March 30, 2011


I've tried to write about this before, but I think it bears repeating; maybe I can do it more justice this time.

Last week I was without my family for a few days, which gave me a little extra time for reading. I think ordinarily I'm so brain-dead by the end of the day that I end up staring at the TV for an hour or two then pass out. Somehow, this last half-a-week has been a bit different; boredom set in with the TV by about friday, so that on Saturday I spent the entire day reading - I finished two books, and today started a third one, which I'm about a quarter of the way through. The first two books were Permission to Speak Freely by Anne Jackson and The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. I highly recommend both to you. However, while Jackson's book was very experience-oriented, and Lyons' book was academic but easy-to-read, this third book has been challenging me a bit, bringing up book after book from grad school, pushing the envelope of my vocabulary (he likes big words like "epistemology" and "contextualization" and "syncretism"). I love it. And it's inspired me back to some thoughts I had a few years ago about the differences between what Jim Belcher, in Deep Church, calls "traditionalism" and "emerging church," particularly the issue of relativism.

Since I did my degree in anthropology, I've come to look at everything through the eyes of culture. What some people will label in terms of their contrasts along the same spectrum, I tend to label in terms of their cultural conditions, and so when I look at the conditions of today's shifting American climate, I see not a clash of ideological groups or political groups, but of cultures struggling to coexist. Culture, as Andy Crouch writes, is "what we make of the world." According to Belcher, Traditionalists to find their home emerging from the enlightenment philosophers, the rationalist thinkers, and scientists. This group of people takes strong issue with what he calls "postmodernity," a term that has been defined and redefined ad infinitum by everyone grasping for what's actually going on today. Traditionalists, he writes, take issue with the moral relativism and hyperindividualism (another great word) so prevalent in the emerging postmodern culture. Many of them say that postmodernity is taking the enlightenment project - a singular truth understandable in its entirety by all people through the five senses, rationality, and logic - to an extreme. They say that the postmoderns have become SO individualized that they no longer feel accountable to those around them, and so truth becomes "relative" to the individual. My truth is mine, and you can say whatever you want yourself, but it doesn't change my truth. Because of this, the Traditionalists say, morality goes out the window and the individual does whatever he or she wishes.

It is not so. Would that it were that simple.

From what I can tell, "relativism" is not really a word from the emerging postmodern culture; they do not use this word to describe themselves. The word "deconstruct" is used a lot, as is "tolerance," and so I think the problem is in the most basic assumptions about the world from both sides.

The priority of traditionalism, based on the enlightenment project, has been Truth with a capital T. THE Truth, to this group, is solid, discernible with the right resources and time, and ultimately knowable for the betterment of mankind. We can build utopia. WE can build utopia. However, in practice what has happened is that the Truth has been subject to the interpretation of the individual's cultural upbringing; each individual was sure they had it figured out, but did not account for the influence of their personality, their parents, their social context, their schooling, etc. Egos got in the way, agendas were thrown into the mix, and ultimately relationships took a back seat to proving one's theories correct. In the Church, to use a practical example with which I'm sadly very familiar, it goes thusly: one person has an idea about how a passage of scripture ought to be read. A second person disagrees, stating that obviously it's meant to be read another way. Each side polarizes and assumes only two options, (which is absurd but in the heat of the argument, what is one to do to win?). Assuming that the issue is important enough to the both of them, a rift is formed between the two; instead of agreeing to disagree, especially on something "fundamental," they sever the relationship. Evolution and Creationism is one example of which I've grown quite tired of debating, and more than one person has dismissed me as person because of my views on the issue.

I'm not sure it's worth it.

Postmoderns observe this and want nothing to do with it. To them, the relationships broken by so many Traditionalists should have stayed intact, and so the postmodern individual will instead go to the other extreme: to preserve the relationship, to coexist with one another, they insist that everyone must tolerate everyone else, that each person is entitled to their view of truth because nobody really knows for sure anyway; even if you did know the truth, you wouldn't know you knew it for 100% certain. Insults are thrown by the Traditionalists, the Postmoderns shrug it off and do whatever they want to, and it just goes downhill from there.

You can practically see the pendulum smack the other side of the clock.

See, "relativism" is a label by traditionalists for the phenomenon of being so caught up in preserving one's relationship with one's distinctly different neighbor that one is willing to say that both peoples' conflicting claims are right. The issue is not whether a postmodern believes in an absolute reality (nobody behaves as if such a reality does not exist; we all still believe gravity will pull us rather abruptly to the bottom of a cliff if we were to walk off), but rather setting different "default" priorities. The Traditionalist will default to their understanding of the Truth at the expense of the relationship; the Postmodern will default to their friendship at the expense of their claim to the Truth. In some respects, the postmodern sees relationships as truth, while the traditionalists see facts as truth. Each culture has a different set of assumptions about what is a priority.

Now, of course, this is a caricature in and of itself to make a point; nobody in either camp is THAT extreme - postmoderns still sever relationships, and traditionalists still maintain them with people unlike themselves. The point is that the labels that get thrown around by either side become straw men to be pulled apart to demonize the other. We're all still human, after all. Ultimately it's a conflict between cultures based on mismatched assumptions about what is a priority for humanity. It's ironic to me that both sides are so much alike, despite how much they dislike each other, because like it or not, it's important to maintain a healthy tension between relationships and facts.

Because both are required to be human.

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