Friday, September 10, 2004

A conversation on postmondernism (continued)

What fun. The label thing still interests me. Suppose being a postmodernist means holding ten or fifteen opinions, and I hold all of them--I take it that you'd then feel justified in sticking that label on me, as if my protests could thus hold no logical force, which of course I deny, since I have also other opinions besides those on the list.
It seems I may unintentially have hit a nerve in my earlier exchange and, if so, I apologize.

But let's take a look at the import of what you've just said. First of all, if we define position 'p' as consisting in adhering to propositions 'x, y, & z,' then I don't see any alternative but to say than a person affirming 'x, y, & z' holds 'p.' If, in addition to 'p' a person holds another set of beliefs -- call them 'a, b, and c' -- this would not seem to change the fact that he holds 'p' -- unless 'a, b, and c' contradict 'x, y, & z.' Another wrinkle could be that the person holds only part of 'p' (say 'y & z' but not 'x'), in which case one would have to qualify what one meant when saying that he holds 'p'. I see no alternatives, unless you see another way out of the labeling cul-de-sac.
You suggest that a postmodernist believes the following:
  1. a shift from the primacy of being (ancient & medieval) and knowing (modern) to meaning (post-modern) with a focus on the constitution of meaning in language.
  2. the substitution of narratives (stories) for truth.
  3. the assumption that all narratives conceal a play for power, and the assumption that any one narrative used as a meta-narrative is oppressive.
  4. the assumption that human beings construct themselves and their identities exclusively through their narratives.
  5. the assumption that ethics, like knowledge, is a linguistic construct, so that social good is whatever society takes it to be.
  6. the assumption, then, that literary theory is the most foundational discipline, displacing the ancient role of philosophy and the medieval role of theology.
But I don't think the label fits me very well, anyway, just for the record (though I care a lot less what people call me now than I used to). All of these assumptions seem to me rather obviously childish bastardizations of [Michel] Foucault [pictured right], but I don't know--I haven't read much Foucault because I don't find him very interesting. Is your author here creating straw-men doctrines, or are these things people really believe? I find them quite uninteresting, either way. The thing about grand narratives, though, seems more interesting, especially from a sociological perspective, and perhaps worth thinking about. You cleverly imply that, for postmodernists, the death of all grand narratives is the grand narrative, and perhaps it is, but I've never said it is mine.
First, the list above was part of James Sire's attempt (in The Universe Next Door, pictured left) to define "postmodernism," not my attempt to label you. I shouldn't be surprised if, as you say, his list doesn't "fit" you very well; though the more interesting question for you personally might be whether it fits at all.

Second, if the term "postmodernist" comes to mind when I think of you -- once in a while it does (though not frequently) -- it's for several reasons: (a) as mentioned before, you've referred to yourself in the past, playfully, as our resident "orthodox postmodernist"; (b) you make no secret of your admiration for Derrida's writings; (c) and your stated views about the "truth" of what happened between Lancelot and Guenevere, as well as in (d) your statements about "iterability" and "fiction" in the copy of your Analecta Husserliana article you gave me entitled "Meditation and Mediation, Secrets and Seizures: [Lord Alfred] Tennyson's In Memoriam as Fiction/Testimony" [see my review here], fit the profile (and, yes, we all "profile" as an unavoidable by-product of trying to understand what we read and hear).

Third, you say (above) that you've never asserted the death of all grand narratives as your own view. On the other hand, in your In Memoriam article, you write (on p. 72) that the "intense, almost cataleptic absorption into the moment" in section 19 of In Memoriam is "a profound experiencing of the deepest truth." This "truth" (your word, not Tennyson's) you describe as "not the loss of a friend so much as the structural collapse of every coherence-giving narrative about the world." This would seem to suggest that this is what you take to be true of the world and that Tennyson's crisis was precipitated by his insight into this truth. Or did you mean this was only subjectively "true for him," in spite of the fact that there objectively remains one or another coherence-giving narrative to be discovered that he somehow missed? Or is there some other alternative I'm not seeing?
... And I'm not at all worried about your pointing out that my positions on things are those of most other academics. Perhaps they are. In other of my opinions, I'm probably unique enough to be unemployable at most secular colleges. I'm really not all that concerned about it either way--I don't think of the academy as some vast horde of endarkenment secularists from whom I need to distinguish and protect my thinking. I can hang with both camps. (The secular types now-a-days are mostly concerned with social justice, which I can get into.) The things I really care most deeply about and am most interested in have to do with students and teaching, not theology or politics, which I'm mostly willing now to leave to the experts.
This paragraph I find hard to track, either with respect to animus or substance. Since all I could do is speculate as to the former, I dismiss that an unprofitable exercise. But what as to substance? You suggest that you can "hang with both camps." If "endarkenment secularists" define one camp, what defines the other? I'm not sure what you're referring to here.

When I think of "social justice," I think of Pope Paul VI's motto, "If you want peace, work for justice." But the fact that a pope says this would seem to remove "social justice" from the special perview of "endarkenment secularists." Furthermore, when some people talk about justice today, I'm not sure they know what they're talking about: Aristotle distinguished between commercial, distributive, and remedial justice, and all three can be distinguished from the generic Hebrew usage which biblical writers apply to Noah or Job, for example, as "just men" in the sense of "righteous." What makes capital punishment "unjust," for instance, whereas killing unborn children (which we're doing in the USA at the breath-taking rate of 4000/day now) a matter of "justice"? But that, I suppose, is a discussion for another day ...

I admire your concern for students and your gift for challenging them to think, which I think is quite amazing, really. I would disagree, though, that theology or politics is a matter we ought to leave to the experts. We would do so, I would argue, only at our own peril. It used to be said that religion, politics, and sex shouldn't be talked about in polite company. How British! But the longer I live I begin to think these are the only things worth talking about. One thing I agree with Mortimer Adler on is his notion that philosophy should not be relegated to the province of an academic elite but rather be viewed as the common vocation of everyone. That's why he spent the last half of his career re-writing his academic books for popular audiences -- books like Six Great Ideas (on truth, goodness, beauty, justice, equality, and freedom), and Aristotle for Everybody (on knowing, doing, and making) -- subjects everyone would need to think through in order to fulfill the Socratic principle that the "unexamined life is not worth living." I would further agree with Adler -- who converted from being a secular Jew in later life to Anglicanism, then before dying to Catholicism -- that the same is true of theology, and politics as well. But I don't really imagine any huge disagreements between us on these points, at least as to general principle.
And I'm with you in finding Kerry laughable, though I don't know enough about him to really condemn him--his wife seems to have a lot more character, and I wish she'd run for his Senate seat, though I guess only a postmodernist would say that. I wish I could say, with others, that, well, at least Kerry's better than Bush, and I really can't, except maybe on some domestic issues--I suspect they're both war-monging thugs and the pawns of the corporations.
Yes, well, I think it was telling when Kerry admitted that he wouldn't have really done anything different than Bush as to the war in Iraq, even if there were no weapons of mass destruction found. His wife, Teresa, gave an engaging and thoughtful talk at the Democratic Convention, I felt, although my wife seems chagrinned for some reason that she apparently doesn't know how to bake cookies, a piece of info she picked up after reading, I think it was, her Family Circle magazine's comparison of Laura Bush's and Teresa Heinz-Kerry's ostensible cookie recipes. These things count big time, as you know.

There is doubtless truth in the assumption that politicians are (at least to some extent) "pawns" of the corporations. I would personally shy away from the assumptions of those, however, who view Bush (or Kerry) as comparable to Saddam Hussein, from those like Stanley Fish who said about 9/11 that "there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one," or those that insist that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." As William Bennett observed: "Last time I looked, there was a crystal-clear distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, and it had to do with the morality of means: a freedom fighter doesn't massacre innocent civilians in pursuit of his ends." I explore some of these issues in a little more depth in my essay on "War and the Eclipse of Moral Reasoning" (Ratzinger Forum).
And I didn't mean to say that the church has nothing to teach us about how to live, at all, but rather that I don't think the church should dictate politics, which it is really doing when it takes it upon itself to dictate which legal unions to bless and which pastors to ordain and which people ought to live their lives in secrecy and which sex acts God intends us to engage in and such things. I go to church not for the politiking, which I would call all that sort of stuff, but for the liturgy, to which I try to listen, and for the song, and the eucharist, and the fellowship.
Although I am Catholic, I come from Mennonite (like Quaker's, pacifist) parents who were missionaries in China. One of the Mennonite theologians, now deceased, who I have come to admire exceedingly is John Howard Yoder, who wrote a book called, of all things, The Politics of Jesus (pictured left). While I don't agree with everything Yoder has to say from his Anabaptist perspective, the one central theme running through his book that I think is inescapably true is this: Christ is ineluctably, unavoidably, irrepressibly political. Hearing the suggestion that the Church shouldn't dictate politics reminds me of the saying I used to commonly hear during the mid-seventies: that "government shouldn't legislate morality." My question, by way of answer, would be: show me a piece of legislation that doesn't legislate someone's morality.

Likewise -- though this may possibly reflect a different understanding of "Church" than the one voiced above -- if God has established one Church as our homeland's embassy and deligated to it provisional authority for the on-going administration and eventual repatriation of this sojourning human family, then I would want to ask: what, if anything should the Church concern herself with if not with sex and politics? Many people -- even many contemporary Catholics, I'm sad to say -- don't see the Church as much more than a full-service Rotary Club with a feel-good floor show and coffee-hour. Nietzsche, of course, stands between the one understanding and the other. But if, ex hypothesi, there were in fact a God who actually created us for Himself and wanted to win us back from our self-indulgent sins as our divine lover, and if He had elevated the act of marriage itself to a sacramental image of His own love for us (which entails far more than can be said here), then why should it surprise us that the Church's much ridiculed traditional views of the "pelvic issues" should be central to her concerns? The irony here is amazing, though, I admit: the Catholic Church must appear to the world to be on her weakest footing precisely where, to an insider, she appears most profoundly insightful. But enough on that.

The other thing that must be asked, though, on a purely mundane level, is this: If the Church sees herself as guardian of a doctrinal tradition stretching back to the apostles and prophets, which teaches that abortion, homosexuality, and recreational sex are an abominable distortion of what God intended, what business is it of anyone (whether Church member or not) to tell the Church what she should or shouldn't be teaching?
You say,
... Sure, we prefer ice-cream to peas and potatoes when we're kids. But shouldn't we grow up? Of course part of growing up entails learning WHY our parents (or the Church or the Bible) told us what we "should" do. But discovering that involves getting over our assumptions that the Church and Bible have nothing to tell us that we don't already know. Forgive me, but in my not-always-so-humble opinion we moderns (or postmoderns) are such ignorant dullards.
Growing up also involves realizing that some of the things our parents or the church or people in the church or our teachers told us and did was insane, of course, too. All the things we were all told about how to dress, how to talk, who to be with and what to do with them--I don't know. I have my doubts. Of course, I grew up without any religion whatsoever--my parents thought churches were all cults, except the Quakers, for some reason--they were okay because they were "nice." So what do I know--probably a lot of people learn really helpful things growing up in a church about how to carry themselves and whatnot. But they also learn other things--at my church everyone (except me) knows who the homosexuals are, and everyone can see the mixed-race couples, and everyone knows the pacifists from the republicans, and if they listen, they learn probably which differences to make a big damn deal about, which to tolerate, and which to affirm as sacred. They learn this not by absorbing people's self-righteous notions about what God "intended" but by seeing human dignity modeled in a structured, faith-oriented community environment. That's what I've experienced at my church (perhaps because I arrived just as all the discontents were leaving in a huff). Sometimes, people listen and hear the wrong things. When my mothers parents divorced, no one in their church would talk to them, and my mother can't enter a church without anxiety to this day. They're all the same to her. All I know is what I hear, and I hear music. My pastor has been a great help to me in my spiritual doldrums of the last couple of years, mainly by listening (see, it goes both ways--we listen not only for our own betterment), and I cherish that.
Let's try to cut through some of this to some basics. Both your paragraph above, and mine above it, make judgments about what each of us takes to be good and bad. Unless either of us is a card-carrying relativist, which I seriously doubt, we each assume that what we take to be good is a real objective good. For me it might involve assuming that the Church's teaching on, say, sex, is true and good and beautiful. For you, it might be that the non-judgmental modeling of human dignity presented at your parish, by contrast those who seem self-righteous, have offered a model of what is objectively true, good and beautiful. What each of us assumes, unless I'm mistaken, is that he sees something that is true about the states of affairs in the world and that anyone who failed to see this would be missing something about the way things really are.

This suggestion is also supported by your assertion that some of the things our parents or churches or teachers may have told us were 'insane,' or at least pretty badly mistaken. In these instances, at least, they missed something about the way things really are, which perhaps we were better able to see than they. I grant this possibility.

In any case, the point I would want to stress is that if there is a real objective good of any kind -- something about which our parents or churches or teachers or you or I could have been mistaken -- then an unavoidable consequence of this is that there will be degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy in our judgments about states of affairs. Your judgment that some of your fellow parishioners are "self-righteous" in their judgments about pacifists or homosexuals or mixed-race couples might be right or wrong; and their judgments (whatever they are), if they wish to return the favor of judging you, might also be right or wrong. But whatever our judgments may be about pacifism, war, homosexuality, politics, education, the economy, or the future of the world community -- while it is possible or even probable that they may all be mistaken in some degree or other, it is impossible that they should all be completely accurate.

I abhor seeing people emotionally hurt in any circumstance, let alone like your mother was by some people at her church. It's especially painful, I think, in a context that commands love (as God does); which heightens the hypocrisy. At the same time, I think you will agree that not all that is perceived as unloving is in fact so, as any parent or teacher especially knows. I have found especially enlightening, in this respect, C.S. Lewis's exploration of the four Greek words for love (agape, philia, storge, eros) in his book, The Four Loves (pictured right). Sometimes the most loving thing may seem quite counter-intuitive, it would seem.
And I agree completely about the near-impossibility of knowing oneself--I tried to get a conversation going on this topic yesterday in one of my classes, but it was impossible because the freshmen were so confident in their self-knowledge--very interesting. In a sense, there's something impossible about that course, because one student in a hundred will even recognize the purpose of offering the course when it is explained, and if you really explain it, so that they do get it, they laugh out loud. One student said yesterday, after lots of badgering on my part, that it was very cure and sweet that the College wants to teach students and help them and what-not, but I mean come on--really. Her view was that college students are autonomous, self-aware, independent, and responsible for their own actions and deserve what they get. And of course also that all the corporations who are "out there" profiting from college students' insecurity and unhappiness are therefore entirely justified--open season on college students. Hilarious. I said, if you believe that, then you must be pretty mad about having to take this class. She said, no, not really. I like it. So that's good, I guess. Goes to show you how ineffectual explanations tend to be--these kids just need to learn at their own rate, the way things happen to them. Question is, how is a church or a course or a major to go about facilitating peoples' individual journeys toward (rather than to) self-knowledge? In my experience, not through explanations, helpful words of advice, commandments, etc. I say, give me something to listen to, not a lecture but a hymn. I'll never really know whether I've heard the right thing or all of it, and that's okay. (Oow--ya gat mee--pinned by your feathered shaft to the target, straight through the gut--convicted of the postmodern heresy, I . . . die . . .)
Ha-ha! I like your account about the relative "self-knowledge" (or self-oblivion?) of freshmen. Sophomores (the "wise fools") aren't much better. Of course we were there once. When we're as old as Socrates, maybe we'll actually learn something, such as that only the God is wise, and he is wisest, who, like Socrates, realizes that his wisdom is (by comparison) nothing. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas, in his mystical encounter with God near the end of his career, left off writing and dismissed all that he had written, in comparison to what (or Whom) he had encountered, nothing but "worthless straw."

The really interesting question you raise in this paragraph, however, is one that was raised by Socrates in Plato's dialogues: Can virtue be taught, and, if so, how? (In fact, can anything be "taught" to another person at all? -- though that's a broader question.) How do you (or we as teachers, or pastors like yours) lead or nudge anyone toward embracing the good, the true, and the beautiful? This is Plato's project, of course; and the first task he undertakes (and the one he is spectacularly successful at) is the refutation of the relativist, which he undertakes repeatedly through debating sophists such as Protagoras. In other words, something like virtue can be taught only if "being" can be distinguished from "seeming," and "truth" from "lies," and "good" from "bad."

Having said that, I would agree with you on the ineffectiveness of those who try to teach us virtue merely by "talking at" us without listening or helping us to see what they're talking about. On the other hand, I think you would perhaps agree that "personal experience" isn't always a successful teacher either, as there are plenty of examples of people who never seem to learn anything from their experience. I think really good teachers, like well-respected officers in the military, have a certain charism for inspiring interest, confidence, trust, and even love.

And love is an interesting thing when it comes to perceiving what is. Max Scheler says that love opens our eyes to see that positive values and qualities that objectively subsist in another person. People say love is blind. Scheler says the opposite: only love enables someone to see in another those qualities to which others are blind who don't have that love. Which leads to an interesting conclusion: there may be moral or dispositional prerequisites for 'seeing' what is actually there, whether in a person or a place or thing. Interesting ...

You ask for a hymn, not a lecture; a piece of music, rather than a sermon. I like that. Try Vivaldi's motet, "Nulla in mundo pax sincera," or Allegri's "Miserere" (which wasn't permitted out of the precincts of the Vatican until Mozart heard it inside the Vatican, and copied it down from memory after leaving), or Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus." Hardly postmodern, any of them: but close to sublime when, as in the definition of a Sacrament, one sees them as outward signs of an inward grace.
And on implications: you say,
Certainly faith can't oblige us to hold as true something we think is not true. St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that it would be a sin for anyone to remain in the Catholic Church who believed Catholicism wasn't true. The maxim that "the argument from authority is the weakest of arguments" was a MEDIEVAL, not modern, maxim. Medieval thinkers-- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim-- were rational to a fault, while most modern philosophers since the Enlightenment have attacked reason in dozens of ways and exalted authority instead-- the authority of ideology, or politics, or passions, or power, or pragmatism, or positivism, or Romanticism, or Marxism, or Freudianism, or Existentialism, or even Deconstructionism in the hands of certain writers. So, no, the "implications" of a worldview (specifically Christianity) for a discourse, as I understand them, are not in any way "heavy-handed." Persuasion presupposes and respects in the other the divine gift of free will. In fact, C.S. Lewis would say that God respects the same in us when he says that there are, in the final analysis, only two kinds of people: Those who say to God "Thy will be done"; and those to whom God says "Thy will be done." The residents of Hell are not sent there against their wishes: hell is getting our way, where that choice turns us in on ourselves in ways that make us miserable.

What are the "implications" of a worldview for discourse, then? Well, as a matter of intellectual integrity, I would say that a Christian faithful to the Faith ("Santa Fe") could not in good faith utter the following proposition: "There is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet"; any more than a confirmed Platonist could in good faith utter the proposition of La Mettrie: "Man is a machine"; or an orthodox Skinnerian could utter the proposition of Sartre: "existence [utter unconditioned freedom of choice] precedes essence." So, in the first place, I would say the worldviews have "implications" for what it makes sense or doesn't make sense to say or believe.
... and I'm still not getting it. Seems to me what you're saying is that if you believe A, you can't also believe not-A, the law of the excluded middle. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but I don't think it goes very far. If I want to be a Christian English teacher, I have to do more than proclaim my faith and line up my opinions accordingly. Non-Christians will perhaps share all my opinions, in which case they cannot be called Christian opinions, and others who do not share them will identify as Christians (and probably also therefore identify me as non-Christian, too), so I'm still left with the same problem. (Plus, I don't see the connection between faith and opinions, anyway, since I don't see faith as the eager and enthusiastic affirmation of an hypothesis.) Sure, it's relatively easy to conceive of how one could be both a Christian and an English teacher, but what would it mean to be a Christian English teacher. Something much deeper, I should think. That one ought to be consistent is an implication of being an intellectual, I should think, not an implication of the worldview to which one makes ones opinions consistent. My question to any academic would be whether and how the discourse "professed" or practiced deepens faith for those who let it. Consistency is a basic requirement of the academy, and not even a necessary one, since we all hold opinions that at some level contradict other opinions we also hold. Let's say that a sincere yearning for consistency is a basic, necessary requirement. But it's a requirement of the academy, I should think, not of God, and it certainly doesn't in itself guarantee you access to the truth. It just allows you to talk with others.
I would want to distinguish the Christian Faith (capital "F"), which has a defined objective content, from a person's subjective "faith" (lower case "f"). The Enlightenment philosophes describe themselves as abandoning "faith" for "reason," thus falling prey to the ambiguity resident in the term "faith." What they actually did was withdraw their subjective "faith" from the Christian Faith and put their faith, instead, in "Reason" and "Science." Hence, when you say that your question to any academic would be "whether and how the discourse "professed" or practiced deepens faith for those who let it," I would want to know what "faith" you're talking about -- faith in the Christian Faith, or faith in oneself, or faith in discourse as such, or faith in humanity, or faith in faith, or what? A fair question. "Faith" in the subjective sense wouldn't seem to have much to do with opinions, as such, as you suggest; while "faith" in the objective sense (the body of teachings that constitutes the Christian Faith) would have everything to do with opinions. Would it not?

I think we agree on the ineluctable imperative of "logical consistency" (like personal integrity) in discourse, whether in the academy or everyday interpersonal relationships. Yet isn't it possible to have a worldview, on the one hand, that is logically coherent, yet wholly impracticable, like solipsism; and one, on the other hand, that is logically incoherent, but practicable, like Kant's or Rousseau's? You may recall the charming absurdity of Rousseau, who states somewhere in his Social Contract that "the reader cannot expect me to be clear and consistent at the same time"!!! The ideal, of course, is integrity -- the integration of an internally coherent (consistent) worldview with a practical life in which it can be concretely lived out. I agree with you, though, that this is an often unattained ideal, even if we feel its pull on us.

The difference between (1) what you call an English teacher who just happens to be a Christian and (2) a "Christian English teacher" is a profound one, I agree. But I'm not sure it's all that difficult to sort out. The former (1) would seem to accept the post-Kantian distinction between "private values" and "public facts" and feel no pressing need (or understanding of how) to integrate the two. He might view these as two independent compartments of his life, his private, "value-added" Christian life, on the one hand, and his public life as an English teacher dealing in objective, public "facts." The latter (2) would seem to feel the pull of integrating the two somehow. He might be concerned with questions like: "Does my having a Christian view of things make a difference in how I understand and interpret literature?" Whereas a positive answer to this question would seem nearly unintelligible to the former (1), it may not seem so to the latter (2). For one thing, literature is saturated with the values of those who write it and those who read it, as you eminently know. If literature is unavoidably freighted with value judgments, and if, as mentioned much earlier, judgments may be accurate or inaccurate (or even honest or dishonest) in their description of real states of affairs, then an English teacher who has 'faith' in the Christian Faith will have his work cut out for him, will he not? It won't be an easy task, surely, but an eminently challenging one -- just like this conversation: trying to sort out the good and the true and the beautiful from the veil of ignorance and spiritual confusion and stupidity and self-interest that besets each of us at some level.

A related question that might be worth discussing sometime is: what is Christian literature or a Christian novel? I don't for a moment assume it would necessarily involve explicitly "Christian" or "religious" subjects. But I would think it would have to deal on some level with the dimensions of experience that are perceptible in the Christian's life -- including the reality of the spiritual and moral struggle between good and evil (not only in external social forces, but within each individual soul), the reality of the transcendent or numinous, and phenomena such as sin and forgiveness, spiritual blindness and sight, etc. I can think of a number of novelists who, I think, pull this off quite well, in my opinion, including the likes of Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, but also Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Evelyn Waugh, for starters.