Friday, November 20, 2009

Brian McLaren on Postmodernity and Truth

Great Q&A here where Brian responds to a question about postmodernity. There is a perception around many conservative evangelical circles that suggests postmodernity is synonymous with denying truth (or absolute truth, or moral absolutes, all essentially saying the same thing). Of course that is untrue. Brian gives a great response.

...I won't try to speak for "postmodernism," but let me speak for myself.

Of course I believe that some things are morally good and others are morally evil. Of course!

But I do not believe that Christian fundamentalism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or secular fundamentalism, etc., etc.) has a superior record of identifying what is moral and what isn't moral in contested situations. For example, in my lifetime Christian fundamentalists have been among the last to release racism, sexism, a careless attitude toward the environment, a careless attitude toward the rights of Palestinians, a fear of science, and a fusion between the gospel and American nationalism.
Go back farther in history, and there were a majority of Bible-believing Christians in the South who were pro-slavery - and held that as an "absolute truth" or "absolute moral principle" that they could quote chapter and verse to defend. (I'll explore this in some detail in my upcoming book.)

Go back still farther, and our Christian ancestors refused to believe Copernicus and Galileo - again, based on their conception of moral absolutes based on their readings of the Bible. The same was true regarding the age of the earth, Darwin, etc.
So here's my concern: If a person or group pushes the "we've got moral absolutes absolutely figured out" button too fast or too often, they run an increased risk of behaving in immoral ways, and they are the last to know it because of their excessive self-confidence. If conservative Christians would acknowledge this pattern at work in their own history more openly, and if they would show how they have taken corrective action to avoid similar patterns of misjudgment in the future, a lot of us would feel more confident in their moral judgment.

He sums it uo thusly:

So - perhaps we can put this question to rest for good: the issue isn't morality - with some "fer it" and others "agin it." We're all for morality, as we understand it. The issue is two-fold. Postmodern-leaning folks are concerned whether this or that preacher's claims to have "absolute certainty" about this or that moral viewpoint of his are "absolutely justified," and whether his confidence will increase the chances of behaving immorally. Modern-leaning folks are concerned whether leaving the door open to the possibility that "we" have been or are wrong will lead to moral collapse. If you let an absolutist system go, there will be nothing left, they fear.

I'd say there are dangers on both sides - the danger of excessive moral confidence on the one side and the danger of insufficient moral confidence on the other. I'm seeking a proper confidence ... one that is aware of both dangers on both sides.
In my view, only God has absolute moral knowledge. Human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to misinterpret God, all the while claiming to speak for God on morality, which (sadly) often degenerates into speaking as if they were God... (emphasis mine)

Beautiful point.

I consider myself a postmodern person. I also feel like no ideology, worldview, belief system, whatever, should be swallowed wholly or uncritically. Modernity has some great elements and some ugly elements. Postmodernity has some great elements and some ugly elements. The same is true for Buddhism, Communism, Calvinism, the Emergent Church, Catholicism, whatever. Categorizing is helpful for some things, but often it divides and excludes. May we keep this in mind wherever we encounter ideas: look for the truth, that we might embrace it, and leave the rest.

PS I had knee surgery today and will be out of work for about 10 days. Since I won't be able to move much, I may actually blog quite a bit in these next weeks. Stay tuned! It would be fun to converse.

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