So, this is part 2 of the Pomophobia posts. Part 1 was broadly setting the scene with a bit of relevant history from the “God debate”. …
As I said in part 1, the term “postmodern” has been applied in all sorts of arenas to express a general movement away from the accepted ideas that have gone before. From now on I’ll largely be referring to postmodern philosophy or the particular part of postmodern philosophy that Christians most often mean when using the term – the suspicion of meta-narrative and the existence of absolute or objective truth (or our ability to know it). In this post I’ll be looking briefly at some of the reasons that the church and others have been concerned by the rise of postmodern thought (pomophobia) and have tried to discredit it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote from Wikipedia’s article on post-modern philosophy at some point so here’s a thought…
Post-modernism is arguably the most depressing philosophy ever to spring from the western mind. It is difficult to talk about post-modernism because nobody really understands it. It’s allusive to the point of being impossible to articulate. But what this philosophy basically says is that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history. That the modernist tradition of progress and ceaseless extension of the frontiers of innovation are now dead. Originality is dead. The avant-garde artistic tradition is dead. All religions and utopian visions are dead and resistance to the status quo is impossible because revolution too is now dead. Like it or not, we humans are stuck in a permanent crisis of meaning, a dark room from which we can never escape.
- Kalle Lasn (founder of Adbusters, author of Culture Jam)
Right and Wrong
Moral relativism has long been something of a go-to bogeyman for all sorts of people – the financial crisis, the holocaust, communism, liberalism – plenty of terrible things apparently wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t allowed those darned philosophers to question our secure ideas of what is right and what is wrong (ignoring, of course, the terrible acts committed by those who were very secure in their belief that they were right and someone else was wrong!).
The Pope has a particular dislike for moral relativism blaming it for (amongst other things) the recent riots in the UK. Perhaps “The German Shepherd” (as I recently heard him called) has a point – the idea that, for example, whether or not murder is wrong is only a matter of taste is certainly problematic – but it doesn’t take too long to think of examples of beliefs and practices that at certain times in history or in certain cultures have been seen as wrong but that now would be seen as acceptable or that used to be acceptable but are now seen as definitely wrong – suddenly things become a little more complicated. A number of the most divisive “conversations” in the church at the moment are around issues where the debate is very much about what is right or wrong – homosexuality, abortion, etc – but we don’t have to look to far into church history to see similarly polarised debates that have since become unimaginable – slavery, for example.
Moral relativism is a step too far for many people of faith and no faith alike but if we could at least let it encourage to be a bit more humble in the way we assert our opinions and a bit more careful about making pronouncements about what is “right” and what is “wrong”, I think that’d be quite a valuable lesson for us all.
Everything Is Smoke
Perhaps the most troubling idea that comes out of this line of thought is that if every event, every interaction, every person only has the meaning that we subjectively ascribe to them, does anything have any inherent value? When we deconstruct the very idea of “significance”, what are we left with? This of course is where the existential nihilists went with there thinking – their answer? – we are left with nothing – everything just is, life is just a series of events that happen – none of it “means” anything and any significance we ascribe to it is purely construct.
Pretty depressing stuff and with the rise of this mode of thought it is no wonder that there has been a focus in the church on the theology of significance, purpose and self-esteem that has been pretty successful – just look at the marketing of the Alpha Course. Despite this, we only have to look as far as the book of Ecclesiastes to find a pretty compelling piece of existential literature. How did that get there?!
A Call to Inaction
As Kalle Lasn is insinuating above, once we fully deconstruct the narratives by which we live our lives and see everything as essentially meaningless (objectively) we may fall into a paralysing despair that there’s no point in doing anything because none of it matters – all our passions and dreams, our relationships and loves will all die, as will we – ultimately all that we build in our lives (and all that we, the human race, ever build) will in the end be wholly inconsequential.
Again, it’s at this point that many people of faith and no faith want to get off this line of thought and return to something a bit more warm and fuzzy but with all the loneliness and depression that seems to be an unfortunate side-effect of the society we’ve built, we must not live in denial of this viewpoint and we need to be comfortable naming it and wrestling with it.
Everything’s Not Lost
Well, this has all been a little bit miserable and hopeless! I don’t think pomophobia is the right approach – as I say, I think it’s important that we allow these difficult and troubling ideas to be out in the open, especially within church – they’ll be far more damaging if we try to keep them buried. Perhaps church should be the place where we encounter our brokenness – where we remove our masks of “I’m a successful human being who’s got it together” and come face-to-face with ourselves (and each other) as we are, not as we’d like others to think we are (that is how God sees us anyway and he’s OK with it – that is what we mean by “grace”) and perhaps that place of imperfection, of raw humanity is also a place of freedom and of intimate community.
In part 3 I’ll be looking at some of the more positive or affirming things that can and have come out of postmodern thought. I think it’s gonna be a good one…Tags: pomophobia, postmodernism