I’m looking at things as a layperson based on my experience with the last couple of generations, and I’m primarily thinking of addressing people emotionally rather than dialectically. As someone with a philosophy background and experience in making intellectual arguments, is it worth the time to argue logically with someone who claims not to believe the basis for logic and rational discourse? And if so, what sort of arguments might you make?

IC: I don’t think everyone has to be a philosopher: but on any level, I do think everyone secretly realizes that reasonable arguments are better than irrational ones, that beliefs with evidence are better than superstitiously held ones, and that realism is better than delusions. At the same time, many people still prefer to operate on “feelies” or mere opinions in their personal decision making. But knowing that one’s “feelie” beliefs are not actually reasonable, or knowing that one’s opinions lack — or are contrary to — the evidence has a great corrosive effect on one’s confidence. So even for people who disbelieve in reason, I still think it’s better to make rational arguments. Truth just doesn’t give way, no matter how one tries to dismiss it. Truth wins. Always. Eventually.

So reasoning well is the right way to start.

Tom: Certainly.

IC: After all, we don’t want people to become Christians because it feels good; we want them to do it because it’s true, good, realistic and right. And if waking up to the realization that they are believing what is true, good realistic and right isn’t enough to make them feel good too, well then the problem lies with them, clearly. But reason isn’t the end of our gospel either: once reasons are provided, we aim at producing relationship … and that goes a good bit beyond the merely cerebral. Feelings will eventually be involved, for sure: but what we must not do is cater to feelings at the expense of truth.

The Lord didn’t say he had come to make people feel good — or even to make them, in earthly terms, happy — and certainly not to make them prosperous in worldly terms. He came to tell them the truth, and to bring them into relationship with the Father. And the joy this gives is vastly weightier than the lightness of postmodern feelings.

The Audacity of Individualism

Tom: Absolutely. The one logical layman’s argument that strikes me as almost unassailable is this: It may well be that many things many people have believed over the centuries are wrong. That said, outside of direct revelation the chances of you or I, on our own, with our necessarily limited experience and intelligence, coming up from scratch with a better option than any other that currently exists is absolute zero.

That holds true whether I choose to adopt the cynical pose that everything I’ve ever been told is bunk, or whether I decide, as some do, to create my own religion from a buffet of available options. Believing that I have the ability to come up with a worldview that is closer to reality than every other human being in history solely with the grey matter I have between my two ears amounts to a level of arrogance that is absolutely breathtaking.

I don’t think many of the cynics and individualists who hold these iconoclastic views about the universe have always thought through what their worldview says about them. Previous generations, I think, may have been a little more humble.

The Denial of Meaning

IC: That’s the odd thing. Postmodern skepticism is not about finding truth, or even claiming to do so. It’s about avoiding being misled.

Tom: Basically “the dwarves are for the dwarves”, if you remember your C.S. Lewis.

IC: Yeah, I love that passage too. So it is pretty much exclusively a negative position, a sort of “I don’t believe anything” claim. But it’s defensive, not productive. Postmodernism doesn’t understand itself to be advancing any sort of particular meaning or road to truth. It just denies everyone else’s.

The posture of universal incredulity does not sponsor anything positive. It can’t build a morality or shape any ethical code. It can’t enlighten or guide a society. It cannot instruct in how to find truth, or ground a science, or do any other such positive thing. It’s negative, dead and sterile in itself; its only apparent vitality is derived from the vitality of the things it denies. It has nothing to affirm. (Sort of reminds one of atheism, doesn’t it? They’re both beliefs for eunuchs.)

And that’s an opening for Christians, because it’s really impossible to deny everything without simply collapsing into self-defeated and unlivable nihilism, and because we all do live in the real world and have our own lives to conduct, we are forced to abandon mere negation and believe something again. So it’s simply impossible to remain nothing but a postmodernist.

The Remedy for a Culture of Negation

Tom: So what specifically do you see Christianity offering to a generation conditioned to simply negate everything?

IC: Well, there’s a whole bunch of things. Postmodern cynicism has no way to explain life as meaningful, and everyone needs meaning. It cannot serve as the spine of a particular social arrangement, and we all have to live in societies. It cannot legitimize an ethic or a moral code, and we all want to see ourselves as somehow doing “good” and avoid whatever’s somehow conceived as “bad”. We also need reasons and direction for our search for truth and for the advancement of our technologies and arts. We need directions for raising children, priorities for our politics, and all those sorts of things. If po-mo cynicism can’t offer any of that (and indeed, it cannot), then we will always have to seek it somewhere. And Christianity is simply the most meaningful, credible, rational, morally solid and explanatory set of beliefs.

Tom: And hope, obviously. Postmodernism doesn’t offer much of that.

IC: Yes. Postmodern skepticism, when practiced consistently, leaves everyone alone ... suspicious, confused, lonely and, as you say, hopeless. I’m certain we can do better than that.

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