9/9/2010

Coming Out

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:27 pm

I’ve been variously described as Christian and post-Christian by those who tell the truth, and as atheist by those who lie about me, but none of those labels really fit comfortably.

The best and most informative label about me is ‘postmodernist’, particularly in terms of Lyotard’s description of that disposition as ‘suspicion of grand narratives’. Grand narratives are stories that claim to contain the whole truth and to give meaning to everything in life. They can be religions or ideologies – Christianity is often presented as a grand narrative, and certainly something like Stalinism or Maoism is a grand narrative, but so are the stronger forms of laissez-faire capitalism, for example.

Postmodernism is the understanding that no narrative is complete, and that therefore their claims to completeness are false. Multiple narratives provide richer, more powerful, ‘truer’ descriptions of reality than single perspective, because every light you shine on reality throws shadows. Every direction you look from means there are parts you can’t see.

I believe in God, but God is the ultimate Reality, and is greater and deeper and wider than mere physical reality, so it’s even more true that any attempt to understand God requires multiple narratives rather than a single narrative. God is infinite, our knowledge is finite, and therefore our knowledge is a negligible fraction of the infinite reality of God. How dare we, then, claim that our knowledge is complete and correct enough to damn others whose knowledge is different?

Postmodernism for me, coupled with a sense of the sheer scope of the universe, which is also finite within the infinity of God, leads to both very humble claims on the part of my own narratives and a profound suspicion of the narratives offered by others. The more certain and absolute they claim their narratives to be, the more sure I am that those claims are false, since I believe all narratives are by necessity partial. (That last, yes, is a statement of faith, though based in logic and experience – don’t even try to claim that I’m making a grand narrative of it.)

It’s not a satisfying position for others, because it makes me very difficult to pigeonhole. Those who cannot conceive of living without exclusive allegiance to one specific grand narrative often project that onto me, and assume that I *really* subscribe to one, but am hiding that for rhetorical purposes. But I really, really don’t: all narratives can be deconstructed in terms of their own internal logic.

17 responses to “Coming Out”

  1. Mark says:

    But aren’t Evolution and the Big Bang (i.e. the universe came into existence without God) just the grand narratives of naturalism? And you subscribe to those. And you cheerfully call yourself a leftie, in other words, I think, you have a sort of faith in the concept of government. That sort of pigeonholes you, even if you aren’t a Dawkinsian. Your reactions to the Bible – like the preservation of the Midianite girls – show a distinct anti-religious bias.

    The cumulative effect of these positions, which you vociferously defend, is that you are not really a Christian in the normal sense of the word.

    But I have a lot of sympathy for that interest in valid science and also ultimate theories, and also a desire for a strong, inclusive community without the harmful effects of either poverty or plutocracy. I guess we move in different circles, and have been impressed by different types of people. And Jesus was sort of anti-religious as well, and critiqued his Scriptures: “You have heard what was said to the people long ago … but I say this … “.

    I think what Christians have to offer to the scientism problem is the ability to hold science and mystery in a more comfortable tension. And what Christians offer to the social problems, from the ones I know, is activism, and the ability to espouse the highest ideals. I think the left or the atheists like to focus on the ways the churches appear retrograde, but not everything done in the name of progress actually leads to a better life for all. Just look at the 20th century.

  2. John Q says:

    You should check out the book by Samir Selmanovic’s “It’s really all about God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian”
    Sadly I bought this book and have been too busy immersing myself in the philosophy of religion to get to it.
    Ironically the philosophical arguments I’ve been agreeing with recently make it more and more unlikely for me to take post-modernism seriously, at least as an academic concept.
    However having suffered (some hyperbole) at the hands of SDA fundamentalism I am very fond of post-modernism as more of a social movement. When you look at all the damage done in the name of forcing people to conform to a particular worldview/narrative it leaves one with a deep suspicion of absolute truth claims.
    The greatest thing that modernists can learn from post-modernists is that an individuals circumstances need to be taken into consideration. The greatest thing that post modernists can learn from modernists is that everything has limits, we all need to conform to a basic set of moral truths that are absolute, objective and universal.

    Ironically an SDA pastor has articulated the sentiments of a so called ‘post-modern generation’ nicely in this talk.
    “http://media.paradiseadventist.org/audios/Truth%20and%20Post-Modernism.mp3”

  3. Bravus says:

    Starting out with John’s comments and points first: Mark’s will take longer to address!

    The audio is definitely interesting and offers a useful perspective. I disagree with him that postmodernism is a rejection of modernism. Postmodernism ‘contains’ modernism’s grand narrative, but demotes it from a grand narrative to one of many possible narratives. Same with the other sources of knowledge he talks about (science, church, Bible), etc. In general, he gets a lot closer to it than most other Christian speakers. He still overclaims for the relativism of postmodernism. He’s correct about suspicion of ‘Big T Truth’ and the valorisation of multiple ‘small t truths’. And he’s correct that that is a problem for Adventism, which is founded in Big T…

    He does fall into the error of linking modernism and postmodernism to age and time, which is nonsense. There are heaps of young modernists… probably a majority in many places. And a few old postmodernists. (I mean, it’s not as though Lyotard and Derrida and Foucault are even alive any more.)

    I’m aware of Selmanovic’s book and have spoken positively about it here and elsewhere before, I think. His perspective is one I can share to a pretty large extent.

    I’d be interested to hear more about these ‘absolute, objective and universal’ moral truths. Where do they come from? What are they? The typical answer is that they are dictated by God, but then God is regularly portrayed as contravening them, leading to the odd claim that the source and guarantor of morality need not himself act in moral ways.

    There’s more here than I can reasonably address in a blog comments thread, but I suspect that your reaction to postmodernism is to a misunderstanding of that world view. If I saw postmodernism the way you see postmodernism, I’d reject it too!

    Maybe the more detailed and specific comments in response to Mark might be helpful.

  4. Bravus says:

    Will do a bit of a quote-and-respond with Mark’s comments, since there are lots of individual issues. His words in bold, mine in plain text.

    But aren’t Evolution and the Big Bang (i.e. the universe came into existence without God) just the grand narratives of naturalism? And you subscribe to those. And you cheerfully call yourself a leftie, in other words, I think, you have a sort of faith in the concept of government. That sort of pigeonholes you, even if you aren’t a Dawkinsian.

    You consistently ascribe to me much more certainty about both of those theories than I actually feel or show. Remember, postmodernism is rejection of Grand Narratives that claim to explain everything. Evolution doesn’t do that – it claims to explain how, given life, we end up with lots of species. The Big Bang explains stellar evolution. Neither explains anything about human goals and emotions and meanings, or claims to (and I reject ‘evolutionary psychology’ and such nonsense). So first, those ideas don’t qualify as grand narratives. Second, they are not held as inerrant – far from it. Rather, they are openly acknowledged as our current best guesses and understandings, very much open to modification. Both evolution and the Big Bang theory have undergone dramatic changes over the past couple of decades, and are still changing. Similarly, being generally on the left politically is not a grand narrative. Rather, it’s an outgrowing of a value position that caring for people is better than not caring for people.

    Your reactions to the Bible – like the preservation of the Midianite girls – show a distinct anti-religious bias. The cumulative effect of these positions, which you vociferously defend, is that you are not really a Christian in the normal sense of the word.

    I don’t think I have a reflexive anti-religious bias. As I’ve said before, I criticize as an insider. I believe in God, and I see the church – including the Bible – portraying God as deeply immoral. I reject that. In other words, for me (and this is typical from a postmodernist position) values and morality trump faith rather than vice versa. I believe God is moral, therefore I must believe that the Bible is a flawed portrayal of God, since it portrays him as immoral. It’s very easy, though, to understand many of the Biblical accounts as the post hoc rationalisations of priests and kings for their own actions and for natural events. Ironically, it is to protect the God of the Bible from slander that I find it necessary to reject parts of the Bible. And of course, I also have to reject Quran-burning Floridian pastor-morons, and the fact that the churches in NSW have just fought for and won the right to discriminate in terms of adoption.

    But I have a lot of sympathy for that interest in valid science and also ultimate theories, and also a desire for a strong, inclusive community without the harmful effects of either poverty or plutocracy. I guess we move in different circles, and have been impressed by different types of people. And Jesus was sort of anti-religious as well, and critiqued his Scriptures: “You have heard what was said to the people long ago … but I say this … “. I think what Christians have to offer to the scientism problem is the ability to hold science and mystery in a more comfortable tension. And what Christians offer to the social problems, from the ones I know, is activism, and the ability to espouse the highest ideals. I think the left or the atheists like to focus on the ways the churches appear retrograde, but not everything done in the name of progress actually leads to a better life for all. Just look at the 20th century.

    Weird that you’re lumping me in with the quest for valid science, ultimate theories and so on: those are things I explicitly reject, at least in ultimate terms. Perhaps have a listen to the audio John posted. I think you’re tending to pigeonhole me in that speaker’s ‘secular modernist’ category, and therefore misunderstanding my position fairly fundamentally. Certainly the failed social projects of the 20th century like Stalinism and Maoism were explicitly secular modernist and would never have been tried or supported by postmodernists.

  5. John Q says:

    I’d be interested to hear more about these ‘absolute, objective and universal’ moral truths. Where do they come from? What are they? The typical answer is that they are dictated by God, but then God is regularly portrayed as contravening them, leading to the odd claim that the source and guarantor of morality need not himself act in moral ways.

    Right so I’ve been looking at objective moral values recently in association with the moral argument for God’s existence. Objective moral values are the claim that certain activities/values are moral or immoral independent of our existence. For example the torture of a child is every bit as wrong as 1+1=3 (in the words of Michael Ruse). However if you were to re-run evolution all over again you might find that sentient beings evolved behaviour more like that of insects, where the queen kills infant female bees and this is a normal functioning part of this society. In the Naturalist’s world view, moral values are relative to human’s survival. Which begs the question why are humans so special?

    In the theist worldview moral values and duties come from God. The main philosophical objection to this is the euthyphro dilemma (which we can addressed if desired). Anyhow moral duties come from God in the form of commandments (not necessarily the big 10). It should be noted that God has different moral duties to people. For example we do not have a moral duty to judge people’s righteousness where as God does. This can in part explain the objection that God has not always acted morally. While I too share a large degree of scepticism regarding the actions of the God of the OT, at least some of the commands given by God could(??) be viewed as God enacting judgement through humans. It is somewhat ironic I think that us post enlightened mob whine that God allows evil but then turn around and complain about his destruction of cultures that burnt children as sacrifices. The obvious retort is of course that EVERYONE in those cultures was killed, including children. (the apologist for biblical inerrancy usually resorts to infant salvation to jump through this hoop)
    Aside from the apologetics for some of God’s actions I think it is worth noting that on the whole the God of the OT is a God of mercy (The story of Jonah and God’s willingness to save Sodom and Gomorrah would be just a few examples). I consider the notion that God is wrathful more than he is merciful as being biased.

    I believe God is moral, therefore I must believe that the Bible is a flawed portrayal of God, since it portrays him as immoral. It’s very easy, though, to understand many of the Biblical accounts as the post hoc rationalisations of priests and kings for their own actions and for natural events. Ironically, it is to protect the God of the Bible from slander that I find it necessary to reject parts of the Bible.

    I have a lot of time for this point of view. As someone like William Lane Craig is keen to point out, at worst you are only sacrificing biblical inerrancy when rejecting the God of the OT. It is not necessary to reject the whole or Christianity or Theism based on objections to OT atrocities.

  6. Bravus says:

    Thanks for the pointer in the direction of the euthyphro dilemma, John: fascinating stuff and helpful for extending my thinking. Here’s the Wikipedia discussion for others to check out:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma If we all read that it’ll be a lot easier to have a clear and sensible discussion.

  7. John Q says:

    I take it David that on your reading of Post Modernism much of scientific truth is not effected by this world view as individual facts are not a grand narrative.

    However would you accept that something like universal Darwinism or naturalism is a grand narrative?

  8. Bravus says:

    Yeah, strong forms of naturalism/scientism/materialism/determinism – what the preacher you linked called ‘secular modernism’ – are definitely grand narratives.

    But science, properly understood, is not like that…

  9. John Q says:

    At the risk of pushing the friendship (LOL) would you put Theistic evolution and Darwinian evolution into the grand narrative category in contrast to the general scientific concept of evolution?

  10. Bravus says:

    Well, no-one really subscribes to pure Darwinian evolution any more anyway: if it ever was a grand narrative it’s as defunct as worship of Zeus. I guess unless you’re using ‘Darwinian evolution’ as shorthand for ‘visible speciation’ or ‘macroevolution’ and ‘the general scientific concept of evolution’ as shorthand for ‘microevolution’? I’m never quite sure exactly home people are using particular terms in these debates, so it’s always better to ask.

    I think I really answered this question above, albeit implicitly. Evolution only becomes a grand narrative if it’s used to explain *everything*. And I rant here frequently about the nonsense ‘evolutionary psychology’ that tries to claim that our mating habits, for example, are evolutionarily driven.

    So I guess the answer on that part of the question is ‘Has evolution (of whatever brand name) ever been used as a grand narrative?’ ‘Yes’. But ‘Is the theory of evolution, when used properly, for its intended and appropriate purposes, a grand narrative?’ ‘No’.

    For a start (biological) evolution doesn’t explain how the universe got here, and got to be as it is. It doesn’t even explain abiogenesis. It certainly doesn’t explain art and science and literature and love. It’s a simple, narrow theory that explains how, once you have organisms that can reproduce, mutations and selection pressures, you can go from few species to many species. That’s it.

  11. Bravus says:

    And, like all scientific theories, thoughtful people hold that it is our best current conjecture that is supported by the evidence, not that it is (Big T) True. That in itself almost disqualifies it as a grand narrative.

  12. Bravus » Discussion is on-going… says:

    […] at this post from last week, so I thought I’d bump it to the top: http://www.bravus.com.au/blog/?p=1994 Comments […]

  13. John Q says:

    Right so my distinction between “Darwinian Evolution” and “Universal Darwinism” is that the former promotes the evolution of species through purely naturalistic processes and the later is something of an abuse of inductive logic which claims that Darwinian processes are the explanation of everything. Basically a wishful “defeater” for any teleological argument.
    I can see how some might put a big T on universal Darwinism but claim that Naturalistic evolution was merely a scientific fact.

    As something of an aside I’m becoming increasingly weary of the so called “New Atheists” but not for the expected reasons. I use to feel threatened by them but more recently have been enlightened to the fact that their claims are intellectually frivolous. My annoyance now is that the new Anti-religion rhetoric is jamming airwaves so to speak. Many religions desperately need to engage with Atheist/Agnostics and others in a meaningful and constructive way. With so much religious, and I will say it, vilification(to speak evil of) around currently it is very hard to identify yourself as a Christian without becoming embrolled in riduclious arguments. Defeating the objections is no longer an issue, however I find very little satisfaction in being the victor and find myself lamenting the missed opportunity for dialogue.

    As yet another aside, prompted by Hawkings latest attempt to sell books, I have recently realised just how ignorant scientists are of philosphy. Well that’s a bit too much of a generalisation but it does seem that some of our world leading physicists do not recognise it when they are crossing over from physics to metaphysics. Or, like Lawrence Krauss recently did, state that physics can answer metaphysical questions now.

  14. John Q says:

    Oh I should add that I don’t lay the blame for a lack of dialogue between religion and Atheists purely at the feet of the New Atheists. It’s just that it’s one more thing preventing moderates in each camp from surfacing. In fact if just makes me want to disavow everyone.

  15. John Q says:

    Departing from post modernism and returning to objective morality.
    I found both the question and answer in the following link to be fascinating.

    http://shar.es/05QZg

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