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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Modern and the Postmodern

Figure 1 Frank Gehry's Postmodern Architecture challenges traditional aesthetics and Modernist assumptions such as material use, construction technique, the truth of sense perception and the rationality of the Golden Mean and the straight line.
In a 2008 blog master rant, Eugene Reimer, the linguist sensei of Menno Plautdietsch, turned his attention to the (mis)use of the terms Modern and Postmodern.
    Reimer’s rant is entirely correct, and entirely wrong.  Indeed, Modernity is an adjective meaning “relating to the present-day or the most recently developed [artifact, fashion, trend or idea]” (Reimer).  I know that Reimer very much understands the terms and principles of Postmodernism, so I am not trying to engage his comments per se, so much as to engage those who are similarly uncomfortable with the concept of PoMo.  I myself have often stated similar nostalgic longing for the time when definitions were fixed and one could depend on them to hold their meaning and the world made perfect sense and … 
    Reimer treats Modernity and Postmodernity as a choice – “If you value… resist”.  To resist is to make a choice.  To have a choice to make means that while your choice is valid or legitimate, it no longer reflects a given reality that must be examined and accepted.  Reimer also assumes a scale whose gauge and boundaries are fixed and known, a fixed, unchanging definition -- presumably, we "progress" in relation to a set goal.  In many ways, the debate between Modernism and Postmodernism depends on which of those two terms one focuses on -- the fixed scale or the adjective of sliding which modifies an active verb.  Is the goal to conform to a known, fixed end or to grow and evolve in our rational, experiential and spiritual understandings towards a goal that is essentially experiential yet rationally unknowable?
    A number of persons have attacked Postmodernity, not based on definitions, nostalgia or even philosophical disagreement, but merely in the same emotional reactive sense that politicians once tapped to denounce Marxism and practical science.  Traditional and religious cultures should have no reason to fear Postmodernity.  In fact, Postmodernity is struggling to address many of the same issues from similar perspectives as did the earliest Anabaptists.  I have often postulated that in their refusal to be defined by others and to live as an anti-Modern anachronism, traditional Anabaptists may have been the first Postmodernists.
    It is in the second part of Reimer's definition that worlds begin to diverge.  Modernity does incorporate or seem to assume a Germanic, Hegelian notion of time, progress, advancement, evolution … most often along a linear sliding-scale of progress that builds the future on the past.  This is the most common understanding of culture and Modernity to which most of us appeal.  It is seemingly the default setting in much of North American culture. 
    Outside of the common North American social culture, the concept of Modernity itself has come into question.  In the larger world, anti-colonialism rose up to challenge the Modern assumptions of Empire and the progress or even desirability of Western Civilization, in some cases, even Western Christianity (including its Roman Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical forms).  As minorities and those outside the white privileged patriarchy  demanded empowerment, previously dominant traditional perspectives were increasing challenged in the schools, homes and parliaments of the West.  Much of this empowerment philosophy challenged previous perceptions with competing perspectives effectively demonstrating that even if the by now "traditional" Modern European male perspective was in fact true, it might be true for only a small, select few – and even that truth might be questioned in terms of justice, universality and knowability. 
    In his lecture on Jean Baudrillard, Dr. Robert Miller actually agrees with Reimer.  He states that many of the so-called Postmodern theorists are not clearly Postmodern.  Critiquing Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, Miller states that, “… insofar as they privilege empirical methods or arguments based on critical rational analysis, thereby arriving [at] what they propose as this or that truth – such as a truth of genealogy and history (Foucault), or a truth about the postmodern condition or justice (Lyotard), or a truth about language and deconstruction (Derrida) – are still to that extend entangled in the modern,” (Miller, p 1).
    These are heavy guns.  Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard are the Big Three, the Holy Trinity of Postmodern theory.  Miller goes on to insist that in order to be Postmodern, one really must be post-Reason, or at least not limited to the rigid hierarchy Reason wraps around knowledge, know-ability and the universe.  Miller commends other sources of knowledge to the Postmodern individual such as emotions, feelings, imagination, aesthetics, and perhaps even intuition (Miller, p 1).  Correctly stated in Miller's recommendation, even Deconstructionism and Systemic or Anti-systemic paradigms could more accurately be referred to as Modern, or even better, late Modern rather than Postmodern.
    From the Anabaptist or Evangelical vantage, Modernism has thus become quite the crowded concept, including such disparate and often antithetical paradigms such as Modernism in Religion, Fundamentalism, Marxism, Capitalism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, Newtonian Science and String Theory
    I kind of like Dr. Miller’s approach – it seems very comfortably Hegelian.  In fact, one might suppose that Miller is adjusting the concept of Modernism ever-so-slightly away from the common Anglo-American understanding to that of the German, Hegelian, Marxist Dialectic.
     I, however, am more firmly attached to my Postmodernism, and wish to move beyond the Modern paradigm and its linear thinking demanding assimilation, uniformity and a firm belief in Modern technological progress (to this concept, I confidently, if less competently, add the Rationalist’s constraints of prophetic Biblical literalism.  Careful, I am not challenging the accuracy or inerrancy, or even literalism of the Bible, and generally am quite accepting of things such as world-wide floods and talking mules, I am just not as comfortable with elaborate "reasonable" constructions meant to interpret the hidden and difficult meaning of prophecy.  I kind of cop-out with the assumption that if God had meant it to be clear and easy, He would have made it so.  The rest of the Bible is actually quite clear and approachable intellectually.  So an over pre-occupation with various interpretations of Biblical prophecy are fun but possibly not always useful.  To claim to understand fully the mysteries of God seems too often to reflect ego not Truth.  I am just saying that one needs to be very careful with prophecy.  Prophecy is based on revelation and faith,  It is not a reasonable topic.).
        Miller brings in Baudrillard’s concept of Philosophical Seduction or the seduction of philosophy as a means to transcend rationality and to truly move beyond the Modern.  I am not a huge fan of Baudrillard myself.  I would probably counter with a less rational Gadameric dialogue similar to that which I believe best explains and predicts the oft irrational Anabaptist culture of the gemeinde, or a sort of Einstein-like philosophical relativity that while not discrediting or disproving the hard-core Reason of Newton’s Enlightenment physics, merely moves beyond them and accepts their limits.  For me, that is a good picture of my Postmodern approach. 
    I am totally happy and content to accept the social, physical, aesthetic and philosophical models of Modernity, just as I have often studied and still refer to pre-Modern Scholasticism.  However, I find that one also often needs to move beyond the cold calculating reason of Modernity, to appreciate its boundaries and strive for a more complete and universally applicable post-rational explanation beyond what we can understand, demonstrate and prove today.
    In this, I have firmly wedded my Postmodern philosophy to my Postmodern theology (no, I have not had ready access to either Postmodern Mennonite Theologians from the East nor to their works, so this is a relatively independent, homegrown approach to Postmodern personal bumblings that attempt to make sense of the Postmodern Anabaptist experience outside the American Mennonite canon while also turning to the Catholic, Jewish and European “ideological” faiths).  Most useful in this sense have been the original compiled writings of Menno Simons, Francis d’Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairveaux, and much more recently, John Haught, Pierre Teilhardt de Chardin, Jacques Ellul, and the former-Muslim thinker Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
    Importantly, where I am headed with my Postmodern understanding is a return to the inner light or inner spiritual promptings doctrine we once shared with the early Quakers and an ability to move beyond "context," rather seeking ways that my Anabaptist heritage might still prove relevant in my non- or ex-kolonie or "outside of the gemeinde" status.  Importantly, the question is no longer one of my conformity to a set of doctrines, traditions or beliefs but rather their conformity to my life experience.  Obviously, the issue is not one of preference – it is one of reality – with the disappearance of our culture – to whom would we conform, to whom might we hold ourselves accountable?  Like our earliest Anabaptist forebears, we are just now re-entering a phase where the Anabaptist heritage is no longer a given, it is no longer an ethnic reality, it is now an individual choice – but this is not necessarily bad.  It is in fact, neither good nor bad – it is the Postmodern challenge.  We might, as Reimer suggests, choose to relegate our mentality and our use of certain words to certain principles, but in as much as the greater world does or chooses to do otherwise, we are increasingly talking to ourselves.   We could choose, but would it be a practical choice that enables us to progress and communicate?

    Reimer's dilemma is that his definition of Modern implies a linear rate of progress which few continue to find realistic or even to be an acceptable goal.   From an Anabaptist perspective, the belief that we can identify and reasonably defend a single, certain, true perspective has only led to division, persecution and a weakening of the ethnic identity.  Even for the evangelical Mennonites, the shifting sands of understanding and identity have created an untenable and unnecessary philosophical conflict between traditional Anabaptism and Anglo-American Evangelicalism -- with the odd, ir-rational reality of desiring to leave the Anabaptist heritage to more closely conform to an American religious sensibility that is in turn now finding itself intrigued by their actually shared common faith and spiritual heritage and seemingly seeking greater dialogue with the tradition others are desiring to leave... see how this gets a bit confusing?  I once asked my ethnic Mennonite father who feels the Mennonites to be theologically in error, how far he felt he could go back and still continue to believe he shared a common faith with those forebears who were "increasingly in error" the further back one goes.  Was his father "Christian" enough?  His great-grandfather?  How can this be "reasonably" resolved?
    Frustratingly, while I feel Postmodernism to more accurately reflect my life experience and to provide the best opportunity to identify and realize a "truer" more fulfilling faith and cultural experience for the future, the diverse tolerance of the Postmodern perspective is not (perhaps cannot) be similarly tolerated by those who prefer to remain in a Modern world perspective -- for the Modernist, the world remains rational and within that rationality, there is usually understood to be room for only one truth.  For the Modernist, diversity is not only incorrect, it is in error and seemingly often perceived to therefore be intolerable. Where a Postmodernist might easily accommodate a Modernist, it is more difficult to see how a Modernist could reciprocate without responding to the diversity challenge that gave birth to PoMo in the first place.

    At the end of the day, the greatest difference could be not in diversity versus singular truth, tradition versus the new or in any other dichotomous truth differentiation.  It is not a truth versus error dilemma.  Rather, the difference between PoMo and Modernism seems best described as that between process and destination.  Postmodernity is a process for determining and internalizing truth into ourselves, our world and our experience.  As a process, PoMo is not threatened by Haught's ever receding horizon.  Truth is defined by the process and is able to be shaped and discovered eternally.  On the other hand, Modernism seems defined by the end result -- this is the Truth -- how do we get from here to there?  A Modernist scientist is stuck proving or refuting hypothesis.  PoMo is about aggregating and incorporating an ever increasing set of observations, perspective and experiences.

    At the end of the day, Postmodernism creates room for Anabaptists from Munster, Amsterdam, Danzig, Jansen or Lancaster in the same tradition -- within the same dialogue.  My great grandparents do not have to be in error if their lives and beliefs differ my my own.  Most importantly, my Postmodern world is big enough for the American Amish, the Mexican Mennonites, the assimilated ethnic evangelical Mennonites and the non-Mennonites to all co-exist and each contribute a distinct experience into a greater dialogue that is seen to actually become increasingly complete and truthful with the more diversity it is able to contain.  We are able to choose to get along because Truth is the process, it is not a fixed objective we can only hope to stumble upon and identify in a privileged relation that we can never hope to rationally justify anyway.  In this sense, Postmodernism is not only more hopeful, by eschewing rational certainty, it is the most rational of the two competing contemporary philosophical positions.

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