Dr. Peter Bouteneff - Postmodernism
November 02, 2012 Length: 44:16In a classroom setting, Dr. Bouteneff speaks about Postmodernism and the challenge that this presents to Christianity.
I’m very grateful again for the opportunity to be with you and to be invited here and kind of work together to reflect on these issues. In this course session Carole asked me to prepare some remarks on contemporary culture and religion. That’s kind of the official name of it. She asked me very specifically the kind of questions she asked last night, in fact, and that is to give a very beginner introduction to the whole idea of Postmodernism and how Orthodox Christians can kind of negotiate in this landscape of Postmodernism. The talk I prepared is called “Postmodernism, its Opportunities and Pitfalls and our Response.”
Postmodernism is one of those words that comes to mean everything and nothing all at the same time. I think if there’s one kind of guiding umbrella under which you could conceive of what Postmodernism is, whenever you date it from, it’s the idea that no text, no person, no work of art, no philosophy, can claim a privilege over any other. I think it’s basically the idea that the playing field is completely level when it comes to the things that we encounter in the world that have meaning.
I think if there’s any one icon of Postmodernism today, it would be the internet, which provides an unfathomable, not necessarily depth of information, but breadth of information, with no compass, with nothing to tell you what’s good and what’s not good, what’s useful and what’s not useful. That really describes what underlies Postmodernism. With that, I recently came across a useful definition of Postmodernism: two sentences.
The Postmodern age is a time of incessant choosing. It is an era when no orthodoxy can be adopted without self-consciousness and irony, because all traditions seem to have some validity.
So no orthodoxy, no proper… No view that claims to be either more ancient and therefore more valid could make that claim, because all of them seem to have some validity.
The author of that statement, the architect and critic Charles Jencks, sees Postmodernism as the unavoidable reality of our time. He’s not first and foremost a critic of Postmodernism. It’s as if you can’t be a critic of it, because it’s the—what do you do? You’re in it. It’s just describing the way things are right now. And the way things are right now owes largely to the explosion of information that is now available to us through all the media.
As I said, the playing field is level; no scripture or doctrine has authority over any other. No text, whether the Bible, the Vedas, or the Koran, no artwork, whether Picasso’s “Guernica,” Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” or Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” no philosophy, whether Platonism, atheism, or pantheism, can claim a privileged place over any other in this hierarchy-free world of ideas. The entire idea of hierarchy is one within Postmodernism that you would have to defend, and you would have a difficult time defending it.
Let’s explore that two-sentence definition again a little bit. “Postmodernism,” says Jenks, “is a time of incessant choosing.” Incessant choosing, I think, could actually be an exciting situation, holding limitless potential for discovery; or it could be an unbelievably tedious situation, limitless choosing. I used to be a translator in a hospital for recent Soviet emigrés who had just come over [to] America. So they came from a place where you had to stand in line to even get a bag of onions to a place where you get to the supermarket. They say, “What do you do when you’re in an aisle with 15 different brands of toothpaste?” You start to go crazy. So that’s at least tedium. I say that incessant choosing could either be unbelievably exciting and full of potential, or it could be tedious, or it could be dangerous, in fact.
Let’s first give it the benefit of a doubt. If you take the idea of it on its own, incessant choosing could be a good thing. The principles of democracy are based on the freedom to elect our leaders and to shape our laws. Freedom of choice is at the basis of a potentially healthy economy that encourages competition and a constant striving for excellence. The freedom of expression, as well as the freedom to choose which expressions to listen to, can be the foundations of a flourishing culture. If you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or any fine museum, you’d find the beautiful and inspiring expressions of creativity from across all of recorded time and from a diversity of cultures. That’s a good thing; that’s a beautiful thing.
If we’re talking about an open-minded receptivity to the limitless possibilities of goodness, creativity, and holiness, both within and outside our particular context, both within and outside our particular faith, I think that’s a good thing: an openness to goodness and holiness wherever it could be found. Part of the image of God is a mind, that can receive, that can exult in and learn from, quoting St. Paul, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, worthy of praise.” You know what I’m quoting: Philippians 4.
Going a bit further, choosing, this choosing that is fostered by Postmodernism, entails the commitment to interrogate and evaluate what you’re looking at, whether it’s a text, a rite, or other expression. One of the reasons that, under the Postmodern philosophy, as it were, everything goes and that nothing can claim authority over another, is that everything is subject to scrutiny. Why would the Fathers of the Church have authority? You have to interrogate why they would have any authority at all, for example.
Uncomfortable as we might be as to interrogating the Fathers, you could say that a thoughtful, responsible querying of anything is a good thing, and even, I would say, you and I in this room can happily subscribe to the authority of the Fathers, but there’s a lot of people outside the room that deserve an explanation why we accord them this authority. So we would do well to think about why it is that we have people that we call “Fathers,” from whom we glean the truth. It’s not a crazy question.
Again, kind of giving it the benefit of a doubt, this process of a thoughtful investigation can lead to good conclusions, and you think of this great story about how Prince Vladimir, in the tenth century, sent emissaries to go and explore. As the story has it, they went and beheld how God was worshiped in different settings, a very Postmodern process, right? In the tenth century, there they are, exploring with no kind of—at least, as the story goes—with no presuppositions and with no prejudged outcomes, they went and they, as it were, interrogated these different ways of worshiping God.
The point is, I think, that they actually chose one. It was not an incessant choosing. They chose one. They came back to Vladimir and said, “When we were in the temple at the Holy Wisdom, Agia Sophia, we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” And they chose. In Jencks’ definition of Postmodernism, you’re talking about incessant choosing.
Now, even here, let’s try to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Incessant choosing could be a positive thing where it characterizes the heart that will never rest until it finds the ultimate good and truth in God. That’s not quite “incessant choosing,” but it’s an incessant quest, an incessant thirst for the one thing that is needful.
But as I said earlier, this incessant choice, endless choice, can very easily become tedious or paralyzing, when every option, every path, is open to you, there can be no movement forward, and you end up either aimless or motionless.
I think incessant choosing can finally be a dangerous thing. It’s not for nothing that St. Paul speaks, on the one hand—and this is in Ephesians 4—of maturity in the fullness of Christ, and he contrasts this to a childish state of being tossed to and fro, carried about with every wind of doctrine. At its worst, that’s what incessant choosing is, just being tossed to and fro, carried about with every doctrine. Then he goes further. He says, “...carried to and fro with every wind of doctrine, with people’s trickery, by their craftiness and deceitful scheming.” I would say that if you’re talking about incessant choosing, this is what happens when your choice process lacks any orientation, when it lacks any compass.
Inquisitiveness is one thing; shapelessness is another. When I was trying to give the Postmodern landscape the benefit of the doubt, I’m talking about the positive aspects of it, which is an inquisitiveness. We all do well to be inquisitive. We do have God-given minds, hearts, intellects, right? You almost sense, if I can put it this way, God is disappointed when we don’t look around us and aren’t awake to the beauty that’s around us. So inquisitiveness is a good thing, but shapelessness is another. In one case you have a healthy, open mind. In the other case, you are rudderless and open to manipulation by anyone, and no one can pretend that the world of choices is an entirely innocent and well-meaning world.
Yesterday I started reading Vigen Guroian’s book, Tending the Heart of Virtue, and he quotes, not surprisingly, C.S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man, that incredibly important essay. He’s describing the difference, I think, very, very well between people who have a moral compass—he speaks of “men with chests”—and then he speaks of those without one. The importance of precisely tending the heart of virtue from childhood onward is beautifully, beautifully set out in this book.
The second sentence of Jencks’ definition of Postmodernism. If you remember, he began by calling it “incessant choosing,” and then he said, “In the Postmodern age, no orthodoxy can be adopted without self-consciousness and irony.” A lot of our humor today, a lot of our culture and art today is the culture of irony, a culture that kind of pokes fun at itself, a culture that says, “Look at this stance I’m taking; isn’t it rather silly?” So Jencks asserts that if you’re going to be orthodox in any understanding of that word—and obviously, in this room, we have a very particular understanding of what Orthodoxy is, with a capital /O/—he says that we’re in an age now where you can’t just be that without giving an account of yourself, or without some kind of wink, showing that you realize it’s kind of a silly position to take. That’s what he’s saying.
He’s basically saying orthodoxies have a difficult time enduring in the Postmodern context because, as he says, “all traditions seem to have some validity.” The classic image of religious relativism, religious pluralism, is an image provided by John Hick, and I describe it in my book, Sweeter than Honey, where he says, “There is, ostensibly, truth, somewhere.” That’s already a bold statement to make in the Postmodern age, that there is one truth.
He says if there is the truth, we can imagine that it’s sort of like if you imagine a solar system and then you imagine that at the center of that solar system is the sun, and orbiting around that sun are multiple planets. Each of these planets represents one of the religious faiths—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, whatever. All of these in different ways are gleaning the same light and the same energy and the same warmth from the sun, each from their own angle. None of them can claim exclusive truth from the sun; each of them has it in its own way. This is the classic image of what religious pluralism or relativism looks like.
Hicks calls this the Copernican revolution, because Copernicus is the one who pointed out that the universe does not revolve around the earth; rather, the earth itself revolves around a larger orb, which was obviously very disconcerting information in the Copernican era, to realize that you are not the center of the universe. It’s a very profoundly humbling thing to realize, both in your own kind of ego as well as in your own belief system. The Copernican revolution, he said, that took place in the time of the Enlightenment, is one that has to be undergone now for all people of religious faith. All people of religious faith have to realize the faith that they have is but one that is revolving around something bigger.
You can lop into everything into Postmodernism, but this is the religious relativistic result of seeing wisdom in other faiths. Once you acknowledge there is wisdom in other faiths—wisdom in Buddhism in its contemplation of nothingness, wisdom in Hinduism in its perception of incarnate deities, wisdom in Islam in its deeply pious faith in the radically one God—there is wisdom everywhere, and who is to say that our wisdom is the truth. That’s sort of the logic which, again, is not crazy logic; it’s logic that we have to be able to argue with and against, but it’s not totally insane. It works, as logic can work, and you can say it’s wrong, as logic can lead you to be wrong as well.
Our claim to universality… Postmodernism doesn’t mean you can’t be an Orthodox Christian. Postmodernism simply means that if you’re an Orthodox Christian and you think that Orthodox Christianity is the truth for everyone, that claim is defenseless. That’s what Postmodernism says. There’s no claim to universality because so many traditions carry an evident wisdom. Nearly all of them have ardent believers who see their own tradition as carrying the truth for all people. So the conclusion of the relativist is—you can either say, “They can’t all be right” or “They can all be right, in different ways.” That’s the conclusion that is taken, and I’m going to come back to that in a bit.
I’m sticking with Jencks because I think he’s very perceptive in the next thing he says about Postmodernism. He says, considering Postmodernism, the resultant creation of this incessant choosing, the resultant conclusion, if successful, will be a striking synthesis of traditions. If unsuccessful, it will be a smorgasbord, nothing but a kind of, again, [rudderless]... just a bunch of different choices thrown in front of you.
Between inventive combination and confused parody, the Postmodernist sails, often getting lost and coming to grief, but occasionally realizing the great promise of a plural culture with its many freedoms. So for him, Postmodernism is not an entirely corrupt state of affairs. It’s full of possibilities that can be taken up by a mind that is both open and grounded, both free and oriented. I would say it’s the second part of that equation, the grounding, the orientation, where Postmodernism is perilously lacking, and that is where serious Christians have a responsibility to fill.
I’m talking about a missionary responsibility to a world that is situated in Postmodernist relativism, but also an internal responsibility, a responsibility we have to ourselves to grow into a greater depth and integrity of faith, by maintaining an inquisitive mind that is at the same time a grounded mind, and to the extent that we can grow deeper into our own faith, to the extent that we can allow ourselves even to be challenged by these questions of Postmodernism which we could ridicule pretty easily. But if we allow ourselves to be challenged by them, then we can actually be in a kind of credible dialogue with our colleagues, wherever they are in the workplace, whether they’re people who come to us innocently and say, “You know, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in other religions, so none of them is really true, or maybe all of them are true.” Somebody who speaks very innocently and simply like that.
We can have a response to that, as well as somebody from a more academic perspective who will, from a place of the study of the history of ideas, just argue with us, academically, that there isn’t any one truth; of course there isn’t any one truth. We have to be challenged by that question, we have to take it seriously, and we have to provide some answers.
Again, at least for this morning, I’m making this more formal, so I’m going to keep talking, and then really open this out to discussion, which I really look forward to. I’ve just described in some way Postmodern situation. I’ve certainly given it the benefit of the doubt initially, but I pointed to what I see needs tweaking, needs adjustment, needs correction. That adjustment or correction lies precisely with the grounding or the orientation or the compass of that choosing.
I have, like I did last night, five things that I suggest that we can kind of do and five places we can go. The first thing to do, I think, is to demonstrate that serious Christianity, orthodox Christianity, is not the closing of the mind. It’s not the closing of the mind, because that’s what Postmodernism thinks about any serious religion, any religion that takes itself, any faith that takes itself as universal, as we do. We believe Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life for everyone. We have to demonstrate that that claim is not the same as simply shutting off your mind to everything outside of that.
We’re saturated with information of all kinds, good and bad, and we see what happens to some people who are deeply threatened by that vast heap of information. What happens to them? They become religious fundamentalists. They demonize other faiths or ideas, sometimes unto violence and war. That is the image that many people have of religion, or of serious religion. They believe that anybody who takes their faith that seriously and makes it into a universal principle is going to end up fundamentalist. “Fundamentalist” is a word with many connotations, some neutral, some very pious, but in the secular word, certainly, the word “fundamentalism” is a stand-in for closed-minded and violent approach to religion.
Our first duty within that context is to reclaim the right to speak, because the right to speak has in a way been taken away from us by others who take their religion seriously to the degree that they would go into a marketplace, strapped with bombs. We have to reclaim the right to speak to show that it’s possible to believe firmly in the truth of our faith without becoming fanatical. Part of that means that we actually have to maintain a genuinely open mind and a willingness to learn from other people, even as we are grounded in a belief in God and his Christ and his Spirit. We have to show people that we have an open mind, and that doesn’t mean pretending that we have an open mind. We have to be genuinely open to who is right in front of us.
Secondly, I think we have to demonstrate that criteria are necessary, that some kind of a grounding is necessary, that an orientation is necessary, lest the Postmodern context, the internet context, becomes simply the internet or a smorgasbord. Again, David Jencks has helped us to see that Postmodernism is not total depravity. In fact, it can result in configurations that are both new and true, but he also says that it is at least as likely to produce nothing more than a hash.
It’s important, I think, for us to show the need for an orientation, an orientation that does not hijack creativity, but that directs creativity. The same St. Paul who says that we should think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just” also told us that “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful, not all things build up.” If there was ever a one-sentence prophetic word to the Postmodern situation, it’s right there. “All things are lawful.” That describes Postmodernism right there: anything goes. In and of itself, nothing is dangerous, even the meat that was in some places invisibly sprinkled and offered somewhere. Those gods don’t even exist; it doesn’t harm us to eat that, he says.
There’s this incredible freedom he gives us in a certain way, but that freedom is not a total dispersion of disoriented particles. “Not all things are helpful,” and in that same passage, of course, where he describes the meat offered to idols, which you can eat, he says don’t, because you’ll scandalize somebody else. “Not all things are helpful.” It’s all out there, but not all of it is good. Not all of it builds up, and you need criteria to discern what is good and what is not. We need that criteria not only to properly discern everything that’s put before us in the modern world, all the media, all of the information, all of the entertainment; we need orientation to find our way through that, but, brothers and sisters, we need orientation even to understand the Bible.
The famous Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip encounters in Acts 8, he’s reading Isaiah, right? Philip, whom God sends to meet him, says, “Do you understand [what you are] reading?” And he says, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” There’s another perfect one-sentence corrective to the whole Postmodern situation. You need guidance, even to understand the Bible! The Jews, to this day, read Isaiah with a very different interpretation. Paul himself said, “They read their own scriptures with a veil in front of their eyes, and the veil is taken away when you come to the Lord.” That veil is taken away in Christ. That guidance that we need, even to read the Scriptures, is the guidance of the Lord himself, who sends his Spirit.
Today’s Postmodern students of truth are aware of what they call the hermeneutic problem. In other words, they’re aware of the need to interpret. No text exists as simply a collection of ink on a page that somebody could pick up and take exactly what’s necessary from it. Even from the earliest Church days, St. Hilary of Poitiers says, “Scripture is not in the reading; it is in the understanding.” Anybody can read it. People can read the Bible as literature. There’s courses in college: “The Bible as Literature.” Great. You can encounter these beautiful stories.
But not just the Bible. I think, generally, people are aware that any text is to be imbued with some kind of interpretation, and what we have to do is demonstrate that there can be reliable guides to the reading of the world and to the reading of any text, and that we need such guides in order to discern truth and meaning. It’s not always easy to demonstrate that we need guides, but I think we have to.
Third, and kind of following on the second, I think we have to demonstrate that our guides, speaking of the Fathers again, and the Councils, that they have a certain logic, that we haven’t given the Fathers and the Councils authority by waving a magic wand and arbitrarily deciding, “Okay, we need some kind of orientation, let it be … these people, because their beards are the longest” or just some arbitrary reason. We have to explain the logic, for one, of conciliarity, what it means that we’re giving authority to an entire collective body.
Technically/academically, we speak of the Church as a hermeneutical community. In other words, it is a community that, together, discerns and interprets the Scriptures and the world. It’s a community that exists both as a community like here and now in this space as well as a community that exists in time. We are in that community with the Fathers and the Councils. We have to demonstrate that there’s a logic to that guide, to that criterion of truth. Here’s how it works: You don’t have to buy into it for now, but at least we can show you how it works and why it makes sense to us.
Fourth—almost done, right? Not much more. Fourth, we have to show our awareness of the problems of claiming that our truth is universal, that our faith is universal. We’re not blind to the problem of claiming that our faith is the true faith. We get it that it’s ironic to claim that Orthodoxy is the absolute truth. An intelligent outside observer cannot be blamed for thinking that the only reason I think that my tradition is the true one is that it’s mine! How else can I explain it? It’s true, well, ‘cause I think it is. And that’s not necessarily all that credible to the outsider.
I think part of this is that we have to acknowledge that there is no external, incontrovertible proof for the existence of God. There is no external, incontrovertible proof for our interpretation of the Scriptures, that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There is no absolute proof in it. God did not write it into the sky, although, of course, St. Paul writes also, in Romans 1, that he did write it into creation, the truth of God’s invisible being and “his nature is seen in the things that are made,” he says in Romans 1:18-19.
But let’s face it: it’s not written in such a way that it is absolutely obvious to everybody, and we have to acknowledge that. If we talk to people as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world, that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and their inability to get it must result from their stubbornness of heart, their spiritual blindness, or their being prisoners of this age, they’re going to run away, and probably for good reason.
Of course, the next step is to show that it’s not unreasonable to show that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. You have to acknowledge that it’s a possibility. That’s what he says about himself. Well, what would the world look like through the eyes that see that to be the case? Let’s have that conversation. If you’re so Postmodern and open, you have to be open to that position, too, right? The belief that he isn’t the Way, the Truth, and the Life, has to be defended, too. Show me why he isn’t, and I’ll try to show you how I believe he is, for everyone. Again, that fourth one is to demonstrate that we are aware that there’s no perfect unrenounceable proof of all of this.
Lastly, we have to demonstrate that our claims to universality are not just exclusive; that they are also inclusive; they are welcoming. They aren’t just saying that everyone who holds to any other faith, incrementally or profoundly other faith, is totally depraved of truth. Our claims to universality are not exclusive. They’re actually inclusive. Once we’ve shown that Christian universality isn’t necessarily fanatical, fundamentalistic, and violent, we have to demonstrate our inclusivity, that we welcome truth wherever it is found. Wherever it is found, under any name, under any slogan.
Truth is truth, because if Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he is indeed the ground of all truth, all beauty, all justice, all love, and therefore he is to be found in whatever is true, beautiful, and just. There’s very age-old ground for that kind of thinking. Not only St. Paul to the Philippians—“whatever is true, whatever is just, worthy of praise”—but St. Justin Martyr famously says, “Whatever is true, wherever it is found, is the property of us Christians.”
That sounds perhaps not all that attractive to the outsider. “It’s your property? What do you mean?” What you mean is that you receive it. You welcome it. St. Paul, at the Areopagus, Acts 17, his first reaction that he speaks when he sees all these various memorials to gods is a reaction of receptivity and praise: “I see you are a pious and religious people.” It’s the first thing out of his mouth. It’s not exclusion; it’s inclusion, but, of course, he doesn’t stop there. Then he claims as the property of Christ that one memorial to the unknown god. He claims it, but he begins with that welcoming inclusivity that our tradition has always embraced and that we, again, coming back to this idea of a genuinely open and inquisitive mind, do well to embrace as well.
Christ, then, becomes the orientation, the compass, and the rudder that can make today’s incessant choosing into an inquisitive but grounded, oriented quest for the good. We speak when we sing at the feast of the Nativity that Christ is the Orient from on high, the Orient, the Sun of Righteousness, S-u-n of Righteousness, the Sun which is that Light by which we recognize everything that we see. That’s what it seems to me that Postmodernism needs, and a lot of people get it.
Even as I have described this kind of John Hick relativism, the planets around the sun, yeah, there are a lot of people who really hold to that like a doctrine. Never tell them that it’s a doctrine, because they don’t believe in doctrines, but it is a doctrine. Relativism is a doctrine like any other doctrine. But there are a lot of people even who receive completely secular educations in the humanities and the arts that teach a virtually rudderless inquisitiveness, who are searching for orientation, who are searching for a rudder, who are searching for groundedness, and that’s what we can pick up on. That’s what we can take up even as we consider ourselves in some way co-pilgrims with them, welcoming them into a genuinely inquisitive grounded search.