The Demeaning of Meaning: Why it Matters, Biblically

In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.

newrule

This week I am speaking specifically to Christians, particularly those who take their Christianity seriously.  Therefore, I am assuming a few things I know I would need to defend elsewhere.  Perhaps it will “sound like a sermon,” but I think the ideas important enough to take that risk. Choosing to accept postmodernism and the relativism it brings with it–often through the back door–can appear on the surface to be both beautiful and empowering.  Unfortunately, postmodernism is also philosophically shallow, and it doesn’t take much digging before you reach the rotten parts underneath.  For Christians, the postmodern way of reading in particular is deadly to a living, breathing belief in Christ and cannot be lightly held.

To say that postmodernism, properly understood, is completely incompatible with Christianity seems to be a drastic, over-the-top statement to many these days.  After all, postmodernism is thinking outside the box and giving voice to your own, unique ideas.  It opens the doors to your imagination by defying the stultifying structures of the past that arbitrarily box us in.  As we mentioned last week, it clears away the possibility of authorial idolization, and it encourages the reader to search for new insights in the text.   It has, for Christians, helped people to move beyond simple “hellfire and damnation” legalism to a freer, more caring belief that focuses on God’s acceptance and love–something that was definitely needed at points in the Twentieth Century.  What could possibly be so wrong about it that I think I’m justified in calling it “deadly“?

To be a “Christian” is to strive to be “like Christ.”  We base our lives and our beliefs off the incredible fact that the Son of God deigned to debase Himself and enter into our world in mortal form, just like us.  More amazingly, He didn’t just do it to stop by to say “hi” or to try out something new as a way to escape cosmic boredom.  He intentionally suffered one of the most painful deaths imaginable to a human being in order to span the gulf between us and God.  In doing so, he took on the sins of an entire race’s existence* on His shoulders.  Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian uni-multi-verse, and the main theme of the Story that God has written into the foundations of space and time, from which our own stories emanate.  Further, Christians are People of the Book.  Without the Bible, we have no reliable knowledge of Christ or of His Story other than to say He existed.  There is the testimony of nature and the “inner light” (for lack of a better description), but the backbone of it all is the Book, and Christians explicitly say they worship the Author of the Universe.

What's in  book?  What a bit, if you're a Christian...

What’s in book? Quite a bit, if you’re a Christian…

The fundamental premise of all forms of postmodernism I’ve ever encountered–relativism–undoes and invalidates all of this.  Indeed, it assaults the very idea of the author, not only in the text but in our lives.  If we regard God as postmodernism regards the author, then at best we’ll be gracious enough give Him a passing nod; at worst we’ll be taught to completely disdain Him and to actively rebel against Him.  Simply put, we set ourselves in His place. (This is starting to sound familiar….)  Can we trust the Bible–a book–if we don’t believe that books have meaning or that they convey the mind of the author?  Should we believe that there is Meaning to the universe if we don’t believe there is meaning in even the little piece of it we hold between two covers in our hand?  Should we share a faith with someone else if we don’t believe that any one narrative is truer than another?

The short answer is that we if we accept a postmodern worldview, we have no compelling reason to say “yes” to any of those questions.  We can try, and that is what many Christians who have incompletely understood postmodernism attempt to do.  They accept contradictory premises:  The Bible is accurate and Christianity is the exclusive way to salvation while also insisting on and applying a worldview that denies authors matter, books can communicate objectively, or indeed there is anything we can know is true.  The result is the lukewarm Christianity that we see around us.**  People accept a premise from scripture to be true only while it is convenient.  When it ceases to be easy, they invent a new interpretation of it that suits them better, imposing their will (more often, that of others) onto the plain meaning of the text.  It is, in fact, the death of Christianity by any real, historical definition and the realization of the serpent’s promise to Eve:  We are defining our right and wrong over God.

But there is a better way.  Christians don’t have to accept the false dilemma posed by postmodernism.  The Biblical worldview provides us with a way to understand both author and reader that will allow us to transcend the cold confines or modernism without having to drink the poison of its successor.  We can give respect to the author without neglecting the reader, and the combination of the two can allow for powerful new evolutionary ideas.  More of that, next week.

Next Week:  A Better Way

 newrule

*Perhaps He was righting the entire universe.  After all, He has only told us our story.  Other stories might be more incredible still–and that is saying something!

**You might say, “But I don’t believe that, and I consider myself a postmodernist!”  Perhaps you don’t, but you are feeding your mind and your spirit on a steady diet culled from a society of thinkers who do?    Further, what premises did you unknowingly have to accept in order to decide you were a postmodernist in the first place?  For example, in deciding to express a postmodern love and respect for all points of view did you accept the reasoning behind it–that they are all equally valid and no one is “more true” than another?

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect
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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on August 21, 2014, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, Literary Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. It is useful to distinguish Postmodernity–the condition of living after the demise of Modernism, with a recognition of all that means–from Postmodernism, the ideology that celebrates the death of Modernism without distinguishing the good from the bad in it, while consequently throwing out the rational baby along with the rationalist bathwater. Many Christians are vulnerable to Postmodernism because they fail to make this distinction. It seems dishonest to them to deny Postmodernity–because it is. But they then see no alternative but to embrace some form of Postmodernism, which they fail to understand is no less an ideology of rebellion against God than Modernism was. Thanks for giving us some good help in navigating those waters. I look forward to your next installment.

  2. Very good distinction–it was one of several things I was groping for in this article.

    One of the points about Christians and postmodernism that bumfuzzles me on this point is actually a carry over from modernism–the dedication to absolute progressivism in all things, and the accompanying idea that something must be “new” in order to truer than what you’re rejecting. So, rather than look back to the wealth of reason and insight we have before modernism, someone has to invent something “new” before it will be worth accepting–therefore they look at the aftermath of modernism for their answers.

    As I believe Lewis once said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

  3. It’s me again. You’re surprised, right? 😉

    I think your definitions of postmodernism and relativism and mine overlap but don’t line up. You’re going by an all-or-nothing mentality. In my opinion, you miss some stuff by taking that view.

    Yes, pure relativism undermines everything, even itself, really. However, relativism is also a tool, and like all tools, can be used well or badly. I believe in absolute Truth. What I don’t believe in is the human capacity to fully know and or understand it. Extreme doubt gets us nowhere, but certain levels of doubt are important, not only for growth, but in learning to trust God.

    From my perspective (yes, a postmodern-relativistic start to a sentence 😉 ) you object to possible results and certain aspects that have arisen in postmodernism and relativism, but you consider these things to be the whole rather than the misuse. I disagree.

    If you are right, then I am simply wrong. Full stop. If I am right, and there are more subtleties here, then you are not necessarily wrong, but there is still such a thing as Absolute Truth that rises above us both. We can only be right or wrong if there is a standard, which is something I am sure we agree on. Can I also assume we both recognize the importance of doubt? Relativism is, in a way, an active form of doubt that, in lieu of clear answers, or in the face of the unknown, allows for the possibility of truth in opposing views. It’s the Schrödinger’s cat of metaphysics. This, of course, refers to relativism as a tool, not as Relativism in terms of disbelief in absolute Truth.

    Postmodernism is harder to pin down. I believe that, growing up in a postmodern society, my brain is wired to postmodernist thinking, anything I perceive, take in, think about, is filtered through postmodernism. Nor do I think this is necessarily a bad thing, anymore than it would be necessarily bad to have a Renaissance, Victorian, or Modernist mindset. Every era has its pros and cons, strengths and pitfalls. Taking relativism too far is an easy pitfall of recent generations, but then we are also less likely to execute people over ideological disagreements.
    I think “postmodernist” has a more narrow meaning to you. It is an ideology that can be taken up or dismissed, or at least a set of cultural assumptions that can be overcome? I am not so sure. I’m not sure that any thought I have can be utterly divorced from postmodernism any more than any experience I have can be divorced from the sum of my experiences thus far. Postmodernism the context of my thought as the context of my life is my life hitherto.

    Sorry for being so long-winded. I think my point can be summed up like this, though: it is specific dangers inherent in relativism and postmodernism that should be focused on, rather than the blanket terms themselves. I think, in the long run, that would be more effective, and less debatable, than attacking or defending the blanket terms. Drawing lines can be vital, but drawing them in unclear places breeds misunderstanding.

  4. “Taking relativism too far is an easy pitfall of recent generations, but then we are also less likely to execute people over ideological disagreements.” Point of clarity. I should say “generations in certain countries” for location effects mindsets as much as time.

  5. No problem. I enjoy talking with you, and these aren’t issues that can be dealt with in a bumper sticker, and I’m sick of watching people try. 🙂

    I agree and disagree. As I think I’ve argued in the articles, there is definitely something to the postmodern critique of modernism. They nailed several specific issues. I disagree on relativism, I think. Before we go further, I would appreciate it if you could address a few thoughts I had while reading your replies.

    First, do we agree on a definition of relativism? I would say that it is the belief that truth is relative to the point of view, experiences, and desires of each individual observer. If that is a fair definition, how have I “taken it too far” when I say that people who believe it utilize their experiences to define truth–including scripture? It seems to me that I’m mainly just taking what the the idea says seriously and at its word.

    Also, I think there is a practical issue to consider too. You’ve said you believe in absolute truth–do you believe in our ability as humans to know it on any level?

    If you don’t I would ask what real sense you believe in absolute truth? It exists but we can never know it? If that is true, how do we know it exists at all, and how do we make a case for something we can’t know on any level?

    If you do believe we can know it–albeit imperfectly, I wonder in what sense you are really a relativist in a coherent, postmodern sense? People have always maintained, long before postmodernism, that there were difficulties in knowing absolute truth and that we had to be humble in our attempts to do so. There’s nothing uniquely “postmodern” about that, even if you originally encountered it in a postmodern context…sort of like arguing that the idea of “lunch” is postmodern because we first had it in a postmodern culture. 😉 In fact, in the postmodern philosophers I’ve read, they are mainly unique in that they brazenly trumpet that difficulty as they heart of their belief system, whereas others saw it as a reality that needed to be overcome.

    That’s probably too many questions at once. Thoughts?

    • *cracks knuckles* Fun stuff.

      First, an admission: I’ve read very little philosophy. Education-wise, I am out of my depth. However, I do not think I am boxing at shadows. There is something real, here, and I want to see if I can lay it out.

      1. You are defining Relativism taken as a creed, one that challenges the existence of absolute truth. It undermines even itself because it purports to be truth and therefore cannot be. However, no one would believe in subjective truth if the path to it made no sense. The differences in perception exist, and those different angles can reveal different facets of the Truth. Sure, the understanding of the existence of differing perspectives is not new, but the way relativistic thought names and examines them may be.

      You consider semantics to be important, and the naming of things is important, too. Instead of being just “how people think/perceive” we have now named, and given some validity to, different perspectives. And when it comes to highly debatable points and meanings, even in scripture, this perspective of simultaneous Possible truths can be very important. Relativism, like that which it purports to explain, is a change in perspective.

      2. As for absolute Truth… I am not exactly sure what you mean. I do believe we can know absolute Truth. I am not so sure that we can know when and how much we know it. We can have some level of certainty in consensus, but even that is not infallible. Humans are screwy. Even logic bends to our assumptions, we choose, consciously or not, how we read the world. We have to make judgements on what we believe in order to do anything, but I think we should always carry that seed of doubt, that possibility that we are mistaken. Trust and faith both rest on our limitations.
      Personally, I broke myself, and for a while my faith, against the limits of my ability to reason. It hurt, a lot, so I don’t recommend it, but it was probably the only way for me. I placed too much trust in my intellect and had no room for faith. In the end, I had nothing left but a choice. Some people come to Christianity through Reason, some abandon it through the same process. Then some, like me, break it all and find a simple crossroad at their feet. That background might help explain where I am coming from.

      Humility is always the key. There are two extremes that are fatal. One is, as you are trying to point out, I think, the fatal mistake of denying any truth to be pursued. Without belief in absolute Truth, we’re going to be satisfied with whatever we think, we’ll stagnate. The trouble is, having too much certainty does the same thing, and one of my callings, strange as it may sound, is prodding over-certainty. Over-certainty is more common than deadly uncertainty because even the relativists, even the agnostics, are relativists and agnostics because they are certain that their position is better than making a choice. There are exceptions, people paralyzed with fear of making a choice, but they are uncommon.

      And that is why I find postmodernism and relativism useful, to a point. That they are often used for blathering arrogance, I grant. I only claim that they can also be used to humble us, and and so, in themselves, are neither good nor bad. 😉

      I posted a C. S. Lewis quote, once, that pretty much sums up my feelings on human limitations when it comes to perception and truth. This is why I think a basic understanding of relativism is important: http://jubilare.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/language-and-perception/

  6. You know, I think we might be very close to agreeing entirely without knowing it.

    I was a philosophy major, and therefore I’m using the term “relativism” as a specific, defined philosophical concept. In that sense, while not being a “creed,” it is does have a straightforward definition (I gave the one I’m working with above) and from a philosophical perspective, we either resemble it or not for the purpose of discussion. What you define as “carrying relativism too far” is, from my experience, the philosophical definition as believed by famous postmodernists like Derrida and Foucault (and even modernists like historian Charles Beard back in the 1930s). We both agree that this is a bad idea.

    The same is true of my use of “postmodernism.” I’m using it in a philosophical sense to refer to the collection of philosophies of that name that have spread across the disciplines starting the 1960s and 70s. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, those ideas spread out into the larger culture and, as often happens when something is popularized, people pick and choose what they want to take. The original thought, though, was based on the more formal postmodernism I’ve been discussing here.

    Beyond that, if by “relativism” you simply mean that we should be humble, honest, and thorough in our pursuit of truth, then I agree completely. We are finite minds living an a universe that, while still finite, is so far beyond us that a thousands lifetimes would never be enough to know “everything” about “anything.” “Scientism” (to me the believe that humanity is the measure of all things and will take absolute control of everything through science and reason is nonsense–and postmodernism was 100% right to point it out. I do think that there is probably a better way to describe it than “relativism,” since that word carries with it some very specific philosophical implications through its history. I tend to think if we want to say we’re humble because of our limitations, why not just say that without adopting a label that brings such baggage with it? If we’re looking to make it sound more formal, what about, “Respectful Epistemology”? 😉

    What I mean by “absolute truth” should definitely have been clarified. It is the idea that it is possible for you to look at something and say “that is true” and know it beyond reasonable doubt and believe that people who disagree are wrong. It is “absolute” in the sense that its truthfulness doesn’t change based on what anyone thinks of it–people become right or wrong in relation it it; it does not become right or wrong in relation to them. Even if every single person in existence denied it, it would still be true. As humans, our goal is to bring ourselves as closely into alignment with that truth as we can–keeping in mind our own limitations and shortcomings.

    Are we coming closer together? 😉

    • O_o wait, postmodernism in philosophy comes in that late? …I had no idea. According to some, it started in the art world with Marcel Duchamp as early as 1914. That, in and of itself, might explain why my concept of postmodernism is different from yours. Basically, the disillusionment of western civilization post-war marks the beginning of Postmodern art (or at least its precursors, depending on who you ask) even though Modernist art continued along side it for decades. Postmodernist art questions the ideal of “Progress.” Some artists stop trying to create Utopia, and instead turn to questioning the worship of human thought that lead to Utopian ideals in the first place.

      Yes, absolute Truth is something we come near to or move away from, and it is not dependent on our knowing. I do think we agree as far as concepts go. The question is in the meaning of words and whether or not they mean what we think they mean… like “inconceivable.”

      As for “respectful epistemology,” … I dunno. I am not sure that carries the connotations I am looking for. It’s a manner of behavior and an ethic of thought, something that starts from the inside and moves outward. What I am looking for, and using “relativism” for, is similar, but starts outside and moves in. Does that make any sense? I want a name for a concept of possible-thought-validity, not for the ethic of considering the validity of thoughts. In my experience, in conversation with people who don’t have a background in philosophy, “relativism” fills that niche. I can see how it only brings in confusion in other contexts, though.

  7. Well, there were flashes of postmodernism earlier–I mentioned Beard, for example, and we might think of the absurdist movement and Dadaism. It’s progress was halted historically by Hitler and World War II, both artificially and justifiably. Propaganda used by all sides whipped up a “we’re right, they’re wrong” mentality, and that was strengthened notably by news of things like the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust. Nobody in their right mind was willing to say that those things were just “another point of view” or that they were “valid for the Nazi and the Japanese context, but not for me.” So, for the most part, it sort of went underground until after the war and exploded back onto the scene in the 60s.

    I don’t think it helps clarify things when we note that in my opinion postmodernism, philosophically, is modernism carried to its logical conclusion. Modernism treated humanity like gods (with all the arrogance that went along with it), and if you literally believe than humanity is the measure of all things, it is only logical that we–and our context–be the final arbiters of reality. If I am the center of the universe, then of course everything is relative to me–including meaning, right, and wrong.

    To be honest, your use of the word “relativism” in this context is precisely the sort of thing that I was worried about, semantically–it may well be a case of our limitations with meaning and understanding. 😦 It is loaded with all sorts of philosophical connotations. When you use the word like its a good thing (it is in your meaning), you don’t mean to “carry it too far,” and you’ve thought it through. How many other people haven’t? When they hear it used and see it applied consistently by people who do have a background in philosophy, do they realize all the implications? How many of them do they absorb without thinking after beginning with the understanding that relativism is a positive thing? It might be useful and convenient, but I worry about it nonetheless, personally.

    Maybe my suggestion for something better doesn’t cut it, maybe we can think of something better? 🙂 If you had to describe it without using that word, what would you choose?

  8. Aye, even folks I know who claim to believe in relative truth are perfectly willing to show outrage at certain actions of others. I only ever knew one exception, a woman who really did take the idea seriously. It’s unnerving to talk to someone who really believes that any human action is justified by the perspective of the one perpetrating it.

    Hmm. Yeah, the view of Postmodernism as an extension of Modernism may put us at cross-purposes. I see Postmodernism as headed towards Nihilism rather than Humanism, though perhaps those paths don’t necessarily diverge. Removing the idea of Absolute Truth, and giving little truths to humans instead, does make little god-men, but they are god-men of nothing, for reality has dissolved around them. But I don’t think the overthrow of the idea of Absolute Truth is all there is of Postmodernism.

    I’m of the opinion, and maybe you are too, considering your interest in C. S. Lewis, that evil is a corruption of good rather than a thing of its own. On those terms, I feel that things like philosophical movements, ideologies, movements in art, all have goodness in them, seeds of truth, and that they go awry because they are taken too far. Modernism rose up to challenge forms of expression and ideologies that had become stagnant, stale and repressive. The room for questioning was necessary. Then, taken too far, it set humanity up as a god. Postmodernism arose in recognition of this absurdity and attempted to knock some sense into Modernism, something, again, that was necessary, but then it kept building on itself until it created a bewildering landscape of relativity.

    I balk, not at the recognition of damage done by taking the movements to their natural conclusions, but at what looks, at least on the surface, like condemnation of the movements as a whole. When something as wide and varied as Postmodernism is condemned, I feel like valuable things are lost. Babies go flying with the bathwater. It seems you have considered this more than most people who condemn, and so, perhaps, I am being too hard on you. If so, I’m sorry, but I think the discussion, so far, is fun and I am learning new things.

    Language is tricksy like that. 😛 The truth is, most people don’t bother to think about these things at all, and among the ones that do, there can be a wide difference in meaning. If I had to pick something else… hmm. That is difficult. Doubt, unfortunately, carries a lot of negative connotations for most people, though it is the word I use when thinking. …I really can’t think of anything, yet, that would do for a replacement. If something does come to me, I’ll toss it your way and see what you think.

  9. Would “theoretical truth” suffice? There’s such a fine line between giving legitimacy to possibility and in claiming that it’s legitimacy is, itself, truth.

  1. Pingback: The Demeaning of Meaning: The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished | While We're Paused!

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