To those unfamiliar with the train of thought known as postmodernism, I often describe it as the philosophical equivalent of a raging wildfire. It is a destructive flame, I explain, that threatens to burn the whole forest down. And perhaps us along with it.
Postmodernism begins with a critique of reason, the notion that we can each think independently and objectively. The question – can we trust our thought? – is basic and simple, yet undeniably far-reaching in terms of its implication. Postmodernism questions the notion of objective thinking and, in doing so, calls our whole process of rationalization out for a fight.
Postmodernism levies its critique primarily by invoking a particular level of self-awareness – namely the recognition that each and every thought that enters our brain must rely on the subjective process of our senses. Postmodernism begs the question as to whether or not we can truly (or objectively) trust those senses and any information that passes through them.
This critique represents a direct and dire assault on the fundamentals of modern philosophy. The French philosopher René Descartes, for example, built his work largely upon the phrase “I think therefore I am.” Descartes proposed this quote as the “first principle of philosophy” and explained it further by claiming “we cannot doubt our existence while we doubt.”
Well, postmodernism does precisely that. Namely, postmodernism brings to the mind a series of doubts concerning its own objective existence. Postmodernism asks the question as to whether our minds – and everything that passes through to them -- can stand the test of the scientific method that we use to justify everything else.
The scientific method, as any high school science student knows, requires an objective observer to work. This observer must consider a question impartially, then formulate a hypothesis, and finally proceed through various steps to test that hypothesis and analyze the results in hopes of reaching a conclusion.
Postmodernism asks a simple but bold question: can the hypothesis “my mind is a reliable filter of reality” be scientifically proven? Can this statement be anything other than an assumption, a matter of faith to which we each must submit? And if the mind is indeed an assumption or an act of faith, isn’t everything that it perceives fundamentally subject to the same critique?
Such a problem immediately presents one with the limits of science itself. Who is the objective observer to take on such a hypothesis? Certainly not someone within the experiment -- ourselves, our friend, our family member, a fellow philosopher, or even our deepest love (all of whom we perceive through the very senses and mind we are trying to test). And even in the case of spiritual experiences, aren’t those perceived as well? If the entire experience of reality depends upon our mind, and we cannot prove this is valid, how do we know that the mind is accurately viewing reality (if there is one) at all?
Cue The Matrix Movies, Inception, and any other solipsistic film you’ve ever seen. “What is real?” Morpheus asked Neo in The Matrix as he transformed his perception. A panicked Neo, if you recall, had to come to grasp with the “truth” that everything his past senses had told him was a lie. And it was only by accustoming himself to a new reality – through his true senses – that Neo could cope with such a challenge.
With all due respect to Morpheus, perhaps no philosopher understood the gravity of postmodernism’s critique better than Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche proclaimed through his main character (Zarathustra) a mission of restoring all things through a deliverance “from their bondage under Purpose (p. 166).” Zarathustra did not hold back in his postmodern war against rationality, claiming that “In everything one thing is impossible: rationality (p. 166).” Nietzsche went on to have Zarathustra combat pious Christianity and summon readers to abandon notions of equality, truth, and meaning in search for his new ethic -- what he called a will to power.
‘Face the void like a man!’ was this will to power, Nietzsche’s call through his Zarathustra character. ‘Give up on any pre-modern or modern notions of virtue, justice, or equality and embrace meaninglessness!’ Much like Morpheus challenging Neo, Zarathustra summoned the reader to cast aside one form of reality for another. Yet what I have always found particularly interesting about Nietzsche’s postmodern diagnosis (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and many of his other works) is that it sounds eerily similar to someone else’s.
Namely, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sounds quite like the main character found in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
Within the Old Testament scripture Ecclesiastes, the reader encounters a man known as “the Teacher” who considers various pleasures and philosophies of the world. The Teacher finds that regardless of behavior or belief, “all share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not (Ch. 9 ,v. 2). “ With each destined to die, and death the greater silencer of our minds, the Teacher describes reality in words that could have just as easily been spoken by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless (Ch. 12, v. 8)!’”
Yet there is a stark difference that follows. After reaching this same point in his prescription as Zarathustra, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reaches a different conclusion. Instead of a will to power, Solomon’s Teacher proclaims the following words as the “conclusion of the matter”: “’Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ch. 12, v. 13-14).’”
How can this be? Two philosophers reaching the same point of facing a meaningless or unjustified reality, and yet they each immediately diverge to opposite paths? For Nietzsche the answer is for humans to face the void with pride and become conquering ‘overmen,’ but for Solomon it is to find oneself in submission to God and hold fast to faith in divine judgment.
How then can the Christian person look upon the void of postmodernism, as Solomon’s Teacher does, and not fall into chaotic despair or a senseless will to power? Perhaps it is the very notion of the thing we call faith.
As Saint Augustine once claimed, “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of which is to see what you believe.” Similarly, the author of the Biblical book of Hebrews defined faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Ch. 11 v.1).” While the scientific method requires testing and analysis to reach a conclusion, faith instead accepts the conclusion first and is rewarded with evidence afterwards. Christian faith, therefore, is not fundamentally tied to personal senses for its justification.
This isn’t to say that faith is entirely opposed to science. Christian faith presumes, and has presumed since the first book of the Bible, an external pre-existent observer who has been there to validate existence. In God we find the author of existence who alone can ordain it and proclaim it as “good.” Precisely what our scientific method would call for to reach a conclusion about existence.
Additionally, Christian faith does not wholly disparage our senses; it instead puts them in their proper place. Our mind and senses function, as Augustine wrote, as rewards of our faith. Time after time we see God validating faith through his power and majesty. In the Old Testament this took the form of massive displays of God’s power, the New Testament features miracles performed by Christ and his disciples, and today we are led to see it in the body and work of the church. The ultimate validation of faith, according to the Bible, comes in the form of Christ who proves the love and redemption God promises us.
Peter, a close follower of Jesus, spoke of faith as a shield protecting us “by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” He claimed such faith is proven genuine by suffering and perseverance, and that it is “of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire (1 Peter Ch1. V. 7).
If we are to take Peter’s words seriously, then he is offering us a promise that Christian faith – regardless of what our senses may initially tell us -- can stand the test of fire. In fact it is through suffering and persevering through the fire that our faith becomes clearer.
And so, I tell my friends, the postmodern wildfire may indeed burn the whole forest down. I find nothing in modernism that stands in rebuke -- no way in which our intellect, rationality, mind, or senses may justify themselves according to scientific principle alone. Modernists may fight the heat, and postmodern “overmen” may welcome it, but as Christians we should not fear it. For amidst the ashes I see standing tall and firm a symbol: that old and familiar wooden cross.
Bright it may be, but burning it is not.
I often marvel at the certainty with which we progress through life. Whether watching the news, reading articles, or listening to casual conversations, I find no shortage of unyielding conviction and self-assurance that seemingly must accompany every person’s beliefs. Regardless of the topic, the exchange of ideas so often and so easily becomes a battle. In such cases our reputations, and often our identities, become interwoven with our opinions. We soon become hesitant to amend our minds regardless of what new evidence or method of thinking is introduced. A short descent from here leads us to the point at which we are fighting for the survival of our sentiments as if they were our very lives.
Have we forgotten how we came into this world? Born not of our will, our thought, or even by our own consent, we each awoke to discover a universe far exceeding our limited cognition and understanding. We were “thrown into existence," as Martin Heidegger has described it, and involuntarily flung into the process of encountering all the joys and sorrows of life. This feeling of being thrown, of geworfen, forces within us an instinctive recognition that life has found us and conscripted us into a particular place and time.
But this awareness is fragile. As we progress through life and trek towards adulthood, we too easily discard it along with our immaturity. In doing so we turn our backs on the nature and experience of the past even as we may dimly recall certain details and times. Shadows fall over our peculiar origins, and soon boundaries are erected to confine our imagination within a prison of assumed certainty. In doing so we mistakenly reconstitute ourselves as creatures of our own making, powerful individuals who determine their own destiny by way of strength and intention. Descartes summarized this perspective well in declaring, “I think therefore I am.” Existence, now conceived, submits as a product of our own design.
And yet, as Hannah Arendt and others have recognized, we remain fundamentally bound within the same reality that we seek to dominate. Being and appearance irrevocably coincide for us, and as a result we must at all times make use of our sensory perception to partake of reality. As such, we each assume or rely on a “perceptual faith,” an unverifiable conviction that everything we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perception. Descartes’ statement, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has demonstrated, ignores this precondition and detrimentally assumes its own validity. In order to think and declare his own existence, Descartes must have already existed or assumed as much.
Reminding us of the formidable nature of reality, such solipsism should restrict our certainty and reacquaint us with humility. Rather than self-assurance, we are left with faith as a sustaining principle for life. It is faith, with its tacit humility and recognition of an inherited reality greater than ourselves, which more accurately describes our continual and constant reliance upon perception to live. It is faith too that ascribes equal status to fellow explorers and unites us all in a respect that rests not on assumption but on curiosity and hypothesis. In rediscovering our curiosity and imagination through faith, perhaps we may again make use of these tools as our most valuable means of navigating this curious existence.