Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Difference Between Christ and a Pharisee

Not one of us can escape the impending doom of temptation. Martin Buber writes in I and Thou: "Looking away from the world is no help toward God; staring at the world is no help either; but whoever beholds the world in him stands in his presence" (third part, section three). Could not the same be said about temptation: that you neither escape it by seclusion nor by social integration?

It is all too easy to think of Christ as diametrically opposed to the Pharisee; it is true, after all. But it is not so simple. Neither Christ nor the Pharisee were beyond temptation, though they experienced the phenomenon in different ways. Christ was tempted in the desert while the Pharisee was tempted in the temples and in the streets. The trickery of Satan is more profound than egocentric religious display, plumbing to the depths of individual psychology.

In Catholic theology, the story of Mary and Martha is used as a lesson in personality: Mary is the contemplative and Martha is the active. In contemporary terms, I should like to think that this translates quite well to introvert and extrovert. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, neither is beyond the scope of temptation, and the ego in particular. A contemplative is prone to being egocentric about their detachment from worldly activities, while an active is disposed to an ego based upon good efforts. The former can slump into quietism and the latter can easily become their own pseudo-savior, in which they obsess over the vanities of public image. How easily the fruit of the Spirit begins to rot!

Alas, most of us remain stuck at the level of the law - and this is not true only of the Christian. In a secular vision of something abstract like social justice, the ethics can easily be bogged down by cold logic and rules, becoming a sociological equivalent to the Law of Gravity. For instance: people should be provided certain things because they deserve those things. And so, we dream of and construct laws to provide people with those things, usually relying on some form of government to achieve that end. The law is in our politics and our morals. This is quite different from pursuing charity as an end in itself.

There is nothing wrong with rules; Christ came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). However, Christ also says: "First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean" (Matthew 23:26). Both inward and outward transformation are near impossible in the world today. The more dogmatic streams of psychiatry and theology equate solitude and inwardness with symptoms of depression and other mental maladies. Meanwhile, we hear more about "networking" than friendship, in which meaningful personal encounters become passé while social possessions are in vogue.

What is the difference between Christ and a Pharisee? The real difference, it seems to me, by Christ's own admission, is this perfection of inward transformation which - by virtue of its own perfection - goes beyond itself and reaches the outside. In Platonic terms, it is the realization of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness on the planes of introversion and extroversion alike.

Monday, August 12, 2019


A tree of chaos bids me shade
At its center marks the switchblade
Pierced by heartwood and wormwood dark
Grieving watchman, lord of the park
whose eyes bourgeois folly had made

Anger seeps low into the ground
Glory's fringe, now lost to the round
Heaven swallowed up by the mound
Art of death

Find the question lost to the din
and see Jerusalem within
Set aflame the sins of your youth
All along, these things were untrue
Zero yourself and then begin
Art of life

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Artworks of Interest, Part 4

Information unavailable
Cristo Crucificado by Diego Velázquez

Francis leading the wolf to Gubbio
by Henry Justice Ford
Autumn Landscape by Sesshū Tōyō

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Great Chain of Linking, Part 13

EDIT: It has recently occurred to me that I haven't been enabling links to open in a new window. I have just edited this post to conform to such a convenience and will be more intent about doing so in the future. My apologies if I, in any way, shape, or form, contributed to wearing out the right clicker on your mouse.

Why I Reject Indigenous Land Acknowledgments - "What is the point of reciting them if you aren't doing anything material to help the Indigenous population?"

Ice cream truck owner charges influencers double - This makes me happier than it probably should.

Jordan Peterson: Hookup Culture & Consent - College party culture brims with contradictions.

Saudade - "...a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves." There is no direct English translation for this Portuguese word.

Masculinity - A fascinating and humorous episode from the City of Man podcast. See show notes and other info here.

Is Suffering Part of God's Secret Plan? - I have been reconsidering my philosophy on the problem of evil lately.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

What if "Postmodernism" isn't actually Postmodernism?

It's time to hop aboard the Magic School Bus, folks. In this entry I will attempt to do the seemingly impossible: clearly explain some of the basics of postmodernism, particularly, in a fair and non-partisan fashion. Because, let's face it, postmodernism is often times ridiculed. And, if you've attempted to learn about it, it's notoriously difficult content (just peruse the article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and you'll quickly see what I mean). If you've ever had the pleasure of discussing postmodernism, you've likely heard things along the lines of: "postmodernists don't believe in absolute truth," or "saying all truth is relative is actually an absolute claim and therefore defeats itself," etc. Let's call this "the general impression;" what I'm wondering here: does this fairly account for postmodernism? It goes without saying that I am no expert, but, to quote the Beatles, "I get by with a little help from my friends." On my desk are a stack of books which offer some [potential] insight into postmodernism. And with that, let's dive in.

The general impression
Douglas Wilson, in his book European Brain Snakes, writes, "This is an attack on postmodernists within the evangelical camp, those who are now saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that there are no metanarratives, not even those revealed by God, and so on" (p. 13).

Here is the definition of "postmodernism" included in the glossary of Lee McIntyre's book Post-Truth: "Any of a set of beliefs associated with a movement in art, architecture, music, and literature that tend to discount the idea of objective truth and a politically neutral frame of evaluation" (p. 174).

Alister McGrath, while sorting out the theological implications of postmodernism, writes the following:
Postmodernism is generally taken to be something of a cultural sensibility without absolutes, fixed certainties, or foundations, which takes delight in pluralism and divergence, and which aims to think through the "situatedness" of all human thought ... Postmodernism is, by its very nature, hostile to the notion of "systematization," or any claims to have discerned "meaning" ... Language does not refer to anything, and truth does not correspond to anything (Historical Theology, pp. 245-246).
Canadian sociologist Tami M. Bereska writes in Deviance, Conformity, and Social Control in Canada:
Postmodern theories are broadly based on the notion of rejection - rejection of overarching theories of society (such as structural functionalism or symbolic interactionism), rejection of categories (e.g., "man," "black," "Christian"), and rejection of the possibility of "truth" (p. 87).
Additionally, British sociologist Steve Bruce wryly remarks: "If it is not possible to distinguish truth from error, why do postmodernists argue with those who do not share their view?" (Sociology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 98).

What all of these quotations suggest is that postmodernism is antagonistic toward objectivity, absolutes, or truth in general. It does not matter if you ask a conservative Presbyterian pastor, a secular liberal philosopher, an Anglican theologian, a feminist sociologist, or a sociologist of religion - the descriptions are similar across the board. The information I have included thus far could be used to support the general impression of postmodernism that is often met with disdain. But perhaps this does not account for the whole story? At this point it is only appropriate to turn to some of postmodernism's intricacies which go beyond the surface level that is all-too-familiar.

Going beyond the general impression
So where exactly did the idea come from that postmodernists do not believe in absolute truth of any sort? I am inclined to trace this to Jean-François Lyotard, who wrote in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge: "I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives" (cited in James Farganis' Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, p. 368). Indeed, the term "postmodern" entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979 when Lyotard published this text. Intuitively, a metanarrative sounds like a synonym for any general statement, and therefore absolute truth, but when defining it more carefully it is not actually that simple.

George Crowder, an Australian political theorist and professor at Flinders University, explains that metanarratives (sometimes called grand narratives) are "the major accounts given by the great ideologies and worldviews of human nature and history, which are then invoked to legitimate more specific and moral claims" (Theories of Multiculturalism: An Introduction, p. 25). He also claims that the metanarratives of particular interest to postmodernists include liberalism, Marxism, and modern science (p. 25). Now, these are all paradigms which assume what can rightly be called accounts of objective truth, but they also share the same detail of assuming progress in some way (pp. 25-26). That is to say, these fall into a certain category of objective truth, so it is not clear that objective truth is being rejected altogether.

To be fair to Crowder's work, he does write the following which is very in line with the general impression: "For postmodernists, the 'truth' offered even by modern science is merely the expression of one perspective on the world among others, neither superior nor inferior..." (p. 26). To be completely honest, I think he is at least on the verge of setting up a straw man. What Crowder seems to be suggesting here is that postmodernism must be equated with truth relativism and not cultural relativism. But, just as there are different types of relativism, there are different types of postmodernism.

Bereska mentions two types of postmodernism: skeptical and affirmative. Skeptical postmodernism postulates that it is impossible to attain knowledge at all and that chaos and meaninglessness dominate. Affirmative postmodernism, on the other hand, promotes the deconstruction of metanarratives and instead focuses on what's local and specific. Postmodernism's utility is found in its raising of questions and not its provision of answers (Deviance, Conformity, and Social Control in Canada, p. 87). While these definitions are quite general and simplistic, they at least demonstrate that there are different ways to "do postmodernism." Crowder assumes that postmodernism is synonymous with truth relativism, but it seems that a skeptical postmodern perspective would be closer to "neither of us can be certain that we possess the whole truth" than "your truth is just as good as my truth."

While the general impression seems to hold some water, it's closer to Crystal Light than a pure cup of H2O. If anything, I have yet to be convinced that postmodernists are so stupid as to think that we can't be certain about anything, that nothing is objectively true, or that any interpretation is just as good as any other, etc. My hope is that the information provided has at least scratched the surface of postmodernism and its complexities. It is not my intent to necessarily defend postmodernism, but rather, to see it for what it actually is. Perhaps some of it really is worth being rejected; but perhaps not all of it.

"The term post-modernism or post-modernity has come to mean many different things." (Farganis, p. 357)

"That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism." (Gary Aylesworth, "Postmodernism")

"...there is great diversity among the generally highly idiosyncratic postmodern thinkers..." (George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, p. 629)