- On history, truth, and postmodernism
It is interesting to observe the author of this article, “You Have Your History, I Have Mine.” He recognizes the validity of postmodern critiques of modernist approaches to history, but also the problems of (some forms of) postmodernist approaches. So far, so good. But his solution isn’t one at all. He simply wants to set up fences and say to the postmodern critique, “Thus far you may come, but no farther.” That won’t do at all. His “national parks” of historical fact would only be those areas where a given social group—a nation, for example—agreed not to question the traditional narrative. It’s a rearguard action, trying to preserve some modernist “truth” against postmodernism’s “relativistic” “opinion.” It is doomed to fail because there is no discernible rationale to determine where those fences and borders should be drawn. The author actually acknowledges the hopelessness of his idea at the end of the article, but he can see no better alternative and no way forward. This is because his thinking is still thoroughly modern. The way he uses terms shows, for example, that he thinks of facts as the “most true truth”—an idiosyncratically modern notion, akin to suggesting that a pile of lumber and nails is a house—and that he thinks postmodernism is essentially synonymous with relativism. It is true that there is such a thing as postmodern relativism, just as there is such a thing as modern relativism, but that doesn’t make postmodernism relativistic in general any more than modern relativism makes modernism relativistic in general. Moderns tend to think of postmodernism as inherently relativistic because it undermines key assumptions that modernism uses to guard itself against relativism, but they don’t usually appreciate that postmodernism also undermines those other key assumptions that that impel modernism toward relativism to begin with. And so is the case here. If the author of this article understood more of what postmodernism posits, and not just what it critiques, he would be able to see that there are ways forward, and they are good. It would (will?) take me a book to explain what I see as the positive resources (both in the sense of positing something and the sense of being good and encouraging) of postmodernism and how they can be used to embark upon a better way, and this is already ridiculously long for a Facebook comment. I’ll just say that it involves a deep rethinking of our ideas about what truth is, but the results are epistemic humility, a recognition that our ideas are only ever approximations of reality, which leads to an open-handed stance toward the ideas we hold, and a newfound appreciation that wisdom is where the “most true truth” resides (even as the Book of Proverbs told us millennia ago). It is a big shift, but it is a good one. So far from this author’s dystopian vision of relativistic chaos and destruction raging around park-like sanctuaries of modernist historical fact, the future of second generation postmoderns and beyond may well look like the epistemological equivalent of re-greening our neighbourhoods where modernism paved everything over to put up carbon-copy condos and shopping centres. Never mind “national parks” to preserve valued historical narratives from threat; let’s get on with planting the trees of truth, in all their different kinds and wild diversity, in our backyards and streets and cities so that our children can grow up in that ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-breathing forest.
- Against the notion of “left” and “right” in social and theological discourse, updated (published )
If I could, I would eradicate the entire “left–right” conceptual structure from public discourse (and theological discourse!). It is ridiculously reductionistic. Ridiculously. Stupidly. Crazily. Horrifyingly. It is my belief that the “left–right” metaphor is itself one of the worst causes of problems in Western social and theological discourse—a deeper problem than any “threat” posed by the ideas of “the other guys” (whomever that may be). This is because the left–right conceptual structure reduces all the diversity and complexity of human thought down to “positions.” The worst form occurs when “left” and “right” are understood as two camps into which all human beings must be categorized. In this conceptualization, it is typically assumed that camp allegiance will determine one’s views on everything. It is as though every question were reducible to “Which is your favourite colour, red or blue?!” When people want to take a more nuanced approach, they will switch to the metaphor of a spectrum, with “left” and “right” defining poles one can range between. The spectrum metaphor is something of an improvement over the camp metaphor, but still not actually very good. It lets us add the idea of moderate or centrist positions, but it still assumes that one’s views on everything will more or less coincide at one position along this spectrum. Occasionally one will encounter someone wanting to get really sophisticated by laying out a two-dimensional grid, where each axis is a left–right spectrum of its own. Maybe one is on the right regarding social mores but on the left regarding economic policy, for example. Again, this is a marginal improvement, but still inadequate. It is just thinking wrongly in higher resolution. We could continue to multiply the number of axes until we reached an n-dimensional grid to map everyone onto, where n is the number of possible questions people could take differing views on. This might seem like it would solve the problem, since the complexity would begin to approximate reality, but it actually wouldn’t. Aside from the fact that the heuristic value would decrease as the number of axes increased, this would not really address the fundamental problem inherent in the spectrum metaphor: people’s thoughts on anything can virtually never be accurately described as “positions” which could be arranged in a line. People think in dynamic, ongoing, complex, patterned processes involving multi-faceted interactions with a plethora of internal and external influences, related ideas, circumstances, and needs. Our ideas on any one question are organically linked to ideas we have about other things. This means tendencies can and do emerge, but it also means that our ideas are always on the move, always growing and changing, forever forming new connections and, when necessary, letting old, unhelpful connections die. Our ideas are contextual and environmentally conditioned. If we want to generalize from individual people’s ideas to larger trends in a population, the diverse, contextualized, complex ways we think are far more important than the “position” we happen to have at a given moment. It is the patterns and trajectories, in all their glorious diversity, that get to the heart of things, so we need to speak in terms of patterns and trajectories, not “positions.” Moreover, by defining people in terms of “positions” (i.e. their current answers to whatever question we are using as our criterion for categorizing them), we create labelled groups who can then, inevitably, be set over against each other as “Us vs. Them.” At that point, no one listens any more. We cut ourselves off from hearing how others think—that is, from learning about their way—because we are trained to believe that the answer they currently happen to hold regarding The Great Defining Question makes them anathema. So sure, ideological purists need to stop screaming that their end of the left–right dyad is the One Right Position. But merely setting up a centre position as a third contestant for the title of being the One Right Position won’t really do anything. Eliminate the dyad itself, and replace it with something more complex, more dynamic, and more interactive. Instead of camps, or spectrums, or multi-axis graphs, I suggest that we would do better to use another metaphor: the concept of a way. Different people follow different patterns of thought that carry them along certain trajectories. For one person, some thought-paths will be well-worn, some lightly travelled, some will be paved, some will be superhighways, and some will be unknown and uncrossed. For another, that unknown path will a well-travelled one, and that superhighway will be a trackless bog. Given these differences, when these two people set out to find answers to the same initial question, they are likely to use different ways of thinking to do so. They will follow different paths of reasoning, taking different turns based on different presuppositions and different notions of what a “good” answer should even be. Even in the case where they reach a mutually agreeable provisional answer (after all, all our answers are always provisional), they will have reached that answer for different reasons. On another question, the same patterns of reasoning may very well end up leading them to two very different answers. If we ever really want to understand one another, learn from one another, perhaps find ways to live even a modicum more peacefully and collaboratively with one another, we should stop trying to reduce one another’s thoughts down to “positions” that can be pegged as “left” or “right” or even “centrist.” Instead, we should start asking one another how we each think about the questions at hand and why we each draw the connections we do. That’s the path to understanding and wisdom.
- Usefulness and limitations of the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” for theological method(published )
The Wesleyan quadrilateral is great. However, it needs a very important nuance (one which Frank has already pointed to). We do not have epistemologically unmediated access to any of the four elements. We can’t just access Scripture, but only our interpretations of Scripture. We can’t just access the tradition, but only our interpretations of the tradition, We can’t simply access even our experience, for it, too, is always already interpreted by the time we access it; even reason is not directly accessible, for what we have access to is always our interpretation of what is reasonable and how to reason. This is important, for it means that everything involved in our attempts to know and understand anything are always only provisional interpretations, and therefore never settled. Communal discernment, interpretation, and learning are our best ways to help make our knowledge as closely approximate to reality as possible, but even that is still only ever provisional. So I really don’t think we can ever assume something really is what we think it is, or aim to have exactly correspondent knowledge of the reality. We can only ever seek to approximate it as best we can through seeking coherence and testing whether our understanding works as an explanation of all that we encounter. And so as a result, often I find that my interpretation of one or more elements of the quadrilateral is at odds with my interpretation of some other element, I cannot surrender to the temptation to let one trump the others. Instead, I must keep wrestling until it all makes sense together, no matter how far down the rabbit hole I have to go. Anything less is intellectual suicide.