Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Shipwrecked on Postmodern Shores
Postmodernism is saying what we really do not want to hear. So we pummel the messenger and deny the message. - Carl Raschke
This quote sums up several different conversations that I've had in recent weeks regarding the emerging church or related issues. Each time the conversation turned towards postmodern epistemology and whether we emergents believe in "absolute truth". My first response is to sigh wearily, since I thought that we all kind of talked this topic to death about five years ago, and I had hoped everyone would have gotten the memo by now. Of course, as I continually have to remind myself, there are still plenty of people who are just now stumbling upon the conversation and need to start from square one. It's a good reminder towards empathy and patience on my part.

Anyhow, my next response, is to acknowledge that no, most emergents would not affirm "absolute truth" per se. Or to put it more precisely, whether or not an "absolute reality" exists, we have serious doubts about our ability as fallen and finite beings to obtain any kind of "absolute" or "certain" knowledge of it. That's not to say we don't know anything (somehow our critics always seem to want to take things to an extreme and assume that if we can't know anything with absolute certainty, then we can't know anything at all... but that simply doesn't follow). The problem is that we can't know if and when what we think we know does in fact correspond to reality. We can have probabilities, and be more or less certain about our ideas, but we simply don't have the means to achieve perfect, 100% certainty.

BTW, the proper response to those who think they can win the argument simply by asking "Is it absolutely true that there's no such thing as absolute truth?" or "Do you know for sure that it's impossible to have certain knowledge?" is "No, I don't know. Haven't you been paying attention?" That's because postmodern epistemology is not just a competing system; it's a statement of radical agnosticism. And it is skeptical even of its own skepticism. If someone could come up some way to actually achieve absolute certainty, then a postmodern person would most likely embrace this eagerly. It's just that in the past 400+ years the brightest minds of Western philosophy have yet to provide us with an airtight method. Instead their hubris and blind faith in the power of human rationality to achieve absolute truth has brought us a legacy of colonialism, genocide, weapons of mass destruction, and near-apocalyptic environmental destruction... to the point where many are wondering if it's an excess of certainty that is the problem in the first place.

What has been most frustrating to me in these conversations, however, is the assumption that this postmodern agnosticism/skepticism is something that I've simply chosen to believe as if I really wanted it to be true. The reality is quite the opposite however. I would love to be able to claim some kind of absolute certainty about the things I think are true, but at the same time, intellectual honesty forces me to admit that I simply don't have a basis for such certainty; and in the end, I have to live according to how I think things really are and not merely how I'd like them to be. Wishing for absolute certainty doesn't make it so.

Neither does unreasoning denial (or shooting the messenger) make the message of postmodernism any less valid. As Raschke points out, postmodernism is telling a lot of people what they adamantly don't want to hear, and yet that doesn't mean it's not true. We're here, in this postmodern condition, whether we like it or not. We've all been shipwrecked on this uncharted shore, and it will do no good to simply pretend like we're still on the boat. If the critics of postmodernity have some means for constructing a new boat and getting us off this damn island, great! I'll help them build it. But if they don't actually have any viable plan - if all they have is a few scraps of wreckage from the old ship that they're still holding onto tightly - then I think the best course of action is to turn our attention to this new land we've been cast upon, and start figuring out how to live here. That's what a few of us have already been doing for a while now, and as it turns out, it's not such a bad place to live after all.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 10:23 PM | Permalink |


17 Comments:


At 4/22/2009 03:04:00 AM, Blogger Troy

Good thoughts, Mike. I'll pitch in a few thoughts of my own.

1. "It's a good reminder towards empathy and patience on my part." Amen. Intellectual humility should elicit a general "largeness of soul".

2. "Postmodernism is saying what we really do not want to hear. So we pummel the messenger and deny the message." Perhaps the compulsion to "pummel the messenger" stems also not from what postmodernism is saying but also HOW it is being said by the messengers. I'd be the first to say that the postmodern critique of modern epistemology is valid (see the first two letters of my essays on "Discerning God's Will"; http://troymarbles.blogspot.com/2008/10/discerning-gods-will.html) while at the same time observing that sometimes those who bring the message do so in a mean-spirited, arrogant fashion (sometimes equally as mean-spirited as those who feel compelled to defend the modern paradigm).

I think we can all do better at "delivery". HOW we believe and speak about these issues matters just as much as WHAT we believe and say. Let us, therefore, each examine the plank in our own eye before trying to take the speck out of the other's.

The antidote to the impatience and anger thrust our way is not more anger and impatience. If we find ourselves increasingly angry and impatient, we should possess the openness to ask ourselves, "Why do I feel this way? Am I justified in feeling this way?" At that point, the specific argument becomes moot.

Being on this side of the Atlantic, it has been interesting watching the dialogue transpire in the U.S. I've been increasingly concerned about the sub-culture war going on and the unhelpful rhetoric that characterizes it. The Brits have historically been better at this than the Americans (that is: the Americans tend to choose a rhetoric of polemic, I've noticed).

The historian David Bebbington cites the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920's and he notes that the American controversy was much more polarized (when you compare how the Americans responded to how the Brits responded). I see the current American debate to which you refer characterized by the same unhelpful polemic (history repeating itself), while the Brits seem to be doing a better job at generating genuine understanding and compassion for those of differing views and an openness to allowing their current views to be changed.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann associates his theology of hope with an openness to the situation in which humanity finds itself. A posture of openness (on both parts) is demanded if we are going to be a people of hope. May hope reign.

 

At 4/22/2009 06:19:00 AM, OpenID justinworley.com

Mike,

Thank you for sharing this. It is very well written.

BTW - I am right the next to you, whether building the "new" boat or learning to live in our new home. Let's get off the sand and get to work!

 

At 4/22/2009 06:35:00 AM, Anonymous carl

that is freaking brilliant, I'm gonna be doing some quoting from this post. thanks Mike for what you bring to the conversation, putting complex thoughts into perspective for guys like me.
peace

carl

 

At 4/22/2009 08:29:00 AM, Blogger Mike L.

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

 

At 4/22/2009 01:33:00 PM, Anonymous Joel B

Mike, I resonate with the probability stuff. That's what I've settled for on many issues.

Also, re: Troy's comments, I'm trying hard to improve how I say things. I've come to believe that this effort is actually an act of Christian love for the other person.

Here's another thing that's been helpful for me with this issue. The NIV translates Hebrews 11:1 this way (I memorized this as a child, as probably many did):

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Whether or not this is the best translation of the verse is a separate discussion. But, if I understand correctly, the "certain" in this verse is different than the certainty of the philosophers you're talking about, which is exclusively rational.

 

At 4/22/2009 01:51:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I think you're right Mike, the “we can’t be ojectively certain about anything” argument can be a bit of a red herring for both "sides" here. There’s a lot of ground to cover between theoretical absolute 100% objective certainty, and groping about in the dark, nobody can really know anything relativism. Yet we often end up talking as if those are the only two options, and words like “know” get in the way.

I have sometimes said that if moderns were certain of too much, many postmoderns seem uncertain of too much. But again words get in the way. By saying some postmoderns are "too uncertain” I don’t mean the humble admission that however strongly convinced I am, I realize I may be wrong. By “uncertainty” I mean the dogmatic insistence that it’s irrational and unacceptable to be strongly convinced of anything at all, in anything but the most internal “it’s true for me” way.

Unfortunately I think many postmodern folks have bought into another lie of modernism and have a harder time leaving this one behind - the idea that I can't or shouldn't strongly believe something and suggest that others do the same unless I can assert absolute objective knowledge of its truth. Not all postmoderns have this problem, and probably not you, Mike. But radical perspectivism and relativism are pretty common cotravellers with postmodernism, just as ugly dogmatism was a common (though not universal) cotraveller with the modern era's overconfidence in human reason.

I may not have absolute certainty that it's better to love the poor than to screw them for my own benefit, but I believe strongly enough that is the case, that not only will I seek to order my own life according to that principle but will also suggest that others should too, and that they are wrong if they don't.

 

At 4/22/2009 02:23:00 PM, Anonymous Bradm

There is nothing particularly postmodern about being more or less certain about beliefs or about thinking of beliefs in terms of probabilities. Bayesian epistemology fits quite nicely into a modern view of the world, IMO. Most postmoderns, I think, wouldn't want to think about belief in terms of probabilities.

 

At 4/22/2009 05:17:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Bradm - thanks for the link. I wasn't familiar with Bayesian Epistemology. Since I don't know anything about it, I really couldn't say whether it is "modern" or "postmodern", though I notice certain words like "pragmatic" and "coherence" kept coming up, and those tend to also be used among postmodern philosophers as well (Rorty in particular).

At any rate, I can't speak for "most postmoderns", but personally I do like to think in terms of probabilities (though not in a strictly mathematically calculable sense usually), and I do so because of the ways in which postmodern critiques have sensitized me to the limitations of human rationality. In the end though I don't suppose it matters what label you stick on it - modern, postmodern, whatever. The point is that I'm offering a critique of "absolute truth" that many people don't want to hear.

 

At 4/22/2009 10:46:00 PM, Anonymous Bradm

Well, one look at the bibliography of that article shows that there are few (if any) postmodern thinkers there. But that was my point - that dealing with shades of grade rather than black or white is not peculiar to postmodernism - it is found in both.

One reason I mention this is that I've found that if you label something as "postmodern epistemology" some people will reject it without even taking the time to listen to you. By pointing out that the rejection of "absolute truth" isn't only found in "postmodern epistemology" then you might be able to get more people to hear what you are trying to say.

 

At 4/23/2009 12:02:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Maybe Brad, though in my experience the people who are most concerned about this have a stronger commitment to the notion of "absolute truth", and to moral black and whites, than to any philosophical labels. I doubt they'll care if some "modern" philosophers also dealt in shades of gray. That would just make those philosophers equally suspect, since it's the whole idea of "gray areas" that offends them in the first place.

 

At 4/23/2009 01:49:00 AM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

Of course, as I continually have to remind myself, there are still plenty of people who are just now stumbling upon the conversation and need to start from square one. It's a good reminder towards empathy and patience on my part.As someone starting from square one, and who only knows of the emerging church through browising through your older posts, I have a question that may quite possibly drive you insane. :) What does our inability to know things with absolute certainty have to do with the emerging church? I agree with everything you say in your post, and in fact it all seems kind of obvious. But I gather that this debate is supposed to affect more practical questions about what sort of things Christians should be doing? Only I can't see how. While I think I can't know anything with 100% certainty, that doesn't prevent me from having beliefs that I feel pretty sure about, and acting on those beliefs; and judging from your other posts, you're no different. Why do people you discuss this with think it's important to be able to claim some things are known with 100% certainty? What difference do they claim it would have for our behavior?

 

At 4/23/2009 10:44:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Troy - Thanks for the good caution. You're right that many postmodern folk need to be careful of how we are coming across, and try to communicate with as much humility as our epistemology itself entails. As you say, we haven't always done a good job of that.

On the other hand, it's also important to recognize why we have sometimes gotten a little worked up over this, and been (overly?) critical and harsh at times in our critique of modern certainty. It's because these are not just abstract philosophical issues. As I alluded to in my post, many of us have been sensitized to the kind of suffering and oppression that has been caused by an excess of certainty, whether by our study of history and the atrocities committed in the name of scientific rationalism or dogmatic biblicism; or, more likely, by our direct experiences with the spiritual/psychological oppression found in many churches where "absolute truth" is upheld as a bedrock Christian principle. When we ourselves, or people we care about, are condemned and pushed out of the community because we lack the same sense of absolute certainty in our beliefs that is the expected norm at these churches, there can tend to be a little hurt and resentment, and a desire to see things change so that such things don't happen again to others. It's when confronting these sorts of injustices that you'll often encounter what I call militant agnostics: the kind who say "I don't know, and you don't either!"

At any rate, I don't think their anger is unjustified (I know I've been there myself at times), but I do agree with you that it's usually unhelpful in effecting long-term transformation. At the same time, I do think it's important to allow people who have been wounded by such modern certitude some space to express their anger and to heal from it. It's not healthy to tell them to just get over it right away. They'll need some time to work through it, and come to the point where they can forgive the wounds that they have received.

 

At 4/23/2009 11:13:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

AH - good question. The biggest difference between those who believe in absolute certainty and those who don't is a willingness on the part of the latter to admit that they could be wrong about their beliefs, which then leads to a willingness to listen to and learn from others who think differently from oneself. By contrast, those who are absolutely certain about their beliefs have no reason to consider other viewpoints. Their only purpose for entering into conversation with others is to convert them, never to learn from them.

I am of course pointing the finger right back at myself in this. When I think back to how I was when I believed in absolute truth, I can't believe how closed-minded and arrogant I was in my own sense of "rightness". And while you or others here might look at my more "liberal" opinions that I express here now and think that I still seem fairly certain about them, the truth is that almost everything I believe these days was the result of a long process of first admitting that I could be wrong about my more "conservative" beliefs, then listening to other viewpoints and dialoguing with people who were different than me, and eventually, and often with great fear and trembling, coming to adopt these new positions tentatively and carefully. And it is precisely because I have come through the process of repeatedly being shown that my thinking has been wrong in the past, that I now hold my current beliefs significantly more lightly. Even with the things I am most passionate about, social justice for instance (something I would have never given the time of day a decade or so ago, btw) I am still open to the possibility that there are angles and viewpoints I am not adequately considering, and that my views may need future refinement or revision. That doesn't keep me from acting on my convictions in the meantime - we have to get on with the business of living after all - but I don't for a moment think that my opinions have stopped evolving, or ever will.

One other difference that I'd add is that those who think in probabilities and shades of gray are often therefore much more open to moral ambiguities on a lot of issues. This, in my experience, is the #1 concern that absolutists have with postmodernity. If we can't have absolute certainty about morality or especially about scripture, they ask, then how do we know that some things (homosexuality is the usual example) are just absolutely morally wrong? My response is "Sorry, but we don't. Our morality, like our interpretations of scripture, have to be chosen. We can relative degrees of certainty based on the reliability of our moral intuitions, or good exegetical principles, but in the end you don't actually know for sure that what you think is absolutely wrong actually is in any and every situation. You may have to occasionally entertain the possibility that you could in fact be wrong (and, for example, gays are not in fact automatically going to hell)."

In my experience, this kind of admission freaks the hell out of some people. And I get it. Trust me, I'd love to be able to claim a moral absolutism about some of my ethical beliefs, but unfortunately I just don't know how to get there from here. So I'm more comfortable with the gray areas, and open to the possibility of some moral ambiguity at times. You'll rarely find an absolutist who feels the same way. This is a big difference, I think, with both interpersonal, and even political implications.

Does that answer your question?

 

At 4/25/2009 12:49:00 PM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

Thanks, Mike, that does answer my question. Now that you describe this discomfort with ambiguity and with not knowing things, it's also fitting in with other conversations that I've had with conservative Christians, not just about morality, but also about evolution and cosmology.

 

At 4/28/2009 12:41:00 PM, Blogger John Mahan

Mike,
Thanks for this articulation of your views. I can agree with much of it to an extent, but I do have some questions. Forgive me if they are big questions, but these are what poped into my head as I was reading. I would not be offended if you do not have time to answer them or if you prefer to steer me to another source.

1. Can you explain how this is different than say presuppositionalism or perhaps existentialism. Its seems to me that if you can point out the errors of someone else's presuppositions, you also recognize and suspect your own, though not necissarily.

2. You have stated why one cannot be absolutely certain of anything. But what then qualifies one thing to be more certain than another?

3. You say, "Instead their hubris and blind faith in the power of human rationality to achieve absolute truth has brought us a legacy of colonialism, genocide, weapons of mass destruction, and near-apocalyptic environmental destruction... to the point where many are wondering if it's an excess of certainty that is the problem in the first place." You leave wiggle room here which is fine, but why is it certainty that is the problem and not sin. I think we can be just as evil by being uncertain about things. In fact any of those things can be rationalized in their minds because they were based on a higher probability of certitude.

4. Are you familiar with the Dutch philosopher Herman Doyeweerd?

 

At 4/28/2009 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey John,

"1. Can you explain how this is different than say presuppositionalism or perhaps existentialism. Its seems to me that if you can point out the errors of someone else's presuppositions, you also recognize and suspect your own, though not necissarily."


I've been influenced by a lot of ideas so I'm not always interested in defining my views in complete opposition to other ones. As for presuppositionalism, I'm only vaguely familiar with it, so I can't say whether or not I'd agree with all of its connotations. Overall, I find it to be more focused on rational apologetics, and arguing against non-Christian points of view, than I'm interested in. Also, the idea of certain basic "presuppositions" as a basis for the rest of our reasoning, while rightly acknowledging the limitations of human rationality, still assumes a basically foundationalist epistemology. I tend more towards a coherentist view myself. IMHO, rather than our knowledge being "built" on a limited, presupposed set of foundational beliefs, instead all of our beliefs "hang together" in an interconnected web of mutual support.

As for existentialism, I admit that I am a bit of an existentialist (of the Kierkegaardian variety), in that at the end of the day I think the only thing that can bridge our lack of absolute certainty is a leap of faith. Unlike the French existentialists, however, I don't exalt our free choice, regardless of what is chosen, as the ultimate "good" of human existence. It is simply an unavoidable implication of our finite nature, and one that should be acknowledged with "fear and trembling", not with the triumphant hubris of Nietzsche or Sartre.

Besides which, I am a postmodern existentialist, which means I acknowledge, far more than Sartre or Nietzsche or even Kierkegaard would, the fact that we are not completely free to determine our own essence as human individuals. Rather, we are socially constructed beings, that find our individual identity through a complex interplay of all the various biological, social, cultural, religious, and circumstantial influences (among many others) that shape us throughout our lives. In other words, contrary to the existentialists, we do not simply create ourselves (though we are not simply powerless or utterly determined by outside forces either IMHO).


"2. You have stated why one cannot be absolutely certain of anything. But what then qualifies one thing to be more certain than another?"


Like I said, I'm a coherentist, so the degree of certainty with which I would hold my beliefs would depend on how well it fit into the whole web of the rest of my beliefs.

Or, to put it another way, when there are many different "witnesses" to the truth of a belief - e.g. it is confirmed by reason, by experience, by reliable others both past and present (aka "tradition"), by scripture, by coherence with existing beliefs, etc. - then I am inclined to hold it with more certainty than other beliefs that have less support.


"3. You say, "Instead their hubris and blind faith in the power of human rationality to achieve absolute truth has brought us a legacy of colonialism, genocide, weapons of mass destruction, and near-apocalyptic environmental destruction... to the point where many are wondering if it's an excess of certainty that is the problem in the first place." You leave wiggle room here which is fine, but why is it certainty that is the problem and not sin. I think we can be just as evil by being uncertain about things. In fact any of those things can be rationalized in their minds because they were based on a higher probability of certitude."


I think the way you stated your question, "certainty vs. sin", is a false dilemma. Instead, I would say that excessive certainty is itself a sin - namely the sin of pride, of elevating human rational capabilities to a near-divine status. Only God has absolute knowledge, and therefore only God can claim absolute certainty. If we claim such a thing as well, then we are essentially putting ourselves in the place of God. (Interesting, isn't it, that the "original sin" was a temptation towards "knowledge", and that the serpent told Eve that when she obtained such knowledge, she would be "like God"?)

And yes, people can do evil things even when they lack such certainty. I'm not claiming that excessive certainty is the exclusive cause of such evil, just that it seems to me to be a major contributing factor in the history of the past several centuries.


"4. Are you familiar with the Dutch philosopher Herman Doyeweerd?"


Nope, I can't say that I've ever heard of him before. Tell me about him. In what way is he relevant to this conversation?

 

At 4/30/2009 11:21:00 AM, Blogger John Mahan

"Like I said, I'm a coherentist, so the degree of certainty with which I would hold my beliefs would depend on how well it fit into the whole web of the rest of my beliefs.

Or, to put it another way, when there are many different "witnesses" to the truth of a belief - e.g. it is confirmed by reason, by experience, by reliable others both past and present (aka "tradition"), by scripture, by coherence with existing beliefs, etc. - then I am inclined to hold it with more certainty than other beliefs that have less support."


Dooyeweerd deals with the question of what it is that all these beliefs hang on. Or to put it another way, anyone at any particular time will have a controlling belief which determines how these other beliefs interact. When reason becomes this controlling factor, you are "elevating human rational capabilities to a near-divine status" or rather to divine status. Rather than pride, this could be considered idolatry since only our belief in God as the uncreated creator and law giver can properly govern the interation between the other "witnesses" to knowledge.

Anyway his epistemology is similar only that these "witnesses" reveal different kinds of knowledge. I think intuitively we know that not all knowledge can be articulated or adequately expressed in propositions. So any kind of knowledge cannot be express purely in terms of another witness. So consider that we are using sensory knowledge, linguistic knowledge, cultural knowledge, ethical knowledge, economic knowledge, rational knowledge etc. just to have this conversation. But anyway, it is in this sense that knowledge is not absolute. If you're interested in learning more (or perhaps more coherently stated summaries, Doyeweerd is long gone but you can find summaries of his views here http://www.dooy.salford.ac.uk/ and specifically his epistemology here http://www.dooy.salford.ac.uk/knowing.html .

 

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