Saturday, August 21, 2004

Postmodernism and Experience

A comment within Marcus Borg's article has been cause for some reflection over the last couple of days;

We live on the boundary of post-modernity. By this I mean we live on the frontier-land of a new age, a new period of cultural history that is dawning. We don't know what to call it yet, so we simply call it post-modernity, meaning it's what comes next. And post-modernity is marked by a number of things. I will mention only three that are of importance for our theme.

First, a realization that modernity itself is a relative historical construction: that someday the Newtonian world-view, and that material image of reality, will seem as quaint as the Ptolemaic world-view does to us, as it already does amongst theoretical physicists, that reality undermines modernity's skepticism about God.

Secondly, post-modernity is marked by the turn to experience. In a time when traditional teachings have become suspect, we are learning to trust that which can be known in our own experience, and hence, for example, that remarkable resurgence of interest in spirituality that I mentioned in my introduction. Spirituality, as I said, is the experiential side of religion.

And thirdly, post-modernity is marked by the movement beyond fact-fundamentalism, to the realization that stories can be true without being factually true. This movement is reflected in contemporary theology's emphasis on metaphorical theology. To say the obvious (but it has so often been lost during the period of modernity) metaphors can be profoundly true, even if they aren't literally or factually true.
My initial reaction was to have some reservations regarding Borg's apparent support of the priority of experience in regards to the spiritual life. I've always considered experience to be a subset of reason; experience by itself is of little value, simply a bombardment of stimuli. It is the translation of the experience, through reason informed by tradition, that the experience acquires meaning and value. To raise experience to a higher level of authority than reason makes me nervous. Without a component of reflective reasoning included, experience can lead to a mindset of "anything goes."

I came to realize that to understand what Borg might be saying required me to take a step back, and attempt to see this brief comment in context. This requires grappling with the specific notions he is attempting to carry into the discussion with the term "post-modern."

If I could effectively define "post-modern," most likely I wouldn't be sitting in a basement in South Jersey; I'd be on the lecture circuit or at a book signing event. But then again, maybe not, as some of the premises of post-modernism suggests that any attempt to enclose a concept in absolute terms is evidence that the perspective is clearly modernist, and has missed the whole point.

That's rather liberating, isn't it? It means that I can say at the outset that any attempt to define post-modern will be a relative truth for me at this time, in this moment, and nothing more.

As I understand it today (tomorrow I may change my mind), postmodernism is an attempt to cast a critical eye on some of the assumptions of the Western mind since the Enlightenment. Science and the quest for knowledge will not necessarily lead us to absolute truths. Knowledge of reality must constantly be tested and revised, as it is more fluid than static. Reality is not solid. It is constantly in motion, more of an unfolding process instead of a set of passive principles. The model of the mechanical clock to describe reality has been replaced with that of a flowing river.

Our role in this reality is also not passive. To some degree, we form our own reality. As we transform the outer world, we find ourselves also transformed by our engagement with this world. So much for the idea of the human as the "objective observer."

Human knowledge becomes primarily the social practices of a particular community, with no promise that such knowledge is connected with some independent ideal. It is a matter of interpretation, and usually interpretation is rooted in linguistics, with the symbols, and their multiple and sometimes contradictory meaning, becoming limitations. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, language becomes a cage. No interpretation of a text can be considered to have uncovered its "true" meaning.

In suspecting the ideas born of the enlightenment, most of the existing literary and philosophical traditions become open to criticism, often seen as being shaped by a male, white, European elite, and all the baggage such a perspective brings with it. This allows old ideas, once discarded as being of no value to human progress marching towards the discovery of absolute truth, to be reconsidered, and sometimes even integrated into a belief system that is always fluid, pragmatic and temporary; no absolutes, just a set of temporary assumptions that may allow us to dance near Truth. In literature, the grand narrative is rejected and replaced by a preference for many-faceted little narratives. In art, the portrait is replaced with the collage.

The good news is that in rejecting the premise that the facts derived from empiricism are the only steps allowed in our attempt to dance near truth, room has been made for the imagination to be seen as having a few new twists to teach us. The assumption that order is good and chaos is bad has been challenged, as creativity often springs from chaos, while order has a tendency to stifle the spirit. So, while absolutes and dogmas are looked upon with suspicion, we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in spirituality and mysticism.

The bad news is that this suspicion of order carries with it a leaning towards anarchy with no firm foundation on which to stand to keep humanity from falling into hedonism and self-destruction; or so it seems to me.

In the end, it appears I agree with Borg, that we do stand at the beginning of a new era, in which experience; our engagement with reality, will play a larger role. I'm not convinced that such a perspective will endure, however, without the inclusion of a component of reflective reasoning. Without some kind of foundation, I don't see how it can endure. And if it does try to build such a foundation; if it develops its own grand narrative, it will fall victim to its own criticisms.


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