Culture,  Worldview

What We Swim In

The aim of this post is cultural awareness. Not merely an awareness of what is happening in culture, what culture produces and an awareness of one’s own reactions, but an awareness of assumptions, “underpinnings” as I will call them.

To merely observe a culture and then say what you see is not enough and often leads to oversimplification. As a recent writer for the Huffington Post wrote:

As a “Millennial,” perhaps one of the most annoyingly over used classifications in modern lexicon, we are Occupy Wall Streeters and aspiring investment bankers. We consume fast food with frightening regularity yet also create Pinterest-worthy organic meals. We dress in $300 jeans or shop at thrift shops, or both. Some of us are addicted to social media while others are deleting their Facebook accounts. We are procrastinators and overachievers, politically active and apathetic, and watch both the best and worst television in generations. We are inspired professionally by some combination of money, achievement, advancement, office culture, perks, level of involvement, autonomy, helping others, bettering the world, or perhaps we aren’t inspired at all. 

Some of us worked hard and have great jobs; others did not and are paying the price. A lot of more of us are caught somewhere in between, underemployed and unhappy because the golden ticket promise of a college degree told to us by the very parents, professors, and professionals now using our generation as a punchline never came true. We are in a transition between adolescence and adulthood, some of us being dragged kicking and screaming, some of us wanting to grow but unable to because of situations beyond our control, some of us handling it smoothly, and most of us identify with a different category based on the day or the hour. 

…If you’re reading this and want to understand how younger people think or feel, ask. Just do us a favor and ask more than one… and don’t write a column about your experiences on Forbes or anywhere else and act as if the individual or individuals you surveyed or spoke with reflect the interests and motivations of an entire generation.

This post asks: what is going on underneath the surface? What are the unsaid assumptions that govern cultural choices? The Book I will be using is Postmodernism 101 by Heath White.

Becoming culturally aware. Culture is the label we use to describe the dominant attitudes, institutions and practices in a society. It is what we swim in. And like a fish, we can often take the water for granted. What we need to do is examine the water. And to understand the water we need to understand the ideas of culture. Ideas, as Heath White puts it, “drive culture.”

In order to see this just spend a minute asking yourself about the church. What ideas drive its culture? How it is decorated? What kind of architecture is the building reflective of? How long does the pastor preach? From whence does he preach? How important is the Lord’s Supper? What do people wear to attend? What music is played (and what music is not played)? What instruments are used? How much money is devoted to missions? How much value is placed on Sunday School? What kind of curriculum is used?

Perhaps you might also like to consider the Amish. What might the answers reveal about the difference of culture. Perhaps you have visited another church that is very different to the one you attend. You might also like to ask yourself if any of the cultures you have thought about are mandated by scripture. Are there any?

Now consider what you know about youth culture. What do you see? What underlies the cultural artifacts of your teenage children? Do you think there is anything wrong with being somewhat culturally conditioned? Why or why not?

The culture we “swim in” is multifaceted, but one strand has been particularly strong in recent years – postmodernism. “Postmodernism is not a theory or a creed: it is more like an attitude or a way of looking at things. It didn’t drop out of the sky–it showed up at this juncture in history, in Western culture, for specific reasons that have to do with the history of the West. Nor is it, as it is sometimes caricatured, an incoherent jumble–it has weaknesses but also strengths as a way of looking at the world. Nor is it incomprehensibly profound, out of reach of the ordinary layperson. It is a view of the world that, like most other views of the world, requires some effort and sympathy to understand.”

White says that, though there are some complexities to postmodernism, we can readily grasp a few of the key ideas behind it, and, consequently, behind contemporary culture.

Before we think about postmodernism, we should get a rough idea of premodernism and modernism. Premodernism valued authority. There was societal hierarchy, work was done for feudal lords, tything was compulsory and everyone was Christian (except Jews who were “tolerated” at best). This meant that excommunication was exclusion from society. Education was about retrieving the past (old=right), laypeople were discouraged from reading the Bible (and from providing interpretation of it) and the earth and its inhabitants were the center of the universe.

Modernism hailed a collapse of the pre-modern view precipitated by the fall of the Aristotelian view of the earth at the center of the universe. This revolution ushered in an era of doubt. Descartes, the father of modernism, was disquieted by the fact that much of his youth was spent learning things that were now uncertain at best and false at worst. He wrote:

“Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.”

The foundation that Descartes sought became the goal of the modern project and the foundation was found in human reason and in the apparent uniformity of the laws of nature. Faith in the power of Human reason became the standard. Reason was available to all people: “In the modern mind-set, every person is endowed with reason… Reason might be stunted by lack of educations, darkened by superstition, or cowed by the weight of tradition. But it is there all the same, and one needs only the courage to use it.”

Democracy rose and governments were no longer run by kings with divine rights, but by governments chosen by the people. Laws were used to reflect an underlying assumption – that we could organise things to get the most good and happiness for the most people. Some governments were enormous bureaucracies set up to do just that – socialism is such an idea.

Moderns possessed great faith in progress. If human reason is capable of figuring things out then things will get better if we are educated better, have better science, better theology, and better government. Consequently, life for everyone should improve.

Moderns were also optimistic about agreement. If we have better reasoning skills and we can come to the truth through human reason then we should all be more in agreement than before. The world, under the governing of reason, should be a more peaceful place, certainly than the previous years of religious war. There could, one day, be a one-world-government based on human reason. Western cultures, because they were advanced in science and reason, would lead the way, making a better world for everyone.

Postmoderns have lost their faith: “Pre-moderns placed their trust in authority. Moderns lost their confidence in authority and placed it in human reason instead. Postmoderns kept the modern distrust in authority but lost their trust in reason and have found nothing to replace it. This is the crux of postmodern thought.”

Some things–technological advancement–have panned out well, but it is the failure of the modern project in various other aspects of life that have dampened the postmodern spirit: Progress on moral and humanitarian fronts has been lacking. Peace has been absent in the past century or so. Religion is still very important to people and has not gone away. Communism (and every other kind of -ism) has failed to deliver and caused untold suffering when it was supposed to do just the opposite. Democracy and free markets have led merely to inequality not more prosperity. Postmoderns often see modernism as the reason for failure:

“Modernism, with its emphasis on reason, insists on resolving and eliminating the differences between people. But this leads, eventually, to co-ersion, oppression, domination, cruelty, and abuse of one form or another. Anyone who believes in One True Culture (a world as one)–one right way of doing things–is, knowingly or not, a closet tyrant.”

The reaction of postmoderns to such a failure can either be optimistic or pessimistic. Optimistic postmoderns say that just because there is no objective way to resolve problems, no supreme authority (at least no way for everyone to agree on what authority) there is still the ability to create agreement and live at peace. We can all get along if we create enough good feeling even if that is not based on any reality (human nature, laws of God, rational system of thought etc). Pessimistic postmoderns say that there is no way to come to any agreement and that we must live in the tension. Having no “one way” to live is okay and inevitable. We make the best of it.

White offers a concise test to work out which camp you might belong to. Of the three statements below, which ones do you tend to agree with and which one would you reject? You cannot believe all three. You may believe two of three.

  1. Anything that’s true and knowable is something people should be able to figure out and come to a consensus on. 
  2. There is no present consensus, and no foreseeable future consensus, on the big questions of human life–what the universe is fundamentally like, and how we should live in it. 
  3. The big questions of human life have answers that are true and knowable.

Pre-moderns reject #1. They are not democratically minded and rely on authority to determine what is right (an expert, for example). Moderns reject #2. Although there might presently be disagreement, it will be possible to agree more and more as we progress. Postmoderns reject #3. Although we may be able to come to some consensus, it is not because we know anything; it is because we have learned to be really kind to one another. However, any definitive answer is not possible to be known even if there is a definitive answer.

Postmoderns respond to such skepticism in different ways. Nihilism is the view that there is no possible way to answer life’s questions because there is no right answer. Relativism – truth varies from person to person (radical relativism) or from culture to culture (cultural relativism). Constructivism – truth is made or constructed rather than discovered. Different people and culture construct their own truth so don’t agree. Pragmatism – truth is whatever gets us through life. truth is what gets you to a destination and so what is true is what works.

Because Postmodernism is made up of multiple responses to the perceived collapse of modernism it is hard to put one’s finger on its exact nature. However, there are several postmodern themes that are fairly easy to understand. I have chosen a few of White’s observations:

Truth, Morality and Power: “The authority to determine what counts as true is also the power to determine who counts as important.”

Postmoderns are sensitive to moral power bases. They are all too aware of power being abused by Nazis, Christian crusaders, racism, homophobia etc. The reason, they think, that power is abused is that the people who abuse it believe in a moral absolute:

“Any moral authority is likely to have the same effect: all ways of saying who counts and who doesn’t, who’s wrong and who’s right, who’s in and who’s out, are going to discriminate against someone, namely the non-counting, in-the-wrong, outside the pale folks. The only solution is to refuse to grant anyone moral authority: no one is to have the power to say how everyone should live. This amounts to denying the possibility of absolute truth about the big questions.”

An Example: “Consider a middle school student who gets into a scuffle in the hallway. He’s hauled to the principal’s office. The student claims that he was just defending himself. The principal believes him, since she knows that he has been chronically bullied and that the other student in the scuffle is a known troublemaker. On the other hand, there is a school rule against any kind of fighting, and the standard punishment is suspension.”

Three inadequate responses: Wooden application of the rules: fighting = punishment. Does not take into account the particulars of the situation. Paralysis – no decision given the ambiguity of the situation. Leads to chaos. Arbitrariness – a decision taken to preserve school order, but with the assumption that there is no “right” way to respond.

There appears to be two outcomes–one positive and one negative–to this line of thinking. Positively, we might say that the humility of the principle in the face of a transcendent moral truth. Life is messy and complicated and we should recognize this and do our best. Negatively, what counts for the school principal can count for a criminal in court, a war criminal at the Hague, a nation harboring terrorists who are going nuclear. If there is no way to know the answer to any of these questions then no one could have the authority to do anything about them.

There are two assumptions at play in this scenario. First, knowledge: The assumption is that if there were universal, absolute rules about how to live we would have found them by now, We haven’t so there aren’t any! Second, harm: The surest way to hurt people is to insist on a universal, absolute moral rule for living and then to use power to enforce it.

Consider the issue of Homosexuality. Conservative Christian ideas about Homosexuality have become difficult to maintain in our culture. Probably for the reasons listed above. The logical pattern that postmoderns see happening is as follows: Conservative Christians believe: “homosexual sex is wrong, a sin.” Conservative Christians will stop listening to, being in relationships with gays and lesbians and will devalue them (or at least treat them in a way that appears to demonstrate that they are less valuable). Gay people will be harmed by those in power (Conservative Christians). Therefore, we should not accept the moral absolute, “homosexuality is a sin” or, at least, treat it as a radically relative truth: “homosexuality is wrong, for me” or as a cultural truth: “homosexuality is wrong for us conservative Christians.

The Postmodern Socially Constructed Self. The pre-modern view of self was of a static universally unchanging “human nature.” To act well is to act according to your nature. The modern view of self was of an autonomous, self-sufficient, rational agent. To act well is to act rationally.

The postmodern view is of a self of no intrinsic nature, but socially constructed. To be socially constructed means “the self is put together, and made what it is, by social forces larger than any single individual.” This is obvious when it comes to fashion (music, clothes, humor etc), but postmoderns think that more fundamental things are also social constructions: political opinions, ethical convictions, religious commitments, personality. Cultural shapers/constructors include: parents, friends, the public mood, institutions, economic structure and language.

The results of such an idea can be seen in identity movements. If our “selves” are constructs then we are free to determine our own destinies. We can make a change to our identities in society. Identity politics is a form of such an agenda – we can gather those of a particular identity and overturn power structures in society.

The “disappearing self.” If our identities are constructs then there is no “true, core self”. Everything we desire, feel, know, think, is the result of forces outside ourselves:

“The postmodern envisions a human being neither as an image of God nor as a center of consciousness, will thought and choice. The postmodern picture of the self is more like a jumbled, flickering movie collage, a screen on which society projects all kinds of changing, ultimately meaningless images. Some have called postmodernism’s concept the “disappearing self.” You can see why: if others determine everything you are, what’s really left of you?”

The development of a “self” is related, very practically to the Christian Faith. The church is tasked with the formation of self. The church is the primary shaper of self in the Christian context through discipleship: “The church is part of God’s plan for every Christian, that Christian selves are a work in progress that cannot be left to the culture at last, that discipleship is not [only] an option for the spiritual elite but God’s command for everyone. The church, then, is God’s answer to the question of social construction.” Discipleship shapes the self by shaping moral behavior, theological foundations, language and history

Knowledge and Interpretation. Premodern knowledge was pursued for the purpose of the love of God. Theology was the “queen of the sciences.” Knowledge was part of a whole life whose ultimate aim is relationship with God and others. Premodern knowledge was pursued within the constraints of authority. The church constrained the directions the pursuit of knowledge could take. This issue of authority was the issue at the center of the reformation.

Modern knowledge was initially was for man’s welfare and for his progress, but became more about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Theology became one of many fields of study. Genuine knowledge no longer depended on a particular authority, but on the observations and intellect of individuals.

Postmoderns recognized the inability of modernity to come to agreement on what the correct interpretation of reality is. Consequently, postmoderns see knowledge and interpretations synonymously. It is all interpretation. Learning is considered to be a matter of constructing interpretations, or narratives/stories, that make sense of experience. This could apply to history, science and even math. We tell competing stories, narratives, of what makes sense of experience, but have no objective way to know which interpretation is objectively correct. There is no way to be sure. Instead, as it appears to the postmodern, the group with the most power imposes their interpretation on others.

Consider the postmodern view of Scripture. Premoderns sought spiritual maturity, a deeper understanding of scripture. Those considered more mature were tasked with providing authoritative interpretations of the Bible. Moderns saw that such authorities were deeply divided over the correct interpretation and sought to interpret it for themselves using the standards of reason and observation.

However, postmoderns rejected the goal of both the premodern and the modern – there is no one right way to interpret scripture. There are multiple ways to interpret scripture. Nearly every interpretation can be justified: “It’s just a matter of interpretation.” “It’s interpretation all the way down.” Other questions are more relevant, such as, does this interpretation lead to the harming of others? Is this interpretation liberating? Does this interpretation advance the cause of justice? Multiple interpretations helps to restrict the dominance of one view or another.

Postmoderns recognize the inability of human beings to come to the text without presuppositions. We all read the Bible in a cultural context and interpret it, to some extent, according to our own experiences. However, this leads to the question as to whether the bible can be clear on anything. The pre-modern view is that deep study rewards us with clear interpretation. Even though there was division, there is yet much to agree on. Moreover, premoderns accepted the authority of scripture over and above the power of human reason.

White’s themes are useful in how we think about contemporary culture. These ideas appear in different ways, but share some of the basic commitments White outlines. The question that faces us is: how do we Christians respond to postmodernism as it is found today? More on that in later posts. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.